WHAT GAVE RISE to all the anxiety? The answer lies in the political story unfolding alongside the intellectual movements I have described. From the Prophet’s day through the first two centuries or so of Abbasid rule, people in the Muslim world had good reason to think they were living at the very center of world civilization. European culture barely existed. India had fragmented into many small kingdoms. Buddhism had receded into China, and although it’s true that there in “Cathay” the Tang and Sung dynasties presided over a glorious renaissance almost exactly coextensive with the Muslim one flowering in the middle world, China was too far away to have much resonance in places like Mesopotamia or Egypt.
If the Muslim realm was the heart of the world, then the underlying driving force of world history was the quest to perfect and universalize the Muslim community. All the major issues of the time—the struggle between Shi’ism and orthodoxy, philosophy and theology, Persians and Arabs—could be understood within this framework. For a long while, optimistic observers could look at world events and believe that things were generally moving forward. The implications of the holy miracle that blossomed in Mecca and Medina were still flowering. Islam had permeated deeply and rippled far. Even the Hindus of the Indian heartland were weakening. Even sub-Saharan Africa had Muslim converts now. Only Cathay and darkest Europe remained fully outside the realm. It seemed only a matter of time before Islam fulfilled its destiny and bathed even those regions with light.
But the dream of the universal community of piety and justice remained elusively out of reach and then began to slip away. At the very height of its power and glory, the khalifate began to crack. Indeed, looking back, historians could plausibly say the cracking began before the heights were achieved. It began when the Abbasids took power.
In that cataclysmic transition, the new rulers lured all the Umayyads into a room and clubbed them to death. Well, not quite all. One Umayyad nobleman skipped the party. This man, the last of the Umayyads, a young fellow by the name of Abdul Rahman, fled Damascus in disguise and headed across North Africa, and he didn’t stop running until he got to the furthest tip of the Muslim world: Andalusian Spain. Any further and he would have been in the primitive wilderness of Christian Europe.
Abdul Rahman impressed the locals in Spain. A few hard-core Kharijite insurgent types skulking about there at the ends of the Earth pledged their swords to the youngster. There in Spain, so far from the Muslim heartland, no one knew much about the new regime in Baghdad and certainly felt no loyalty to them. Andalusians were accustomed to thinking of the Umayyads as rulers, and here was a real-life Umayyad asking to be their ruler. In a less tumultuous time, Abdul Rahman might simply have been posted here as governor and the people would have accepted him. Therefore, they accepted him as their leader now, and Andalusian Spain became an independent state, separate from the rest of the khalifate. So the Muslim story was now unfolding from two centers.
At first, this was only a political fissure, but as the Abbasids weakened, the Andalusian Umayyads announced that they were not merely independent of Baghdad but were, in fact, still the khalifas. Everyone within a few hundred miles said, “Oh, yes, sir, you’re definitely the khalifa of Islam; we could tell from the very look of you.” So the khalifate itself, this quasi-mystical idea of a single worldwide community of faith, was broken in two.
The Umayyad claim had some resonance because their Andalusian capital of Córdoba was far and away the greatest city in Europe. At its height it had some half a million inhabitants and boasted hundreds of bathhouses, hospitals, schools, mosques, and other public buildings. The largest of many libraries in Córdoba reputedly contained some five hundred thousand volumes. Spain had other urban centers as well, cities of fifty thousand or more at a time when the biggest towns in Christian Europe did not exceed twenty-five thousand inhabitants. Once-mighty Rome was merely a village now, with a population smaller than Dayton, Ohio, a thin smattering of peasants and ruffians eking out a living among the ruins.
At first, therefore, the political split in Islam did not seem to imply any loss of civilizational momentum. Andalusia traded heavily with the rest of the civilized world. It sent timber, grains, metals, and other raw materials into North Africa and across the Mediterranean to the Middle World, importing from those regions handcrafted luxury goods, ceramics, furniture, rich textiles, spices and the like.
Trade with the Christian countries to the north and east, by contrast, amounted to a mere trickle—not so much because of any hostility between the regions, but because Christian Europeans had virtually nothing to sell and no money with which to buy.
