The word “assassin” is, unfortunately, so common now, that we rarely wonder where it comes from, why, and when. While the act of hired murder is as old as history and myth, the first people to be called assassins lived in the late eleventh century in what is now Iran.
They did not call themselves Assassins. That name was only given to them by the Syrians when some of them settled in the mountains of Syria in the eleventh century.
The Assassins were founded by Hasan-i Sabbah, a Shi’ite Moslem born around 1060 in the Persian city of Qumm who moved as a child to the city of Rayy, present-day Tehran.1 Hasan’s family were Twelver Shi’ites, not members of the dominant group but well integrated into the society there. In his autobiography, Hasan relates how he came to follow a more radical path:
“From the days of my boyhood, from the age of seven, I felt a love for the various branches of learning, and wished to become a religious scholar; until the age of seventeen I was a seeker and searcher for knowledge, but kept to the Twelver faith of my fathers.”2
This ended when Hasan met a man who taught him of the Isma’ili heresy, a form of Shi’ite Islam that followed the descendants of Isma’il, the son of the eighth-century imam Ja’far al-Sadiq. Over the centuries the Isma’ilis had developed a very different philosophy and worldview from the mainstream of Islam.3
After much study and soul searching, Hasan was converted at last during a serious illness. “I thought: surely this is the true faith, and because of my great fear I did not acknowledge it. Now my appointed time has come, and I shall die without having attained the truth.”4
Now, in order to understand the place of the Assassins in the Islamic world, both then and now, it helps to know the background of the divisions within the faith.5
The two main branches of Islam are the Sunni and the Shi’ites. This split occurred almost immediately after the death of the prophet Mohammed. The first debate was over who should succeed him. Those who wanted to follow his uncle, Abu Bakr, became the Sunni. The Shi’ites followed Mohammed’s cousin and son-in-law, Ali, married to his daughter, Fatima. Within a fairly short time, a fundamental difference developed. It was not so much about belief as practice. The Shi’ites felt that it was necessary for individual Moslems to have a teacher (imam) rather than try to interpret the Koran for themselves. The Sunni believed that the head of the community could be chosen by the community and, as long as the main teachings of the Koran were obeyed, there was room for a certain amount of variety in behavior.
The Shi’ites then divided among themselves on who was the most worthy imam. At first they were chosen from the descendants of Ali and Fatima. This group then split over the leadership of the grandsons of the Prophet, Hasan and Husain. Those who believed that Husain was the genuine imam looked to his descendants for leadership until the middle of the eighth century.
The trouble started when the imam at that time, Ja’far, disinherited his elder son, Isma’il, perhaps because he was too fond of wine. The younger son, Musa, was accepted by most of the community, but a few felt that Isma’il should have been chosen.
Isma’il died before his father and that should have ended the matter. However, the Isma’ili refused to rejoin those who followed Musa. Instead, they taught that, even though the “visible” imams no longer existed, there was a line of hidden imams who sent out agents to continue teaching the faithful. When the time was right, the hidden imam would appear to lead a world of justice.6
In the meantime, the followers of Musa and his descendants adapted to life under Sunni rule. When the twelfth of their imams, Muhammad al-Mahdi, vanished around 874, his followers decided that he would return in the end times and they needed no one else. They settled in to wait for him and took little interest in earthly politics. They became the Twelvers and they considered the Isma’ili to be the darkest heretics, hardly Moslem at all.7
So it was a big leap for the Twelver Hasan-i Sabbah to decide to join the Isma’ili. He left his home and spent several years traveling, learning and eventually preaching the Isma’ili faith.
At this time the Seljuk Turks had taken over a great portion of the Islamic world. They were fiercely orthodox Sunni who did not have the traditional Moslem tolerance for Christians and Jews. They were also determined to force all the Shi’ites to return to the Sunni path. Not surprisingly, there was a great deal of resentment toward them among the Shi’ite communities.
Hasan’s Isma’ili sect branched off again to become the Nizari, named after another man whom they felt should have been the true imam. In most of the Moslem documents, the Assassins are known as the Nizari. They eventually made their headquarters in Alamut, in northern Iran, in about 1090.8It was at this time that the legends of the sect began.
At first the Nizari were concerned with destroying the power of the Seljuk invaders. They did this by infiltrating the courts of the Seljuk sultans until they could get close enough to them to kill them. It was a point of honor that they face their victims, who were usually well guarded. For this reason, the assassinations were considered suicide missions.9
The secrecy and suddenness of the attacks made the Nizari feared and hated throughout the Seljuk and Sunni people. “To kill them is more lawful than rainwater,” said one. “To shed the blood of a heretic is more meritorious than to kill seventy Greek infidels.”10Often the murder of an important dignitary would result in the massacre of local Isma’ili although they were not Nizari. The divisions among Sunni, Twelver Shi’ites, and Isma’ili grew wider.
