Marshall G. Hodgson’s The Secret Order of Assassins: The Struggle of the Early Nizârî Ismâîlîs Against the Islamic World investigates the origins of Nizârî Ismâîlîs and how they became a formidable threat to Sunnî and Shîa sects of Islam. As most histories centered on the Muslim world tend to do, the account commences at the formation and rise of Islam on the Arabian Peninsula, and the schism that occurred with the murder of Alî, the fourth Caliphate, in 661 C.E. From this schism emerged the division of Islam into two sects: Sunnî and Shîa. This partitioning of Islam led to further fissures in the religion, giving rise to various sub-sects.
Hodgson notes that there is no clear picture of the rise of Ismâîlîsm, but, after 900 C.E., a clear structure and organization became evident. The sect erected a power structure known as the Ismâîlî Dyansty of Egypt—also known as the Fâṭimid Caliphate. Within this empire, the doctrinal foundations of the sect are further elaborated and solidified; however, another schism occurred over the succession of the imâm. The setting aside of Nizâr, in his rightful ascendency to the position of imâm, led Ḥasan-i Ṣabbâḥ to set out on his own with his followers to establish their sect: Nizârî Ismâîlîs. Under Ṣabbâḥ, the sect underwent a reformation of the original Ismâîlî doctrines and practices.
Hodgson pieces together the history of the sect’s exodus from Fâṭimid Egypt, indicating that Ṣabbâḥ initiated a military campaign simultaneously with their alienation away from their former home. The military operations were aimed at both Fâṭimid Egypt and the Saljûq Turks, who occupied Sunnî lands. They seized Alamût in 1090 C.E., an inaccessible, rough terrain location, which provided short routes between the important city of Qazwîn and the Caspian Sea. The barrage of assaults unleashed by the Nizârî Ismâîlîs horrified and baffled the Saljûq Turks, as they were devastated by the sect of Ṣabbâḥ. Hodgson presents a picture that shows the complexity of Islamic world and how factional disputes among the Saljûq Turks benefited the Assassins.
Also, Hodgson discusses and examines the employed method of struggle used by the Nizâris, assassination. He reexamines Islamic history when such precedents for the use of assassinations were set. Just as the Khârijites had done, they sought to overturn all who did not agree with their view of puritanical Islam. They labeled all their enemies as backsliders. This was deliberate imitation of that archetype deployed by Muhammad’s own military stratagem to take Mecca, posits Hodgson. Not only was assassination employed, but the use of blockages and the disruption of supply routes. However, from various other sources I’ve read, this seems to be a polemical view towards the sect. Understanding the religious teachings of the sect over time evinces a different motive behind their use of assassination. They aimed at protecting their hierarchical structure of knowledge, which the desired to preserve for future generations. This structure is what scared the Sunnî establishment.
Hodgson asserts that such tactics were not used for the sake of carving out a vast expanse of territory, but rather for the purpose of evincing to their enemies that they rule by a formidable power. Assassinations demonstrated to all that the absolute power of fear was the method for Ismâîlî governance. These methods allowed them to gain outposts away from Alamût, where they captured fortresses in Syria and Iṣfahân—just to name a few. Later, Syria would become an important outpost for one of the most heroic and well-known names of the sect, Râshid ad-Dîn Sinân.
The history contained in this book tries to evince not only chronology of events, but also the guiding philosophy behind the sect. Hodgson sets the account of the Nizârî Ismâîlîs in the light of their philosophical underpinnings. This seemed to be a painful chore, as the scholarship and pertinent documents addressing Ismâîlî had not been fully developed. As this book was written in the 1950s, many of the sources relied upon by scholars were those of medieval Sunnî sources or Crusader accounts. Ismâîlî sources were rare and seldom available for scholars. The Sunnî accounts resort to polemical attacks on the Assassins, which may have been justified. It must be remembered that most of the Middle East at that time, was ruled by Sunnî Muslims, who sought to extinguish all other sects of Islam. Hodgson makes ample use of these statements from the sources, but, just because they are Sunnî sources, does not mean they should be discounted. Hodgson works with the sources that are available to him, rending scholarly work with an interesting perspective of the Nizârî Ismâîlîs. The picture provided by Hodgson is a foundational starting point for any who are interested in the Assassins. Hodgson is not only known for this book, but also for the standard volume of texts that provide the best account of Islamic history as a whole, The Venture of Islam.