Mystical Assassinations

By Faisal DevjiFebruary 2, 2015

Mystical Assassinations

IN THE ENGLISH LANGUAGE, assassination is a deed first done by Macbeth. The word appears in Shakespeare’s tragedy early in the 17th century, at the same time that related words like “assassin” and “assassinate” enter into the language. Macbeth speaks of assassination once only; the term is never used again by Shakespeare, and this unique utterance is full of significance. It occurs in the famous soliloquy where Macbeth thinks over his decision to kill the king:

If it were done when ’tis done, then ’twere well
It were done quickly: if th’ assassination
Could trammel up the consequence, and catch
With his surcease success; that but this blow
Might be the be-all and end-all here,
But here, upon this bank and shoal of time,
We’d jump the life to come.

Even while wishing Duncan’s assassination to be without consequence, Macbeth realizes that one of its repercussions would be to forsake the life to come. This otherworldly threat is immediately joined by a more prosaic conclusion: that the king’s murder must end in Macbeth’s own, by setting a precedent for it:

But in these cases
We still have judgement here; that we but teach
Bloody instructions, which, being taught, return
To plague the inventor: this even-handed justice
Commends the ingredients of our poison’d chalice
To our own lips.

Since the assassination is also an act of suicide, in this world as well as in the next, why does Macbeth resolve upon it? Shakespeare’s hero tries throughout the play to separate his acts from their consequences, attempting in this way to begin history anew. It is this heroic effort that makes his failure so tragic. Even when he knows that death is certain, Macbeth fights desperately with his killer, defying fate itself in a vindication of the human spirit. But this defiance is also inhuman, since it has gambled Macbeth’s humanity away from the very beginning, with Duncan’s assassination. Here is where the word displays its peculiar significance — for, unlike the many murders of Shakespeare’s plays, Duncan’s assassination is, strictly speaking, inhuman, being an act born neither of a carnal nor a moral passion. Indeed, Macbeth finds it difficult to muster any sort of passion for it, closing his soliloquy with the following words:

I have no spur
To prick the sides of my intent, but only
Vaulting ambition, which o’erleaps itself
And falls on the other.

If the false and futile ambition of which Macbeth speaks betrays no hint of carnal passion, Coleridge had already pointed out in the 19th century that, of all Shakespeare’s tragedies, this was also the only one lacking in the “reasonings of equivocal morality.” In other words, Macbeth did not even try to convince himself of the assassination’s moral necessity, let alone convince his audience of any such thing. It is in the void created by this extraordinary absence of desire that the play’s supernatural elements achieve meaning. For the witches who prophesy Macbeth’s kingship provide the only motive he has, such that Duncan’s murder becomes the fulfilment of some fatal destiny. It is as if Macbeth kills the king out of a sense of duty, in order to follow the witches’ logic through to its end.

The supernatural elements of Shakespeare’s tragedy draw our attention to the strangeness of Macbeth’s act, which cannot be explained in the usual way, by either a carnal or indeed moral desire. And it is the strangeness of this dutiful, logical, as well as suicidal, action that I think is refered to by the word “assassination.” Even at its first appearance, therefore, we see the term used in its modern sense, to describe a new kind of act that can no longer be linked to the classical passions. Unlike our own careless use of the word, Shakespeare dwells upon its strangeness; for apart from being a new term, “assassination” also names a new practice. This new practice is politics itself, as something separated for the first time from ethics and religion, within whose bounds the old passions had assumed their significance. Assassination is clearly a political act in this new sense, since it cannot be confined to the carnal or moral passions of old, but represents another kind of practice altogether.

A Crime Without Passion

It is no accident, perhaps, that words like “assassin” and “assassination” come into English early in the 17th century, the very time when politics itself becomes a distinct and autonomous practice. The autonomy of this practice was defined by writers such as Machiavelli, whose apparently amoral espousal precisely of acts like assassination scandalized the Europe of his day. While politics, then, can certainly be ethical or religious, and might include carnal as well as moral desires, it cannot be confined to any of these because it has come to possess a conceptual and institutional life of its own. For whatever else it might be, politics is first of all the practice of power. Our own familiarity with the autonomy of politics, however, often blinds us to the strangeness of its acts, something that was evident enough to Shakespeare when he described Duncan’s assassination as a most paradoxical thing.

Macbeth is the most political of Shakespeare’s heroes because he kills his king not out of hatred, envy, or even ambition, but to gain power for its own sake. He pursues this abstract aim like a somnambulist, following the logic of politics, in its purest form, to a tragic end. And doesn’t such a tragedy in fact belong to the essence of politics? By abandoning religion or ethics, after all, politics as an autonomous practice is thrown back upon itself to become a pursuit of power that is so pure as to be suicidal. At its purest, politics becomes the reverse of what it is meant to be: not the rational pursuit of some aim, but the sacrifice of everyone and everything in the service of a phantasm. The fact that both Macbeth and his queen end as suicides represents not the failure of their politics, but its success.