THE NIZARI BECOME ASSASSINS
It wasn’t until the late twelfth century that the crusaders took much notice of the Nizari. At that point they were known by their Syrian name of Hashishiyya, or Assassins. William of Tyre writes of them in the 1180s, “in the province of Tyre . . . is a certain people who have ten castles and surrounding lands and we have often heard that there are sixty thousand of them or more. . . . Both we and the Saracens call them Assassins, but I don’t know where the name comes from.”11
It wasn’t until the early nineteenth century that a French historian named Sylvester de Sacy determined that the word “assassin” came from the word “hashish.” This led to a number of fanciful stories. One explained that young Nizari men were drugged in order to believe that they had been to heaven and could only return there after achieving martyrdom. Another, repeated even by modern historians, is that they were given hashish to give them the courage to go out and kill.12
I first heard this explanation in my college days and even then it seemed odd to me. For one thing, hashish doesn’t normally increase aggressiveness, quite the opposite. I kept having an image of giggling men in dark cloaks gliding through palaces, stopping to admire the colors of the gardens and fountains as they hunted down their target. However, most historians today think that the name was given the Nizari as a term of contempt, implying that they were as worthless as those who succumbed to drugs.
It is interesting that, as with the stories of the Templars, the legends of the Assassins are better known than their actual history.
THE ASSASSINS AND THE TEMPLARS
William of Tyre wasn’t particularly concerned with the Assassins, as they rarely attacked Christians. As a matter of fact, the Syrian Assassins sometimes allied themselves with crusader lords to fight their mutual enemies. In 1128 the Assassins living in the town of Banyas were threatened by the city of Damascus. Their leader and a few others were crucified on the battlements of the wall of Damascus, “in order that it might be seen how God had dealt with the oppressors and brought signal chastisement upon the infidels.”13Rather than let the town of Banyas fall to the Damascenes, the Assassins turned the town over to Baldwin II, king of Jerusalem.14
From about 1152, the Assassins in Syria paid tribute to the Templars of two thousand bezants a year.15 This may have been brought about in retribution for the assassination of Count Raymond of Tripoli in that year, but the facts aren’t certain. Soon after, theHospitallers, now in possession of the fortress of Krak des Chevaliers, on the border of Assassin territory, also demanded two thousand bezants a year.
This leads to another story from William of Tyre, one of the most puzzling concerning the early days of the Templars.
According to William, the leader of the Assassins, whom he called “the old man of the mountain,” wished to make an alliance with the crusaders. He sent a representative named “Boabdelle” to Almaric, king of Jerusalem, asking for instruction in Christianity. The catch was that conversion hinged on the remission of the two thousand bezants that the Assassins paid the Templars each year. Almaric was open to the idea, but the Templars were against it. They waylaid the emissary on his way back to Syria and murdered him.16
William continues to describe the anger of the king. Almaric tried to put the leader of the attackers, William of Mesnil, in prison. The Templars would have none of this and appealed the matter to the pope. Where it would have gone from there is hard to say, for Almaric died. One of the regents for his son, Baldwin IV, was Raymond, son of the murdered count of Tripoli. He was not interested in punishing those who killed Assassins. So the Assassins remained Moslem and the tribute continued to be paid.
Historians have puzzled over this for many years. Some think William made the whole story up. It’s not found in any other records from the time. It seems strange that the Assassins would suddenly wish to convert just to save money. It seems equally strange that the Templars, knights of God, would want to lose the chance to bring so many souls to baptism. William believed that their greed overcame their piety and used this episode as proof of how far the order had fallen since its humble beginnings.
Unless new documents turn up, the truth will never be known. William’s story was believed in his own time and it reflects the mixed feelings people had begun to have about the Templars.
The Assassins were still paying tribute in the middle of the thirteenth century when they again tried to have it ended by sending an envoy to King Louis IX of France, who was then in Acre on his crusade.
One theory as to why they felt compelled to pay this tribute instead of fighting was that their normal method of eliminating troublesome leaders wouldn’t work with the military orders. The biographer of Louis, Jean de Joinville, explains, “for neither the Templars nor the Hospitallers had any fear of the Assassins, since their lord knew well that if he had either the Master of the Temple or of the Hospital killed, another, equally good, would be put in his place; therefore he had nothing to gain by their death. Consequently, he had no wish to sacrifice his Assassins on a project that would bring him no advantage.” 17
King Louis refused to eliminate the tribute and the masters of the Temple and the Hospital threatened the envoy. He soon returned with gifts for the king in an effort at conciliation.18Louis sent gifts in return along with a Syriac-speaking priest, Yves le Breton, who failed to convince the Assassins to convert.19
Eighty years after William of Tyre, Joinville saw the Templars as heroes and defenders of the faith in their relations with the Assassins.
