Monday, October 14, 2019

The Story of the Three Students

How three friends grew up to become the most famous scientist, ruler, and terrorist of their age. But is it true? And what does it mean?

By Michael Isenberg.

CONTAINS SPOILERS FOR THE THREAD OF REASON.

(L to R) Omar Khayyam, Nizam al-Mulk, Hasan-i Sabbah

One of my favorite moments in my novel The Thread of Reason is when the hero, astronomer and poet Omar Khayyam, finally comes face-to-face with the terrorist leader, the mysterious Sheikh of the Mountain, and it turns out to be his long-lost school friend Hasan-i Sabbah.

Recently a reader emailed me to ask, “Is Omar's prior relationship with the Sheikh your invention or based on history?”

The answer is history. Sort of.

It’s called The Story of the Three Students. The third, after Omar Khayyam and Hassan-i Sabbah, was the sultan’s vizier (prime minister) Nizam al-Mulk, who ruled an empire for thirty years, and wielded more power than the sultans he served, Alp Arslan and Malik Shah of the House of Seljuq. Every serious fan of Omar Khayyam knows the story because Edward Fitzgerald, who introduced Omar to the English-speaking world, included it in the preface to his translation of Omar’s poetry, The Rubaiyat.

As far as I know, the oldest version of the story we have is from a biography of Hasan-i Sabbah, The Story of our Lord (Sarguzasht-e Sayyidna), which is believed to be based on his own autobiography. The translation from the Persian here is mine, which was a good trick, because I don’t actually know any Persian, modern or medieval, and Google Translate isn’t very good at it. It was a process.

And the cause of the hatred and terror [between Nizam al-Mulk and Hasan-i Sabbah] was this:

Omar Khayyam, Nizam al-Mulk, and our Lord studied together in a school in Nishapur. And they agreed in principle, according to the strictest rules of honesty and right conduct, to make a pact—sealed by drinking each other’s blood, that whichever of them became the greatest would strengthen and reinforce the other two.

And so it happened, as told in the annals of the Seljuqs, that Nizam al-Mulk came into the vizierate. Omar Khayyam came to pay court to him and reminisce about their childhood together. Remembering the old pact, Nizam al-Mulk said, “I will make you the governor of Nishapur and the surrounding territories.”

But Omar replied that the life of a great man is one of wisdom, virtue, and learning. “You have aspirations to rule an empire,” he said. “But to hand down prohibitions to the common people? I have no such ambitions. Set me on the road to fame and give me an annual stipend.”

And Nizam al-Mulk bestowed upon him ten thousand dinars from the tax revenue of Nishapur, and this stream has flowed every year since then without decrease or obligation.

And our Lord also came, from the city of Ray [near Tehran], to pay court to the Nizam. He reminded him, “Your eminence made me a promise.”

Nizam al-Mulk replied, “You shall have authority from Ray to Isfahan.”

Our Lord was an excellent choice for the job, but he wasn’t satisfied with the offer and turned it down. What he was expecting was a high-ranking position in the ministry. Nizam al-Mulk (who was backed into a corner) said, “Then you shall attend the Sahib al-Jalal, the Sultan.”

But because he knew that our Lord aspired to the same dignity and level in the ministry that he held himself, Nizam al-Mulk kept a close eye on him.

The story goes on to tell how Hasan-i Sabbah attempted to undermine Nizam al-Mulk by preparing a budget faster than Nizam al-Mulk could, how Nizam al-Mulk turned the tables on him by arranging to have a page filched from the account books so that the numbers didn’t add up, and how Hasan-i Sabbah was thereby driven out of the ministry. After a number of other adventures, including imprisonment and shipwreck, Hasan-i Sabbah took over the castle of Alamut, near the Caspian Sea, and became the first Sheikh of the Mountain, founder of the terrorist group known to history as the Assassins. The first person they assassinated: Nizam al-Mulk.

Assassination of Nizam al-Mulk

A fascinating story, but how much is true?

To address that, I start with what we know about its origin.

The assassination of Nizam al-Mulk really did occur, 927 years ago today, October 15, 1092.* It was near the beginning of the Assassins’ century-and-a-half long reign of terror. The discovery of The Story of our Lord came at its end. Alamut surrendered to Mongol forces under Hulegu, grandson to Genghis Khan, in 1256.

Siege of Alamut

Before they razed the place, the Mongols let the Persian historian Ata-Malik Juvaini (1226-1283), who traveled with them, loose in the library, and it was there that he found The Story of our Lord. Juvaini’s partly first-hand account of Genghis Khan and the Mongol invasions, History of the World Conquerer (Tarikh-i Jahan-gusha), is one of our primary sources on the Assassins in general and Hasan-i Sabbah in particular.