Muslims formed the majority in Andalusia, but many Christians and Jews lived there as well. Umayyad Spain may have been at odds with the Baghdad khalifate, but its rulers followed much the same social policies as in all the Muslim conquests so far. Both Christian and Jewish communities had their own religious leaders and judicial systems and were free to practice their own rituals and customs. If one of them got into a dispute with a Muslim, the case was tried in a Muslim court by Islamic rules but disputes among themselves were adjudicated by their own judges according to their own rules.
Non-Muslims had to pay the poll tax but were exempt from the charity tax. They were excluded from military service and the highest political positions, but all other occupations and offices were open to them. Christians, Muslims, and Jews lived in fairly amicable harmony in this empire with the caveat that Muslims wielded ultimate political power and probably radiated an attitude of superiority, stemming from certainty that their culture and society represented the highest stage of civilization, much as Americans and western Europeans now tend to do vis-à-vis people of third world countries.
The story of King Sancho illustrates how the various communities got along. In the late tenth century CE, Sancho inherited the throne of Leon, a Christian kingdom north of Spain. Sancho’s subjects soon began referring to him as Sancho the Fat, the sort of nickname a king never likes to hear his subjects using with impunity. Poor Sancho might more accurately have been called Sancho the Medically Obese, but his nobles could not take the large view. They regarded Sancho’s size as proof of an internal weakness that made him unfit to rule, so they deposed him.
Sancho then heard about a Jewish physician named Hisdai ibn Shaprut who reputedly knew how to cure obesity. Hisdai was employed by the Muslim ruler in Córdoba, so Sancho headed south with his mother and retinue to seek treatments. The Muslim ruler Abdul Rahman the Third welcomed Sancho as an honored guest and had him stay at the royal palace until Hisdai had shrunk him down, whereupon Sancho returned to Leon, reclaimed his throne, and signed a treaty of friendship with Abdul Rahman.1
A Christian king received treatments from a Jewish physician at the court of a Muslim ruler: there you have the story of Muslim Spain in a nutshell. When Europeans talk about the Golden Age of Islam, they are often thinking of the Spanish khalifate, because this was the part of the Muslim world that Europeans knew the most about.
But Córdoba was not the only city to rival Baghdad. In the tenth century, another city emerged to challenge the supremacy of the Abbasid khalifate.
When the Abbasids decided to rule as Sunnis, they revived the Shi’ite impulse to rebellion. In 347 AH (969 CE) Shi’i warriors from Tunisia managed to seize control of Egypt and declared themselves the true khalifas of Islam because (they said) they were descended from the Prophet’s daughter Fatima, for which reason they called themselves the Fatimids. These rulers built themselves a brand new capital they called Qahira, the Arabic word for “victory.” In the West, it is spelled Cairo.
The Egyptian khalifate had the resources of North Africa and the granaries of the Nile valley to draw upon. It was well situated to compete in the Mediterranean Sea trade, and it dominated the routes along the Red Sea to Yemen, which gave it access to markets bordering the Indian Ocean. By the year 1000 CE, it probably outshone both Baghdad and Córdoba.
In Cairo, the Fatimids built the world’s first university, Al Azhar, which is still going strong. Everything I’ve said about the other two khalifates—big cities, busy bazaars, liberal policies, lots of cultural and intellectual activity—was true of this khalifate as well. Rich as it was, however, Egypt represented yet another fragmentation of what was, in theory, a single universal community. In short, as the millennium approached, the Islamic world was divided into three parts.
THE THREE KHALIFATES
Each khalifate asserted itself to be the one and only true khalifate—“one and only” being built into the very meaning of the word khalifate. But since the khalifas were really merely secular emperors by this time, the three khalifates more or less coexisted, just like three vast secular states.
The Abbasids had the most territory (at first), and theirs was the richest capital, but the very size of their holdings made them, in some ways, the weakest of the three khalifates. Just as Rome grew too big to administer from any single place by any single ruler, so, too, did the Abbasid khalifate. A vast bureaucracy that developed to carry out the khalifa’s orders encrusted into permanence. The khalifa disappeared into the stratosphere above this machinery of state until he became invisible to his subjects.
