Assassins, Imams and Caliphs: How the Crusades reshaped the sectarian map of the Middle East

Wednesday 6 March 201902:32 pm
Stretching across the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, the age of the Crusades can be considered to be one of the most fateful tests faced by the Islamic world throughout its 15 centuries of history – one in which the Muslim Ummah (nation or community), with its multitude of sects and divergent doctrinal factions, would be subjected to a decisive challenge, and considerable ordeals. With the exception of the Zaidi Shias - whose existence in the geographical expanse of the Near East targeted by the Crusaders was negligible - three other Shia denominations were present in the key territories of Iraq, the Levant and Egypt: namely the Twelver Shias (forming the majority of Shias to this day), the Ismailis, and the Nizari branch of Ismailis. The latter would gain fame as the Hashasin - a sect of highly-effective and ruthless hitmen, from which the word ‘assassin’ owes its origins. These different sects would all clash with the crusader invasions, and their consequent interactions would lead to fundamental changes in the course of relations between the region’s various Shia factions on the one hand, and that of their Sunni counterparts on the other.

The regional map of Shia conversion before the Crusades

Around the second half of the second Muslim century, the doctrine of Shi’ism began to spread across most Muslim lands and provinces. With the passage of time, the various Shia sects would become one of the key components in the grand mosaic of Islam, attesting to the doctrinal differentiation – and accordingly, diversity in beliefs – which marks Islamic history. Indeed, if we return to the later stages of the eleventh century – the period which would witness the first Crusader campaigns against the Muslims in Anatolia (modern-day Turkey) and the Levant (modern-day Syria, Palestine and Jordan) – we can find an expanding Shia presence throughout the provinces which would become directly affected by the Crusader invasion. At this critical juncture of the region’s history, the Bilad al-Sham – that is, the Lands of the Levant – were divided into a multitude of small feuding principalities. Reflecting even then the inextricable link between geopolitics and ideology, the spread of a certain doctrinal School of Jurisprudence (Madhab) was inextricably tied to the political influence of a ruling prince.   Starting with Aleppo – the most important and notable of the Levant’s cities – the ruling Hamdanid dynasty would be amongst the earliest to lay the groundwork for the spread of the Shia faith.  The notable Aleppan historian and chronicler, Ibn al-Adim, states in his book, “The cream of the history of Aleppo” (a copy of which would in later centuries be translated into Latin, and even find its way into France’s national Bibliothèque): “the Sayf al-Dawla [literally “sword of the state” – the title given to the rulers of the Hamdanid Emirate of Aleppo] [Abu Firas] Al-Hamdani was becoming Shia, and so the people of Aleppo became dominated by the same Shia-isation [conversion process]”. The influence of the Twelver Shias – those who believe in the infallible rule of 12 Imams or leaders after the death of the Prophet Muhammad, all of his lineage - in the Northern Levant continued after the fall of the Hamdanid state in 1002 - for the dynasty which would succeed the Hamdanid rulers – the Mirdasids – would likewise follow the doctrine of Twelver Shi’ism. However, after a campaign to capture the Levant was launched by the ascendant Seljuk Turks in 1071, the Mirdasid ruler, Mohammed ibn Saleh ibn Mirdas, would be forced to declare his allegiance to the Sunni Abbasid Caliph (literally “successor” to the Prophet Muhammad’s leadership of the Muslim community) in Baghdad – as the renowned Muslim chronicler Ibn al-Athir notes in his celebrated “The Complete History”. Nonetheless, the Shia presence continued to persist and retain much of its influence in Aleppo. So too was the city of Tripoli (in northern modern-day Lebanon) ruled by an eminent Twelver Shia family – the Bani Amar – who would likewise provide an opportunity for the spread of Twelver Shi’ism in Tripoli and its environs, including the city of Jubail. The general observations recorded by Muslim travellers passing through the Levant during the tenth and eleventh centuries – notably al-Maqdisi in his geographical works, “The best divisions in the knowledge of the regions”, as well as the celebrated geographer and poet Ibn Jubayr –indicate that Shia Muslims made up the majority of the populations of the regions of the Levant during the Crusades, notably in the cities of Damascus, Tiberias, Nablus, Tyre, Homs and Jabal Amel. In Egypt meanwhile, the grandest of the historical Shia states – that of the Ismaili Shia Fatimids (founders of modern-day Cairo) – ruled an expansive domain; yet unlike their counterparts in the Levant, they would prove incapable of converting the Egyptian populace to their beliefs. They continued to live in their capital Cairo as an aristocratic elite, isolated from the rest of the Sunni population. Notwithstanding some instances of persecution by the Fatimid authorities targeting Sunni scholars, tolerance continued to be the defining feature of their state. As the medieval Egyptian writer and mathematician al-Qalaqshandi, writes in his book, ‘The Dawn for the Blind’: “They [the Fatimids] were intimate with the Sunnis and allowed them to display their creed, which was different to theirs”. In 1094, only two years before the arrival of the First Crusade in the Levant, the eighth Fatimid caliph Al-Mustansir died. A struggle for his succession would follow between his sons, Ahmed and Nizar. The former however would enjoy the support of the Fatimid vizier (high-minister), al-Afdal Shahanshah – leaving Nizar to flee to Alexandria before being killed in ambiguous circumstances (as the British Orientalist Bernard Lewis records in his book: “The Assassins: a radical sect in Islam”). These successive political events would result in substantive transformations within the Ismaili Shia doctrine, wherein the Ismaili preacher, al-Hassan ibn al-Sabah, would call for the support of the Imamate of the sons of Nizar in Iran. Their followers would be branded as the Nizaris - or more famously, the Hashashin. Soon after their call began to spread in Syria, the Nizaris would succeed in controlling strong fortresses across the region – most notably, the Masyaf Castle near the city of Hama.  

