Up and down the Web, it has become fashionable to locate the origins of Osama bin Laden's ascetic and violent sensibilities in those of the Ismaili Hashishiyyin, the Shiite sect whose name in misbegotten translation has brought us the modern word, Assassins. The Shiite Assassins, once called "a splinter of a splinter of a splinter from Orthodox Islam" by Islam scholar Arthur Jeffrey (Journal of Religion, April 1957), took it upon themselves to usher in a Shi'i rule by eliminating their Sunni Seljuq enemies—one by one. Led by Hassan Sabbah, followers' highly public assassinations created an aura of terror, while Sabbah managed to create a sub-state in northern Syria. In a creative twist on orthodox doctrine, Sabbah made followers own deaths (they were usually killed by the guards of their targets) a religious duty.
Thus the comparison to bin Laden. In fact, it is difficult to disentangle fact from fiction in Assassin history; much of what we know comes from Crusader legend, which so magnified the supposed powers of the Assassins that they were considered to be behind European assassinations.
While some of the historical comparison making is fairly crude—there's no direct line between the two movement—a few writers have offered thought provoking and creative analyses. Salim Mansur, a professor in Western Ontario, offers the idea that one strand of Islamic history is being replayed:
According to Ibn Khaldun, the great 14th-century, Arab-Muslim historian, a recurring theme in Muslim history is the periodic assault on civilization by primitive nomads of the desert. Wahhabism illustrates this history. Its extreme practitioners -- such as Mr. bin Laden -- in breaking ranks with their Saudi patrons confirm Ibn Khaldun's theory of the cyclical struggle between inhabitants of the desert and those who have settled into a sedentary culture of cities.
And Reason Magazine writer Charles Paul Freund has suggested that the fate of the Assassins –whose descendents are cosmopolitan progressives today—may yet be that of the most stringent strains of Sunni Islam today.
Hasan's stronghold was eventually overrun by Mongol invaders, scattering the Isma'ili populace. The group lived for centuries in relative obscurity. Since the 19th century, however, Isma'ilis under the leadership of the community's hereditary Imam, the spiritual leader who bears the title of the Aga Khan, have emerged as Islam's most assimilationist and modernist community. (The current Aga Khan, 49th in the line, lives on an estate in France; his flamboyant father Aly Khan was once married to Rita Hayworth.) The Isma'ilis of the Indian subcontinent, the United Kingdom, North America, and East Africa are a remarkably prosperous and well-educated group that exhibits complete religious tolerance, supports liberal politics and economics, and is willing to invest heavily in these principles.
Indeed, Hasan's sectarian descendants have underwritten small business ventures throughout the undeveloped world. They recently established a secular University of Central Asia intended to benefit everyone in the region, including their many poor co-religionists there. The source of a long series of enlightened initiatives from agriculture to art exhibits is the Geneva-based Aga Khan Development Network, supported by investment and tithing; it may be best known in the West for its valued architecture prize.
Is such modernity also the eventual destiny of the puritan Wahabis? It may seem unlikely, but one could argue that such a transition could already be underway. Saudi Arabia's clerics originally rejected telephones and other technology until they were shown that phones could be used to transmit the Koran. The country is by now dependent on such tools of modernity, and subject to their subversions. Beyond technology, Saudi Arabia has established judicial institutions that operate outside such Koranic economic prohibitions as those involving interest and insurance. The kingdom's participation in the outside world has left it no choice; without such institutions, it could not support the economy made possible by its wealth, nor use that wealth to spread its influence. Yet it is nonetheless in a bind: The very wealth it uses to export its fundamentalist beliefs derives from institutions and tools that tend to undermine those beliefs.