The Islamic State has rightly horrified millions of people – both non-Muslim and Muslim. A trail of public executions, mass rapes, the selling of women and random killings has dismayed ordinary people in the Middle East and most folks in the West. But does it have precursors in modern times, the Middle Ages or before? There’s no doubt that for the average Syrian or Iraqi, the activities of IS seem very alien, in spite of their brutal experience of the Assad and Saddam dictatorships. Most people have never experienced anything like IS – and they keep their mouths shut lest they end up crucified or whipped. Yet IS – many of whose fighters come from outside the region – claim to be good Muslims doing the right thing by the Qur’an and the Sunnah (sayings and life of the Prophet).
A very telling story was of a woman, Faddah Ahmad, who was led out to a public square in a Syrian town this year to be stoned to death. A lorry pulled up depositing stones on the road. The IS thugs urged local people to join in the stoning. They refused. This barbarity hasn’t after all been seen in the Levant since the 15th century. Stoning all but died out during the long reign of the Ottoman Empire. Yet here we are in the 21st century with a so-called “caliphate” reviving this brutal practice. In fact, IS may have stoned more people to death over the last six months than the Ottoman Empire did in six centuries.
So – where can we find an equivalent to IS in the period covered by the Knights Templar, the subject of this blog. The only group that comes remotely close in my view is the Assassins. They originated in the 11th and 12th centuries as an offshoot of the Ishmaili Shi’ite branch of Islam. Murder was used as a political tactic. And their objective was to overthrow the Sunni Islamic empire of the Middle East. Sound familiar? They attacked crusaders as well, slaying the king of Jerusalem – Conrad of Montferrat. Their daring attacks were often carried out in public without any thought of effective escape. In fact, martyrdom was to be gloried in.
“They prefer rather to die than to live” wrote one contemporary chronicler. Their Grand Master would force his warriors to commit suicide in his presence to evidence their loyalty – rather a waste of manpower you might think. The Assassin Grand Master was referred to as the “old man of the mountain” in crusader sources but never referred to as such in Arabic sources. I should add that tales of the Assassins smoking hashish and this being the reason for their name is total garbage. But they were a fanatical sect with blurred messianic objectives led by a self-appointed madman. Well, that’s pretty close to ISIS!
Over time, the Templars were able to exact control over the Assassins and even collect tribute from them. And in a complete turn of events, the Assassins were forced to turn to the west for help in the mid-13th century as the Mongol armies appeared on the horizon.
If anybody else can think who ISIS resemble in history – feel free to comment.