Ibn al-Khashab: a turbaned Shia scholar who led a Sunni army in Sarmada

In his book, ‘The impact of the Crusades on Sunni-Shia relations’, Mohamed Mokhtar al-Shanqiti writes that there were many interacting factors which combined to create an environment of understanding and cooperation between the Levant’s Sunnis and Twelver Shias during the Crusades. Key amongst these reasons, al-Shanqtiti says, is that most of the Levant’s Sunni population were Ash’aris – a school of theology which was marked by a tolerant outlook towards Shias. Furthermore, during this period Twelver Shias found that they were unwilling to adopt political ideas – instead believing in the necessity of waiting for the arrival of the absent Mahdi (the “Guided” redeemer of Islam who would arrive near the end of time). This paved the way for their acceptance of a concept of joint struggle with Sunnis, unified under one banner, against the Crusader enemy. Exemplifying this new attitude were two notable examples which would attest to Sunni-Shia cooperation against the Crusaders: one which took place in Tripoli, and one in Aleppo. The Shia Bani Amar Emirate in Tripoli was included amongst the areas under attack by the First Crusade following the capture of Jerusalem in 1095. In 1102, Tripoli would be subjected to a long siege by the Crusader commander Raymond De Saint Gilles – which forced the city’s prince Ibn Amar to seek help from his Sunni neighbours in Damascus and Aleppo. The unified Muslim armies subsequently succeeded in breaking the Crusader siege at the city gates, as Ibn al-Athir recounts in his history. Three years later, Ibn Amar would again seek help from his Sunni counterparts following renewed Crusader attacks on Tripoli. The Sunni Turkish prince, Soqman al-Qotby – whose domains notably included the castle of Kaifa on the river Tigris in South-East Turkey –  would answer the call. However, al-Qotby would die whilst his army was still on the march to Tripoli, leaving it to retreat before reaching its destination. The dire circumstances in Tripoli would eventually cause Ibn Amir to undertake another, more serious and symbolic step – travelling himself to the capital of the Sunnis, Baghdad, where he met both the Abbasid Caliph and the Seljuk Sultan (on which the former’s power depended), seeking their help against the Crusaders. However, despite the friendly and welcoming response that Ibn Amar found in Baghdad, the two Sunni leaders were too preoccupied with internal political struggles in their own domains - thus precluding them from offering any real support to the besieged Shia principality. Tripoli would fall to the Crusaders in 1109, thus becoming the fourth Crusader Kingdom established in the Islamic Orient after Antioch, Edessa, and Jerusalem. The second major manifestation of Sunni-Shia cooperation would be witnessed in Aleppo. The city’s Seljuk ruler, Radwan Bin Tetsh, had grown accustomed to appeasing his Crusader neighbours in Antoich and Edessa with money and gifts. However, in 1113 Radwan would pass away, and Aleppo would subsequently embark upon a period of political turbulence, with a number of Radwan’s brothers fighting each other for the throne of Aleppo. The city was left easy prey for the Crusaders, who imposed another siege. In the midst of the turmoil would emerge the person of Abu al-Fadl ibn al-Khashab – a Twelver Shia scholar of jurisprudence who would leave a strong imprint on a wide sector of the city’s population. Ibn al-Adim relays that despite being a scholar of Shia doctrine, Ibn al-Khashab transcended doctrinal divides – rushing to send a delegation to the Sunni governor of Mardin (in modern-day Turkey) Najm ad-Din Ilghazi, ruler of the Turkmen Artiqid dynasty (which stretched from its capital in Mardin in south Anatolia, to encompass wide swathes of south Turkey and North Syria). Ibn al-Khashab asked him for his aid, offering him the lucrative governorship of Aleppo in the process. Ilghazi answered the call to support the turbaned Shia scholar, moving his forces towards the city to merge with the forces of Ibn al-Khashab. The unified Sunni-Shia army would fight the battle of Sarmada (in modern-day Syria) in the year 1119 –which would later become known by European historiographers as the “Battle of the Field of Blood”.   Ibn al-Adim goes on to recount Ibn al-Khashab’s crucial role in the battle: “Riding a donkey and with a spear in his hand, the judge Abu al-Fadl ibn al-Khashab roused people to fight. Some of his soldiers looked at him and deprecated him, saying: did we come from our lands to follow this turbaned [man]! So he [Ibn al-Khashab] came to the people, and gave an eloquent speech which aroused their determination and appealed to the morale of those in the ranks; people cried and he grew in stature in their eyes”. The battle ended with the victory of the Muslims, becoming the first major defeat of the Crusaders in the Levant. Ibn al-Khashab would return to his effective efforts in unifying the Muslim ranks in 1125, after the King of Jerusalem, Baldwin II, laid siege again to Aleppo. According to Ibn al-Athir, such was the adversity inflicted by the siege, that the besieged population had been reduced to eating dogs and dead [unslaughtered] meat. Amidst this precarious reality, Ibn al-Khashab once again sent an appeal to one of the highest-ranking Seljuk commanders of the time, the Sunni governor of Mosul, Aq Sunqur al-Barasqi. His army successfully entered Aleppo and broke the crusader siege, wherein he was greeted by Ibn al-Khashab as well as other Twelver Shias. This welcome ushered in a new beginning of Muslim cooperation, and one in which Aleppo would bear much of the burden of the fight against the Crusaders. It would be famed sons and descendants of Aq Sunqur, starting with Imad ad-Din al-Zinki, who would accede to the helm of preparing the Muslims for their upcoming battles with the Crusaders. Imad ad-Din would launch the siege of Edessa in 1144 shortly before dying, the siege which would prompt the Second Crusade – in which the Muslims would emerge victorious under Imad ad-Din’s son, Nur ad-Din al-Zinki. Ibn al-Khashab’s role should thus not be underestimated; indeed, it could be said that the true start of the Sunni Jihad (Holy Struggle) against the crusaders originally came from a call made by a Twelver Shia.

