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The Hashshashin (also Hashishin, Hashashiyyin, or Hashasheen) from which the word assassin is thought to originate, was the Arabic designation of the Nizari branch of the Ismā'īlī Shia Muslims during the Middle Ages.[1] The Nizari, or Hashshashin, as they were designated by their enemies,[2] split from the Isma'ili Fatimid Empire following a dispute regarding the succession of their spiritual and political leader the Fatimid Caliph Ma'ad al-Mustansir Billah.



The sect referred to themselves as al-Da'wa al-Jadīda (Arabic:الدعوة الجديدة), which means The New Call (to Conversion), as opposed to the Fatimid Old Call to Conversion.

The designation assassin, it has been suggested by some, simply means followers of Hassan (which refers to the group's master Hassan-i Sabbah). The term Hashshashin is also widely suggested to have been derived from the plural of the Arabic word "Hashshash" (Arabic:حشّاش) which means "hashish user"), although this remains a matter of dispute. A contemporary variation on the theory, described by Burman, is that Hashshashin was a derogatory epithet applied by the sect's critics, who regarded neighboring Nizaris with suspicion due to their secretive society, and their employment of philosophical concepts and heterodox theology. The term may have originated as a metaphor[3] to describe the Nizari's odd behavior as "crazed people," as in "those people who are addled, as if by cannabis," and that the epithet may have gradually been presented as fact by later enemies of the sect. The Nizari's use of psychoactives (mainly Cannabis) has been dismissed as myth by many contemporary scholars, but it has to be remembered that it was a popular myth during the period. It may also refer to "those who produce hashish," however this etymology is also disputed. The word Hashish (of probable Persian origin) refers to resin collected from cannabis flowers. The popular viewpoint may have influenced the crusaders, and certainly Marco Polo's fabled account of his visit to Alamut in 1273 makes reference to it.[4] By either or both of those two sources the distorted term "assassin" may have entered Western vocabulary.

Nevertheless, the most acceptable etymology of the word assassin is the simple one: it comes from Hassan (Hassan ibn al-Sabbah) and his followers, and so had it been for centuries. The noise around the hashish version was invented in 1809, in Paris, by the French orientalist Sylvestre de Sacy, whom on July the 7th of that year, presented a lecture at the Academy of Inscriptions and Fine Letters (Académie des inscriptions et belles lettres) – part of the Institute of France - in which he retook the Marco Polo chronicle concerning drugs and this sect of murderers, and associated it with the word. Curiously his theory had great success and apparently still has.

Jacques Boudet, Les mots de l’histoire, Ed. Larousse-Bordas, Paris, 1998

Many scholars have argued, and demonstrated convincingly, that the attribution of the epithet 'hashish eaters' or 'hashish takers' is a misnomer derived from enemies of the Isma'ilis and was never used by Muslim chroniclers or sources. It was therefore used in a pejorative sense of 'enemies' or 'disreputable people'. This sense of the term survived into modern times with the common Egyptian usage of the term Hashasheen in the 1930s to mean simply 'noisy or riotous'. It is unlikely that the austere Hassan-i Sabbah indulged personally in drug taking. ...there is no mention of that drug hashish in connection with the Persian Assassins - especially in the library of Alamut ("the secret archives").

Edward Burman, The Assassins - Holy Killers of Islam, Ed. Crucible, Wellingborough, 1987

[...]their contemporaries in the Muslim world would call them hash-ishiyun, "hashish-smokers"; some Orientalists thought that this was the origin of the word "assassin," which in many European languages was more terrifying yet. ...The Truth is different. According to texts that have come down to us from Alamut, Hassan-i Sabbah liked to call his disciples Asasiyun, meaning people who are faithful to the Asās, meaning "foundation" of the faith. This is the word, misunderstood by foreign travelers, that seemed similar to "hashish".

Amin Maalouf, Samarkand, Interlink Publishing Group, New York, 1998


Despite being a minority within a minority, the Isma'ilis, under the leadership of their Imams, succeeded in establishing a generational secretive underground movement against the Abbasid Caliphate. They based their ideas on Ancient Greek philosophy, mysticism, and seeking an end to perceived corruption and greed[citation needed]. They would turn their revolutionary ideals into reality by establishing the first Shi'ite state, the Fatimid Empire, spanning across the Mediterranean and Levant, with its capital in Cairo. The empire aimed to bring scientific and social breakthroughs to all its people, including religious freedom, and, indeed, the Fatimids ushered in some of the greatest developments in the Islamic Golden Age.