Just like the Roman emperors, the Abbasid khalifas surrounded themselves with a corps of bodyguards, which became the tail that wagged the dog. In Rome, this group was called the Praetorian Guard, and it was (ironically) well staffed with Germans recruited from the territories of the barbarians north of the frontiers, those same barbarians with whom Rome had been at war for centuries and whose excursions posed a constant threat to civilized order.
The same pattern emerged in the Abbasid khalifate. Here, the imperial guards were called mamluks, which means “slaves,” although these were not ordinary slaves but elite slave soldiers. Like Rome, the Abbasid khalifate was plagued by nomadic barbarians north of its borders. In the west, the barbarians of the north were Germans; here they were Turks. (There were no Turks in what is now called Turkey; they migrated to this area much later. The ancestral home of the Turkish tribes was the central Asian steppes north of Iran and Afghanistan.) As the Romans had done with the Germans, the Abbasids imported some of these Turks—purchasing them from the slave markets along the frontier—and used them as bodyguards. The khalifas did this because they didn’t trust the Arabs and Persians whom they ruled and among whom they lived, folks with too many local roots, too many relatives, and interests of their own to push. The khalifas wanted guards with no links to anyone but the khalifas themselves, no home but their court, no loyalties except to their owners. Therefore, the slaves they brought in were children. They had these kids raised as Muslims in special schools where they were taught martial skills. When they grew up they entered an elite corps that formed something like an extension of the khalifa’s own identity. In fact, since the public never saw the khalifa anymore, these Turkish bodyguards became, for most folks, the face of the khalifate.
Of course they were arrogant, violent, and rapacious—they were raised to be. Even while keeping the khalifa safe, they alienated him from his people, their depredations making him ever more unpopular and therefore unsafe and therefore ever more in need of bodyguards. Eventually, the khalifa had to build the separate soldier’s city of Samarra just to house his troublesome mamluks, and he himself moved there to live among them.
Meanwhile, a Persian family, the Buyids, insinuated themselves into the court as the khalifa’s advisers, clerks, helpers. Soon, they took control of the bureaucracy and thus of the empire’s day-to-day affairs. Boldly, they passed the office of vizier (chief administrator) down from father to son as a hereditary title. (A similar thing happened in the Germanic kingdoms of Europe where a similar officer, the “mayor of the palace” developed into the real ruler of the land.) The Buyids, like the khalifas, began importing the children of Turkish barbarians to Baghdad as slaves and raising them in dormitories over which they had absolute control, to serve as their personal bodyguards. Once the Buyids had their system in place, no one could oppose them, for their Turkish bodyguards had come to town at such a young age they had no memory of their families, their fathers, their mothers, their siblings: they knew only the camaraderie of the military schools and camps in which they grew up, and they felt soldierly allegiance only to one another and to the men who had controlled their lives in the camps. The Buyids, then, became a new kind of dynasty in Islam. They kept the khalifa in place but issued orders in his name and enjoyed a high life behind the throne. Thus, Persians came to rule the capital of the Arab khalifate.
These Persian viziers couldn’t rule the rest of the empire, however, nor did they even care to. They were perfectly content to leave distant locales to the domination of whatever lord happened to have the most strength there. Major governors thus turned into minor kings, and Persian mini dynasties proliferated across the former Sassanid realm.
You might think that training slaves to be killers, giving them weapons, and then stationing them outside your bedroom door would be such a bad idea that no one would ever do it, but in fact almost everyone did it in these parts: every little breakaway Persian kingdom had its own corps of Turkish mamluks guarding and eventually controlling its little Persian king.
As if that were not enough, the empire as a whole was constantly fighting to keep whole tribes of Turkish nomads from crossing the frontier and wreaking havoc in the civilized world, just as the Romans had struggled to keep the Germans at bay. At last the Turks grew too strong to suppress, both inside and outside the khalifate. In some of those little outlying kingdoms, mamluks killed their masters and founded their own dynasties.
