material on the Ismaili sect and on Hassan i Sabbah...
the only spiritual leader who has anything
significant to say in the Space Age."
William S. Burroughs, in a review of Peter Lamborn-Wilson's
Scandal: Essays in Islamic Heresy.
After the death of the
Prophet Mohammad, the new Islamic community was ruled in
succession by four of his close Companions, chosen by
the people and called the Rightfully-guided Caliphs. The
last of these was Ali ibn Abu Talib; the Prophet’s
Ali had his own ardent
followers among the faithful, who came to be called
Shi’a or “adherents”. They believed that Ali should have
succeeded Mohammad by right, and that after him his sons
(the Prophet’s grandsons) Hasan and Husayn should have
ruled; and after them, their sons, and so on in
In fact except for Ali
none of them ever ruled all Islamdom. Instead they
became a line of pretenders, and in effect heads of a
branch of Islam called Shiism. In opposition to the
orthodox (Sunni) Caliphs in Baghdad these descendants of
the Prophet came to be known as the Imams.
To the Shiites an Imam is
far more, far higher in rank than a Caliph. Ali ruled by
right because of his spiritual greatness, which the
Prophet recognized by appointing him his successor (in
fact Ali is also revered by the sufis as “founder” and
prototype of the Moslem saint). Shiites differ from
orthodox or Sunni Moslems in believing that this
spiritual pre-eminence was transferred to Ali’s
descendants through Fatima, the Prophet’s daughter.
The sixth Shiite Imam,
Jafar al-Sadiq, had two sons. The elder, Ismail, was
chosen as successor. But he died before his father.
Jafar then declared his own younger son Musa the new
But Ismail had already
given birth to a son - Mohammad ibn Ismail - and
proclaimed him the next Imam. Ismail’s followers split
with Jafar over this question and followed Ismail’s son
instead of Musa. Thus they came to be known as Ismailis.
Musa’s descendants ruled
“orthodox” Shiism. A few generations later, the Twelfth
Imam of this line vanished without trace from the
material world. He still lives on the spiritual plane,
whence he will return at the end of this cycle of time.
He is the “Hidden Imam”, the Mahdi foretold by the
Prophet. “Twelver” Shiism is the religion of Iran today.
The Ismaili Imams
languished in concealment, heads of an underground
movement which attracted the extreme mystics and
revolutionaries of Shiism. Eventually they emerged as a
powerful force at the head of an army, conquered Egypt
and established the Fatimid dynasty, the so-called
anti-Caliphate of Cairo.
The early Fatimids ruled
in an enlightened manner, and Cairo became the most
cultured and open city of Islam. They never succeeded in
converting the rest of the Islamic world however; in
fact, even most Egyptians failed to embrace Ismailism.
The highly evolved mysticism of the sect was at once its
special attraction and its major limitation.
In 1074 a brilliant young
Persian convert arrived in Cairo to be inducted into the
higher initiatic (and political) ranks of Ismailism. But
Hasan-i Sabbah soon found himself embroiled in a
struggle for power. The Caliph Mustansir had appointed
his eldest son Nizar as successor. But a younger son,
al-Mustali, was intriguing to supplant him. When
Mustansir died, Nizar - the rightful heir - was
imprisoned and murdered.
Hasan-i Sabbah had
intrigued for Nizar, and now was forced to flee Egypt.
He eventually turned up in Persia again, head of a
revolutionary Nizari movement. By some clever ruse he
acquired command of the impregnable mountain fortress of
Alamut (“Eagle’s Nest”) near Qazvin in Northwest Iran.
Hasan-i Sabbah’s daring
vision, ruthless and romantic, has become a legend in
the Islamic world. With his followers he set out to
recreate in miniature the glories of Cairo in this
barren multichrome forsaken rock landscape.