When in 1094, the eighth Fatimid Caliph and Isma'ili Imam Ma'ad al-Mustansir Billah took ill in Cairo, his powerful Vizier, Al-Afdal, took the reins of state power and appointed the Caliph's younger son Al-Musta'li (the Vizier's brother-in-law) as Caliph, in a palace coup. Nizār, the actual heir apparent, left for Alexandria, where he was given strong local support and led another rebellion, only to be defeated and executed on his brother's orders. This caused a split amongst the Isma'ilis, and Nizār's supporters, called the Nizaris or after their martyred leader, moved east and continued his cause under the charismatic leadership of Persian herald Hassan-i Sabbah.

Artistic rendering of Hassan-i Sabbah.

Hassan-i Sabbah was known before as the leading Isma'ili herald "Da'i" of the secret Fatimid propaganda machine within the enemy Abbasid Caliphate. Now leading the rebel Nizari sect, he successfully gained support of the majority of Fatimid Shi'a within the Levant, Persia, Iraq, and a small underground following within the Fatimid Empire's heart Egypt and the rest of North Africa. However, by breaking with the Fatimid Empire, the followers of Hassan-i Sabbah found themselves alone and outnumbered in enemy territory.

Not merely content to survive, but instead determined to build a new utopia, the Nizāriyya formulated a strategy of gaining control of strategically important fortresses by covertly converting local inhabitants living within and around strategically vital fortresses in Isma'ili territory. They established a new type of state within a state which consisted of a number of "island" fortified settlements within a sea of hostility in present day Iran, Iraq, Syria and Lebanon. The formal origin of the Federation of the Assassins is marked as 1090 when Hassan-i Sabbah established his first stronghold in Daylam at the fortress of Alamut (Eagle's Nest in Persian) south of the Caspian Sea. Alamut remained the capital of the Federation of the Assassins, and the home of its rulers, styled "The Lords of Alamut," until its destruction.

Tactics: assassination, intimidation and intrigue

Unable to mount a conventional military army, the Nizāriyya developed a form of asymmetric warfare transforming the act of political assassination into a system of survival and defense against their foes. They trained highly capable sleeper commandos (trained in languages, science, trade, and so on) known as Fedayeen, who would covertly infiltrate enemy positions and remain undercover. If Nizari civilians were facing pogroms or their forts faced imminent attack, the Fedayeen were activated to prevent an attack.

Map of the crusader states, showing the area controlled by the Assassins around Masyaf, slightly above the center, in white.

Fedayeen used their well-known skills for political goals without necessarily killing; for example, a victim, usually high-placed, might one morning find a Hashshashin dagger lying on his pillow upon awakening. This was a plain hint to the targeted individual that he was not safe anywhere, that maybe even his inner group of servants had been infiltrated by the assassins, and that whatever course of action had brought him into conflict with the Hashshashins would have to be stopped if he wanted to live.[5][6]

Within Persia they employed their tactics directly against the Seljuk Turks, who had been persecuting Nizari people. They were meticulous in killing the targeted individual, seeking to do so without any additional casualties and loss of innocent life, although they were careful to cultivate their terrifying reputation by slaying their victims in public. Typically, they approached using a disguise, or were already sleeper agents in an entourage. Preferring a small hidden blade or dagger, they rejected poison, bows and other weapons that may have allowed the attacker to escape and live.

Within the Levant it is believed that Saladin, incensed by several almost-successful Hashshashin attempts on his life, besieged their chief Syrian stronghold of Masyaf during his reconquest of Outremer in 1176. He later lifted the siege after parley, and thereafter attempted to maintain good relations with the sect. The sect's own claims tell of an unsourced account in which assassin Rashid ad-Din Sinan sneaked into Saladin's tent in the heart of his camp, and left a poisoned cake and a note on Saladin's chest as he slept saying "You are in our grip" and then sneaked back out of the camp unharmed. Another account tells of a letter sent to Saladin's maternal uncle, vowing death to the entire royal line; perhaps no idle threat. Whatever the truth of these accounts, Saladin's uncle clearly heeded their warning, and desisted.

