Note: There might be few spoilers in this post!
Last week I finally finished reading Valdimir Bartol’s and Slovenia’s most well-known literary work: the novel of Alamut. As I mentioned in my previous post, the novel is based on the historical legend of the Assassins: the radical Muslim sect that terrorized in the 12th and 13th centuries the Crusaders and local Muslims rulers in Iran and Syria with their assassinating daggers. According to the legend, Hasan al-Sabbah—the sect’s founder, ideologue, and military commander—used hashish to trick his would-be assassins to believe that he held the keys to Paradise, which transformed them into blind followers willing to embrace death instantly and unconditionally. The novel, however, is not limited to themes of murder, sexual lust, and religious manipulation. It is also an intellectual work that delves deeply into human beings’ conflicting quests for faith and doubt; for meaning and knowledge; for power and morality. Bartol draws on his knowledge of various currents of thought ranging from the philosophies of ancient Greece, through Nietzsche and Freud, to totalitarianism.
My first impression of the novel is that it has clearly been written for a European audience that is totally ignorant not only of the Assassins, but of all sectarian divisions within Islam, including the major Sunni-Shi’i divide. This is hardly surprising given the context of its writing—Alamut was published few months before the outbreak of WWII in Slovene, the speakers of which at the time, I guess, were not familiar at all with Nizari Ismailism and legends about them (see my previous post to know how Nizari Ismailis came to be known as the Assassins in Europe). Bartol indeed learned about the Assassins during his studies in Paris and spent 10 years doing extensive research about Ismailism before completing his novel in 1938. Thus throughout its first half—in-between scenes of playful maidens exchanging physical affection and jealous looks in the secret gardens behind the castle of Alamut and scenes of manly competitions between the would-be assassins during their tough training in the castle—the writer throws some detailed explanations of Ismaili thought and intra-Islamic schisms. The informed reader may not find these explanations particularly entertaining—sometimes not even accurate—but that should not discourage them from continuing to read through the second half, for there lies the main substance of the work. For the un-informed reader of Islamic and Ismaili history, however, the first half can be much more exciting, for he or she would be discovering a mysterious world that is arousing their curiosity.
“Nothing is True”
The philosophical themes of the novel start when Hasan al-Sabbah, known as Sayyiduna (our master) to his followers, narrates to his most senior assistants his personal journey of self-discovery. It began during his youthful years when he was searching for religious truth leading him eventually to convert to Ismailism from his native Shi’i Twelver faith. However, after his initiation into Ismailism, he found out that the external (exoteric) Ismaili faith is nothing but a bait to rally the Persian masses against the Sunni Turkish rulers of Iran (the Seljuks). In essence, Ismailism, Hasan learned, was a pure rationalist philosophy with no beliefs in any metaphysical or divine reality. Indeed, Ismailis believed in no truth whatsoever, or, to put it more precisely, they believed that objective truth is unknowable, because our senses—our means to reach the truth—can be deceiving. Of course, Ismailism in reality is totally different from this account, but this is how it is portrayed in Alamut.
“Everything is Permitted”
This epistemological skepticism lays the ground for the second fundamental doctrine of esoteric Ismaili thought: moral skepticism. When all our perceptions of the world are delusional, no perception can be “truer” than the other one. Therefore it depends entirely on one’s perception of the matter. If one believes that he truly visited Paradise and enjoyed its delights and that after death he would return there again for sure, what is “immoral” about sending him in a suicidal assassination mission? His happiness when carrying out his mission is no less “real” and “genuine” than any feeling of pity toward his “foolish” act. For Hasan, then, “Nothing is True and Everything is Permitted,” which became the supreme Ismaili maxim that is revealed only to the most senior initiates.
Hasan al-Sabbah, nevertheless, is not a person without morality, but rather the master and creator of his own morality. On the one hand, he was able to release himself from all given values and norms, religious or human, acting freely without them. He was even, albeit uneasily, able to transcend his love for his mistress Meriam by offering her to the entertainment of one of his fidayeen in the alleged Paradise. (The Ismaili assassination corps were known as the fidayeen, which means literally “self-sacrificers.” Interestingly, the same name was used by Arabs to refer to Palestinian guerilla fighters against Israeli occupation.) On the other hand, Hasan was able to construct his own system of morality and be utterly faithful to it. He wrote the Ismaili law code himself and implemented it literally to the extent he executed his own son for disobedience and treachery. In this way Hasan can be seen as an example of Nietzsche’s Übermensch (superhuman).
One of the merits of this novel is that all of its characters are very complex and human in their behavior or thinking. The fidayeen are not monolithic fanatics carrying out the commands of their invincible evil master after falling under the spell of hashish and his hierodules (sacred whores). Almost all characters in the novel had their moments of despair, doubt, and weakness. One of the fidayeen manages to trick Hasan al-Sabbah and discovers the truth about the gardens, whereas a young maiden falls in love with one of the fidayeen and kills herself after she discovers that she is never to see him again. Hasan al-Sabbah himself—notwithstanding his hyper-rationalism, independence, and power—is never completely free of human fragility. He appears tormented by his realization of the pure materialism and godlessness of the world. He feels like his “first love” had disappeared and that beauty had vanished forever from the world.