Yet, for whatever reason, it does not contain The Story of the Three Students. For that we have to wait several more decades, for the The Compendium of History (Jami at-Tawarikh) by Rashid ad-Din Hamadani (1247-1318), the Jewish-born vizier to Hulegu’s great grandsons. This book is very famous. When you see illustrations of Muslim historical events from some old manuscript, including the two on this post, chances are The Compendium is where they came from; there are a number of beautifully illuminated copies from the 14th & 15th centuries still extant. And The Compendium also incorporates The Story of our Lord in its entirety.

So there are problems with the provenance of the story. We don’t have a version of it until a good 300 years after it took place, and there’s an unexplained gap between Juvaini and Rashid ad-Din.

But those aren’t the only problems. More seriously, the chronology doesn’t work out. In all probability, Nizam al-Mulk was thirty years older than the other two, and couldn’t possibly have been at school with them. Or as Omar exclaims to his assistant upon coming across Hasan-i Sabbah’s original manuscript in The Thread of Reason, “How old do you think I am?”

Granted, in some ways, it’s even more interesting if The Story of the Three Students is not true. Because that means someone made it up, which raises the question, “Why?” And whether true or not, people took the trouble to record and transmit it, which against begs the question, “Why?”

Omid Safi, Professor of Islamic Studies at Duke University, offers an answer in his 2006 book The Politics of Knowledge in Premodern Islam: Negotiating Ideology and Religious Inquiry. The Politics of Knowledge was a groundbreaking work in deconstructing what has been called The Great Seljuq Myth, the notion that the Seljuq sultans, and their vizier Nizam al-Mulk, were the defenders of the faith: the guardians of Islamic orthodoxy and the protectors of the nominal head of the religion, the caliph.

Professor Safi’s thesis is that the myth of orthodoxy was a narrative crafted for the purpose of propaganda, to confer legitimacy on the Seljuqs. Legitimacy is important for any government, but especially in the Muslim world, where there has been bitter warfare over who is the true successor to the Messenger Muhammad, almost from the moment that he breathed his last. And especially for the Seljuqs, who had only comparatively recently ridden in from the steppes of Central Asia and usurped power.

In Safi’s view, The Story of the Three Students is such an outstanding example of the Great Seljuq Myth in action that he saves it for his concluding chapter, to summarize his thesis. Nizam al-Mulk symbolizes True Religion in this analysis. Omar Khayyam was somewhat less orthodox, a practitioner of the profane sciences. I’ve written previously about the controversy over his consumption of alcohol—something forbidden in Islam. But he cut a deal with the orthodox Nizam al-Mulk, so he’s okay, set on the road to fame. But Hasan-i Sabbah, who set himself up as a rival of Nizam al-Mulk, is anathema, outcast, the very embodiment of wickedness.

This view of history as narrative is postmodernist in origin; Dr. Safi explicitly acknowledges debts to Edward Said and Michel Foucault. I’ve written in the past why I think Said and Foucault's work is bulls--t, but in this (very rare) case, the postmodern approach seems to be on to something. It will come as no surprise to readers of The Thread of Reason that Nizam al-Mulk, both as portrayed in the book and in real-life, was not very orthodox at times, and the sultan Malik-Shah even less so. One is left wondering how the Great Seljuq Myth became so widely accepted.

Of course as a novelist, I have a somewhat different job than a historian: to entertain. And The Story of the Three Students is definitely entertaining. Not to mention that, thanks to Fitzgerald, it’s too famous to ignore in a book about Omar Khayyam. As for how I get around the chronology problem, I explicitly acknowledge a debt to Dr. Safi and his ideas about narrative in Islamic history. For the specifics, you’ll just have to read my 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.

Please follow Mike on Facebook and Twitter.

*-Sort of. The Julian Calendar was in effect at the time, and the world has since switched to the Gregorian calendar, under which it would have been the 21st of October.

About the illustrations:
- Statue of Omar Khayyam by Hossein Fakhimi at the University of Oklahoma.
- Bust of Nizam al-Mulk, Mashhad, Iran.
- Engraving of the Elder of the Mountain, 19th century, unknown source, CC BY-SA 4.0.
- “The Assassination of Nizam al-Mulk” in Rashid ad-Din Hamadani, Jami at-Tawarikh, Topkapi Museum, Istanbul, Hazine Library Manuscript #1653, folio 360b (14th/15th century).
- "The Siege of Alamut" in Rashid ad-Din Hamadani, Jami at-Tawarikh Bibliothèque Nationale de France, Département des Manuscrits, Division Orientale, Supplément persan 1113, ca. 1430-1434. Public Domain.

