Rashid al-Din Sinan, the greatest of the medieval Nizari Ismaili da’is in Syria, was born into a Twelver Shi’i family in Basra, Iraq, around 1133. He worked as a schoolmaster, eventually converting to Nizari Ismailism in his youth. Sinan subsequently went to Alamut, the central headquarters of the Ismaili da’wa, to further study Ismaili doctrines, where he met Imam Hasan Ala Dhikrihi’l-salam.
Shortly after his succession to the Imamat in 1162, Imam Hasan Ala Dhikrihi’l-salam sent Sinan to Syria to succeed the chief da’i Abu Muhammad. According to some sources, Imam selected Sinan due to his “energy and strength of character.”1
At the time, the Syrian Ismailis were facing a variety of issues. The areas in which the community was residing was not fertile, thereby causing many to migrate to Hama, Hims, and Aleppo in order to earn a living. Furthermore, the invasions by the Templars (a Catholic military) on Ismaili territories forcing them to pay tributes, and the disputes within the community added to the complexity of issues.
A ‘skillful strategist and a master of the art of diplomacy,’2 Sinan promptly ended the internal dissensions that had been festering in the community and re-organised the da’wa. He played a prominent role in the regional politics of his time resorting to diplomacy in order to safeguard the security and independence of the Nizari Ismailis. He entered into negotiations with the Crusaders, the Zanghids (local rulers of Mosul), and Salah al-Din (Saladin), founder of the Ayyubid dynasty.
Willey states that “the cordial relations Sinan established with Saladin continued long after their deaths. The Ayyubid rulers of Syria who succeeded Saladin allowed the Ismailis to retain their castles, and supported them militarily in resisting the Crusaders.”
The well-known Sunni author Sibt ibn al-Jawzi (d. 1256) described Sinan as “a man of knowledge, statecraft and skill in winning men’s hearts.”1 The Syrian Ismaili da’i Nur al-Din Ahmad described Sinan as “eloquent in expression, powerful in argument, sharp of vision, swift in improvisation, and unmatched in the principles of allegorical interpretation, poetry and astronomy.”1
In the three decades that he was chief da’i, Sinan led the Syrian Nizari Ismailis to the peak of power and fame until his death in 1193.The echoes of Sinan’s achievements still reverberate among the Syrian Ismailis of today.
1Nasseh Ahmad Mirza, Syrian Ismailism, The Ever Living Line of Imamate, Curzon Press, Surrey. 1997
2Farhad Daftary, Historical Dictionary of the Ismailis, The Scarecrow Press,Inc. 2012
Peter Willey, Eagle’s Nest, Ismaili Castles of Iran and Syria, I.B. Tauris Publishers in association with The Institute of Ismaili Studies, 2005
Compiled by Nimira Dewji
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