Order of Assassins  

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"I am led to believe, that among the Ismailites, those only were termed Hashishin, who were specially educated to commit murder, and who were, by the use of Hashish disposed to an absolute resignation to the will of their chief; this, however, may not have prevented the denomination from being applied to Ismailites collectively, especially among the Occidentals." --Silvestre de Sacy cited in The History of the Assassins: Derived from Oriental Sources (1818) by Joseph von Hammer-Purgstall

Vestiges of the Alamut Castle (photo Payampak)
Vestiges of the Alamut Castle (photo Payampak)

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Assassins is a misnomer for the Nizari Ismailis applied abusively to them by the Mustali Ismailis during the fall of the decaying Ismaili Fatimid Empire when the two streams separated from each other. In 1122 the Mustalian dynasty Fatimid caliph al-Amir referred to the Nizaris separated from them and "now firmly established in Persia and Syria", abusively as the hashishiyya "without any explanation" and "without actually accusing them of using hashish, a product of hemp".

The term hashishiyya or hashishi as used by Muslim sources is used metaphorically in its abusive sense (i.e. "irreligious social outcasts", "low-class rabble", etc.). "The literal interpretation of this term in referring to the Nizaris (as hashish consuming intoxicated assassins) is rooted in the fantasies of medieval Westerners and their imaginative ignorance of Islam and the Ismailis."

In time, the Nizari Ismailis of Persia and Syria began to pose a strong military threat to Sunni Seljuq authority within the Persian territories by capturing and occupying many mountain fortresses under their first leader Hassan-i Sabbah (or Hassan bin Sabbah).

The term "assassin" is commonly used to describe a hired killer or a cutthroat. The term later paved the way for another term "assassination", which denotes any action involving murder of a target for political reasons.



The first instance of murder in the effort to establish a Nizari Ismaili state in Persia is widely considered to be the killing of Seljuq vizier, Nizam al-Mulk. Carried out by a man dressed as a Sufi whose identity remains unclear, the vizier's murder in a Seljuq court is distinctive of exactly the type of visibility for which missions of the fida'is have been significantly exaggerated. While the Seljuqs and Crusaders both employed murder as a military means of disposing of factional enemies, during the Alamut period almost any murder of political significance in the Islamic lands was attributed to the Ismailis. So inflated had this association grown that, in the work of orientalist scholars such as Bernard Lewis, the Ismailis were equated to the politically active fida'is and thus regarded as a radical and heretical sect known as the Assassins.

In their peak, much of the assassinations of the day were often attributed to the hashashin. Even though the Crusaders and the other factions employed personal assassinations, the fact that hashashins performed their assassination in full view of the public, often in broad daylight, gave them the reputation affiliated to them. Officers of both the Crusaders and Saracen were forced to remain continuously armed for personal protection. Islamic historian Bernard Lewis cites the roll of honor at Alamut containing the names of fifty well-performed assassinations of known political enemies during the thirty-five-year reign of Hassan. Hashashins murdered those who represented a threat to the Nizari cause and Islam, but would rarely attack ordinary citizens though and tended not to be hostile towards them. They favored one single assassination than the wide bloodshed of actual combat. Genocide was not tolerated, and the hashashins believed that large political assassinations would bring peace and a true sense of security to the common people. Slaying innocents and civilian bystanders who did not need to die could spread strife and discord, in addition to ruining the name of the Nizari order.

Sir Conrad of Montferrat is one of the well known victims of the hashashin. While strolling in the courtyard of the fortress city of Tyre with an entourage of mailed knights, two hashashins dressed as Christian monks walked towards the center of the courtyard, and with daggers raised, stabbed Conrad twice, killing him. Although the mystery of who were the hashahsin's employers, it is much attributed to King Richard the Lionheart and Henry of Champagne. The English King Edward Longshanks himself was seriously wounded within an inch of his life by the blade of a hashashin outside the walls of Jerusalem. Abul-Mahasin Ruyani, a famed Sunni teacher, was assassinated in 1108 because of simply insulting the hashashins with his anti-Nizari preachings.