The words “assassin” and “assassination” come to us from the Crusades and refer to a heretical Muslim sect that the Christians encountered in Syria. These Assassins, who sometimes fought alongside and sometimes against Crusader forces, were feared throughout the Islamic East for murdering important enemies in the most spectacular and public ways, their daggers suddenly drawn from innocent disguises. Not the least fearsome part of this bloody theater was the calmly awaited death of the killers themselves. For the Crusaders these men seemed to unite opposites: on the one hand, their sacrifice displayed religious fidelity; on the other, their murders could only signal atheism. Whatever fabulous elements were added over time to the story of the Assassins, this union of opposites remained fundamental to their character. They could thus be pious and licentious at the same time, enslaved by religious authority, but also free of it.

By the time we get to Shakespeare, of course, the assassin’s paradoxical union of opposites has assumed an explicitly political character, his murderousness simultaneously rational and irrational. And if the tragedy has completely internalized the figure and the designation of the assassin, no longer requiring a Muslim to play this role, it by no means repudiates its Levantine genealogy. The play thus mentions Turks and Tartars as well as the East, Arabia, and even Aleppo, a site associated with the Assassins in Crusader chronicles. Do the daggers, murders, and suicides of Macbeth and his lady have any connection with this Islamic genealogy? Is it possible that these Assassins represent the secret history not of Shakespeare’s play so much as of politics itself? Given the remarkable popularity of the Assassin legend down the centuries, and indeed into our own day, such a conclusion is not unwarranted.

Since this small sect posed no significant threat to medieval Christians in the Holy Land, what made the Assassins so important? We should look for an answer not in the historical reality of the Assassins, but in the role they have played in the European imagination. The more mythical their story becomes, the more truth of a philosophical kind do the Assassins hold. The Assassin myth continues to fascinate not because it’s a good story, but because its lengthy pedigree contains some degree of truth. And like all myths, this truth is invariably about oneself. It is why the Assassins were very quickly assimilated into Christendom, standing in for lovers or mistresses in troubadour poetry, or for more comic forms of sexual rivalry in the work of Renaissance writers like Boccaccio.

The elements that make up the Assassin myth have remained remarkably stable over the centuries. There is, first of all, the Assassin leader, known as the Old Man of the Mountain, who lives in a distant and inaccessible castle. Then, there is the artificial paradise hidden within this castle, replete with gardens, palaces, and beautiful maidens, to which young men are brought after being drugged with hashish. It is from this drug that the name Assassin is said to derive. Finally, there are the killers themselves, the young men, who have been promised another visit to paradise if only they will murder at the Old Man’s command. While not all of these elements come together at the same time, they have kept company with each other since Marco Polo’s influential redaction of the myth late in the thirteenth century. Of course, these elements were not combined arbitrarily: even those like the artificial paradise and hashish, which have no basis in history, might still possess a certain philosophical truth.

The important point to note is that, despite appearances, the Assassin myth has never functioned merely to provide an explanation for acts of sacrificial murder. Indeed, the question we should ask is how such a legend could ever have been taken seriously in the first place. And in fact it was not, since the story’s rather crude explanation of sacrifice does not seem to have deterred writers from returning to its paradoxes over and over again. More than providing Europe with stories of oriental intrigue and Asiatic violence, the Assassins represent a way of thinking about politics as a union of opposites. Whether it is the distinction between religion and atheism, the rational and the irrational, or servitude and freedom, the Assassins collapse them all. The paradox of their sacrifice is the purification of politics to such an extent as to go beyond instrumentality, seen as a means to achieve something else, and thus beyond the political itself as a structure of causality.

The Paradox in Persia

If the Assassin myth came into Christian Europe by way of Crusading activity in Syria, its Muslim version was tied firmly to the Assassin castles of Iran. The chief of these, called Alamūt, or “the Eagle’s Nest,” served as the center of Assassin authority for some 160 years, between the 11th and 13th centuries. It was Marco Polo who reunited the Iranian portion of Assassin history with the Syrian one, which had until then held sway in Christendom. He brought both the history and the myth of the Persian Assassins back with him from the Caspian hinterland where Alamut had once stood, having been destroyed by the Mongols in 1256 along with much of the Islamic East. It was from here that the stories of hashish and the artificial paradise came, though they are not much in evidence in Muslim sources.

Alamūt, a fortress so impregnable that it was never taken in battle, became the center of Assassin activity in 1090. Properly known as the Ismailis, or rather as the Nizari branch of the Ismailis, this sect took its name from that line of Muhammad’s family that went through his descendants Ismail and Nizar in the sixth and 19th generations, respectively. The complicated political and doctrinal disputes that led the Assassins to follow this particular genealogy of the Prophet’s successors need not detain us here. It is enough to know that the Ismailis were among the most radical of the many Shia groups that upheld the legitimacy of the House of Muhammad against the Sunni dynasties that had succeeded to the caliphate after his death. So for two centuries, until the Assassins began their extraordinary career, an Ismaili dynasty named after the Prophet’s daughter Fatima had challenged the Sunni caliphs of Baghdad with a caliphate of their own, based in Cairo.

