September 19, 2006


In an age of despair the need for a hero who can inspire pan-Islamic victories becomes acute. The situation today is akin to a thousand years ago, when Crusaders conquered Jerusalem and Christians established powerful states in the heart of Palestine, in territory approximate to where Israel exists today. Revival by Zengi, Nuraddin, and above all Saladin lifted Muslims from a morass then. There is no such hero on the horizon now. Despair can become a breeding ground for mavericks who believe in themselves and their version of the faith.

Osama bin Laden is in the tradition of another famous name from the eleventh century, Hasan i Sabbah, the Old Man of the Mountains, who has given the English language the word 'assassin'. The year of his birth is not known, but he died in 1124: that, presumably, is what fame is all about. He was born in a Shia family in Qum in Persia and travelled restlessly when young,
serving many masters. In 1090, he finally found a base for his militant creed in the castle of Alamut, on a high rock in the middle of the Elburz mountains, perched above a fertile valley. He did not leave this mountain for 34 years, until he died. From there he commanded a network of missionaries and terrorists who became the most feared force of their time.

For more than a hundred years the cult of assassins spread terror among both the Christian crusaders and the Arab emirs who had permitted Christians to triumph. Hasan i Sabbah promised paradise to martyrs in his cause, apparently with the judicious use of hashish, hence hashishin and then assassin. They perfected the strategy of suicide missions, and their secrecy was legendary. It reached a point where a sultan like Saladin could not be certain if his own bodyguards had not become assassins, waiting for a signal from their lord. Assassins made two attempts on the life of Saladin, once in the winter of 1174-5, when he was besieging Alleppo; and then on 22 May 1176 when, disguised as his soldiers, they attacked him with knives. After that Saladin slept under special protection, and only those who knew him personally were allowed to approach him.

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