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Islam and Sectarianism ( 21 May 2015, NewAgeIslam.Com)

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A Thousand Years of Persecution


By Natasha Shahid

 22 May 2015


“He [Rukn-ad-Din] and his followers were kicked to a pulp and then put to the sword; and of him and his stock no trace was left, and he and his kindred became but a tale on men’s lips and a tradition in the world. So was the world cleansed which had been polluted by their evil.”

So writes Ata Malik Juvaini (1226 AD – 1283 AD) about the fall of the last Nizari Isma’ili kingdom, led by Rukn-ad-Din Khurshah, at the hands of the Mongol conqueror, Hulegu. Juvaini, a Muslim by religion and Hulegu’s court historian, shows no shame in branding the Isma’ilis as “heretics” throughout his monumental work, Tarikh-i-Jahangusha-i-Juvaini (“History of the World Conqueror”): a hatred that is summarized perfectly in the excerpt given above.

Juvaini wasn’t alone. Izz ad-Din Ibn al-Athir (1160 AD – 1233 AD), the Arab composer of the al-Kamil f’il Tarikh (“The Complete History”) was equally indulgent in shaming the Isma’ilis, albeit in a slightly more subtle manner: he calls them an “affliction” that had struck the people of Isfahan (one of the first cities to have seen the Nizari Isma’ilis emerge); and whose curse was washed away only once “God Almighty” chose to humiliate them. And, of course, we know what the medieval Muslim chronicler must have thought of the sect if he felt it necessary to pit God against them.

Ata Malik Juvaini showed no shame in branding Isma’ilis as “heretics”

Another historian to bring the Isma’ilis and God face to face – instead of on the same side – is Baha ad-Din Ibn Shaddad (1147 AD – 1234 AD), the biographer of Salah-ad-Din Ayyubi, the great Muslim military commander. Ibn Shaddad writes that after the Isma’ilis attempted to assassinate Salah-ad-Din in 1176 AD, “God delivered him from their plots”. For the staunchly religious, there could be no worse insult.

We get an idea of the chroniclers’ opinion if they had to pit God against the sect

The Seljuks’ Sworn Enemies

tft-15-p-16-cThis textual slandering of the Isma’ilis should not come across as a surprise, for when these books were composed, the Muslim world was ruled by the Sunni Seljuks – the sworn enemies of the Nizari Isma’ilis. There were numerous occasions on which the Seljuks not only murdered the Nizari Isma’ilis, but positively massacred them.

Sultan Malik-Shah (d. 1092 AD) was one of the first to target the Nizari Ismai’ilis – insultingly called the “Hashshashin”, hashish smokers – sending his forces to Alamut (their first stronghold) to put the entire sect to the sword, in 1092 AD. In 1098 AD, Sultan Barkiyaruq’s Emir, Unur, also besieged “a fortress on the mountain in Isfahan”, possibly Shahdiz. Barkiyaruq (c. 1080 AD – 1105 AD) later – in the year 1100/01 AD – conducted targeted killings of some of the leaders of the ?ashsh?sh?n successfully. In the years 1117-18 AD, Sultan Muhammad I’s (c. 1082 AD – 1118 AD) atabeg, Nush-Tegin Shir-Gir was about to take Lammasar (another of the Isma’ilis castles in Iran’s Alborz mountain range) when he heard of the sultan’s death and had to abandon his siege.

However, the most brutal of these attacks came in the time of the Seljuk sultan Muhammad I, when he took the castle of Shahdiz in the year 1107 AD/ Shaban 500 AH. Chronicler Ibn al-Athir (Chronicle of Ibn al-Athir, tr. D.S. Richards, Part I) describes the attack:

“Most of the Batinis were slain. Some mingled with those who gained entrance and then left with them. However, Ibn Attash [the castle’s commander] was taken prisoner. He was left for a week and then orders were given for him to be paraded through the whole town. He was flayed and after surviving [a while] he died. His skin was stuffed with straw. His son was also killed and their heads were taken to Baghdad. His wife threw herself from the top of the castle and perished.”

Sound familiar?

The Million-Dollar Question: Why?

After reading about the level of violence that the Isma’ilis were subjected to in the earlier days of their existence – and even today – one can’t help but wonder what they did to deserve such brutal opposition. If the chronicles of the time are to be believed, the sect was positively loathed by the Muslim world. Even comparatively neutral writers, such as the Syrian Ibn al-Qalanisi, call them and their message “malicious” – for what?

Sultan Malik-Shah was one of the first to target the Nizari Ismai’ilis

The assumption that the Isma’ilis were persecuted simply because they were just another Shi’ite sect is most likely wrong. None of the medieval chroniclers shame the Twelvers – the Athna’ashariya – nearly as badly as the Seveners, the Isma’ilis. While the Athna’ashariya are treated more like the misled brother, the Isma’ilis are treated like the vile scum that is insulting their religion by pretending to be a part of it. So the abuse that the Isma’ilis generated wasn’t quite because of the old order in which the Shi’ites preferred to see the Rashidun and about the induction of the idea of Imamate into religion – it had to be something else.