Wednesday, October 9, 2019

Brave Sir Donald Ran Away

President Trump’s decision to pull US troops out of northeastern Syria will be a disaster for the US. Here’s why…

By Michael Isenberg.

As I write this, Turkish tanks are massing at the border of Syria, and Turkish warplanes are pummeling civilian regions in the northeast part of that country.

The president of Turkey, Islamist Recip Erdogan, explained the objectives for this operation two weeks ago. He stood up at the UN—whose mission, according to its charter is “the suppression of acts of aggression”—and announced his plans for an act of aggression. Specifically, he intends to forcibly carve off a 32 km slice of northern Syria which he described, in Orwellian tones, as a “peace corridor.”

Mr. Erdogan has wanted to seize this Syrian territory along his southern border for some time. He claims that the YPG, the Kurdish militia units in northern Syria, are allied with the PKK, the extremist Kurdish Workers Party in his own country, although most observers outside of Turkey dispute that.

The only thing that has been stopping Erdogan up to now is the presence of US troops in the region who are protecting the Kurds. President Trump tweeted today that there are only 50 US soldiers involved. Not a large deployment. Just enough to let the Turks know that war against the Kurds would mean war against the United States.

Until Monday. Following a weekend phone conversation with Mr. Erdogan, President Trump announced that he was removing the troops. He spun the decision as part of an overall strategy to keep his campaign promises. “I was elected on getting out of these ridiculous endless wars,” he tweeted, “where our great Military functions as a policing operation to the benefit of people who don’t even like the USA.”

But a press release from the Pentagon yesterday cast the decision in a very different light:

The Department's position has been and remains that establishing a safe zone in northern Syria is the best path forward to maintaining stability.

Unfortunately, Turkey has chosen to act unilaterally. As a result we have moved the U.S. forces in northern Syria out of the path of potential Turkish incursion to ensure their safety. We have made no changes to our force presence in Syria at this time.

It’s not hard to read between the lines here. On his phone call with Trump, Erdogan threatened to invade the “peace corridor” regardless of what the US did. Trump crumbled. He should have told Erdogan, "If a US soldier gets so much as a scratch at the hands of Turkish forces, we'll mine the f--king Bosporus." Nixon would have done it. But instead, brave Sir Donald ran away.

He really needs to stop having these phone calls with foreign leaders.

Pulling out of northern Syria is a terrible decision. As I wrote on Twitter, “The #Kurds allied with the US & fought & died in the front lines to defeat #ISIS. Now @RealDonaldTrump is throwing them under the bus. It's not right, and it's not good for the US. No one is going to ally with us if they see we don't stand by our allies.”

Let me be clear: I don’t advocate US troops forcing regime change in Syria. That ship has sailed. Nor do I advocate some vague open-ended mission to pacify the entire country. But I do advocate a limited, well-defined mission in the northern part of the country to protect the Kurds. They earned that much from us.

Trump compared the US role to a “policing operation” and I’d like to explore that metaphor. I agree that the US should never have become northern Syria's policeman. But it is unconscionable to take on that role, as we have done, and then, when a murderer and thief shows up on the stoop and starts kicking in the door, tell the poor homeowner, “We changed our mind. We don’t want to be the police anymore. Good luck to you.”

The comparison of the Erdogan regime to a murderer and a thief who threatens the lives and property of the Kurds is not an exaggeration. Turkey already seized the western end of its “peace corridor,” the area around Afrin, last year (red area on map). According to the BBC, which cited the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, “almost 300 civilians were killed in the eight-week battle, along with 1,500 Kurdish militiamen…At least 137,000 civilians fled their homes.” The Turks’ name for the invasion, “Operation Olive Branch,” at first appeared to be yet another messed up bit of Orwellian Newspeak, but turned out to be singularly appropriate when reports emerged that the occupying army was stealing the olive crop from the people of Afrin.

Saleh Ibo, deputy chairmen of the Afrin Agricultural Council, says “80% of the people of Afrin made their living through olives and olive oil. The Turkish state already forced most of the people to migrate with their invasion. And now they are trying to get the remaining people to leave Afrin through violence and financial ruin to complete the demographic change.” He accuses the Turks of not only confiscating the olive harvest, but of taking processing equipment out of the district, and even cutting down significant numbers of the olive trees themselves, guaranteeing that the people of Afrin will not only not receive the payoff from their labors this year, but will have no way of earning a living there in the future.

