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A missed oportunity
on 14 July 2008
As a previous reviewer pointed out, post 9/11 the sales of this book have probably gone through the roof not least because Lewis has been (not so subltely) making comparisons between the Assassins and Al-Qaeda but also because every Al-Qaeda opponent on the planet has been jumping on the bandwagon.
Sadly, this book aside from the obvious that it was first published years before the events of 9/11 is a missed opportunity to study a little known Islamic group and instead, relies upon shock and scandal and instead of reading like a scholarly study of a subject reads more like something you would find in a tabloid.
The book begins with some history of the word Assassin and how it came into the English language then onto some early books that have been published on the subject in the West. The book then moves onto some brief studies of the subject by British scholars in India and the briefest of analysis of the current descendants of the Assassins who reside in that country. The book then covers nothing more than the sensationalist stories of "The old man of the mountains" Who dispatched deadly assassins to murder political opponents and scholars alike. Whose movement struck fear into its enemies and was finally defeated by a similarly ruthless movement, the Mongols of Genghis and Hulagu Khans.
The book just fails miserably in studying just who exactly the Assassins were. There is simply not enough on the background of the movement. The Assassins where the spiritual descendants of the Egyptian Fatimid (who later better known as the Ismaili) movement who followed and esoteric version of Islam which did indeed produce some great scholars in medicine and science. They were part of a wider movement in Islam (Such as the Ikhwan as-Safa) who while small in number, had a wide influence on Islam both Shia and Sunni from all aspects from science to Sufism.
The Nizari Ismaili, as the Assassins were known religiously were followers of a strand of Islam Sunnis refer to as a 'ghulat' or 'extremist' sect. This should not be seen in the context of violently extreme but rather extreme in their distance from the beliefs of Sunni Islam (Much in the same way as Zaidi Shia are referred to by Sunnis as 'moderate Shia') Why has Lewis not examined this aspect? Why has Lewis not studied the strands of Islam, the origins of the Nizari and their religious and political development? When the Nizari strongholds were finally breached by the Mongols the Shia scholar Nasruddin Tusi remarked at the vast libraries found there (It is also mentioned that many of their books were subsequently burned) Lewis rather treats us to pictures of Nizari mountain castles and stories of mass drunken orgies in defiance of Islam.
Why was there no examination of Nizari influence on other Shia groups? The Alevis of Turkey share almost the exact same beliefs as the Nizaris, ethnically they are from the same geographical area, history notes that the Nizaris made converts amongst the Turkomans and that Turkoman tribes were brought in bondage and then freed in Anatolia by Timur Khan. Was this too sensitive a subject to examine for a man who propagates Turkey as the beacon of democracy in the Middle East?
Lewis may even look to ibn Al-Athir (all be it briefly) for historical information on the Nizaris but keep in mind, he was a Sunni civil servant and had no love for the Nizaris and also keep in mind that his history book ran into volumes. Just how much of it do you think was taken up by a group that for Sunnis formed but a blip in history?
And lets examine the Nizari practice of assassination. First of all they were not "The first Islamic terror group" as some have written. Secondly they did not "Invent the art of assassination" The Greeks and Persians practiced it. Jewish groups in the Jewish revolts practiced it. The Caliph Ali, Hassan and Hussain were assassinated. Was this the be all and end all of their beliefs or rather was this the reaction of a minority group against a large opponent (both Abbasid and Crusader) who would easily and happily crush them given the chance? Was it just random assassinations or rather just to silence opponents (Such as the threat against the Sunni scholar Fakr al-Din Razi)? This is in sharp contrast to Al-Qaidi whose methods are to "Liberate the Muslim world" etc....
An entirely missed opportunity with far more faults that could be brought out but frankly too numerous to mention.
Read the books of Schimmel, Nasr, Corbin and Chodkiewicz. All of whom have examined the beliefs and practices of the Ismaili Muslims. If you want a bit of shock, horror, first terrorists in......., lets get these wackos..... then this may be the book for you.