Hardback: 242 pages
Publisher: Folio Society, 2005
ISBN-10: None (but try 184212451X for the Weidenfeld & Nicholson edition)
In the beginning was Islam. And Islam split between Sunni (the establishment, based in Baghdad) and Shi'a. And then of the Shi'a, there came the split between the Twelvers and the Isma'ili. And a thousand years ago, the tensions between the different branches of Islam led to the rise of the Isma'ilis known as the Assassins. This book is about their history.
The Folio Society don't go for publishing new books. Rather, they republish what they consider to be classics of one form or another. This work of Near Eastern history, first published in 1967 and updated slightly with some corrections and a new preface reflecting the new relevance, is beautifully printed, with a red binding fronted by a reproduction of an illustration from the 14th Century, and it comes in a red slipcase. No ISBN, no barcode, deface this edition.
Back to the history, and Lewis shows how the early history of Islam was one of splits, right from the moment that Mohammed died, and that there has always been a great struggle between the Sunni and Shi'a, far more so that between Islam as a whole and Christianity. He shows how it was these internal struggles that led to the Ismai'li branch of the Shi'ites dropping 'the Old Preaching' and becoming radicalised. These radicals were to become, under a charismatic leader named Hasan-i Sabbah, the Assassins, a group who rose up, infiltrated remote fortresses and taking them, and coming up with the suicide attacker as a weapon to destabilise their enemies.
(The Assassin agents would always use a dagger rather than a bow, never use poison, and never attempt to escape. They had a form of honour not shared by today's suicide bombers.)
Eventually, they failed. They'd lasted about two centuries, being ruled from Alamut on the Caspian Sea, but having branches in both Syria and Persia. They existed primarily to attempt to reform Islam, and were little interested in the Crusaders excepting as political entities in their region. Their tactic was to kill the leaders of their opposition, in the knowledge that a different leader would behave differently. (They were uninterested in trying to kill the head of the Templars or Hospitallers, knowing that a duplicate would have immediately replaced the victim.) They were deeply scary to the political status quo - but not much of a threat to anyone else. They were also blamed for many killings that were almost certainly never anything to do with them, because they weren't in it for the money, and they weren't going to be travelling to France, for example.
In the end, the Mongols happened, and with their fortresses taken and their armies dispersed, the Assassins just faded away, just another sect far away from the great commercial and intellectual centres. They never actually stopped, though they did give up the assassinations. Oh, the current head of the Isma'ili? The Aga Khan.
A sober but revealing look at one of the more interesting facets of Islamic History.