While the Christians do not seem to have understood the differences among the sects of Islam, they did have the idea that the Assassins were not Moslem. Joinville says that they did not follow Mohammed but his uncle, Ali.20Benjamin of Tudela, a Spanish Jew, also assumed that the Assassins were a group apart. In his tale of his travels through the Middle East in 1169, Benjamin states, “it is four days to the land of Mulahid. Here lives a people who do not profess the Mohammedan religion, but live on high mountains, and worship the Old Man of the land of the Hashishim. And among them there are four communities of Israel who go forth with them in war-time. They are not under the rule of the king of Persia, but reside in the high mountains, and descend from these mountains to pillage and to capture booty, and then return to the mountains, and none can overcome them.”21
“Mulahid” is a word that Christian commentators also used for the land of the Assassins. They learned it from the Moslems. It means “heretic.”
The belief that the Assassins could strike everywhere and anywhere spread throughout the Christian and Moslem world. The French chronicler Guillaume de Nangis tells of how the Old Man of the Mountain sent an assassin to France to kill King Louis IX (Saint Louis). “But, in the course of their journey, God changed his heart, inspiring him to think of peace instead of murder.”22
The Assassins stopped paying tribute only after the fall of the Hospitaller fortress of Krak des Chevaliers in 1271.23
Despite the Western fascination with the sect, the Assassins were much more concerned with the establishment of their theology among other Moslems than they were with the Christians. Eventually, the Assassin strongholds were conquered and the people dispersed during the Mongol invasions of the fourteenth century.
In their time, the Assassins managed to spread terror throughout the Islamic world. No one knew when or where they would strike. Stories were told of the fanaticism of the Assassins and of the immoral lives they led. One frequently repeated tale is of the mother who heard that her son’s party had succeeded in assassinating a sultan. She rejoiced that he was now a martyr. When she discovered that he had survived, she put on mourning.
All through history there have been cadres of people who try to change the world through judicious removal of key leaders. The killing of Archduke Ferdinand and his wife is a good example. It resulted in the First World War. Of course, it’s not clear if that was what the assassins intended.
It might be noted that Assassins, while prepared to die in the execution of their duty, did not practice random killing but prided themselves on only eliminating their main target. Their history is a complex one composed of faith, altruism, fanaticism, mysticism, and pragmatism.
In many ways, they were not that different from the Templars.
Bernard Lewis, The Assassins: A Radical Sect in Islam (London: Weidenfield and Nicolson, 2001) p. 38.
Quoted in Lewis, op. cit.
Lewis, pp. 26-27.
Quoted in Lewis, p. 39.
This is a very quick outline. For more complete information please consult your local librarian.
J. J. Saunders, A History of Medieval Islam (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul 1965) p. 127. The idea that a secret savior is waiting in the wings is a very old one.
Lewis, p. 39; Saunders, p. 127.
Marshall G. S. Hogan, The Secret Order of Assassins: The Struggle of the Early Nizari Isma’ ilis Against the Islamic World (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2005; reprint of 1955 ed.) p. 77.
Ibid., pp. 110-13; Lewis, pp. 47-54.
Quoted in Lewis, p. 48.
William of Tyre, 20, 29. “In provincial Tyrensi . . . est quondam populus, castella decem habens cum surburanis suis, estque numerus eorum, ut sepius audivimus, quasi as sexaginta milia vel amplior. . . . Hos tam nostril quam Sarraceni, nescimus unde nominee deducto, Assissinos vocant.”
Hogan, pp. 134-37; Lewis, pp. 11-13. Both authors point out the flaws in this theory.
Ibn al-Qalanisi, The Damascus Chronicles of the Crusades, tr. H. A. R. Gibb (London, 1932) p. 193. Here the Assassins are called “Batani.”
Ibid., p. 194.
Malcolm Barber, The New Knighthood (Cambridge University Press, 1994) p. 103.
William of Tyre, 20, 29 and 20, 30, pp. 953-54.
Joinville, Life of St. Louis, tr. Margaret R. B. Shaw (Penguin, 1963) p. 277.
Reginald of Vichiers was probably the Templar master at this time. William de Chateauneuf was master of the Hospitallers.
Joinville, p. 278.
Ibid. Since the Assassins were an offshoot of the Shi’ite and it was the Sunni who followed the rule of Ali, Joinville had it backward, as well as not understanding that all the Moslems followed the teachings of Mohammed.
Benjamin of Tudela, Travels in the Middle Ages, tr. A. Asher (Malibu: Pangloss Press, 1983; reprint of 1840 ed.) p. 110. I have read nowhere else of Jewish forces fighting with the Assassins. If anyone finds a reference, please let me know.
Guillaume de Nangis, Chroniques capétiennes Tomes 1. 1113-1270, tr. François Guizot (Paleo, 2002) p. 169.
Alain Demurger, Jacques De Molay: Le crepuscule des templiers (Paris: Biographie Payot, 2002) p. 73.