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.


(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

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.

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