The Hashshashin often took contracts from outsiders. Richard the Lionheart was among those suspected of commissioning them to assassinate Conrad de Montferrat.[7] In most cases the Hashshashin were aimed at retaining the balance of their enemies.[citation needed]

Notable victims include the notable Abbasid vizier Nizam al-Mulk (1092), the Fatimid vizier al-Afdal Shahanshah (1122) (responsible for imprisoning Nizar), Ibn al-Khashshab of Aleppo (1125), al-Bursuqi of Mosul (1126), Raymond II of Tripoli (1152), Conrad de Montferrat (1192), and Prince Edward (later Edward I of England) was wounded by a poisoned Hashshashin dagger in 1271.

Myths and legends

The library of Alamut was destroyed, along with much of their Persian power base, and thus much of the sect's own records were lost; most accounts of them stem from Arab historians of the period and Marco Polo's accounts. Most Muslim contemporaries were hostile toward Nizari; in fact they were described using the term Batini. The term was sometimes used pejoratively to refer to those, especially Isma'ili, who discerned an inner, esoteric level of meaning (batin) in the Qur'an. This constant religious estrangement would eventually see them go as far as allying with Western Christian invaders against Muslims on a number of occasions when it suited their interests.

Much of the current lore surrounding the Assassins roots from Marco Polo, who claimed to have visited Alamut in 1273 during his journey east (a visit widely considered fictional since the stronghold had been destroyed by the Mongols in 1256). Polo wrote that future assassins were subjected an initiation rite in which they were drugged to simulate "dying," and later awakened in a garden flowing with wine and served a sumptuous feast by beautiful virgins. The supplicant was then convinced he was in Heaven and that the sect's leader, Hassan-i Sabbah, was a representation of the divinity and that all his orders should be followed, even unto death. Other legends of the Hashshashin are sourced to returning Crusaders from the Levant who claimed to have encountered Syrian Nizari leader Rashid ad-Din Sinan (the old man of the mountain) in the fortress of Masyaf.

The use of intoxicants is never mentioned in contemporary Ismaili sources, nor from rival Sunnis and Shia, despite their suffering from Hashshashin assassinations. For example, Farhad Daftary in The Assassin Legends: Myths of the Isma'ilis[1] says: "At the same time, within the crusading-culture of a pre- and early-modern Europe, the Syrian and Persian Nizaris took shape as Muslim mercenaries who murdered their victims while high on opium or hashish. If this propagandist concoction of a 'stoned' assassin fails to fit the complex reality of the discipline and training required for committing what was always an explicitly political act, the popular notion of Nizaris as a community of killers also denies their rich, multivalent culture."

Edward Burman, in his The Assassins - Holy Killers of Islam says: "There is no mention of that drug [hashish] in connection with the Persian Assassins - especially in the library of Alamut ('the secret archives')." Additionally, the Encyclopedia of the Orient[8] refutes this allegation. Indeed Hassan-i Sabbah is recorded as being particularly harsh with users of intoxicants. He felt intoxicants undermined the strict discipline required for the Nizari to survive. He made a public example of his two sons by executing them for drinking alcohol, which he believed set a bad example for a community facing such insurmountable odds. Benjamin of Tudela who traveled one hundred years before Marco Polo mentions the Al-Hashshashin and their leader in the fertile crescent Al-Sinan whom the crusaders dubbed "the Old Man of the Mountain." He notes their principal city to be Qadmous.

Modern scholarship began[when?] with Soviet scientists, who in order to better understand communities existing within their vast empire, set about conducting surveys and discovered small Isma'ili communities isolated by treacherous terrain living within central Asia. Professor Vladimir Alexeyevich Ivanov, a Russian Orientalist, collected and published copies of these documents from Alamut.
View of Alamut besieged.

