by Peter Lamborn Wilson
New Dawn No. 30
Fascinating 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 son-in-law.
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 quasi-monarchial succession.
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)
in Baghdad these descendants of the Prophet came to be known as the
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 successor
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
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
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 completely.
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 metaphysical terms.
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
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
practice taqqiya, "permissible 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 practice Concealment was to practice 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 supporting a non-existent pretender! 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 the Imam?
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
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
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 freedom.
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
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 realized the "Imam-of-his-own-being." The
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 form.
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
An invitation to paradise.