Plato and the Assassins: a deadly match?
The surprising links between the 5th century BC Greek philosopher and a radical sect of Islamist assassins living in Iran in the Middle Ages.
On a bright April morning, a group of Assassins disguised as Christian monks attacked the formidable Crusader warrior Conrad of Montferrat, the elected King of Jerusalem, while he was returning home through the streets of the city of Acre. Struck repeatedly by Assassin blades, Conrad died from his injuries almost immediately. The Kingdom of Jerusalem was immediately thrown into chaos, while the motive for the attack has never been fully explained, with allegations of complicity in the murder attributed to Richard I of England or the Egyptian sultan Saladin, depending on whose account you believe.
The attack was merely the latest in a long line of dramatic, sensational and spectacular assassinations carried out by the mysterious group known as the Asasiyyun, a term which means "those who are faithful to the foundation of the faith". The Assassins were a religious order belonging to the Nizari Ismaili sect of Shia Islam; from a chain of castles set high in the imposing Alborz mountains of Persia and down into Syria, they held influence that far exceeded their numbers.
Conrad of Montferrat never suspected that the humble Christian monk in the street was a deadly assassin, ready to bring about his mortal demise - until it was too late.
The Assassins were widely feared, and with good reason. The list of their victims was impressive, including many of the most powerful Caliphs, kings, sultans, viziers and princes of the age. Led by Hassan i Sabbah, the "Old Man of the Mountains", the order's strength lay in the power of its compelling religious faith, and in the absolute mastery, dedication and skill of its fedayeen - literally "those who sacrifice themselves", in the cause of armed struggle for God.
Legendary tales and myths
Many tales have been told about the Assassins, and their exploits have passed into legend in the popular culture. The most famous account in the west is from Marco Polo, who passed through the Near East on his way to China in the late 13th century. It is said that the fedayeen were so fanatical, that at a clap of his hands, the Grand Master of the Order could command his fedayeen warriors to jump to their deaths from the top of a castle tower, and they instantly obeyed his command, without hesitation.
According to the legend, the crusader leader Count Henry II of Champagne was returning from Armenia. He spoke with the Assassin Grand Master Rashid ad-Din Sinan at the castle of al-Kahf, located in the mountainous and heavily forested landscape of northwest Syria. The count claimed to have the most powerful army, and boasted that he could easily defeat the Assassins, because his army was 10 times larger. Rashid replied that his army was the most powerful, and had the fedayeen jump to their deaths to prove it. The count immediately accepted that Rashid's army was indeed the stronger, thanks to their unwavering loyalty and obedience, even unto death.
The castle of al Kahf, from Hashashin Wikia. Modern historians consider it unlikely that Rashid really ordered his own men to jump to their deaths, but nobody doubts that the fedayeen were brave, fearless, and utterly devoted to the cause. Ironically, Henry himself died in 1197, falling from a first-floor window at his palace in Acre.
Another popular legend about the Assassins tells how they had constructed a wonderful garden, full of every delicious fruit and fragrant shrub, in a valley between two high mountains. In the grounds, palaces decorated with gold, paintings and rich silks were built. An Earthly paradise was constructed, with flowing streams of wine, milk, honey and pure water. The garden was populated by beautiful unmarried girls, who were skilled in singing, playing music instruments, dancing and the ways of love.
This paradise was, however, in reality the prime recruiting tool for new entrants into the order of Assassins. According to the story recorded by Marco Polo, the Old Man of the Mountains would carefully select the best potential new recruits. They would be given opium, and when asleep or drugged, they would be taken into the gardens, where they would wake and find themselves in paradise.
"...each perceived himself surrounded by lovely damsels, singing, playing, and attracting his regards by the most fascinating caresses, serving him also with delicate viands and exquisite wines; until intoxicated with excess of enjoyment amidst actual rivulets of milk and wine, he believed himself assuredly in Paradise, and felt an unwillingness to relinquish its delights."
An Orientalist fantasy painting by the Italian artist Fabbio Fabbi (1861 - 1946). The joys of paradise undoubtedly looked something like this.
However, the recruits would then be drugged again and removed from the garden. On awakening back in the 'real world', they would be told that if they wished to enter the garden again, they must obey the commands of the order. It was, if Marco Polo's account is to be believed, an extremely effective recruiting system.
"Animated to enthusiasm by words of this nature, all deemed themselves happy to receive the commands of their master, and were forward to die in his service. The consequence of this system was, that when any of the neighbouring princes, or others, gave umbrage to this chief, they were put to death by these his disciplined assassins; none of whom felt terror at the risk of losing their own lives, which they held in little estimation, provided they could execute their master's will."
Historians in our modern age say that these tales about the Assassins are probably not entirely accurate, being at best based on exaggeration and hearsay, often by sources that opposed the ideology of the Assassins. However, the Islamic depiction of paradise is not so different from the depiction above, depending on how you translate certain words (there is a controversy over whether the Quranic word hur refers to female companions or, amusingly, grapes - the latter interpretation is preferred by modern Islamic scholars).
