Secrets of the Assassins
BY PETER LAMBORN WILSON
Fascinating material on the Ismaili sect and on Hassan i Sabbah... the only spiritual leader who has anything significant to say in the Space Age.
- William S. Burroughs, in a review of Peter Lamborn-Wilson's Scandal: Essays in Islamic Heresy.
After the death of the Prophet Mohammad, the new Islamic community was ruled in succession by four of his close Companions, chosen by the people and called the Rightfully-guided Caliphs. The last of these was Ali ibn Abu Talib; the Prophet's son-in-law.
Ali had his own ardent followers among the faithful, who came to be called Shi'a or "adherents". They believed that Ali should have succeeded Mohammad by right, and that after him his sons (the Prophet's grandsons) Hasan and Husayn should have ruled; and after them, their sons, and so on in quasi-monarchial succession.
In fact except for Ali none of them ever ruled all Islamdom. Instead they became a line of pretenders, and in effect heads of a branch of Islam called Shiism. In opposition to the orthodox (Sunni) Caliphs in Baghdad these descendants of the Prophet came to be known as the Imams.
To the Shiites an Imam is far more, far higher in rank than a Caliph. Ali ruled by right because of his spiritual greatness, which the Prophet recognized by appointing him his successor (in fact Ali is also revered by the sufis as "founder" and prototype of the Moslem saint). Shiites differ from orthodox or Sunni Moslems in believing that this spiritual pre-eminence was transferred to Ali's descendants through Fatima, the Prophet's daughter.
The sixth Shiite Imam, Jafar al-Sadiq, had two sons. The elder, Ismail, was chosen as successor. But he died before his father. Jafar then declared his own younger son Musa the new successor instead.
But Ismail had already given birth to a son - Mohammad ibn Ismail - and proclaimed him the next Imam. Ismail's followers split with Jafar over this question and followed Ismail's son instead of Musa. Thus they came to be known as Ismailis.
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