By Michael Isenberg.
“The power of ideas—Allah’s ideas—was all I ever needed.”
Thus spake the Sheikh of the Mountain, the leader of the medieval Assassin cult in real life, and one of the principal villains in my novel The Thread of Reason. In the book, the sheikh captures and imprisons the hero, Omar Khayyam, along with Omar’s assistant, Muhammad Baghdadi. At a confrontation in the sheikh’s study, Omar was characteristically skeptical about the sheikh’s grandiose claims of his power—basically it was the scene from every James Bond movie where 007 confronts the bad guy bent on world domination. But unlike Omar, Baghdadi was intrigued. He wanted to know how the sheikh commanded such unwavering loyalty from his Assassins, who were all too eager to die for their master on a suicide mission. In response, the sheikh offered Baghdadi a demonstration. “Let me prove how powerful an idea can be,” he said. “When it comes from Allah.”
He rose from his cushion and gestured for Baghdadi to follow him to the window. Putting one arm around Baghdadi’s shoulders, he pointed out to the courtyard, where dozens of men were working by torchlight. “Every one of my Assassins is completely dedicated to our cause,” [he] said. “Pick one of them out—any one—and I’ll show you how much.”
Still at the table, Omar was absorbed in extracting the pit from a date when suddenly he jerked his head upward. He had just remembered something: a story from the history books. It gave him a bad feeling about where this was going. He scrambled to get to his feet and join the others at the window.
Baghdadi had made his selection. “That one,” he said. He pointed to a young man stripped to the waist who was hustling across the courtyard at a good clip despite the two baskets of bricks hanging from a pole across his shoulders.
“You there,” the Sheikh of the Mountain shouted. The porter dropped his burden and prostrated himself in the dust. “What is your bidding, O Sheikh of the Mountain?” he shouted back.
“I want you to climb the ramparts and—”
“Stop this right now,” Omar said firmly…
“Why do you say stop? You don’t even know what I’m going to tell him.”
“You mean you’re not planning to order him to jump off the castle wall?”
“Now you spoiled the surprise.”
“The riddle...of steel,” Conan replies.
“Yes! You know what it is, don't you, boy? Shall I tell you? It's the least I can do. Steel isn't strong, boy, flesh is stronger! Look around you. There, on the rocks.” He beckons to one of his followers standing above them on a ridge. “A beautiful girl. Come to me, my child...” The girl calmly steps off the edge of the cliff and plummets to her death.
“That is strength, boy!” says Thulsa. “That is power! What is steel compared to the hand that wields it?”
But lest you think the Sheikh of the Mountain plagiarized Thulsa Doom, it was in fact the other way around. The story has been associated with the Assassin cult ever since the Crusaders returned to Europe with tales of their adventures. Bernard Lewis, in The Assassins: a Radical Sect in Islam, relates “a somewhat questionable story” of one of the later Assassin leaders:
Count Henry of Champagne, returning from Armenia in 1198, was entertained in his castle by the Old Man, who ordered a number of his henchmen to leap to their deaths from the ramparts for the edification of his guest, and then hospitably offered to provide others for his requirements: and if there was any man who had done him an injury, he should let him know, and he would have him killed.
(From the “continuation” of William of Tyre’s History of Deeds Done Beyond the Sea.)
But even in 1198, the story was already old. An earlier version occurred during the Qarmatian Rebellion. The Qarmatians were one of the strangest sects in the history of Islam. They were communists. A dissident Shiite offshoot, dedicated to the brotherhood of mankind, they threw off the authority of the caliphs and established their own egalitarian utopia in the early 900s, with their capital at Lahsa, near Bahrain. Naser-e Khosraw, who visited the Qarmatians around the year 1050, described what he found:
They neither pray nor fast, but they do believe in Mohammad and his mission…They take no tax from the peasantry, and whenever anyone is stricken by poverty or contracts a debt they take care of his needs until the debtor’s affairs should be cleared up. And if anyone is in debt to another, the creditor cannot claim more than the amount of the debt. Any stranger to the city who possesses a craft by which to earn his livelihood is given enough money to buy the tools of his trade and establish himself. If anyone’s property or implements suffer loss and the owner is unable to undertake necessary repairs, they appoint their own slaves to make the repairs and charge the owner nothing. The rulers have several gristmills in Lahsa where the citizenry can have their meal ground into flour for free, and the maintenance of the buildings and the wages of the miller are paid by the rulers.
[From Naser-e Khosraw, Book of Travels (Safarnama), W. M Thackston, Jr., tr. (1986)]
You may wonder how a communist state can afford to be so generous and survive, let alone prosper for 150 years, when every other experiment in communism that litters the pages of history collapsed under the weight of its own poverty. The answer is buried in the passage above: slavery. “At the time I was there,” Khosraw writes, “they had thirty thousand Zanzibar and Abyssinian slaves working in the fields and gardens.”
Black Stone that was kept there, and brought it back to their capital. According to Khosraw, “They said that the stone was a ‘human magnet’ that attracted people, not knowing that it was the nobility and magnificence of Mohammad that drew people [to Mecca].” After Janabi’s death his successors returned it for a ransom. At some point during its theft and captivity it got shattered—to this day a silver frame is used to hold the pieces together.
The raid on Mecca was not the Qarmatians’ only attack on Muslim cities. Two years earlier, Abu Tahir Suleiman Janabi and his men had marched on Baghdad, capital of the Commander of the Faithful, the Caliph al-Muqtadir. Edward Gibbon, in The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, tells us what happened next:
Baghdad was filled with consternation; and the caliph trembled behind the veils of his palace. In a daring inroad beyond the Tigris, Abu Tahir advanced to the gates of the capital with no more than five hundred horse. By the special order of Muqtadir the bridges had been broken down, and the person or head of the rebels was expected every hour by the commander of the faithful. His lieutenant, from a motive of fear or pity, apprised Abu Tahir of his danger, and recommended speedy escape. “Your master,” said the intrepid Qarmatian to the messenger, “is at the head of thirty thousand soldiers: three such men as these are wanting in his host:” at the same instant, turning to three of his companions, he commanded the first to plunge a dagger into his breast, the second to leap into the Tigris, and the third to cast himself headlong from down a precipice. They obeyed without a murmur. “Relate,” continued the imam, “what you have seen: before the evening your general shall be chained among my dogs.”
[Spelling updated for consistency with modern use]
Abu Tahir Suleiman Janabi's boastful prediction was not to be. The Qarmatians were driven away from Baghdad and al-Muqtadir, despite a turbulent reign, remained unchained.
I put the “Riddle of Steel” scene in The Thread of Reason because I wanted to make a serious point about the power of ideas and because the book is about the Assassins and the scene is a timed-honored part of Assassin lore. But I couldn't resist poking fun a little at how often it has appeared, not only in Conan the Barbarian and The Thread of Reason, but in many other works as well (1964’s The Long Ships and 2005’s The Keeper: The Legend of Omar Khayyam come to mind). And so, when the Sheikh of the Mountain accuses Omar of ruining his surprise, I have Omar reply, “When Suleiman Janabi performed that demonstration—a century and a half ago—it was a surprise. Now it’s just a cliché.”
As for whether the porter actually jumps, you’ll just have to read the book.
Michael Isenberg drinks bourbon and writes novels. His latest book, The Thread of Reason, is a murder mystery that takes place in Baghdad in the year 1092, and tells the story of the conflict between science and shari’ah in medieval Islam. It is available on Amazon.com
Photo credit(s): You Tube, Crystalinks