From Plato to Assassins?
In any case, the real history of the Assassins is fascinating and bizarre - as is their link to the Greek philosopher Plato, via the neo-Platonist philosophers of the second century AD.
The Assassins, despite their deadly reputation, were not just a group of illiterate fanatics. The founder of the group, Hassan i Sabbah, was a well-educated man, who had studied languages, philosophy, astronomy and mathematics. He was not born into the Ismaili branch of the faith, but rather joined it after participating in debates in his youth.
He had also travelled widely, starting in his native Persia but also crossing hundreds of miles to Azerbaijan, Syria, Palestine and Egypt, where he studied in Cairo for several years. Cairo at the time (and still today) was one of the most prestigious centres of education in the Islamic world. Hassan knew the Quran by heart, could quote from the texts of most Muslim sects and understood the major scientific disciplines of his time.
Hassan began his career by using his cunning, wit and intelligence, rather than brute strength. To secure the castle of Alamut in the Alborz mountains, he sent his followers to win over the villages in the valley. Next, he converted key people among the population, and finally, he took over the fort by infiltrating it with converts. This strategy took about two years, and was achieved without any bloodshed.
This 19th century engraving of the Old Man of the Mountains depicts Hassan e Sabbah, the founder of the Assassins. He believed that his mission was to fight for the rightful Shia faith, as he saw it, against the oppression of the powerful Seljuk authorities. The theme of rebellion and resistance to unjust authority is a recurrent theme in Shia history.
Understanding the Assassins
The Assassins were, despite their fierce reputation, few in number. They never had a large army, nor did they have access to the resources fielded by their opponents. They were never primarily a political movement, but rather a religious movement.
Their opponents were often far larger and more powerful than themselves. As champions of the Shia faith, they found themselves at odds with the greatest power of the age - the vast (Sunni) Seljuk empire, which stretched from the edges of China and Afghanistan, through Persia into Iraq, Syria, Turkey and Palestine. The Seljuks tried to have Hassan arrested. But he escaped into the mountains and evaded capture, while plotting acts of resistance to Seljuk rule.
The Seljuk Empire, above, in yellow. The Seljuks expanded rapidly, conquering the Persian and Arab powers of the region and driving back both the Byzantine Empire and the Shia Fatimid Caliphate. This was bad news for Hassan e Sabbah, who regarded the Seljuks as enemies of the true faith.
Although the Seljuk Empire fell apart in the 12th century and was replaced by numerous competing factions, the Assassins faced a new challenge after 1169 when the Shia faith was overthrown in Egypt by the Ayyubid revolution. The new Sultan, Saladin, 'restored' the Sunni faith in Egypt. This led him to confrontation with the Assassins.
The Assassins could not, therefore, afford to go head to head against their opponents. Instead, cunning, subterfuge, infiltration tactics, persuasion and, where necessary, assassination, were their primary tools of defence. In this, they excelled.
A brief list of some of their more notable assassinations:
Seljuk vizier Nizam al Mulk in 1092 (one of the most powerful men alive at the time)
Syrian governor Janah ad Dawla, 1103
Qadis (judges) of Isfahan and Nishapur, c. 1108
The Syrian ruler Madud, atabeg of Mosul, in 1113
Egyptian vizier al Afdal Shahanshan in 1121
Seljuk governor Aqsunqur al-Bursuqi in 1126
Egyptian caliph al Amir bi Ahkmi Lah in 1130
Syrian governor Taj al Mulk Buri of Damascus in 1132
Abbasid caliph al Mustarshid in 1135
Abbasid caliph ar Rashid in 1138
Raymond II, Count of Tripoli in 1152
Conrad of Montferrat, King of Jerusalem in 1192
This 14th century painting shows the assassination of Nizam al Mulk, considered the most infamous and shocking assassination. Al Mulk was arguably the most powerful man in the world at the time; his equivalent today would be someone like the president of the United States.
A dagger and a warning: the tale of Saladin
The conflict between the Assassins and Saladin gives us one more tale which illustrates the extreme cunning, patience, clever planning and superb infiltration skills of the order's agents.
After several attempts on his life, Saladin moved with his army to attack the Syrian city of Masyaf. But one night, he awoke to find a dark figure leaving his tent. He found the lamps inside his tent had been moved, and beside his bed was a cake, pierced through the heart with a poison dagger. Attached to the blade was a note. It warned him that his life had been spared, but that if he did not withdraw, he would be killed. Saladin wisely took heed of the note, and formed a truce with the Grand Master, Sinan. The two later became allies, working together to drive the Crusaders out of the Holy Land.
In one version of the story, Saladin discovered that some of his closest bodyguards and personal friends, were in fact fedayeen agents that had been inserted into deep cover, years before hand. These were people that in some cases had served loyally with him for decades. Overcome with shock at realising the true depths of their capacity for infiltration, and the realisation that virtually anyone could be an agent, even his most trusted companions, he had no choice but to come to terms with the order of Assassins.