Meanwhile, with the empire decaying and the social fabric fraying, barbarians began to penetrate the northern borders, much as the Germans had done in Europe when they crossed the Rhine River into Roman territory. Rude Turks came trickling south in ever growing numbers: tough warriors, newly converted to Islam and brutal in their simplistic fanaticism. Accustomed to plunder as a way of life, they ruined cities and laid waste to crops. The highways grew unsafe, small-time banditry became rife, trade declined, poverty spread. Turkish mamluks fought bitterly with Turkish nomads—it was Turks in power everywhere. This is part of why anxiety permeated the empire in Ghazali’s day.
A light did shine at the edges, however, under a Persian dynasty called the Samanids. Their kingdom radiated from cities on either side of the Oxus River, which now forms the northern border of Afghanistan. Here, in the great urban centers of Balkh and Bokhara, the literary culture of ancient Persia revived, and Persian began to compete with Arabic as the language of learning.
But the Samanids, too, had mamluks, and one of their mamluk generals decided he would rather give orders than take them. Goodbye, Samanids; hello, Ghaznavids. The new rulers were called Ghaznavids because they moved their capital to the city of Ghazni, southeast of Kabul. The Ghaznavid dynasty peaked with a long-lived conqueror named Mahmud, a Charlemagne of the Islamic East. By the time this man was done, his empire sprawled from the Caspian to the Indus. Just as Charlemagne saw himself as a “most Christian emperor,” Mahmud considered himself a most Muslim monarch. He appointed himself coruler of the Muslim world, giving himself the brand new title of sultan, which means something like “sword arm.” As he saw it, the Arab khalifa was still the spiritual father of the Islamic community, but he, Mahmud, was the equally important military leader, the Enforcer. From his day until the twentieth century, there was always at least one sultan in the Muslim world.
Sultan Mahmud was bright enough to staff his imperial service with educated Persians who could read and write. He announced handsome rewards for men of learning, offers that attracted some nine hundred poets, historians, theologians, philosophers, and other literati to his court, which added to his prestige.
One of these literati was the poet Firdausi, who was writing Shahnama (The Book of Kings), an epic history of the Persian nation from the beginning of time to the birth of Islam, all in rhyming couplets. In the Middle World he has a stature comparable to Dante. Mahmud extravagantly promised this man one piece of gold for each couplet of his finished epic. He was shocked when Firdausi finally presented him with the longest poem ever penned by a single man: The Book of Kings has over sixty thousand couplets. “Did I say gold?” the sultan frowned. “I meant to say silver. One piece of silver for each couplet.”
The offended Firdausi went off in a huff and offered his poem to another king. According to legend, Sultan Mahmud later regretted his penny-pinching and sent servants with trunk loads of gold to coax the poet back, but they were knocking on the front door of the poet’s house while his corpse was being carried out the back for burial.2
The Book of Kings represents all of history as a struggle between the descendants of two legendary brothers, Iran and Turan, who (it is often thought) represent the Persians and the Turks, respectively: Iran is the good guy, and Turan the bad guy. Not surprisingly,The Book of Kings is now the national epic of Iran, and I wonder if it was actually the cost of the book that gave the sultan pause: maybe he didn’t like seeing Turks presented as the bad guys of history.
Firdausi also heaped scorn on the Arabs and devoted a long passage at the end to detailing their primitive savagery as compared to the civilized grace of the Persians at the time Islam was born. His book was just one more sign of the decline of Arab power and the rising prestige of Persian culture within Islam. In fact, his attitude about Arabs was not unique. As another poet of the era wrote, Sultan Mahmud was not only first in patronage of the arts; he also prided himself on the number of Hindu temples he sacked and how thoroughly he sacked them and what quantities of loot he snatched away from infidel fingers. He hauled his plunder home to ornament his capital and pay the nine-hundred-plus literati living at his court. His invasions of India and his slaughter of Hindus made him, he felt, a hero of Islam.
Arabs were eating crickets in the wasteland, living on the brink, While in Mashad, even dogs had ice water to drink.3
Mahmud’s son Masud built himself a winter capital on the banks of the Helmand River, about a mile downriver from my own boyhood town of Lashkargah. The ruins of the city are still there. Growing up, I often wondered if Masud might have hunted deer on the same wooded island in the middle of the river where my buddies and I used to roam, woods that in my day teemed with jungle cats, jackals, and wild boar.