The Turkish government isn’t even trying to hide its looting. It admits to taking at least 600 tons of olives back to Turkey. Speaking to Parliament, Bekir Pakdemirli, the agricultural minister, fessed up. “We do not want revenues to fall into PKK hands,” he explained. “We want the revenues from Afrin... to come to us. This region is under our hegemony.”

President Trump’s decision to pull out US troops now exposes all of Northern Syria to the looting and ethnic cleansing that the Turks inflicted on Afrin.

Upon tweeting my opposition to the US pullout, I was instantly under attack, and received a number of tweets calling me names, including this one from a woman in a military family: “Then you go, or send your kids. My family sacrificed enough. All you people calling for war never fought or had a family member fighting there and won’t in the future either. Then the troops come home sick and you bastards give illegal aliens better treatment. SFTFU”

Well, at least it wasn’t as insulting as another tweet I received. That one called me a leftist.

Despite her indulgence in the ad hominem fallacy, the woman from the military family does make a serious point, which I’d like to address: that US foreign wars are causing severe hardships on our soldiers and veterans and it’s time for the US to put down its burden as the world’s policeman and bring our troops home.

I freely acknowledge they’ve made more sacrifices than I ever did. I have the greatest respect and admiration for this woman and her family, and all of our fellow citizens who sign up completely voluntarily to go to the worst s—tholes on earth in the service of our country. But it’s because I respect and admire them that I think it’s a mistake to pull out of northern Syria. Because the pullout is going to cause much greater hardships for our soldiers down the road.

Polonius may have been a “foolish prating knave,” but he got one thing right: “Beware of entrance to a quarrel,” he said, “but being in, bear't that the opposed may beware of thee.” Sadly, in Syria, the US did neither.

The best way to get out of “ridiculous endless wars” and keep US troops out of harm’s way is not to enter them in the first place (Beware of entrance to a quarrel). That's why I opposed US intervention in Syria when the Obama Administration stepped up our entanglement there back in 2013. But once you’re in, things get complicated, and if you walk away, instead of seeing that the opposed may beware of thee, there are serious consequences.

Anyone who’s lived through the last fifty years of history has seen these consequences unfold in front of their eyes. In 1975, the US walked away from its commitments to South Vietnam in the face of a renewed North Vietnamese invasion. During the next four years, encouraged by what it saw as weakness on the part of the United States, communist insurgents overran the nations of Indochina, and seven additional nations in other parts of the world. A hundred million people lost their freedom, and, in the genocides and massacres that followed, some five million people lost their lives at the hands of their new rulers.

Perhaps more significant for our current Middle East involvement was the 1993 decision by the Clinton Administration to pull US forces out of Somalia in the wake of unexpected casualties in the “Black Hawk Down” incident and the Battle of Mogadishu. Our opponent there, warlord Muhammad Aidid, received material and training from al-Qaeda. What happened in Mogadishu wasn't lost on al-Qaeda's leader, Osama bin Laden. In a 1998 interview with ABC News’s John Miller, he said that the Mujahideen veterans fighting in Somalia,

were surprised at the low morale of the American soldiers and realized more than before that the America soldiers are paper tigers. After a few blows, the Americans ran away in defeat. After a few blows, they forgot about being the world leader and the leader of the new world order.

They left, dragging their corpses and their shameful defeat, and stopped using such titles.

They learned in America that this name [i.e., God] is larger than them. When this great defeat took place I was in Sudan, and it pleased me very much, just as it pleases all Muslims.

Like the communists, bin Laden was encouraged by what he saw as the weakness of the United States. The deaths of 3,000 people in the September 11 attacks three years later were the tragic consequences.

Osama bin Laden is dead, but the US still has enemies. The next Osama bin Laden is out there, watching the US run away in defeat from northern Syria without even a few blows, and drawing his own conclusions. I hope he will not be encouraged by Trump’s foolish withdrawal to launch future attacks against the United States, attacks which once again will require us to put American troops in harm’s way.

But sadly, history tells us otherwise.

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): BBC, Twitter

Tuesday, October 1, 2019

The Secret Garden of the Assassins

Rivers of wine and damsels accomplished in the arts of amorous allurement. The birth of a questionable legend.
by Michael Isenberg.

Readers of my novel, The Thread of Reason, frequently ask me about the history behind the various stories I recount in the book. One of the most intriguing is that of the Sheikh (or Old Man) of the Mountain’s Secret Garden. The story comes from Marco Polo:

Mention shall now be made of the old man of the mountain. The district in which his residence lay obtained the name of Mulehet, signifying in the language of the Saracens, the place of heretics, and his people that of Mulehetites…The following account of this chief, Marco Polo testifies to having heard from sundry persons.