In order to protect Alamut
and its tiny but intense civilization Hasan-i Sabbah
relied on assassination. Any ruler or politician or
religious leader who threatened the Nizaris went in
danger of a fanatic’s dagger. In fact Hasan’s first
major publicity coup was the murder of the Prime
Minister of Persia, perhaps the most powerful man of the
era (and according to legend, a childhood friend of
Once their fearful
reputation was secure, the mere threat of being on the
eso-terrorist hit-list was enough to deter most people
from acting against the hated heretics. One theologian
was first threatened with a knife (left by his pillow as
he slept), then bribed with gold. When his disciples
asked him why he had ceased to fulminate against Alamut
from his pulpit he answered that Ismaili arguments were
“both pointed and weighty”.
Since the great library of
Alamut was eventually burned, little is known of Hasan-i
Sabbah’s actual teachings. Apparently he formed an
initiatic hierarchy of seven circles based on that in
Cairo, with assassins at the bottom and learned mystics
at the top.
Ismaili mysticism is based
on the concept of ta’wil, or “spiritual hermeneutics”.
Ta’wil actually means “to take something back to its
source or deepest significance”. The Shiites had always
practised this exegesis on the Koran itself, reading
certain verses as veiled or symbolic allusions to Ali
and the Imams. The Ismailis extended ta’wil much more
radically. The whole structure of Islam appeared to them
as a shell; to get at its kernel of meaning the shell
must be penetrated by ta’wil, and in fact broken open
The structure of Islam,
even more than most religions, is based on a dichotomy
between exoteric and esoteric. On the one hand there is
Divine Law (shariah), on the other hand the Spiritual
Path (tariqah). Usually the Path is seen as the esoteric
kernel and the Law as the exoteric shell. But to
Ismailism the two together present a totality which in
its turn becomes a symbol to be penetrated by ta’wil.
Behind Law and Path is ultimate Reality (haqiqah), God
Himself in theological terms - Absolute Being in
This Reality is not
something outside human scope; in fact if it exists at
all then it must manifest itself completely on the level
of consciousness. Thus it must appear as a man, the
Perfect Man - the Imam. Knowledge of the Imam is direct
perception of Reality itself. For Shiites the Family of
Ali is the same as perfected consciousness.
Once the Imam is realized,
the levels of Law and Path fall away naturally like
split husks. Knowledge of inner meaning frees one from
adherence to outer form: the ultimate victory of the
esoteric over the exoteric.
The “abrogation of the
Law” however was considered open heresy in Islam. For
their own protection Shiites had always been allowed to
practise taqqiya, “permissable dissimulation” or
Concealment, and pretend to be orthodox to escape death
or punishment. Ismailis could pretend to be Shiite or
Sunni, whichever was most advantageous.
For the Nizaris, to
practise Concealment was to practise the Law; in other
words, pretending to be orthodox meant obeying the
Islamic Law. Hasan-i Sabbah imposed Concealment on all
but the highest ranks at Alamut, because in the absence
of the Imam the veil of illusion must naturally conceal
the esoteric truth of perfect freedom.
In fact, who was the Imam?
As far as history was concerned, Nizar and his son died
imprisoned and intestate. Hasan-i Sabbah was therefore a
legitimist supp-orting a non-existent pret-ender! He
never claimed to be the Imam himself, nor did his
successor as “old Man of the Mountain,” nor did his
successor. And yet they all preached “in the name of
Nizar”. Presumably the answer to this mystery was
revealed in the seventh circle of initiation.
Now the third Old Man of
the Mountain had a son named Hasan, a youth who was
learned, generous, eloquent and loveable. Moreover he
was a mystic, an enthusiast for the deepest teachings of
Ismailism and sufism. Even during his father’s lifetime
some Alamutis began to whisper that young Hasan was the
true Imam; the father heard of these rumors and denied
them. I am not the Imam, he said, so how could my son be
In 1162 the father died
and Hasan (call him Hasan II to distinguish him from
Hasan-i Sabbah) became ruler of Alamut. Two years later,
on the seventeenth of Ramazan (August 8) in 1164, he
proclaimed the Qiyamat, or Great Resurrection. In the
middle of the month of Fasting, Alamut broke its fast
forever and proclaimed perpetual holiday.
