When I started this blog, I didn’t mean to write exclusively about God, Nietzsche and the relationship between religion and reason. However, somehow this topic is coming again and again to me even when I don’t mean to approach it. Currently I’m reading the most popular work of modern Slovenian literature (according to Wikipedia): Vladimir Bartol’s novel Alamut. The novel is based on the orientalist legend of the Assassins; a radical Muslim sect that terrorized with their assassinations the Crusaders and local Muslim rulers in many parts of the Middle East throughout the 12th and 13th centuries.
The Assassins is the name given by Crusaders and some European travelers to the Nizari Ismaili sect, whose followers controlled a network of strongly fortified citadels and fortresses in Syria and Iran. They did not have an army in the proper sense of the word due to their small numbers and dispersion, but they trained special units of assassins, who could assassinate any king, prince, or military commander that dared to attack them or challenge their power. You may now intuitively think it’s no wonder they acquired the name Assassins; it is simply because they assassinated many people. The truth, however, is the other way around: The word assassinate in English and its etymological equivalents in other European languages are actually derived from their name, which is in turn derived from the Arabic word hashashin (“hashish users”). Their Muslim neighbors probably used the name only abusively meaning something like “bandits” or “pariahs” without accusing them seriously of adopting the practice of taking hashish. However, with the orientalist fantasies of European travelers the term became the source of an infamous legend of sexual lust, religious murder, and deception.
The legend was first recorded by Italian traveler Marco Polo, who visited the ruins of the headquarters of the Assassins, the Iranian castle Alamut (Persian for “Eagle’s Nest”), about one century after its destruction at the hands of the Mongols. The legend says that Hasan al-Sabbah—the supreme commander of the Assassins, who became known as Old Man of the Mountain for Europeans—created a beautiful garden full of lustful young maidens, wine, and other pleasures, so that it resembled Paradise as described in the Qur’an. He claimed to his would-be assassins that he owned the keys to Paradise. In order to convince them of his claims, he drugged them with hashish until they are unconscious and then brought them inside his magical garden to taste “specimens” of the delights of Paradise. He promised them that if they carried out their tasks, they would re-enter Paradise and enjoy its pleasures for eternity, as promised in the Qur’an for martyrs for the cause of Islam. This illusion of visiting Heaven allegedly created extraordinary zeal in the future assassins to undertake their suicidal missions. The assassinations were usually carried out in public places in the heart of enemy territory or camps in order to install fear and terror in the heart of any potential challenger or aggressor, which meant effectively that the assassins most certainly faced horrible deaths.
Historians have proved conclusively that this is a mere European fantasy without any historical basis. The subject of the novel, however, is not the history of the Assassins, but their legend. Therefore, when reading the novel I had to put aside any meticulous historical investigation I have ever read about the Assassins and surrender my skeptical mind to European fantasies, which is fair enough for me as far as literature is concerned. Now, the question that you may ask, given my introductory sentences in this post: Where does Nietzsche fit here?
The legendary tales of the Assassins actually have not only inspired fiction writers (and video games developers as well—see below), but also Nietzsche, who often found inspiration in mythology and folk tales. He praised the Assassins in his book The Genealogy of Morality (see section 24 here) as an example of free-spirited men, because, Nietzsche contended, they “emancipated” themselves from the very belief in the value of truth, and hence they were able to transcend the “oppressive” framework of Judeo-Christian morality. He summed up the philosophy of the Assassins in their supposed motto: Nothing is true – Everything is permitted. I’m not sure where this motto originated from: Did Nietzsche himself make it up or had it already been attributed to the Assassins in polemical writings against them? I would not be surprised if the second possibility tuned out to be true, because the Ismaili sect, which had been known for its secrecy and for employing an elaborate system of initiation into several spiritual ranks, was accused by its medieval detractors of being atheism disguised in religion; that is, religion was only a bait to recruit followers who were then gradually brainwashed until they reached the final stage of utter denial of all moral norms and objective truths (nihilism).
I don’t want to make my post very long, so I guess I would not delve now into Bartol’s exciting novel. The novel is a big thick book of nearly 400 pages and I have not anyway finished reading it yet. So I shall leave it for a future post, in which I hope to briefly summarize how the novel presented and explained the Assassins’ alleged maxim of Nothing is True – Everything is permitted, and the connection between its two parts; how renouncing belief in truth can lead one to rejecting all inherited systems of morality and creating their own, becoming thereby Nietzsche’s Superhuman; how “killing” God in Heaven is resolved only by becoming a god on Earth. The novel has turned up to be full of Nietzschean themes; something that I didn’t particularly anticipate.
The impact of the legend of the Assassins on Western popular culture has been immense, as one can see in Wikipedia’s list of novels, songs, and films drawing on or inspired by this legend. As a conclusion for this post, I am going to present two of examples of these works. The first is a song called Assassins of Allah from British psychedelic rock band Hawkwind, who associate the Assassins’ “psychedelic” fantasies of heavenly delights with what they perceive as Islamic terrorism.
This song reminds us that the legend of the Assassins is still alive today in politics, where the social and political conditions that give birth to terrorist acts (suicide bombing in particular) are often obscured with shallow or reductionist explanations that attribute this kind of behavior to repressed desires longing for “free sex” in paradise. The other example is Assassin’s Creed; a series of very successful video games and franchise which are based on the novel Alamut itself. In this video clip from the one of the versions of the game, we see the main character, Altaïr ibn La’Ahad (Arabic for “the Flying One, Son of None”) professing the Assassins’ creed of Nothing is true – Everything is permitted to his master, the Old Man of the Mountain.
The game, as one can see from the following trailer, romanticizes the Assassins as noble men striving for peace in the Holy Lands by eliminating evil and corrupt kings.