Where were we? Ah, yes: With the ninth-century Qarmatians in southern Iraq. In 899 they actually founded an independent state on the Persian Gulf under the leadership of Hamdan Qarmat’s disciple Sa’id al-Hasan al-Jannabi. For a century this state staged bloody raids on neighboring principalities as far off as Syria.
Eventually, the Qarmatian state was destroyed. Yet many of its ideas lingered on. Among those influenced by them was a Persian named Hasan ibn as-Sabah, who gathered a band of armed followers and in 1090 gained control of the 3,000-meter-high mountain stronghold of Alamut, in the Elburz Mountains of Iran, south of the Caspian Sea. The site was visited some two centuries later by Marco Polo, who found memories of Hasan to be still vivid. He wrote of them:
Hasan ibn as-Sabah was thus the original “Old Man of the Mountain,” preceding his namesake Rashid ed-Din Sinan by a hundred years. He also founded a secret religious brotherhood of which he termed himself “grand master” and which aimed, in the words of the Arab historian Philip Hitti, “to emancipate the initiate from the trammels of doctrine and encouraged him to dare all. Below the grand master stood the grand priors.…the lower degree of the order comprised the fida’is, who stood ready to execute whatever orders the grand master issued.”
If the word feda’i, or “self-sacrificer,” rings a bell, it should. It’s the singular of “fedayeen,” a term coined by Hasan ibn es-Sabah and widely used in Arabic to this day to describe irregulars fighting for an Arab cause. It’s a favorite of the Palestinians and also had wide currency during the recent fighting in Iraq.
The descriptions of Hasan ibn es-Sabah and Rashid ed-Din Sanin’s “Assassins” that we find in sources like Marco Polo, or in the medieval Arab historian Ibn-Battuta, remind one strongly of today’s Muslim suicide bombers. Nor is this the only parallel to come to mind. The Assassin network spread throughout the Middle East, setting up bases throughout Syria and Lebanon, and it even found recognized rulers who welcomed it and gave it refuge, such as the Seljuk prince of Aleppo, Ridwan ibn Tatush. Sound like Al Qaeda?
In the end it took a great power then, too, to put an end to Assassin terrorism. This was Genghis Khan’s Mongols, who swept through the Middle East in the mid-13th century and — with the help of the Mamluks — finished the Assassins off. Or at least finished them as a fighting force. As a religious sect they continued to exist, eventually calling themselves Ismailis, after the disputed seventh Sh’ite imam Ismail, and coming under the aegis of the Aga Khans of India, who in recent generations have been known mostly for their fabulous wealth and the sybaritic lives lived by them in the fashionable capitals of Europe. It should only happen to Osama bin Laden!