Masud himself was a formidable specimen of a man. Too heavy for most horses, he customarily rode an elephant, of which he had a whole battalion penned up in the marshy canebrakes along the Helmand River. Make no mistake, however, his great girth was all muscle. He went into battle with a sword only he could swing and a battleaxe so huge, no one else could even lift it. Even the great Sultan Mahmud reputedly feared his boy.
When the father died, Masud happened to be in Baghdad. The courtiers proclaimed his brother the new king. Masud came rushing back, gathering up an army along the way, dethroned his brother lickety-split, and put out both his eyes to make sure he would never try anything like that again. Then he took over the Ghaznavid Empire and, like his father, welded art and war into a potent cultural combination of grandeur and gold and savagery. At that point, it must have seemed like Ghaznavid dominion would last forever.
Yet four times during Masud’s reign, rugged Oghuz Turks from the north stormed across the Oxus River to attack Ghaznavid realms. Led by a family called the Seljuks, they made their way into Khorasan (eastern Iran, western Afghanistan). Four times Sultan Masud sallied forth to meet them on the field of battle. Three times he beat them back, but in the fourth battle, his forces got hammered. In 1040 he lost Lashkargah and his western strongholds to those Seljuks. I’ve described the dread demeanor of the frightening Masud; now imagine what kind of men it must have taken to beat him. Masud retreated to the city his father had built and lived out his reign, but the glory days of the Ghaznavids were done. The Seljuk era had begun.
The Seljuks moved west, nibbling away at the empire based in Baghdad. These chieftains couldn’t read or write and saw no point in learning. A strong swordsman could command enough gold to hire a hundred tallow-faced clerks to read and write for him. They sacked cities and exacted tribute, but preferred to live in tents, which they furnished as gloriously as was possible for a people constantly on the move. (In time, they also funded the construction of wonderful architecture in their major cities.) Once they crossed the border, they dropped their ancient shamanistic religion and converted to Islam, but it was a rough-and-ready Islam that didn’t concern itself with doctrines or ethical ideas very much: it was more a rah-rah locker-room ideology that marked off Us Guys from Them Guys.
In 1053 CE, a young Seljuk prince was sent to govern the province of Khorasan. His name was Alp Arslan, which means “heroic lion”—a nickname his troops gave him. Alp Arslan took along his Persian secretary, soon to be known as Nizam al-Mulk, which means “order of the realm.” Alp Arslan stood out in any crowd, not only because he stood well over six feet tall, but because he had grown his moustache so long he could sling the two strands of it over his shoulders to hang down behind his back, and when he rode his white horse at top speed, the braids streamed behind him like whip-shaped banners.
His Persian adviser managed to set Khorasan in order and get the economy humming, which gave his sponsor such prestige that when the old Seljuk chieftain died and the usual fighting broke out among brothers, sons, and nephews, Alp Arslan quickly emerged triumphant, thanks in part to the crafty Nizam al-Mulk’s advice. After crowning himself sultan, Alp Arslan began poring over maps to see what else he might conquer.
He extended Seljuk power into the Caucasus region and then kept moving west, finally leading his armies into Asia Minor, most of which was ruled by Constantinople, the fortress capital of an empire the Muslims were still calling Rome.
In 1071, on the outskirts of a town called Manzikert, Alp Arslan met the Byzantine emperor Romanus Diogenes in battle and smashed his hundred-thousand-man army. He took the emperor himself prisoner, sending a shock rippling through the Western world. Then he did the unthinkable; he released the emperor and sent him home to Constantinople with gifts and admonishments never to make trouble again, a courtesy that only underscored Seljuk might and added to the Christian emperor’s humiliation. The battle of Manzikert was one of history’s truly seminal battles. At the time, it seemed like the greatest victory these Seljuks could ever achieve. In fact, it may have been their biggest mistake, but no one would realize this for another twenty-six years.
Alp Arslan died the following year in Khorasan, but his son Malik Shah stepped right into his shoes, and under the expert tutelage of Nizam al-Mulk proved himself nearly the equal of his father. It was he who conquered Syria and the Holy Lands for the Turks.