The Fatimids… from cooperation with the Crusaders to alliance with the Sunnis

The divergent Fatimid responses to the activities of the Crusaders in Anatolia and the Levant, would be similarly reflected in the shifting positions they would exhibit when dealing with the Sunni powers neighbouring them. With the start of the First Crusade, the Fatimids believed that the Crusaders would suffice by attacking their rivals, the Seljuks – and thus considered the invading ‘Franks’ to be military allies against their traditional adversaries. This stance is signified by the writings of the Frankish chronicler William of Tyre, wherein he mentions that the (Fatimid) rulers of Cairo sent the commanders of the First Crusade a high-ranking delegation laden with gifts and antiques – an event which took place simultaneous to the crusader siege of Seljuk-held Antioch. However, this outlook soon changed after the Crusaders proceeded to invade Fatimid-held Jerusalem - thus affirming their hostility in the eyes of Egypt’s rulers. The Fatimids subsequently mobilised their armies against them, fighting the Crusaders in many battles with varying results, Ibn al-Athir narrates. The eventual Fatimid realisation of the reality of the Crusaders’ military superiority would eventually however lead them to strike a number of alliances with their Sunni neighbours. For instance, Ibn al-Qalanisi writes in his book “The Continuation of the Chronicle of Damascus”, that the Fatimids were able to send their fleets to defend the cities of Sidon, Tyre, Asqalan and Tripoli. The Fatimids would also in time ally with the Seljuk governor, Dhaher ad-Din Toghtekin, the Sunni atabeg (prince) of Damascus – and in the year 1105, the two sides would join forces in a battle against the crusaders in an area of Palestine between Ashkelon and Jaffa. However, the Muslim armies were defeated and subsequently returned home.

