Merchants of religion and the Garden of the Assassins

Merchants of religion and the Garden of the Assassins

4 min read
07 Aug, 2015
The religious extremists of today are a throwback to Alamut and modern Islamic scholars must work hard to counter the jihadists' abuse of history, argues Helmi al-Asmar

IS forces bombard Kobane, in the Aleppo Governorate in northern Syria [Getty]

The 12th century Muslim philosopher and theologian Ibn Rushd, Averroes, wrote "The political trade in religions thrives in societies where ignorance is widespread, and if you want to control the ignorant, you must cover every falsehood in religious guise".

While this trade comes in different forms, the most dangerous is when you blindly take part under the belief that you are gaining proximity to God, when in reality you are serving the merchants of religion by increasing their profits and boosting their trade.

Milk and Honey

     If you want to control the ignorant, you must cover every falsehood in religious guise

I am reminded of Marco Polo’s description of the Alamut Castle in Iran, the stronghold of the Nizari Ismaili sect from 1090-1256, who came to be known as the Hashshashin, the Assassins.

His description tells of a luscious garden filled with all sorts of fruits, where fresh water, wine, milk and honey flowed in streams, with entertainment provided by the most seductive dancers.

The garden, created by the sect's mysterious leader – "Old Man of the Mountain", Marco Polo called him – was used to instill certainty of the existence of paradise in the hearts of the young men trained as Assassins.

The men would be drugged and taken to the garden, where they would fulfill all their desires until the time came for them to be sent on a mission. Then they would be drugged again and taken out of the garden, which they believed was paradise.

And having experienced paradise, the young Assassins were inspired to succeed in their religiously ordained missions; they had no fear of death because they knew what awaited them there.

This is how the Assassins ensured the devotion of their men through the administration of drugs and the exploitation of their simple piety.

It is very likely that Marco Polo’s descriptions were a figment of his imagination – Alamut Castle was destroyed while he was about two years old. Nonetheless, the story serves as a frightening picture of those who believe that they are becoming closer to God by killing people, Muslims or otherwise.

Modern Day Assassins

To become an Assassin of this sort does not necessarily require a person to consume narcotic drugs. One can enter an intellectual coma due to being brainwashed, and so commit the most vile and vicious crimes while feeling elated.

Alamut Castle and the Old Man of the Mountain exist not only in the writings of Marco Polo – every age and place has its own equivalent, controlling people’s minds.

How else can we explain people executing a young man with a rocket-propelled grenade, or burning someone alive without so much as flinching, in the belief that they are getting closer to God?

How else can we explain the severing of people’s heads as if they were sheep, or declaring the population of an entire city or country as permissible targets for murder because they did not pledge allegiance to a certain group’s "Emir"?

The most dangerous manifestation of modern Assassin culture is how religious minorities which are considered to be outside the fold of Islam are dealt with.

Modern day Assassins and merchants of religion utilise historical religious edits issued by notable Muslim scholars against various minorities - condemnations to death and servitude are not only the preserve of the so-called Islamic State.

Old Sunni Islamic law books are full of such condemnations against various sects, but when I spent time searching for the opinions of modern jurists which would treat minorities as equal citizens, I failed to find any.

This is despite the fact that Arab states' constitutions grant people the freedom to believe what they want or change their belief.

Modern scholars of religion have a duty to create modern and flexible laws that suit the modern age, especially since jihadist groups use historical edicts that condemn certain sects, which were issued in a specific context to justify their current brutality against them.

They need to stop the malicious trade in religion that could do away with the last remaining elements of stability and security in Arab societies.

This article is an edited translation from our Arabic edition.

Helmi Al-Asmar is a writer and journalist from Jordan.

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of al-Araby al-Jadeed, its editorial board or staff.