Knives in the Night Part 1: The Origin of the Secret Order of Assassins
A Quiet Evening
It is 1106 and you are a powerful political leader of the Seljuk Turks. You have heard of and aware that your office and station puts you in a dangerous position. You know they are after you.
As you are done for the day, your military leaders set up heavily-armed guards all over your castle with its high walls. The doors are bolted. The windows are closed as well. You set off to sleep secure in the knowledge that you are safe. In the morning you wake up. Nothing seems amiss. You get out of bed and right there on the wooden door, is a note stuck there with a dagger.
“Do as you are told”. You just had a brush with the Hassashin.
Romanticizing the Shadows
The word “assassin” is derived from a secretive murder cult of the 11th and 12th centuries called the Hassashin. Much of the truth behind the Order of Assassins has been lost to legend and what remains cloaked in mystery. Their influence, however, changed the course of history. The modern term assassination is based on the tactics used by the Assassins. Many men and women – living lives of violence in ancient times have been romanticized as anti-heroes even heroes in the modern age none more so than the Assassin. The word itself denotes fear. It embodies a calculated and politically motivated individual intent on murder.
It is perhaps the popularity of games such as The Assassin’s Creed games, as well as the hero trope of the assassin in contemporary fantasy literature and tabletop RPGs that has fueled our modern fascination with this agent of anarchy and death.
In this article, we’ll take a closer look at what it meant to be an assassin, the Order of the Assassins, and its founder Hassan-i Sabbah.
Naming the Dark
In the late 1180s, a French priest and historian William of Tyre wrote: In the province of Tyre... is a certain people who have ten castles and surrounding land and we have often heard that there are sixty thousands of them or more. Both we and the Saracens call the Assassins but I don't know where the name comes from. The Assassins were founded by Hassan-i Sabbah who called his disciples Asāsiyyūn (أساسيون, meaning "people who are faithful to the foundation [of the faith]"). They were a minority within Shia Islam who lived in the mountains of Persia and Syria between 1090 and 1275. During that time, the sect spread terror throughout the Middle East through the covert murder of Muslim and then later Christian leaders.
However, the term "assassin" likely has roots in "hashshāshīn" meaning hashish smokers or users. The Seljuks, their primary enemies painted this group as terrorists them as terrorists and drug addicts. While it is true that soldiers throughout history have been known to take recreational drugs in order to get in the right state of mind, it is highly unlikely that someone who takes tactical and sometimes physically demanding steps like climb up steep walls would be on an acid trip while doing so. Another modern author, Edward Burman, states in his book The Assassins – Holy Killers of Islam: 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").
Seeds of Dissent
It would be impossible to discuss the Hassashins without first discussing their origins as it is a vital ingredient in how they came to be. This will also help in defining their roots and motivation. Islam has had many schisms and it is in one of these that the Hassashins took root. The death of the Prophet Mohammad in 632 brought about the first schism. His advisor Abu Bakr became the first Caliph or successor of the prophet tasked with leading the Islamic Nation. Those who followed Abu Bakr believe that leadership of their community is not a birthright and they would be known as the Sunni. Abu Bakr’s leadership was challenged by the followers of Ali, the Prophet's cousin and son-in-law. The Shi'a sect originated from this group - those who believe that the leadership of the nation should belong to the direct descendants of the Prophet.
There were many more civil wars to come and at one point, the Umayyad leader Muawiyah took the caliphate from the heirs of Ali. The Umayyad were subsequently defeated by the Abbasids in another civil war and it is under the Abbasid Caliph al-Mansur that a new sect would emerge: the Ismaili.
Another schism would be of vital import to our story.
The sixth Shi'a Imam Ja'far al-Sadiq declared that his eldest son Ismail will be his successor. This was not to be, however, as Ismail unexpectedly died in 762. He was 40 years old. When Jafar also passed away, this raised the question as to who will become the next Shi’a Imam. Six groups raised claims. Two of these groups became the first Ismaili Shi'a - they asserted Ismail's legitimacy despite his death and supporting his descendants.
A divide arose once more that lead us to the man that would become the founder of the Assassins.
An Ismaili revolt in Arabia led to the creation of a religious utopian republic under the Qarmatian dynasty. This revolt also led to the creation of Al Mahdi Billah's Fatimid Caliphate in North Africa.
The Fatimids managed to increase their power in 969 by conquering Egypt. Many achievements are associated with this caliphate but as fate would have it, it was not to last. At the end of what historians call Ismaili century, a civil war between when the then Fatimid Caliph Al-Mustansir passed away in December 1094.
It was his fifty-year-old son Abu Mansur Nizar that was supposed to inherit leadership but al-Afdal, one of al-Mustansir's visiers wanted to keep power for himself. This led him to cause a coup and placed Nizar's twenty-year-old, inexperienced brother Musa on the throne knowing that he can manipulate him. Nizar staged a revolt of his own in order to take back his rightful place. With the support of the people, he was able to raise an army to take back control. Afdal had a superior force, however, and eventually captured then executed Nizar via immurement.
Ismaili communities in then Syria and Egypt accepted this transition of power however Persian Ismailis still supported the martyred prince and became the independent Nizari Ismaili. It is from this group that the founder of the Hassashins, Hassan-i Sabbah, would emerge. Born in Iran around 1050, he was brought up to view the Ismaili doctrine to be heretical but as he was studying in Rey at the age of 17, Hassan was introduced to the Ismaili thinking by two prominent missionaries. After his studies, Hassan converted to Ismailism and swore an oath with al-Mustansir. He then travelled to Cairo, the capital of the Fatimids. In the three years of his stay, Hassan favoured the Nizarist faction which got him banished from the city by the then vizier, al-Afdal’s father.
Whether by stealth, in the cover of night or in broad daylight, the Assassins always found their mark. We have only begun to touch on the rich and mysterious past of this secret order. In the next chapter, we will discuss their methods as well as some of their victims. We here at CentrAsia Tours love history the same way we love guiding our visitors through the many wonders of Central Asia. Book with us today!