On The Assassin's Creed: Part 1 (of 3)

To date, the Assassin’s Creed videogame series has sold over 73 million copies worldwide. I am not one of the 73 million, so what I say about the game comes entirely from secondary sources.

The main reason I was able to trace this week’s graffito (which comes from one of my university’s bathrooms) to the video game was because of something written underneath it. In the bottom right corner of my photo, you can see the beginning of another graffito:

“Quoting a video game…whack!”

(‘Whack’ here is slang for “crazy” or “ridiculous,” but I would also point out the eerie coincidence that, in Mafia circles, ‘whack’ means “to assassinate.”)

I used this as a clue to do some research. I found out, after putting “Nothing is true…” into a Google search, that the video game in which it is mentioned is Assassin’s Creed.

Though the video game begins chronologically in present-day New York, it travels back in time to Persia and Syria and explores the shadowy history of a sect of Ismaili Muslims known as “The Assassins.” Being that this is a philosophy blog, I have a few philosophical things to say about the graffito:

“Nothing is true

Everything is permitted”

However, in researching this week’s post, I’ve found that there is a rich and mysterious history to the above phrase, and this history deserves the lion’s share of our attention.

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The phrase is referred to in the video game as The Assassin’s Creed. Philosophically, the first part of the phrase (“Nothing is true”) is self-negating and gives rise, in philosophy, to paradoxes, many of which have gone unresolved for centuries. Why is the first part of the phrase self-negating? Because if nothing were true, how would we understand the sentence itself? Is the sentence “nothing is true” not true as well? We spoke last week about multiculturalism. It’s a creed among many multiculturalists that “everything is relative,” that no group’s truth claims are more valid than another’s. This phrase, “everything is relative,” is also self-negating and for exactly the same reason as the first half of The Assassin’s Creed.

If everything is relative, and nothing is ABSOLUTELY true, then there is no reason to believe that “everything is relative” because “everything is relative” is itself a statement of absolute truth. Likewise, if nothing is true, then we can doubt (or negate) the very truth of the sentence “nothing is true.”

Philosophers call this problem the Liar Paradox:

http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/liar-paradox/

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But where does the Assassin’s Creed originate? The answer, like all history, is not so simple. In the year 632, in the lush oasis of Medina, the Prophet Muhammad died, and the faithful were left to ask who would succeed him? This prompted the first of many divisions within Islam. Sunni Muslims (today a majority) did not believe that Muhammad had designated a successor. So, through a kind of democratic process, the people chose Abu Bakr to be their leader. Abu Bakr, though, was not related to Muhammad. He was only a close friend.

Also in Medina at the time was a smaller group (who would become the Shi’a) who believed that the successor to Muhammad should be his closest male heir. Muhammad didn’t have any sons who survived infancy, so the closest male heir was his son-in-law Ali. For Shiis, Ali would become the first Imam, not a prophet but their spiritual and political leader. To Shiis, Imams were (and are) authoritative teachers, “‘temples’ or ‘treasuries’ of…divine knowledge.” Only one could exist on the earth at any given time. Imami Shiis also believed that their early Imams were sinless and infallible. Sunnis, however, did not, and do not, venerate Imams in the way that Shiis did. Instead, Sunnis “defended the historical caliphate,” the caliph being a position not unlike the pope, that was chosen, in similar papal fashion, by consensus.

This ideological difference is still felt today. For Sunnis, a local leader needs only to be a righteous man who knows the Quran. For Shiis, though, there needs to be a line of authority, a genealogy, that reaches back to the first Imam, Ali, and eventually back to the Prophet Muhammad.

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In 765, there was a further division, now among the Shiis, over the issue of Imam Jafar ibn Sadiq, the sixth Imam. Some of the Shiis believed that, after Jafar died, Jafar’s son, Ismail, would be the last Imam. He would rule as the seventh and, after he had gone into occultation (the last Imam didn’t die but, instead, disappeared for a time), his followers would await his return one day as the Mahdi; his return would coincide with the Second Coming of Christ.

However, after Ismail died young, some Shiis accepted the authority of his brother Musa. This brought about the division between Ismailis and Ithna’asharis. The Ithna’asharis would become known as Twelvers because they would go on to recognize a total of twelve Imams, six more after Jafar. 

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