The Assassins. A Radical Sect in Islam by Bernard Lewis

The Assassins

The Assassins or Ismailis were a fascinating, enigmatic people that used assassination, and the fear of it, as a political weapon. Their influence was felt throughout the Islamic world for 2 centuries and in the 13th century extended as far as Karakorum, the capital of the Mongol empire. The Mongols targeted them for destruction in 1256 and within a year they were eradicated.

I’ve been curious about the Assassins for some time, largely because the Mongols were so systematic in the way they set about destroying them. This book is one of the few books on the subject written by a scholar that is currently in print. The first few chapters explain how Europe gradually came to understand who the Assassins were. Lewis does a good job of explaining how layers of misinformation and second hand, often biased, reports were gradually stripped away as contemporary texts, sometimes written by the Assassins themselves, were discovered and translated.

The middle chapters of the book are a monotonous recitation of dates, names, places, and events with little analysis or explanation. This type of history I find unbearable it is data but it is not information! I have heard that Lewis’s other book What went wrong is similarly unreadable. I could understand this approach if the book were liberally scattered with footnotes and references to source documents, it would at least be useful to historians if this were the case. But it is not, Lewis expects us to take his history largely on faith since he provides few ways to validate his claims.

If you manage to survive the boredom of the middle chapters and reach the final chapter Lewis provides a brief analysis of the Assassins place in history their methods and goals. Unfortunately by this point he’d lost my interest.

In general I find Lewis’s analysis unconvincing. I must confess I do not know this period of History, which is why I bought the book, but there were a few occasions when Lewis drew parallels with events I do have some knowledge of and this was enough to destroy my faith in the breadth of his knowledge and the quality of his analysis. A few examples:

Page 129
In one respect the Assassins are without precedent – in the planned, systematic and log term use of terror as a political weapon. The stranglers of Iraq had been small-scale and random practitioners, rather like the thugs of India, with whom they may be connected.

The Thugs were an Indian cult that worshipped the goddess of destruction, Kali. They allegedly strangled more than one million travelers. Hardly “small scale and random”! Even if you believe, as some people do, that the thug threat was exaggerated by the British for political purposes, it is still a bad example precisely because of the confusion.

Page 91
The Ismailis in their castles might well have been in a position to offer sustained resistance to Mongol attacks – but the new Imam decided otherwise.

I find this hard to believe. If the Assassins had been able to resist the Mongols they would have been unique. No one in China, Korea, Russia or Europe managed to offer “significant resistance” to the Mongols. If the Assassins were different Lewis does not explain why. Within a year the Mongols had not only beaten the Assassins they had eradicated them.

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  • Alder Yarrow

    Interesting to learn that our terms assassin and thug come from established ethnic or cultural groups — that’s something I never knew. I’d be interested to know what other words we have and the cultural groups they are derived from. Who were the Bozos, for instance, and why did their nomadic lifestyle end up connoting ignorance. Not to mention the nincompoops….

    Regardless, I’m happy to know that this is a book I don’t need to read, however compelling the history is surrounding this death cult.

  • Natalya

    I must disagree with your degrading of Lewis’ book. You are apparently an ‘expert’ on things other than the Assassins, but who is to say that you are right one and Lewis is the one who is wrong? The fact that he has written many books on the subject and you have written none leads me to believe that perhaps he may know a bit more than you on the topic.