Hasan ultimately contends that the only way to live with this “double-edged wisdom,” i.e. skepticism, is to stop thinking about the otherworld leaving it behind to the masses and focus exclusively on this world. Hasan al-Sabbah hence commits himself to the pursuit of knowledge and power over the human race, aspiring thereby to become the “Allah” of this world. Again this is a very Nietzschean line of reasoning, as can be seen in the famous “God is Dead” passage:
“God is dead. God remains dead. And we have killed him. Yet his shadow still looms. How shall we comfort ourselves, the murderers of all murderers? What was holiest and mightiest of all that the world has yet owned has bled to death under our knives: who will wipe this blood off us? What water is there for us to clean ourselves? What festivals of atonement, what sacred games shall we have to invent? Is not the greatness of this deed too great for us? Must we ourselves not become gods simply to appear worthy of it?”
The Gay Science, Section 125, tr. Walter Kaufmann (emphasis added)
There is something paradoxical and highly ambiguous about the personality of Hasan al-Sabbah. On the one hand, he has gained absolute mastery not only over his followers, but also over his own self and mind. But, on the other hand, Hasan at the end of the novel locks himself in his tower never leaving it for the rest of his life. Bartol, two decades after Alamut was first published, wrote that “in all his grim knowledge, Hasan is unhappy and alone in the universe.” Albeit Bartol’s opinion, I tend to see Hasan’s final act differently. It seems to me like the moment of Hasan’s ultimate triumph—his nirvana or emancipation from the human world to which he once belonged.
There is a lot more to say about the novel and its characters. For example, Hasan’s hyper-rationality and manipulation of religion as a means of political and military mobilization may reflect how fascist and communist regimes in Europe between the two World Wars employed rationality and ideology for the purpose of systematic domination and destruction. However, I would limit myself at the end of this post, as I did in my previous posts, to drawing parallels between the subject of the post and some item of contemporary pop culture. This time I choose the film The Matrix and put it side by side with Alamut.
Alamut and The Matrix
The parallels between the narratives of The Matrix and Alamut are plenty on various levels. Philosophically, both of them deal with questions about the nature of reality, the value of truth, and how to know it. Thematically, each of the two stories revolves around a revolution taking place against an oppressive regime. There are, moreover, parallels between the characters of the two stories. Morpheus in The Matrix, like Hasan al-Sabbah in Alamut, is the ideologue and the charismatic leader of the revolution. Each one of them creates an elaborate system of organization, initiation, and training, taking great pains to explain and educate his carefully chosen recruits about the ideology he upholds. However, in spite of these similarities, their philosophical positions are exactly the anti-thesis of each other. Whereas Morpheus is a realist (one who believes in the existence of objective truth and the moral value of embracing it) fighting to destroy The Matrix— the simulated reality generated by the machines to deceive humans—Hasan al-Sabbah is an anti-realist who created his own “simulated reality” to deceive his followers. In this respect, Hasan might be close to The Architect: the computer program that designed The Matrix, which appears personified in the two sequels for The Matrix.
The character of Morpheus in The Matrix is overshadowed later by Neo: the young man whom Morpheus believes to be the savior of humankind from the slavery of machines. Alamut does indeed contain a Neo-like character, a fiday named Ibn Taher, but this character remains secondary to Hasan al-Sabbah, although the novel hints that Ibn Taher has an important role to play in the future of the Assassins order. Each one of them, Neo and Ibn Taher, undergoes some kind of a hero cycle during which he answers a calling and experiences transformation through symbolic death and rebirth.
The relationship between Ibn Taher and Hasan was not simply a master-student relationship like that between Neo and Morpheus, but more complex. Ibn Taher carries Hasan’s order to assassinate Nizam al-Mulk—the Seljuk vizier and Hasan’s former friend and archenemy—but Nizam, before his death, exposes the ploy to which Ibn Taher fell victim and forgives him. Ibn Taher consequently avows to take revenge on Hasan, but the latter with his sharp mind contains Ibn Taher’s rage when he comes to kill him and introduces him to his skeptical philosophy. He tells him that when he believed in Sayyiduna as the Prophet of God, he was in Heaven; but now, having renounced his faith, he descends into Hell. It is only, Hasan teaches him, when one stands on al-Araf (the wall separating Heaven and Hell) that he is able to transcend good and evil; reality and fantasy; love and hate. Hasan then releases Ibn Taher, who becomes now Avani—a student pursuing knowledge, experience, and adventure, aspiring to climb up to the summit of al-Araf. If Morpheus gave Neo the choice between the red pill (reality) and the blue pill (illusion), Hasan gave Ibn Taher first the blue pill, and then later the red pill.
Overall I think Alamut is at once an entertaining and thought provoking novel. It is a fantastical world that is populated only with human beings without the need for wizards, fairies, angels, demons or any other magical creatures; and also an intellectual work that is worthy of careful consideration.