Hashshashins - Fact Or Fiction?
The Hashshashin (also Hashishin, Hashashiyyin or Assassins) had a militant basis as a religious sect (often referred to as a cult) of Ismaili Muslims from the Nizari sub-sect. They were thought to be active in the 8th to 14th centuries. This mystic secret society specialized in terrorising the Abbasid elite with fearlessly executed, politically motivated assassinations. The word "assassin" is derived from their name. Their own name for the sect was al-da'wa al-jadīda (الدعوةالجديدة) which means the new doctrine. They called themselves fedayeen from the Arabic fidā'ī, which means one who is ready to sacrifice their life for a cause.
Their Muslim contemporaries were extremely suspicious of them; in fact they were described in terms (Batini) The term was used pejoratively to refer to those, especially Ismaili, who distinguished an inner, esoteric level of meaning (bahir) 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. Their connections to mainstream Islam were tangential at best.
Legends abound as to the tactics used to induct members into what became a quasi-religious political organization. A future assassin was subjected to rites similar to those of other mystery cults in which the subject was made to believe that he was in imminent danger of death. But the twist of the assassins was that they drugged the person to simulate a "dying" to later have them awaken 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-Sabah, was a representative of the divinity and that all of his orders should be followed, even unto death. This legend derives from Marco Polo, who visited Alamut after it fell to the Mongols in the thirteenth century.
Other accounts of the cult's indoctrination attest that the future assassins were brought to Alamut at a young age and, while they matured, inhabited the aforementioned paradisial gardens and were kept drugged with hashish; as in the previous version, Hassan-i-Sabah occupied this garden as a divine emissary. At a certain point (when their initiation could be said to have begun) the drug was withdrawn from them, and they were removed from the gardens and flung into a dungeon. There they were informed that, if they wished to return to the paradise they had so recently enjoyed it would be at Sabbah's discretion, and that they must therefore follow his directions exactly, up to and including murder and self-sacrifice.
The group transformed the act of murder into a system directed largely against Seljuk Muslim rulers who had been persecuting their sect. They were meticulous in killing the targeted individual, seeking to do so without any additional casualties and innocent loss of life, 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 was a dagger, rejecting 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.
There are also, possibly apocryphal, stories that they 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 their pillow upon awakening. This was a plain hint to the targeted individual that he was safe nowhere, that maybe even his inner group of servants had been infiltrated by the cult, and that whatever course of action had brought him into conflict with them would have to be stopped if he wanted to live.
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 Daylam 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". His Arabic name was Sheikh-ul-Jibaal. 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 had reportedly been destroyed by the Mongols in 1256).
Benjamin of Tudela who traveled one hundred years before Marco Polo mentions the Al-Hashshashin and their leader as "the Old Man." He notes their principal city to be Kadmus.
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.
Notable victims include, Nizam al-Mulk (1092), the Fatimad vizier al-Afdal (1122), ibn al-Khashshab of Aleppo (1124), il-Bursuqi of Mosul (1126), Raymond II of Tripoli (1152), Conrad of Montferrat (1192), and Genghis Khan's second son Jagatai (1242). Prince Edward, later Edward I of
The Hashshashin were often motivated by outsiders. The murder of Patriach of Jerusalem, for example, was instigated by the Hospitallers. It is rumoured the assassins 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
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 on 1256 December 15, 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 Syrian branch of the Hashshashin was destroyed in 1273 by Mamluk Saltan Baibars. The Hashshashin, in 1275, captured and held Alamut for a few months but their political power was lost and they were eventually absorbed into other Isma'ilite groups. They continued being used under the Mamluks, Ibn Battuta recording in the 14th century their fixed rate of pay per murder.
Modern day defenders of the Hashshashins claim that their history, and role in certain assassinations is disputable. They claim that all that is factually known is that the Hashshashin were a very private and secretive sect that lived in Persian territories in the 1200s to 1600s and that much of what passes for Hashshashin history is myth.
In the view of these defenders, the Hashshashins, because of their small population and secretive nature, fell victim to exaggerations by their enemies, which later became accepted as fact.