When echoes of the past catch up

Words like 'thug', 'zealot' and 'assassin' have their origins buried in the often bloody history of religion

The Straits Times/December 1, 2002
By Janadas Devan

Mention 'religion', and what words immediately come to mind?

Grace and charity, if you happen to be Roman Catholic; Sat-Chit-Ananda (or Being-Consciousness-Peace) if you happen to be Hindu; Ahimsa and Nirvana, if you happen to be Buddhist.

Indeed, these words, or variations of them, are common to all religions. So are love, holiness, beauty, truth, joy and happiness; and concepts like eternity, unity, infinity, Oneness, Such-ness, the All, and so on and so forth - the list is endless.

But how about thug, zealot, assassin? Surely, those are not words that one associates with 'religion'. But as it so happens, they are religious words - or more accurately, they derive from the history of religion. That history was often bloody, and these words encrypt, like fossils, that bloodiness.

Zealot comes from the Greek zelotes, meaning an uncompromising and extreme partisan. It was originally the name given to a Jewish sect around the time of Christ, which aimed at a Jewish theocracy, and were fearsome in their opposition to the Romans.

The Judeo-Christian world has come to admire their dedication - thus it is still a compliment to call someone zealous, but not their methods, including putting to the sword any Jew who disagreed with them - thus it is not a compliment to call someone a zealot.

No such ambiguity attaches to thug - from the Hindi thag or the Sanskrit sthaga, meaning deceivers or cheats. In the late 18th century, the word was applied to a band of Kali-worshipping marauders, who became known as the Thugees.

They made a speciality of mixing with their victims (usually travellers), befriending them, then suddenly, when an opportunity offered itself, throwing a rope round their necks, strangulating them, then plundering them and burying their bodies.

An official of the British East India Company reported in 1823: 'The Thugees are composed of all castes, Mahommedans even were admitted, but the great majority are Hindus, and among these the Brahmins are in the greatest numbers, and generally direct the operations of the different bands.'

Some things don't change. Affairs are still conducted in much the same manner in many parts of India. Today's thugees, though, go by the more respectable name of 'politicians'.

A similar, but more alarming, sense of deja vu attaches to assassins - a word which first surfaced in 1090 as the name of a renegade sect of Shia Muslims, the Hashashun or Hashishin.

They were so-called because members of the sect, when carrying out their missions, seemed so serene in accepting their own deaths, they were believed to have been drugged with hashish. Thus, they were known as the Hashishin, later corrupted to Assassins.

The sect was founded by Hasan Ibn al-Sabbah, a Persian of 'immense culture, a devotee of poetry profoundly interested in the latest advance of science', and 'an inseparable companion of the poet Omar Khayyam', according to the Lebanese scholar, Amin Maalouf.

Indignant at the fall of the Shia dynasty, the Buwayhids, in Persia, and at the rise to dominance of the Seljuks, upholders of Sunni orthodoxy, across the region, Hasan established a secret politico-religious organisation to reform the Shia caliphate and take revenge on the Sunnis.

'All members of the organisation,' writes Professor Maalouf, 'from novices to the grand master, were ranked according to their level of knowledge, reliability and courage.

'Hasan's favourite technique for sowing terror among his enemies was murder. Members of the sect were sent individually - or more rarely, in small groups of two or three - on assignments to kill some chosen personality. They generally disguised themselves as merchants or ascetics and moved around the city, familiarising themselves with the habits of their victims.

'Although the preparation was always conducted in the utmost secrecy, the execution had to take place in public, indeed before the largest possible crowd.'

Besides striking terror among his opponents by killing off prominent Sunnis - like the architect of Seljuk power, the Nizam al-Mulk, who was assassinated in 1092 in a spectacular raid on his palace - Hasan wished also to advertise the heroism of his group.

His executioners were called fidain (or fedayeen) - or in modern parlance, 'suicide commandos', for they themselves were almost always killed on the spot.

Some other aspects of the Hashishin also have a contemporary aspect. For one thing, like the Al-Qaeda in Afghanistan, Hasan took great pains to establish 'an autonomous fiefdom', far from the major powers. He found it in a remote corner of Syria.

Secondly, like Al-Qaeda's leaders, the chief figures in the Hashishin were astonishingly elusive. One of the most elusive was a man called Rashid al-Din Sinan, a ruthless character who managed to frighten even the great Salah al-Din Yusuf (or Saladin).

Sinan, who was never captured, passed into legend as the 'Old Man of the Mountain'. If Osama bin Laden is not captured or killed soon, he may well be transmogrified in the same fashion.

History may not repeat itself precisely, but it does have a nasty habit of rhyming.

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