Including first-hand accounts, accompanied by his commentary of the Hashshashin from original sources. The Nizari continued the work started by the Soviets, and later Western scholars, of collecting, preserving and publishing literary works from Nizari Isma'ili communities. In 1977 the Institute of Ismaili Studies was set up in order to publish scholarly work by leading academics on the Nizari. Much of this work deals with the Hashshashin period, including their history, science, and philosophy.[citation needed]

Downfall and aftermath

The power of the Hashshashin was destroyed by the Mongol warlord Hulagu Khan during the Mongol siege of Alamut on December 15, 1256. The Hashshashin recaptured and held Alamut for a few months in 1275 but their political power was lost. The Syrian branch of the Hashshashin was taken over by the Mamluk Sultan Baibars in 1273. The Mamluks continued to use the services of the remaining Hashshashins: Ibn Battuta recorded in the 14th century their fixed rate of pay per murder. In exchange, they were allowed to exist. Eventually, they resorted to the act of Taqq'iya (dissimulation), hiding their true identities until their Imams would awaken them.

They are survived by the Shia Imami Isma'ili Muslims in the contemporary world, who are currently led by the Aga Khan IV, their 49th Imam.

Literature and popular culture

  • Vladimir Bartol's novel Alamut, published in 1938, deals with Hassan-i Sabbāh and the Hashshashin, and is named after the fortress of Alamut. Bartol's view of the Hashshashin is highly negative, seeing Sabbāh as unscrupulous and manipulative, and his followers as fanatics. Bartol was influenced by the recent assassination of King Alexander I of Yugoslavia and the rise of totalitarianism in Europe.
  • Friedrich Nietzsche alludes to the Hashshashin in the third book of On the Genealogy of Morality as "that invincible Order of Assassins."
  • In the novel The Walking Drum by Louis L'Amour, Mathurin Kerbouchard has to rescue his father from the Alamut.
  • The Hashshashin appear in the Dan Brown novel Angels & Demons.
  • The main characters in Peter Berling's The Children of the Grail live in Alamut until its destruction.
  • The Hashshashin and the Old Man on the Mountain appear in several novels by William S. Burroughs.
  • A latter-day version of the Hashshashin and the Old Man of the Mountain figure into the labyrinthine plot of A.W. Hill's alternate reality novel Nowhere-Land, which also features the chimerical CIA agent known as Philby Greenstreet.
  • In the video game Assassin's Creed, many elements of which are based on the novel Alamut by Vladimir Bartol[9], the player controls a Hashshashin[10] named Altaïr. Masyaf is featured as your "home", from which you start each mission. The Old Man of the Mountain (Al Mualim) is featured as the main character Altaïr's mentor and master.
  • Prayers for the Assassin by Robert Ferrigno includes a former fedayeen principal character.
  • The game "Broken Sword" shows the main character following the trail of a Hashshashin preventing the reforging of a sword by the Templars.
  • In the fantasy game "Gothic 3", the Assassins (completely based on Hashshashins) is a playable faction, located in the southern area of the World in the desert known as Varant.
  • In the Robin of Sherwood episode, The Greatest Enemy, the Saracen band member, Nasir, gets a visit from two mysterious Saracens. When questioned about them later, Nasir confesses to the others that they were Hashishin and that he used to be one of them.

See also


  1. ^ a b The Assassin Legends: Myths of the Isma'ilis
  2. ^ [|Booth, Martin] (2005). Cannabis: A History. Macmillan. p. 63. ISBN 0312424949, 9780312424947. http://books.google.com/books?id=O7AoY6ljSygC&pg=PA63&lpg=PA63#v=onepage&q=&f=false. 
  3. ^ Or a pun.
  4. ^ Polo, Marco. The Travels of Marco Polo. Plain Label Books. ISBN 1-603-03300-9. 
  5. ^ Daftary (1999). The Isma'ilis: their History and Doctrines. Cambridge University Press. pp. 324–338. ISBN 0-521-42974-9. 
  6. ^ Lewis, Bernard (1967). The Assassins: A Radical Sect in Islam. Weidenfeld & Nicholson. ISBN 0-465-00498-9. 
  7. ^ Daftary, Farhad (1994). The Assassin legends. I.B.Tauris. pp. 72–73. ISBN 185043705X. 
  8. ^ Assassins at the Encyclopedia of the Orient
  9. ^ Nick Doerr. "Assassin's Creed producer speaks out, we listen intently [update 1"]. http://www.ps3fanboy.com/2006/11/10/assassins-creed-producer-speaks-out-we-listen-intently/. Retrieved November 3, 2008. 
  10. ^ "Interview: Assassin's Creed". Computer and videogames. http://www.computerandvideogames.com/article.php?id=148805. Retrieved November 3, 2008. 



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