The most probable cause of the hatred felt by Sunnis for Isma’ilis was the innovations introduced by them to the existing body of religion. During the time of Hasan bin Muhammad (1162 AD – 1166 AD), the first Nizari Isma’ili Imam, the Era of Resurrection was announced. The Imam declared that during this era, everything that was forbidden in the era of the Shari’ah was not only legal, but obligatory. Thus practices like drinking and adultery became common in the lands controlled by the Nizari Isma’ilis – something that naturally did not go down well with the Abbasids and Seljuks, or with some of the Nizaris. Juvaini reports that Hasan’s innovations caused many Nizari Isma’ilis to abandon their faith.

Nizari-Musta’li schism occurred after the death of al-Mustansir in 1094 AD

Later, during the reign of the third Nizari Imam, Jalal-ud-Din Hasan (1210 AD – 1221 AD), attempts were made to undo the damage done by Hasan bin Muhammad. Jalal-ud-Din Hasan, who was reportedly of a more conservative mind set, attempted to reintroduce the Shari’ah law to his subjects, and to improve his relationship with the Abbasids and the Seljuks. However, it took the-then Abbasid Caliph, Mohammad Khorazm-Shah’s attestation to let the Nizari Isma’ili Imam reconvert to the Muslim faith. Because, of course, they were not Muslims to begin with.

However, all of this happened after 1166 AD, the year of the Isma’ili Resurrection. The Nizari Isma’ili sect was in existence – and being persecuted – since 1090 AD.

Another possible explanation of them being targeted was perhaps the collective opposition that the rest of the Muslim sects felt towards them. It wasn’t just the Sunnis, the Isma’ili Fatimid Caliphate was not very friendly to their “brothers”, either. Juvaini, the most important surviving source that we have on the Nizari Isma’ilis, informs us that Hassan bin Sabbah (c. 1050 AD – 1124 AD), the founder of Nizari Isma’ilism, was exiled from Egypt when he went there to learn more about his faith (1078-9 AD). 15 years after his expulsion, the Nizari-Musta’li schism occurred: after the death of al-Mustansir in 1094 AD the Fatimids sided themselves with Musta’li, while Hassan insisted that the elder Nizari was deserving of the Fatimid throne. The cleavage between the two Isma’ili factions never recovered after that.

So with Sunnis believing the followers of the sect as “heretics” and fellow Isma’ilis compelled to disapprove of them for political reasons; and the Crusading Christians taking them as another part of the Muslim opposition and the irreligious Mongols seeing them as yet another hurdle between them and world domination and yet another center of learning that had to be burnt down – what else can one expect?

And things still haven’t changed much.

The abuse that Isma’ilis generated wasn’t because of the order in which the Shi’ites saw Rashidun

Isma’ilis Today

It’s been over a twelve-hundred years since the formation of the Isma’ili sect in 765 AD. On this millennium-long journey, the sect has seen many schisms of its own: the Musta’li Isma’ilis split up to form the Hafizis (now extinct) and the Bohras, while the Nizari Isma’ilis have evolved into what is now known as the Aga Khani sect, after their current Imam, the Aga Khan. Years may have passed on, but time hasn’t changed – not as far as the Isma’ilis are concerned.

The recent attack on the Ismai’ili community in Karachi that resulted in the deaths of 47 people successfully struck the inhabitants of this country awake – at least hopefully. Isma’ili persecution is as real as that of the rest of the Shi’ite community; hopefully that much is clear now. However, it is a pity, though, that people missed the lead-up to this calamity.

Barely two months before the attack of May 13, a bomb blast outside Saleh mosque – belonging to the Dawoodi Bohra community – in Karachi’s Aram Bagh on March 20, claimed the lives of two men. The bombing took place right after the Friday prayers. Nearly two years ago, in the city of Karachi, again, two religious schools of the Isma’ilis were bombed using hand grenades, killing 2 and injuring 28. Who was responsible for these attacks? ISIS, Taliban, Jundullah or RAW?

Isma’ili persecution is as real as that of the rest of the Shi’ite community

The hatred that led those six gunmen to claim the lives of 47 innocent people, or for those attackers to bomb peaceful citizens offering prayers, or those bombers blowing up those in the pursuit of knowledge – including women and children – did not develop in seconds, it took centuries. Those who say that terrorist organizations or “enemy countries” are conducting these attacks must first ask themselves if they, themselves, have it in them to embrace these communities as their brothers and sisters – even if the others do not. They must ask themselves if they are willing to not discriminate against people belonging to any religion, be it an Islamic sect or a different religion altogether. They must ask themselves if they can overlook petty differences and stand as one, not with Shi’ites, not with Isma’ilis, not with Christians – but with humanity. If they do not, then they and their thoughts are the fuel that monsters like ISIS are made of.

The sad part is that there are many in our midst who would think twice before answering these questions. But, of course, how can we accept the Isma’ilis and Shi’ites as Muslims when they do not regard the Rashidun as equal or believe in the existence of Imams? How can they be Muslims if they fold their arms differently while praying, and do not wear a green turban? How can they be Muslims if they have pray in a different mosque?

They cannot, since merely recognizing the existence of God and His Prophet (PBUH), offering prayers, giving alms and going for the pilgrimage was never enough for us.