The Hashshashin (also Hashishin, Hashashiyyin or Assassins) were an offshoot of the Ismā'īlī sect of shiite Muslims. After a quarrel about the succesion of leadership in the ruling Fatimide dynasty in Cairo around the year 1090, the losing Nizāriyya faction were driven from Egypt. They established a number of fortified settlements in present day Iran, Iraq, Syria and Lebanon under the charismatic leader Hasan i Sabbah. Persecuted as infidels by the dominant sunni sect in the Muslim world, they sent dedicated suicide murderers to eliminate prominent Sunni leaders whom they considered "impious usurpers." The sect was decimated by the invading Mongols, their last stronghold being flattened by Hülegü Khan in the year 1272.
Some scholars believe the term Hashshashin, a name given to them by their enemies, was derived from the Arabic "haššāšīn" (حشّاشين, "hashish user"), which they are alleged to have ingested prior to their attacks, but this etymology is disputed. The sect referred to themselves as al-da'wa al-jadīda (Arabic:الدعوة الجديدة), which means the new doctrine, and were known within the organization as Fedayeen.
Most Muslim contemporaries were obviously suspicious of these "Holy Killers"; in fact they were described using the term Batini. The term was sometimes used pejoratively to refer to those, especially Ismaili, who distinguished an inner, esoteric level of meaning (batin) in the Qur'an. This constant religious estrangement would eventually see them go so far as allying with the Occidental Christians against Muslims on a number of occasions.
Legends abound as to the tactics used to induct members into what became both a religious and a political organization. One such legend is that future assassins were subjected to rites similar to those of other mystery cults, in which the subject was made to believe that he was in imminent danger of death. The twist was that they were drugged to simulate "dying", to later awaken in a garden flowing with wine and served a sumptuous feast by virgins. The supplicant was then convinced he was in Heaven and that the cult's leader, Hassan-i-Sabah, was a representative of the divinity and all his orders should be followed, even unto death. This legend derives from Marco Polo, who visited Alamut after it fell to the Mongols in the thirteenth century.
Other parts of the cult's indoctrination claim that the future assassins were brought to Alamut at a young age and, while they matured, inhabited the aforementioned paradisaic gardens and were kept drugged with hashish; as in the previous version, Hassan-i-Sabah occupied this garden as a divine emissary. At a certain point (when their initiation could be said to have begun), the drug was withdrawn from them and they were removed from the gardens and flung into a dungeon. There they were informed that if they wished to return to the paradise they had so recently enjoyed, it would be at Sabbah's discretion. Therefore, they must follow his directions exactly up to and including murder and self-sacrifice.
The group transformed the act of murder into a system directed largely against Seljuk Muslim rulers who had been persecuting their sects. They were meticulous in killing the targeted individual, seeking to do so without any additional casualties and innocent loss of life, although they were careful to cultivate their terrifying reputation by slaying their victims in public, often in mosques. Typically, they approached using a disguise. Their weapon of choice being a dagger, they rejected poison, bows and other weapons that allowed the attacker to escape. For unarmed combat, the Hashshashin practiced a fighting style called Janna which incorporates striking techniques, grappling and low kicks. However, under no circumstances did they commit suicide, preferring to be killed by their captors.
There are also, possibly apocryphal, stories that they used their well-known deadliness for political goals without necessarily killing. For example, a victim, usually high-placed, might one morning find a Hashshashin dagger lying on their pillow upon awakening. This was a plain hint to the targeted individual that he was safe nowhere, that maybe even his inner group of servants had been infiltrated by the cult, and that whatever course of action had brought him into conflict with them would have to be stopped if he wanted to live.