The resurrection of the
dead in their bodies at the “end of time” is one of the
most difficult doctrines of Islam (and Christianity as
well). Taken literally it is absurd. Taken symbolically
however it encapsulates the experience of the mystic. He
“dies before death” when he comes to realize the
separative and alienated aspects of the self, the
ego-as-programmed-illusion. He is “reborn” in
consciousness but he is reborn in the body, as an
individual, the “soul-at-peace”.
When Hasan II proclaimed
the Great Resurrection which marks the end of Time, he
lifted the veil of concealment and abrogated the
religious Law. He offered communal as well as individual
participation in the mystic’s great adventure, perfect
He acted on behalf of the
Imam, and did not claim to be the Imam himself. (In fact
he took the title of Caliph or “representative”.) But if
the family of Ali is the same as perfect consciousness,
then perfect consciousness is the same as the family of
Ali. The realized mystic “becomes” a descendant of Ali
(like the Persian Salman whom Ali adopted by covering
him with his cloak, and who is much revered by sufis,
Shiites and Ismailis alike).
In Reality, in haqiqah,
Hasan II was the Imam because in the Ismaili phrase, he
had realised the “Imam-of-his-own-being.” The Qiyamat
was thus an invitation to each of his followers to do
the same, or at least to participate in the pleasures of
paradise on earth.
The legend of the
paradisal garden at Alamut where the houris, cupbearers,
wine and hashish of paradise were enjoyed by the
Assassins in the flesh, may stem from a folk memory of
the Qiyamat. Or it may even be literally true. For the
realized consciousness this world is no other than
paradise, and its bliss and pleasures are all permitted.
The Koran describes paradise as a garden. How logical
then for wealthy Alamut to become outwardly the
reflection of the spiritual state of the Qiyamat.
In 1166 Hasan II was
murdered after only four years of rule. His enemies were
perhaps in league with conservative elements at Alamut
who resented the Qiyamat, the dissolving of the old
secret hierarchy (and thus their own power as hierarchs)
and who feared to live thus openly as heretics. Hasan
II’s son however succeeded him and established the
Qiyamat firmly as Nizari doctrine.
If the Qiyamat were
accepted in its full implications however it would
probably have brought about the dissolution and end of
Nizari Ismailism as a separate sect. Hasan II as Qa’im
or “Lord of the Resurrection” had released the Alamutis
from all struggle and all sense of legitimist urgency.
Pure esotericism, after all, cannot be bound by any
Hasan II’s son, therefore,
compromised. Apparently he decided to “reveal” that his
father was in fact and in blood a direct descendant of
Nizar. The story runs that after Hasan-i Sabbah had
established Alamut, a mysterious emissary delivered to
him the infant grandson of Imam Nizar. The child was
raised secretly at Alamut. He grew up, had a son, died.
The son had a son. This baby was born on the same day as
the son of the Old Man of the Mountain, the outward
ruler. The infants were surreptitiously exchanged in
their cradles. Not even the Old Man knew of the ruse.
Another version has the hidden Imam committing adultery
with the Old Man’s wife, and producing as love-child the
infant Hasan II.
The Ismailis accepted
these claims. Even after the fall of Alamut to the
Mongol hordes the line survived and the present leader
of the sect, the Aga Khan, is known as the forty-ninth
in descent from Ali (and pretender to the throne of
Egypt!). The emphasis on Alid legitimacy has preserved
the sect as a sect. Whether it is literally true or not,
however, matters little to an understanding of the
With the proclamation of
the Resurrection, the teachings of Ismailism were
forever expanded beyond the borders imposed on them by
any historical event. The Qiyamat remains as a state of
consciousness which anyone can adhere to or enter, a
garden without walls, a sect without a church, a lost
moment of Islamic history that refuses to be forgotten,
standing outside time, a reproach or challenge to all
legalism and moralism, to all the cruelty of the
exoteric. An invitation to paradise.
Reprinted with permission
from Peter Lamborn Wilson's Scandal: Essays in
Islamic Heresy, published by Autonomedia, PO Box
568, Williamsburg Station, Brooklyn, NY, USA. Available
at all good book stores. Published in New Dawn No. 30