The Hashshashin (also Hashishin), or Assassins were a religious group (some would say, a cult) of Ismaili Muslims (from the Nizari sub-sect) with a militant basis, thought to be active in the 8th to 14th centuries as a mystic secret society specialising in terrorising the Abbasid elite with fearlessly executed, politically motivated assasinations. Their own name for the sect was al-da'wa al-jadīda (الدعوة الجديدة) which means the new doctrine and they called themselves fedayeen from the Arabic fidā'ī which means one who is ready to sacrifice their life for a cause (That term has the modern connotation of "freedom fighter"). The name Hashshashin was given to them by their Muslim enemies.
Their Muslim contemporaries were extremely suspicious of them; in fact they were described in terms (Batini) which suggested they were only nominally Islamic. This constant religious estrangement would eventually see them go so far as allying with the Occidental Christians against Muslims on a number of occasions. It is even suggested that they attempted to negotiate their own conversion to Christianity with Amalric I of Jerusalem, but were foiled by Templar machinations, perhaps on the basis that this would exempt them from onerous (and profitable to Knightly Orders) taxes on the heathen in the Holy Lands. Plainly, their connection to mainstream Islam was tangential at best.
The group transformed the act of murder into a system and an ideology directed largely against Muslim rulers that scarcely tolerated their extreme unothodoxy and murderous tactics. They were meticulous in killing the targeted individual, seeking to do so without any additional casualties, 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 a dagger, (they rejected poison, bows and other weapons that allowed the attacker to escape). However, under no circumstances did they commit suicide, preferring to be killed by their captors.
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Etymology of the word "assassin"
The name "assassin" is commonly believed to be a mutation of the Arabic "haššāšīn" (حشّاشين, "hashish-eaters"). 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 Hasan-i Sabbah, the Sheikh of Alamut (see below)). Others suggest that since hashish-eaters were generally ostractized 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 consistant historical accounts; this is not surprising given their secrecy and infamy.
"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 Moslem 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 Hasan-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
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 mountains south of the Caspian Sea at Alamut. A Yemeni emigrant and an Ismaili Shiite, Hasan set the aim of the Assassins to destroy the power of the Abbasid Caliphate by murdering its most powerful members. Hasan ibn Sabbah was also known as "The Old Man of the Mountain", however, this is likely to have been a mistake in translation, since "Old Man" is the literal translation of "Sheikh". Much of the current western lore surrounding the Assassins stems from Marco Polo's supposed visit to Alamut in 1273, which is widely considered mythical (especially as the stronghold was allegedly destroyed by the Mongols already in 1256).
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.
Most of the victims of the Assassins were Sunni Muslims. There were some extremely highly placed victims including Nizam-ul-Mulk. It is known that, insensed by several almost successful attempts on his life, Saladin rounded on and 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 (and doubtless embellished) accounts tell of the Old Man himself 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 to us) he clearly heeded their warning, and desisted. Alone amongst the Islamic heretics Saladin so despised, the batinis would be granted leeway.
Christians were largely untouched by the depredations of the Assassins; it was not until the middle of the 12th century that they had even really heard of them, although Conrad of Montferrat – the King of Jerusalem – was a victim (the Assassins may have even been hired by Richard the Lionheart).
The power of the Hashshashin was destroyed by the Mongol warlord Hulagu Khan, but several Ismaili sects share something of a common lineage, such as the sect led by the Aga Khan. During the Mongol assault of Alamut, the library of the sect was destroyed, along with much of their powerbase, 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 word "assassin" in the English language has come to denote a murderer, usually with a political motive.
Although Legends states that Hasan-i Sabbah, original leader of the Nizari Isamailies , used Hashish to grant "visions" of paradise to his followers, it is highly unlikely, given the fact that the use and effects of Hashish were well known during that time period, and frequent subjects of Imams in the Mosques. Marco Polo, who traveled through the area, gave an account similar to this:
Recruits were promised Paradise in return for dying in action. They were drugged, often with materials such as hashish (some suggest opium and wine as well) then spirited away to a garden stocked with attractive and compliant women (houris) and fountains of wine. At this time, they were awakened and it was explained to them that such was their reward for the deed, convincing them that their leader, Hassan-i-Sabah, could open the gates to Paradise.
In the very beginning Hasan was no more likely to used doped and kidnapped individuals, as their fundamentalism prevented them from using any kind of drug or making misbelievers become martyrs, as his operatives, but as Ismaili power grew and several Fortresses and their accompanying villages came under Ismaili rule, Hasan and his followers surely began recruiting and training from birth.
Some commentators make comparisons between the historical Assassin movement and Al Qaeda, noting the similar tactics of terror and political assassination, as well as the cult-like mysticism around Osama Bin Laden. Al Qaeda is also a secret society, with its leaders purportedly hiding in mountain hideouts. Martyrdom is also a key aspect of Al Qaeda's tactics. Given the pejorative nature of the term, sympathizers of Al Qaeda would be expected to dispute the similarities. However the importance of assassination and terror as a political tactic in Arab culture can not be discounted.
- The Crusades Through Arab Eyes Amin Maalouf