The partnership between the Persian vizier and the two Seljuk sultans served both sides well. The sultans devoted themselves to conquests, Nizam al-Mulk to organizing their conquests. There was much to organize because the sultans put diverse relatives in charge of various lands as they moved on, and the relatives regarded the territories given to them as their personal possessions. Fresh off the steppes, these Turks did not fully grasp the distinction between taxing and looting.
SELJUK EMPIRE: THE TURKS INVADE THE ISLAMIC WORLD
Nizam al-Mulk got the tax system straightened out and created a cadre of roving inspectors to make sure the tax collectors didn’t cheat. He used the Sultan’s war revenues to build roads and organized a police force to protect travelers, so that merchants might feel safe transporting goods. He also set up state-funded hostels spaced about a day’s journey apart for their convenience. This great vizier also built a network of schools and colleges called madrassas to teach future officials of his Islamic society a uniform doctrine. He ensured the uniformity of it by putting the curriculum in the hands of orthodox Sunni ulama.
These measures were all part of his struggle against the centripetal forces of his times. Nizam al-Mulk hoped to weave a stable Islamic community out of three ethnic strands. The Turks would keep order with their military strength, the Arabs would provide unity by contributing religious doctrine, and the Persians would contribute all the remaining arts of civilization—administration, philosophy, poetry, painting, architecture, science—to elevate and beautify the world. The new ruling class would thus consist of a Turkish sultan and his army, an Arab khalifa and the ulama, and a Persian bureaucracy staffed by artists and thinkers.
The stability this engendered would, he hoped, let farmers and merchants generate the wealth needed to . . . provide the taxes needed to . . . fund the armies needed to . . . keep the order needed to . . . let farmers and merchants keep generating wealth.
But Nizam al-Mulk had a sinister opponent working to unravel his fabric, a ruthless genius named Hassan Sabbah, founder of the Cult of the Assassins. I call them a cult because “sect” seems too mainstream. They were a branch that split away from a branch that split away from Shi’ism, itself a branch of Islam.
Shi’is believe in a central guiding religious figure called an imam, of whom there is always one in the world. As soon as the imam dies, his special grace passes into one of his sons, making him the imam. The trouble is that every time an imam passes away, disagreements can arise about which of his sons is the next imam. Each such disagreement can lead to a split that gives birth to a new branch of the sect.
Just such a disagreement had broken out about who was the fifth imam, spawning the Zaidi sect, also known as the Fivers. A more serious disagreement arose after the death of the sixth imam, giving rise to a sect called the Isma’ilis, who became the dominant branch of Shi’ism for a while, since the Fatimids who captured Egypt and set up a rival khalifate were Isma’ilis.
In the late eleventh century the Isma’ilis themselves branched into two. The minority was a revolutionary offshoot angered by the wealth and pomp of the now-mighty Fatimid khalifate and dedicated to leveling rich and poor, empowering the meek, and generally getting the Islamic project back on course. The leaders of this movement sent an operative named Hassan Sabbah to Persia to recruit adherents.
In Persia, Sabbah developed his own power base. He took control of a fortress called Alamut (“the eagle’s nest”), situated high in the Elburz mountains of northern Iran. No one could touch him there because the only approach to the fortress was a footpath too narrow to accommodate an army. How Sabbah conquered it, no one knows. Some legends say trickery was involved, some that he used supernatural means, some that he converted the staff of the fortress and then simply bought the place from its master for a small sum. Whatever the case, there at Alamut, Sabbah got busy organizing the Assassins.
Did his cult adopt this name because they were devoted to political murder? Quite the opposite: political murder is now called assassination because it was a tactic practiced by this cult. Centuries later, Marco Polo would claim that Sabbah’s agents smoked hashish in order to hop themselves up for murder and were thus called hashishin, from which derived the word assassin. I doubt this etymology, and I’ll tell you why.
Sabbah was the archetypal prototerrorist, using murder largely for its propaganda value. Since he lacked the resources and troops to fight battles or conquer cities, he sent individuals, or at most small groups, to assassinate carefully targeted figures chosen for the shock their death would spark. The Assassins plotted their killings for months or even years, sometimes contriving to make friends with the victim or enter his service and work their way up to a position of trust.
