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Hashshashin fortress of Alamut.

Bismillahi r-Rahmani r-Rahim Part of a series on Shī‘ah Islam


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Reincarnation · Panentheism
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‘Aql · Numerology · Taqiyya
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Guardianship · Prayer · Charity
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Druze  · Shoaib  · Nabi Shu'ayb
Seveners  · Qarmatians
Fatimids  · Baghdad Manifesto
Hamza ibn ‘Alī  · ad-Darazī
Hafizi · Taiyabi  · Ainsarii
Sabbah  · Hashshashīn
Sadardin  · Satpanth
Dawūdī  · Progressive Dawūdī
Musta‘lī  · Sulaimanī  · Alavī
Abta-i-Malak  · Hebtiahs
Nizārī  · Aga Khan

Early Imams

Ali · Ḥassan · Ḥusain
as-Sajjad · al-Baqir · aṣ-Ṣādiq
Ismā‘īl · Muḥammad
Aḥmad · at-Taqī · az-Zakī
al-Mahdī · al-Qā'im · al-Manṣūr
al-Mu‘izz · al-‘Azīz · al-Ḥākim
az-Zāhir · al-Mustansir · Nizār
al-Musta′lī · al-Amīr · al-Qāṣim

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

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


[edit] History

[edit] The Empire

Despite being a minority, within a minority, the Isma'ili under the leadership of their Imams succeeded in establishing a generational secretive underground movement against the Abbasid Caliphate. They based their ideas on Greek philosophy, and mysticism, and an end to perceived corruption and greed. They would turn their revolutionary ideals into reality by establishing the first Shia state; the Fatimid Empire, spanning across the Mediterranean and Levant. Its capital was Cairo in Egypt, culturally brilliant with some of the finest institutes of learning in the known world, the empire would bring scientific, and social breakthroughs to all its peoples, including religious freedom.

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, following the death of the Caliph, Vizier Al-Afdal lead a palace coup d'etat, appointing his brother in-law the Caliphs younger son Ahmed whom he dubbed Al-Musta'ali. The heir apparent Nizār himself left for Alexandria where he was given strong local support and lead a rebellion, but he was eventually defeated and executed on his brothers orders. This caused a split in the Fatimid Empire amongst Isma'ili.

[edit] Alamut

Nizār's supporters, called the Nizāriyya or Nizari, continued his cause under the charismatic Iranian leadership of Hassan-i Sabbah who was the leading Isma'ili missionary "Da'i", of the secret Fatimid propagation machine within the enemy Abbasid Caliphate. Hassan-i Sabbah successfully gained the majority support of Fatimid Shia east of Egypt within the Levant, Persia (Iran), and Iraq, and a small underground following within the the Empires heart (Egypt and north Africa). By breaking with the Fatimid Empire consequently losing its support, and gaining it's enmity; the followers of Hassan-i Sabbah found themselves alone and outnumbered in enemy territory.

Not merely content to survive, but instead to build a new utopia, the Nizari formulated a daring strategy of gaining control of strategically important fortresses by covertly converting local inhabitants living within and around strategically vital fortresses to Isma'ili Shi'ism and seizing control. They established a new kind of state consisting 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 the Daylam at the fortress of Alamut ('The Place of the Eagle's Teaching' or "Eagles Nest"), south of the Caspian Sea. Alamut remained capital of the federation, and home of it's rulers "The Lords of Alamut", until it's destruction.

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

The power of the Hashshashin was destroyed by the Mongol warlord Hulagu Khan during the Mongol assault of Alamut on December 15, 1256. The Syrian branch of the Hashshashin was destroyed in 1273 by the Mamluk Sultan Baibars. The Hashshashin captured and held Alamut for a few months in 1275 but their political power was lost. They continued being used under the Mamluks; Ibn Battuta recorded in the 14th century their fixed rate of pay per murder, in exchange they were allowed to exist.

Eventually resorting to the act of Taqq'iya (dissimulation), hiding their true identities until their Imams would awaken them.

The Hashashin are survived by the Nizari under the leadership of Agha Khan IV.