Not long before the final collapse of the Fatimids, an Iranian who had been appointed to lead their religious propaganda in his homeland broke away from Egypt to found a rival Ismaili sect. This man was called Hasan-i Sabbah, and the group he led claimed to follow the Egyptian prince Nizar, who had been designated to succeed the caliph his father as imam, or religious leader, of the Ismailis. Since Nizar had been deprived of his inheritance by his brother and killed in prison, Hasan founded his legitimist sect in the name of an invisible imam. While the turbulent history of the Assassins is intriguing, let me repeat that more important by far is the myth they gave rise to. Such a myth, of course, has not survived as mere prejudice, and certainly not as prejudice against a group that disappeared nearly 700 years ago. It lives on because it represents a truth of some kind, one that cannot be confined to the Assassins themselves, but which was embodied in their history.

This Shia sect and its Sunni critics both agreed that what was important about the Assassins was the idea they upheld. And it is indeed this idea with which their polemics were concerned. For our purposes, the idea can be summed up in a paradox: namely, that absolute freedom and absolute servitude are always found together, even to the extent that one entails the other. On the one hand, the Ismailis promised freedom to all those who acknowledged their imam, who in turn could, either spiritually or in everyday life, release believers from the outward law and observance of Islam. Their Sunni critics, on the other hand, saw in this obedience to the imam an ill-conceived attempt to abandon or even destroy the law that held a whole religion and a great empire together. For when one of Hasan-i Sabbah’s successors, also named Hasan, proclaimed himself the awaited imam in Alamūt, he did so only to abolish the religious law by declaring the arrival of a resurrection without apocalypse.

Among some of the Crusaders, as well as in the work of a number of modern scholars, the Assassins were important enough to be dignified by comparisons with Christianity. So their antinomian religion and devotion to a human being were taken as equivalent to Christ’s abolition of the law in himself. The fact that the Assassins themselves made much use of figures such as Jesus, Peter, and John the Baptist, in addition to the rumors of their drinking wine and consuming pork, also led Crusader historians to hope for the sect’s speedy conversion. Even when the Assassins were, much later, compared to Christian heretics, as Marco Polo does by describing them as Cathars, they represented some lost form of the True Faith. From the 18th century, European writers linked the Assassins with the emergence of secret societies like the Templars, Freemasons, Illuminati, and Rosicrucians. The 19th-century French poet Gerard de Nerval was not alone in drawing a line between the Assassins and the Terror of the French Revolution, while in the 20th William S. Burroughs repeatedly proclaimed what he thought was Hasan-i Sabbah’s testament: nothing is true; everything is permitted.

The sect’s Muslim critics also compared them to Christians, Jews, Zoroastrians, and other religious communities, and even today they make Ismailism out to be a plot by one of these groups to destroy Islam from within. But for such Muslims the antinomian nature of Assassin religion appeared to signify not a spiritualist or transcendentalist heresy so much as a materialist one. Not only did the Assassins question the religious law and interpret doctrines like that of the resurrection in symbolic terms, but their devotion to a human leader meant that they wrestled the spiritual itself down to the material. It was as if this collapse of the transcendent into the immanent brought to light the essential humanism that characterized the anthropocentric doctrine of the imam as well as of the Christ. This, at least, is what those Muslims hostile to the Assassins seemed to think when they condemned the sect precisely for its materialism and even atheism. And in doing so, perhaps, they set the stage for the kind of politics that Shakespeare would come to associate with the sect.

In some ways the witches in Macbeth play a role similar to that of the Ismaili imam in the Sunni imagination, both serving to lend occult significance to a purely human realm of absolute immanence. For rather than being dominated by desires and passions defined either by their worldly or even transcendental motives, the suicidal actions of both Scotsman and Assassin appear to be driven by nothing apart from the will itself. Indeed, these witches and imams serve not as impostors or deceivers so much as figures of tautology, saying that something will be because it will be. They utter a kind of self-fulfilling prophecy that is tautological, because it cannot propose some external cause or motivation for the political act apart from itself. But in doing so they also represent a politics whose purity destroys all commonplace rationality to become self-destructive. And this was something no religion could ever do.  


Faisal Devji is a reader in modern South Asian history at the University of Oxford and a fellow of St. Antony’s College.

LARB Contributor

Faisal Devji is professor of Indian History and fellow of St. Antony’s College at the University of Oxford. He is the author of The Impossible Indian: Gandhi and the Temptation of Violence (Harvard University Press, 2012) and Muslim Zion: Pakistan as a Political Idea (Harvard University Press, 2013).


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