Where in this long process was the hashish smoking supposed to take place? It doesn’t add up. The Lebanese writer Amin Malouf suggests that actually the word assassin probably derives from the Persian word assas, which means “foundation.” Like most religious schismatics, Sabbah taught that the revelations had been corrupted and that he was taking his followers back to the foundation, the original. Of course, every schismatic has a different idea about what the founding revelation was. Sabbah’s doctrine strayed pretty far from anything most scholars recognize as Islam. For one thing, he taught that while Mohammed was indeed the messenger of Allah, Ali was an actual incarnation of Allah—as were the succeeding imams.
Sabbah further taught that the Qur’an had a surface or exterior meaning but many levels of esoteric or interior meanings. The surface meaning prescribed the rituals of religion, the outward show, the rules of conduct, the ethical and moral mandates; all of this was for the brutal masses who couldn’t aspire to deeper knowledge. The esoteric Qur’an—and every verse, every line, every letter had an esoteric meaning—provided a secret code that allowed cognoscenti to unlock the cryptogram of the created universe.
The Assassins were organized as the ultimate secret society. Out in the world, they gave no indication of their identity or their real beliefs. No one knew, therefore, how many Assassins there were or which of the people in the bazaar, or the mosque, or anywhere else was actually an Assassin. Recruits went through intensive indoctrination and training, but once accepted into the sect, each member had a rank reflecting his level of knowledge. Initiates moved from stage to stage as they presumably plumbed ever deeper levels of meaning in the Qur’an, until they reached the foundation upon which all was built, whereupon they were admitted to Sabbah’s innermost circle.
Although they crafted their plots in utmost secrecy, the Assassins killed with utmost publicity: their object was not really to remove this or that person from power but to make people throughout the civilized world believe that the Assassins could kill any person, anytime, anywhere. Sabbah wanted people to worry that anyone they knew—their best friend, their most trusted servant, even their spouse—might actually be an Assassin. In this way, he hoped to control the policies of men who, unlike himself, did hold territory, did possess resources, and did command troops.
The agents who did the murders for him were called Fedayeen, which means “sacrificers.” When they plotted a public assassination, they knew they would be caught and killed within moments of completing their deed, but they made no effort to evade this outcome. Indeed, dying was a key element of the ritual they were enacting: they were suicide knifers. By embracing death, they let the authorities know that not even the threat of execution could intimidate them.
The Assassins added to the anxiety of a world already in turmoil. Sunnis were struggling with Shi’i. The Abbasid khalifate in Baghdad was wrestling with the Fatimid khalifate in Cairo. Nearly a century of Turkish invasions had brutalized society. And now this cult of killers extending its secret tendrils throughout the Middle East injected society with a persistent underlying nightmare.
The Assassins announced themselves with a series of ever more spectacular assassinations. They killed Seljuk officials and well-known Sunni clerics. They killed two of the khalifas. As often as possible, they carried out their assassination in the biggest mosques during Friday prayer, when they could be sure of an audience.
Then in 1092 they murdered the recently retired Nizam al-Mulk himself. Scarcely a month later, they dispatched his master, Sultan Malik Shah, son of Alp Arslan. In the space of weeks, they had eliminated the two men most crucial to the shaky unity the empire enjoyed. These murders set off a debilitating power struggle among Seljuk sons, brothers, cousins, and relatives, as well as miscellaneous adventurers, a struggle that left the western portion of the empire in pieces. From Asia Minor to the Sinai, practically every city ended up in the hands of a different prince—Jerusalem, Damascus, Aleppo, Antioch, Tripoli, Edessa—each was a de facto sovereign state owing only nominal fealty to the sultan in Baghdad. Each petty prince huddled over his possession like a dog over a bone and eyed all the other princes with suspicion.
By 1095 CE, the dream of a universal community had failed at the political level. The ulama were barely holding society together with Qur’an, hadith, and shari’a. The philosophers were a scattered breed, still adding to the conversation, but with voices that were growing ever dimmer. This was the world in which Ghazali lived and worked, a world in which trusting to reason could easily seem unreasonable.
And then the catastrophes began.