Psychological warfare, and attacking the enemy's psyche was another often employed tactics of the hashashins, who would sometimes attempt to draw their opponent to submission than risking to kill it. Saladin himself managed to survive two assassination attempts. Although surviving these assassinations, it put him in a state of paranoia, fear of another attempt on his life. One night during his conquest on Masyaf, Saladin woke-up from his sleep to find a figure leaving his tent. He then saw that the lamps were displaced and beside his bed laid hot scones of the shape peculiar to the hashashins with a note at the top pinned by a poisoned dagger. The note threatened that he would be killed if he didn't withdraw from his assault. He later accuses a hashashin to be the figure. Saladin later told his guards to settle a truce with the hashashins.

During the Seljuk invasion after the death of Muhammad Tapar, a new Seljuk sultan emerged with the coronation of Tapar's son Sanjar. When Sanjar rebuffed the hashashin ambassadors who were sent by Hassan for peace negotiations, Hassan sent his hashashins to the sultan. Sanjar woke up one morning with a dagger stuck in the ground beside his bed. Alarmed, he kept the matter a secret. A messenger from Hassan arrived and stated, "Did I not wish the sultan well that the dagger which was struck in the hard ground would have been planted on your soft breast". For the next several decades there ensued a ceasefire between the Nizaris and the Seljuk. Sanjar himself pensioned the hashashins on tax collected from the lands they owned, gifted them with grants and licenses, and even allowed them to collect tolls from travelers.

Friedrich Nietzsche

The 19th century philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche gives prominent focus to what he terms "the order of Assassins", in section 24 of On the Genealogy of Morality. Nietzsche's signature work is to point to the worthlessness of religion, and to attempt at the transvaluation of values, that is, to transcend the inherited Jewish and Christian politics, psychology and ethics of ressentiment or guilt. He aims at going beyond the categories of good and evil since they suppress the full potential of the strong and talented. Nietzsche heralds the arrival of the so-called 'free spirits' who no longer believe in truth. Thus, they alone are capable of redeeming the world of the modern ills of comfort, mediocrity, and nihilism.

Importantly, Nietzsche attacks the false spirits who are the host of self-describing 'unbelievers' of modern times who claim to reject religious deception as scholars and philosophers and yet retain the traditional beliefs in good and evil, and truth. Nietzsche compares the genuine free spirits with the Assassins: "When the Christian crusaders in the Orient came across that invincible order of Assassins – that order of free spirits par excellence whose lowest order received, through some channel or other, a hint about that symbol and spell reserved for the uppermost echelons alone, as their secret: "nothing is true, everything is permitted". Now that was freedom of the spirit, with that, belief in truth itself was renounced."


The Assassins were finally linked by the 19th century orientalist scholar Silvestre de Sacy to the Arabic hashish using their variant names assassin and assissini in the 19th century. Citing the example of one of the first written applications of the Arabic term hashish to the Ismailis by 13th-century historian Abu Shama, de Sacy demonstrated its connection to the name given to the Ismailis throughout Western scholarship.

"I am led to believe, that among the Ismailites, those only were termed Hashishin, who were specially educated to commit murder, and who were, by the use of Hashish disposed to an absolute resignation to the will of their chief; this, however, may not have prevented the denomination from being applied to Ismailites collectively, especially among the Occidentals." (Silvestre de Sacy, tr. The History of the Assassins: Derived from Oriental Sources)

The first known usage of the term hashishi has been traced back to 1122 when the Fatimid caliph al-Āmir employed it in derogatory reference to the Syrian Nizaris. Used figuratively, the term hashishi connoted meanings such as outcasts or rabble. Without actually accusing the group of using the hashish drug, the Caliph used the term in a pejorative manner. This label was quickly adopted by anti-Ismaili historians and applied to the Ismailis of Syria and Persia. The spread of the term was further facilitated through military encounters between the Nizaris and the Crusaders, whose chroniclers adopted the term and disseminated it across Europe.

During the medieval period, Western scholarship on the Ismailis contributed to the popular view of the community as a radical sect of assassins, believed to be trained for the precise murder of their adversaries. By the 14th century, European scholarship on the topic had not advanced much beyond the work and tales from the Crusaders. The origins of the word forgotten, across Europe the term Assassin had taken the meaning of "professional murderer". In 1603 the first Western publication on the topic of the Assassins was authored by a court official for King Henry IV and was mainly based on the narratives of Marco Polo from his visits to the Near East. While he assembled the accounts of many Western travelers, the author failed to explain the etymology of the term Assassin.

According to Lebanese writer Amin Maalouf:

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".

Another modern author, Edward Burman, states that:

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").

See also

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