What did they believe?
The Assassins were different to the mainstream branch of the Shia faith. In general, Shia Muslims believed that there should be a spiritual leader, called the Imam, to guide the community. Most Shia believe that there were twelve Imams, however, the twelfth Imam disappeared in 874.
The conventional Shia belief is that the twelfth Imam is in 'occultation', meaning that he is hidden and will one day return to bring justice and peace to the Earth, as a prelude to the Day of Judgement. This creates an obvious problem though - if the twelfth Imam is 'hidden' but still exists, then this means no one can replace him. This effectively leaves the community leaderless.
However, starting with Hassan II, the Nizari Ismailis declared that their leader was an Imam. This was a huge step. There are some parallels with what the Ayatollah Khomeini did after 1979, when he established veliyat e faqih - in which the Supreme Leader effectively acts as a substitute for the twelfth Imam.
Connection to Greek philosophy
The early centuries of Islamic philosophy were heavily influenced by Greek and Roman culture and learning. The Umayyad Caliphate and later the Abbasid Caliphate took over the major centres of Greek and Roman learning, including the cities of Damascus, Antioch and Alexandria.
At the House of Wisdom in Baghdad in the 9th century, an effort was made to collect and translate all the knowledge of the world, including much of the achievements of the Greeks and Romans, as well as the Persians, and contributions from India. The court of the Abbasid Caliphs in Baghdad became a major centre of learning, scientific enquiry, philosophy, scholarship and teaching.
Among the works translated were Plato's Republic, as well as works by Aristotle and countless other Greek and Roman authors. Islamic scholars in Baghdad produced commentaries on the ancient classics as well as new works of their own.
This depiction of Plato's Academy in Athens by the 16th century Italian Renaissance artist Raphael shows an idealised image of what the Academy might have looked like.
The Mutazila, a faction of Islamic scholars in Baghdad at the time, were heavily influenced by Greek rationalism, including the works of Plato. They believed that arguments should be backed by evidence, and consistent with rational thought. Explanations for the natural world should be sought in natural phenomena and deductive reasoning should be used based on known facts.
Over subsequent centuries, the Mutazila eventually lost influence in the Sunni tradition, but some scholars of religion note that their influence on the Shia branch of Islam can still be traced today. In particular, on the influence of ijtihad in Shia Islam, whereby reasoning is used to reach a legal argument, position or decision. Such decisions must be logical and rational.
The Neoplatonist connection
There is a second element at work as well. Within the Shia faith, Ismaili thought is heavily influenced by Neoplatonism. Neoplatonism emerged in the second century AD in the Roman Empire. The Neoplatonists believed all reality can be derived from a single principle, “the One”, also sometimes referred to as "the Good", which was seen as the source of all perfection in the universe. This concept is referenced in Plato's Republic.
This conveniently fits with tawhid, the Islamic doctrine of the "oneness" of God, which is one of the central tennets of the Islamic faith.
While Neoplatonism is less a set of ideas than a chain of thinkers, including Ammonius Saccas and Plotinus, Neoplatonism has elements of mysticism, including the way the soul returns to the eternal and the supreme, and the division between the invisible world and the visible one, as well as the eternal, perfect essence, intellect, which produces the world soul.
This is very similar to Islam: Quran verse 2.156 says we came from God and to God we will return, a phrase that also appears multiple times elsewhere in the text. If we identify the Neoplatonic concept of “the Good”, with the Islamic concept of “God”, then the idea is not difficult to blend together. This works on a number of levels, particularly for more spiritual interpretations of Islam such as Sufism, which is itself a form of Islamic mysticism.
The links between Islamic philosophy and earlier Christian, Greek and Roman philosophies are virtually unknown in the west today, but they are well-understood by scholars of religion. Unfortunately, much of what passes for 'debate' or 'news' today is guided by sensationalism and the need to make money, rather than objective fact or history. Nevertheless, given the existence of Sufism and the enormous diversity of early Christianity, as well as the variety of different forms the Islamic faith has taken over the centuries, perhaps it shouldn't be so surprising.
The influence of Islamic Neoplatonists later affected western philosophers, including René Descartes, the 17th century French philosopher who is considered one of the key figures in the Scientific Revolution and modern philosophy. Descartes was a rationalist, yet he was opposed by the empiricists. The difference is that empiricists believed knowledge could only be derived from the senses, whereas rationalists believed in intellectual and deductive reasoning (similar to the much earlier Mutazila Islamic philosophers).
As for the Assassins themselves, after centuries of punching well above their weight through their intelligent tactics and religious devotion, eventually their power and influence waned. The Mongol invasion of the 13th century brought disaster to the Assassins, when their fortress at Alamut was taken by the Mongols. Though they eventually reclaimed the fortress, they never returned to their former glory, and over time sank into obscurity.
However, the Ismaili branch of the Shia faith endured. Today, there are 15 million Ismailis, including significant populations in Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan and other nearby countries. The faith even has official accounts on Facebook, Twitter and various other social media platforms.