Etymology of the word "assassin"
The name "assassin" is commonly believed to be a mutation of the Arabic "haššāšīn" (حشّاشين). However, there are those who dispute this etymology, arguing that it originates from Marco Polo's account of his visit to Alamut in 1273, in which he describes a drug whose effects are more like those of alcohol than of hashish. It is suggested by some writers that assassin simply means 'followers of Al-Hassan' (or Hassan-i-Sabah, the Sheikh of Alamut (see below)). Others suggest that since hashish-eaters were generally ostracized in the Middle Ages the word "Hashshashin" had become a common synonym for "outlaws". So the attribution of Hassan's Ismaili sect with this term is not necessarily a clue for drug usage. Some common accounts of their connection with hashish are that these "assassins" would take hashish before missions in order to calm themselves; others say that it helped to boost their strength, and turned them into madmen in battle. Yet other accounts state it was used in their initiation rites in order to show the neophyte the sensual pleasures awaiting him in the afterlife. The connection between their mysticism and that drug is not something subject to reliable or consistent historical accounts; this is not surprising given their secrecy and infamy. The word Hashish (of probable Arabic origin) refers to resin collected from cannabis flowers. This could be the true drug of the Assassins as described by Marco Polo. Important to remember, however, is that both alcohol and narcotics such as cannabis are "Haram," or strictly prohibited, by most schools of Islam. Therefore, it is possible that the label or attribution of Hashshashin to drug use was to portray them negatively. As they conceived of themselves as political and religious revolutionaries, and were considered a danger to the status quo of Crusader Age Persia and Arabia, it would make sense that many would attempt to discredit them.
History of the Hashshashin
Although apparently known as early as the 8th century, the foundation of the Assassins is usually marked as 1090 when Hasan-i Sabbah established his stronghold in the Daylam mountains south of the Caspian Sea at Alamut. Hasan set the aim of the Assassins to destroy the power of the Abbasid Caliphate by murdering its most powerful members. Much of the current western lore surrounding the Assassins stems from Marco Polo's supposed visit to Alamut in 1273, which is widely considered fictional (especially as the stronghold had reportedly been destroyed by the Mongols in 1256).
Benjamin of Tudela who traveled one hundred years before Marco Polo mentions the Al-Hashshashin and their leader as "the Old Man." He notes their principal city to be Qadmous.
The group inspired terror out of all proportion to their scant numbers and territory. The members were organized into rigid classes, based upon their initiation into the secrets of the order. The devotees constituted a class that sought martyrdom and followed orders with unquestioned devotion, orders which included assassination. Because of the secretive nature of the order, it has often been invoked in conspiracy theories.
Notable victims include, Nizam al-Mulk (1092; although some historical sources contradict this claim), the Fatimad vizier al-Afdal (1122), ibn al-Khashshab of Aleppo (1124), il-Bursuqi of Mosul (1126), Raymond II of Tripoli (1152), Conrad of Montferrat (1192), and Prince Edward, later Edward I of England was wounded by a poisoned assassin dagger in 1271. 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 but quickly lifted the siege after parley, and thereafter attempted to maintain good relations with the sect. The sect's own extant accounts tell of Rashid ad-Din Sinan, stealing into Saladin's tent in the heart of his camp, and leaving a poisoned cake and a note saying "You are in our power" on Saladin's chest as he slept. 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 (and likely it will remain a mystery) he clearly heeded their warning, and desisted.
The Hashshashin were often motivated by outsiders. The murder of the Patriarch of Jerusalem, for example, was instigated by the Hospitallers. It is rumoured the assassins of Conrad of Montferrat may have even been hired by Richard the Lionheart. In most cases they were aimed at retaining the balance of the Hashshashin's enemies.