[edit] Assassination

Unable to mount a conventional military army, the Nizari developed a form of asymmetric warfare transforming the act of political assassination into a system of survival and defense against greed, corruption, injustice and foreign domination, they trained highly capable sleeper commandos known as Fedayeen, who would covertly infiltrate enemy positions and remain undercover. If Nizari civilians were facing pogroms or forts imminent attack the Fedayeen were activated to prevent an attack.

Fedayeen 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 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 Hashashashin would have to be stopped if he wanted to live.[1][2]

Within Persian Iran they employed their tactics directly against the Seljuk Turks, rulers who had been persecuting Nizari sects. 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 allowed the attacker to escape and live. For unarmed combat, the Hashshashin practiced a fighting style called Janna which incorporated striking techniques, grappling and low kicks. However, under no circumstances did they commit suicide, preferring to be killed by their enemies once the assassination had taken place.

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 quickly lifted the siege after parley, and thereafter attempted to maintain good relations with the sect. The sect's own 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) Saladin's uncle 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 assassination 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.

Notable victims include, The Abbasid Vizier Nizam al-Mulk (1092), the Fatimad vizier al-Afdal (1122) (responsible for imprisoning Nizar), ibn al-Khashshab of Aleppo (1125), 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.

[edit] Myths and Legends

Artistic rendering of Hassan-i Sabbah.

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 the polemic of Arab historians of the period, and Marco Polo's discredited 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 so far as allying with the Occidental Christians against Muslims on a number of occasions when it suited their interests.

A popular legend derives from Marco Polo, who claimed to have visited Alamut during his journey east, is that future assassins were subjected to rites similar to those of other mystery cults; the subject was made to believe that he was in imminent danger of death. The twist was that they were drugged to simulate "dying" and later they awakened 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 Sabbah, was a representative of the divinity and all his orders should be followed, even unto death.

Much of the current western lore surrounding the Assassins roots from Marco Polo's supposed visit to Syrian fortress of Alamut in 1273 (a visit widely considered fictional since the stronghold had been destroyed by the Mongols in 1256), and from returning Crusaders from the Levant who encountered their local Syrian 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 the assassination acts of that rival sect. For example, Farhad Daftary in The Assassin Legends: Myths of the Isma'ilis[3] 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[4] refutes this allegation. Indeed Hassan-i Sabbah is recorded as being particularly harsh with users over 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 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 documents from Alamut. Including first-hand accounts, accompanied by his commentary of the Hashashin from original sources. The Nizari continue the work started by the Soviets, and later Western scholors 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 Hashashin period, including their history, science, and philosophy.

[edit] Etymology of the word "assassin"

View of Alamut besieged.

The name assassin is commonly believed to be a mutation of the Persian 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[5]. It is suggested by some writers that assassin simply means followers of Hassan (or Hassan-i Sabbah, the Sheikh of Alamut (see below)). The term Hashshashin, a name given to them by their Arab enemies, was derived from the Arabic "haššāšīn" (حشّاشين, "hashish user"). It also means those who produce hashish, which the assassins 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.

The word Hashish (of probable Persian origin) refers to resin collected from cannabis flowers. The true meaning of the word in Persian is actually "healers" or "herb sellers" .

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

Amin Maalouf, in his novel Samarkand, writes of the assassins that '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 Assassiyun, meaning people who are faithful to the Assass, the "foundation" of the faith. This is the word, misunderstood by foreign travelers, that seemed similar to "hashish."'

Another variation on the theory described by Burman above is that haššāšīn was a derogatory epithet applied by the Assassins' Syrian neighbors due to the Assassins' behavior or their secretive, heterodox theology, meaning "crazy people," as in "those people who are addled, as if by cannabis."

[edit] See also

[edit] References

  1. ^ Daftary (1999). The Isma'ilis: their History and Doctrines. Cambridge University Press. pp. 324–338. ISBN 0-521-42974-9. 
  2. ^ Lewis, Bernard (1967). The Assassins: A Radical Sect in Islam. Weidenfeld & Nicholson. ISBN 0-465-00498-9. 
  3. ^ The Assassin Legends: Myths of the Isma'ilis
  4. ^ Assassins at the Encyclopedia of the Orient
  5. ^ Polo, Marco. The Travels of Marco Polo. Plain Label Books. ISBN 1-603-03300-9. 

[edit] Bibliography

[edit] External links

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