Siege of Damascus

Towards the end of their rule (which would ultimately arrive in 1171), the Fatimids would increasingly rely on their Sunni neighbours in the Levant. During the battle for the powerful post of vizier between Shawar ibn Mujir al-Sa’adi and Dirgham ibn Amer ibn Sawar – who were both amongst the most powerful Fatimid governors in the first half of the century – Shawar (with the backing of the Fatimid Caliph Al-Adid) rushed to obtain the support of Nur ad-Din al-Zinki, the atabeg of Aleppo, and proposed a lucrative offer. This entailed, in the words of Ibn al-Athir: “a third of the income of the land [i.e. Egypt] after [deducing] serjeanties, and for Asad ad-Din Shirkuh [the commander of Nur ad-Din’s army] to settle with his soldiers in Egypt, and for Shawar to follow the orders of Nur ad-Din and his choices” Shawar would later breach the agreement by returning Nur ad-Din’s army to Syria. However, fearing the entry of the Crusaders into Egypt, Caliph Al-Adid would again beseech the help of Nur ad-Din – sending him locks of his daughters’ hairs to convey the gravity of the situation, according to Ibn al-Adim – and would before long replace Shawar with Shirkuh as vizier. In so doing, the Fatimid caliph looked beyond their sectarian differences – and indeed, following Shirkuh’s death the caliph would appoint his nephew Salah ad-Din Yusuf – alternatively known as Saladin – as vizier, a position he continued to hold until he finally brought the Fatimid state to an end in the year 1171.

The Nizaris: from assassinating Muslim commanders to assassinating the heads of the Crusaders

The example of the Nizaris constitutes a difficult variable when examining the equation of Sunni-Shia relations during the Crusades; for despite being the least populous Shia sect during this historical period, they were nonetheless the most influential and dangerous. The Nizaris exploited the unremitting chaos in the Levant by allying themselves with the ruler of Aleppo, Radwan ibn Tetsh. Thus, in the words of Ibn al-Adim: “their creed appeared in Aleppo in his [Radwan’s] days; other rulers wrote to him about them, however he did not heed [their calls] and did not pull back from them”. The intimate ties between the Nizaris and Radwan was constructed on a basis of mutual benefit; for notwithstanding their sectarian differences, Radwan utilised the Nizaris in fighting his enemies, whereas the Nizaris were able to exploit the freedom granted them by Radwan to propagate their message in the northern Levant. At this early stage of the crusader campaigns, the daggers of the Hashashin would strike at a number of prominent Muslim commanders; indeed, it appeared early on that all their efforts would be to the benefit of the crusaders, and inimical to that of the Islamic jihad. This policy orientation continued until Saladin laid siege to Aleppo. Here, a number of Saladin’s rival commanders requested the leader of the Nizaris in Syria, Rashid al-Din Sinan, to kill Saladin. Numerous attempts to do so followed – however, Saladin would survive them all and respond by besieging and damaging some of the Nizaris’ castles. Finally, when the key Nizari castle at Masyaf came under siege, Rasid al-Din reached out to Saladin proposing reconciliation – which was subsequently agreed, according to Ibn al-Athir. This agreement between the Sunni Ayuubids and the Nizari Ismailis constituted the foremost turning-point in the history of Sunni-Nizari relations in the age of the Crusades – for the Hashashin would now transform themselves into a weapon in the hands of the Ayuubids. Ibn al-Athir states that in 1163 Saladin would request Rashid ad-Din to assassinate two of his foremost enemies: the King of England (who would lead the Third Crusade), Richard “the Lionheart”, and Conrad de Montferrat, Prince of Tyre. Whilst the Hashashin failed to achieve the former objective, they succeeded in the second. Indeed, not only would the Ayuubids refrain from harassing the Hashashin fortresses in Syria – but they would also actively send armies to defend them. As al-Dhahabi records in his “History of Islam”, in 1213 the Ayuubid Sultan al-Adil mobilised a large army to save some of their castles, after they were besieged by the Crusader forces of the Principality of Antioch. So too would the state of the Mamluks – which would overthrow the Ayuubids – maintain the strong ties established with the Nizaris of Syria. In his “History of the al-Zahir King”, Iz al-Din ibn Shadad writes that the Mamluk Sultan, al-Zahir Baibars, “used to send them [the hashashin] to kill those who opposed and were hostile to him, whether close or afar”. One such example was the Baibars-ordered killing of Phillip de Montferrat, ruler of Tyre, in 1269. The hashashin continued to play the same role until the end of the crusader presence in the Levant; thus, they would be described by the celebrated Moroccan traveller Ibn Battuta as “the arrows of the al-Nasir King [the thirteenth and fourteenth century Mamluk sultan, al-Nasir Mohamed ibn Qalawun], with whom he strikes those who are hostile to him from amongst his enemies in Iraq and elsewhere”.
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