The power of the Hashshashin was destroyed by the Mongol warlord Hulagu Khan, but several Ismaili sects share something of a common lineage. During the Mongol assault of Alamut on 1256 December 15, the library of the sect was destroyed, along with much of their power base, and thus much of the sect's own records were lost; most accounts of them stem from the highly reputable Arab historians of the period. The Syrian branch of the Hashshashin was destroyed in 1273 by Mamluk Saltan Baibars. The Hashshashin, in 1275, captured and held Alamut for a few months but their political power was lost and they were eventually absorbed into other Isma'ilite groups. They continued being used under the Mamluks, Ibn Battuta recording in the 14th century their fixed rate of pay per murder. This is an edited version of an article that was originally published in Medieval Islamic Civilization, An Encyclopaedia, Vol. I, p. 72-73, ed. Josef W. Meri, Routledge (New York-London, 2006)
Assassin is a name that was applied originally by the Crusader circles in the Near East and other medieval Europeans to the Nizari Ismailis of Syria. From the opening decade of the twelfth century, the Crusaders had numerous encounters with the Syrian Nizaris, who reached the peak of their power under the leadership of Rashid al-Din Sinan (d. 1193), their most famous da‘i and the original “Old Man of the Mountain” of the Crusaders. It was, indeed, in Sinan’s time (1163—1193) that the Crusaders and their European observers became particularly enchanted by the highly exaggerated reports and rumors about the daring behavior of the Nizari fida’is, who were believed to selectively target and remove their community’s prominent enemies in specific localities. As a result, the Nizari Ismailis became famous in Europe as the Assassins, the followers of the mysterious “Old Man of the Mountain.”
The term assassin, which appeared in European languages in a variety of forms (e.g., assassini, assissini, and heyssisini), was evidently based on variants of the Arabic word
hashishi (pl. hashishiyya, hashishin). The latter was applied by other Muslims to Nizaris in the pejorative sense of “low-class rabble” or “people of lax morality,” without any derivative explanation reflecting any special connection between the Nizaris and hashish, a product of hemp. This term of abuse was picked up locally in Syria by the Crusaders and European travelers and adopted as the designation of the Nizari Ismailis. Subsequently, after the etymology of the term had been forgotten, it came to be used in Europe as a noun meaning “murderer.” Thus, a misnomer rooted in abuse eventually resulted in a new word, assassin, in European languages.
Medieval Europeans—and especially the Crusaders—who remained ignorant of Islam as a religion and of its internal divisions were also responsible for fabricating and disseminating (in the Latin Orient as well as in Europe) a number of interconnected legends about the secret practices of the Nizaris, the so-called “assassin legends.” In particular, the legends sought to provide a rational explanation for the seemingly irrational self-sacrificing behavior of the Nizari fida’is; as such, they revolved around the recruitment and training of the youthful devotees. The legends developed in stages from the time of Sinan and throughout the thirteenth century. Soon, the seemingly blind obedience of the fida’is to their leader was attributed, by their occidental observers, to the influence of an intoxicating drug like hashish. There is no evidence that suggests that hashish or any other drug was used in any systematic fashion to motivate the fida’is; contemporary non-Ismaili Muslim sources that are generally hostile toward the Ismailis remain silent on this subject. In all probability, it was the abusive name hashishi that gave rise to the imaginative tales disseminated by the Crusaders.
The assassin legends culminated in a synthesized version that was popularised by Marco Polo, who combined the hashish legend with a number of other legends and also added his own contribution in the form of a secret “garden of paradise,” where the fida’is supposedly received part of their training. By the fourteenth century, the assassin legends had acquired wide currency in Europe and the Latin Orient, and they were accepted as reliable descriptions of the secret practices of the Nizari Ismailis, who were generally portrayed in European sources as a sinister order of drugged assassins. Subsequently, Westerners retained the name assassins as a general reference to the Nizari Ismailis, although the term had now become a new common noun in European languages meaning “murderer.” It was A.L. Silvestre de Sacy (1758—1838) who succeeded in solving the mystery of the name and its etymology, although he and the other orientalists continued to endorse various aspects of the assassin legends. Modern scholarship in Ismaili studies, which is based on authentic Ismaili sources, has now begun to deconstruct the Assassin legends that surround the Nizari Ismailis and their fida’is— legends rooted in hostility and imaginative ignorance.