His name was Aloadin, and his religion was that of Mahomet. In a beautiful valley enclosed between two lofty mountains, he had formed a luxurious garden, stored with every delicious fruit and every fragrant shrub that could be produced. Palaces of various sizes and forms were erected in different parts of the grounds, ornamented with works in gold, with paintings, and with furniture of rich silks. By means of small conduits contrived in these buildings, streams of wine, milk, honey, and some of pure water were seen to flow in every direction.

The inhabitants of these palaces were elegant and beautiful damsels, accomplished in the arts of singing, playing upon all sorts of musical instruments, dancing, and especially those of dalliance and amorous allurement. Clothed in rich dresses they were seen continually sporting and amusing themselves in the garden and pavilions, their female guardians being confined within doors and never suffered to appear.

The object which the chief had in view in forming a garden of this fascinating kind was this: that Mahomet having promised to those who should obey his will the enjoyments of Paradise, where every species of sensual gratification should be found, in the society of beautiful nymphs, he was desirous of its being understood by his followers that he also was a prophet and the compeer of Mahomet, and had the power of admitting to Paradise such as he should choose to favor.

In order that none without his license might find their way into this delicious valley, he caused a strong and inexpugnable castle to be erected at the opening of it, through which the entry was by a secret passage. At his court, likewise, this chief entertained a number of youths, from the age of twelve to twenty years, selected from the inhabitants of the surrounding mountains, who showed a disposition for martial exercises, and appeared to possess the quality of daring courage. To them he was in the daily practice of discoursing on the subject of the paradise announced by the prophet, and of his own power of granting admission. And at certain times he caused opium to be administered to ten or a dozen of the youths; and when half dead with sleep he had them conveyed to the several apartments of the palaces in the garden.

Upon awakening from the state of stupor, their senses were struck with all the delightful objects that have been described, and each perceived himself surrounded by lovely damsels, singing, playing, and attracting his regards by the most fascinating caresses, serving him also with delicate foods and exquisite wines; until intoxicated with excess of enjoyment, amidst actual rivulets of milk and wine, he believed himself assuredly in Paradise, and felt an unwillingness to relinquish its delights.

When four or five days had thus passed, they were thrown once more into a drugged state, and carried out of the garden. Upon their being introduced to his presence, and questioned by him as to where they had been, their answer was, “In Paradise, through the favor of your highness”: and then before the whole court, who listened to them with eager curiosity and astonishment, they gave a circumstantial account of the scenes to which they had been witnesses.

The chief thereupon addressing them, said: “We have the assurances of our prophet that he who would defend his lord shall inherit Paradise, and if you show yourself devoted to the obedience of my orders, that happy lot awaits you.” Animated to enthusiasm by words of this nature, all deemed themselves happy to receive the commands of their master, and were forward to die in his service.

The consequences of this system was, when any of the neighboring princes, or others, gave offense to this chief, they were put to death by these his disciplined assassins: none of whom felt terror at the risk of losing their own lives, which they held in little estimation, provided they could execute their master’s will. On this account his tyranny became the subject of dread in all the surrounding countries.*

In other versions of the story, the recruits were given not opium, but rather hashish. From this the cult acquired its name, the Hashasheen, and the English language acquired a word: Assassin.

It’s a fascinating story. One would think that the damsel’s arts of “dalliance and amorous allurement” would indeed make for some very motivated killers, and I'm rather partial to the bit about rivers of wine. And yet, there is reason to think that it is nothing more than that: a story.

Marco Polo is not the most reliable of sources, and he did not travel through the area until years after the Assassin Cult and its castles had been destroyed. And even though they had operated for almost 170 years prior to that, I’m not aware of any references to the secret garden before Polo’s. Not to mention that it would take hundreds of people to build and maintain such a garden, which would make it almost impossible to keep it a secret. It would be widely known that it wasn't the real Paradise.

There are also other possible explanations for the origin of the term Hashasheen that don’t involve sex and drugs. The first Sheikh of the Mountain was named Hasan, and the cult may have taken its name from him.

But as I point out in the Historical Note to my novel,

In his History of the English-Speaking Peoples, Winston Churchill told one of the many legends of Rosamunde, mistress to Henry Plantagenet. He followed it up with a disclaimer: tedious researchers had proven the darn thing wasn’t true. Churchill saw no reason to let that get in the way of a good story; he included it in his book anyway. I feel the same about the story of…the secret Garden of the Assassins. [It’s] just too famous—and too good—to leave out. I hope historians will approve of, or at least forgive, my solutions to the very real difficulties raised by the tedious researchers.

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


*- The Travels of Marco Polo, New York: Liveright Publishing Corp. (1926, 1953), M. Komroff, tr.