Sinan, Rashid Al-Din

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Rashid al-Din Sinan

c. 1133
Basra, Iraq

c. 1192
Masyaf, Syria

Syrian Ismaili Shiite Muslim leader

"Be assured that we do not kill any man in this way for the sake of reward or for money, but only when he has first inflicted [caused] an injury on us."

—Sinan, quoted in Warriors of God: Richard the Lionheart and Saladin in the Third Crusade.

Rashid al-Din Sinan was known to westerners during the Crusades (Christian holy wars against Islam from the eleventh to thirteenth centuries) as the Old Man of the Mountain, or Shaykh al-Jabal. Sinan—who was a dai, or spiritual leader and missionary of the radical Ismaili Shiite sect (subgroup) of Islam, an extreme religious group—led a community of some sixty thousand faithful from his mountain castle of Masyaf, a fortress built high in the mountains of northern Syria. The leader of the Syrian Ismailis for three decades, he fought both Crusaders and other Muslims, especially those of the rival Sunni sect majority, including Saladin (see entry). As leader of the faithful, Sinan also instructed his fidais, or loyal followers, to assassinate supposed enemies of the Ismailis. Called hashashin, these fanatical killers are the source of the English word "assassin," used to describe politically motivated murderers.

Sinan Converts to Assassin Sect

Much of the story of Sinan and the Assassins is bathed in the romance of fiction and fantasy. Born Rashid al-Din (the name means "Orthodox in Faith") near the town of Basra in present-day Iraq, Sinan was brought up in the Shiite Muslim faith, one of the two main branches of Islam, which considers Ali, the son-in-law of the Prophet Muhammad, as the true successor to the head of the Muslim faith. The exact date of Sinan's birth is not known; scholars think that it was either 1133 or 1135, with most agreeing on the earlier date. He was apparently descended from a prominent, or important, family. Following an argument with his brothers, he left home and traveled to

Sects of the Islamic Faith

Sinan studied the Ismaili and Assassin teachings at the Persian hilltop fortress of Alamut. These sects of Muslims were the result of several schisms (pronounced SKIZ-ems), or splits, within the Muslim world, all of which came about because of fights over succession to the leadership of Islam. The first such schism occurred between Sunni and Shiite Muslims over the succession to leadership of the faithful from the Prophet Muhammad, who had founded Islam in the seventh century.

After Muhammad's death in 632, he was followed by religious leaders called "caliphs." These leaders were not believed to have the same powers of prophecy as Muhammad had. Close associates or, in some cases, relations to Muhammad, the caliphs carried on a united Islam until the fourth one, who was Muhammad's cousin and son-in-law, Ali (he was married to Fatima, daughter of Muhammad). With Ali's death, however, a split took place in the religion. A group called the Shiites broke away from the main branch of Islam, for they believed that the leadership of Islam should have stayed in the Prophet's family. For them, Ali was the first real successor to Muhammad. They also believe that the true word of God or Allah can be spread only by "imams," divinely appointed representatives of Muhammad. They consider Ali to be not only the first real caliph but also the first such imam, and through him and his sons this office was passed on.

The word "Shiite" comes, in fact, from the phrase shi-at Ali—that is, "the party of Ali." These imams were powerful religious leaders of almost divine, or godlike, status for the Shiites. The main branch of Islam, the Sunnis, on the other hand, believed that caliphs, or successors to Muhammad, are the rightful heirs to the leadership of Islam and that these successors did not have to be of Muhammad's family. They did not believe in the all-powerful imams. The Sunnis accepted not only the writings of Muhammad in the Muslim holy book, the Koran, but also the supplemental laws in what is called the Sunna, as being of equal authority in the religious teachings of Islam. For Sunnis the word "imam" now sometimes has the same meaning as "caliph," but it can also refer simply to the person who leads Friday prayers. It does not have the divine meaning that Shiites give it.

Within the Shiites there were further splits. The so-called Twelvers believe that there were twelve God-inspired imams, while the Seveners believe in only seven and think that the last was Ismail, the older son of the sixth imam, Jafa al-Sadiq, who was passed over for succession. The Seveners are also called Ismailis. For the Twelvers, the last of the imams, al-Mahdi, is supposed to be hidden away from humanity until the end of the world. However, the Seveners believe that Ismail's spirit and power return through various leaders throughout time. One further schism occurred within the Ismailis over the succession of religious leaders. Breakaway Ismailis became known as "Nizaris," after the person they backed to become the new religious leader in Cairo at the end of the eleventh century.

Under the leadership of Hasan ibn al-Sabbah, around 1090 this sect established its center at the mountain stronghold of Alamut, in Iran, quickly spreading throughout Persia and Syria. Hasan's was an esoteric, or mystical, branch of Islam that rejected and went beyond human reason; it had several levels of initiation (or admission through rites and ceremonies) into secrets that supposedly gave participants special powers.

Soon the followers of this first Hasan became known as the hashashin, perhaps because of their use of the drug hashish in their rituals or perhaps through some corruption, or misreading, of the name Hasan. These followers included a large group of what were known as fidai, who, though not completely initiated into the sect's secrets, would still defend the faith with their lives. Hasan began using these fidai members to kill enemies of the Nizaris; their typical method was by means of a dagger in a public place. Sinan was supposedly descended from a Twelver family and converted to the Ismaili belief when he went to Alamut.

the famous fortress of Alamut in Iran, which had become the center of the Ismailis, a breakaway group of Islam. There he was accepted by the grand master Muhammad and was subsequently educated with the sons of this leader. He became friendly with one son, the future ruler Hasan II, who would later send Sinan to Syria as his emissary, or representative.

It appears that after his education at Alamut, Sinan returned to Iraq around 1160, where he was put in charge of the Ismaili sect in the district of his hometown of Basra. In 1162 Hasan II, the new imam, or leader, sent him as his deputy to Syria. The Syrian Ismaili leader Abu Muhammad died in 1164, and thereafter Sinan was the dai of Syria, next in line to the imam himself. The Syrian Ismailis were not as well organized as those in Iran or Persia. They had suffered at the hands of both the Christian Crusaders, who first appeared in the Middle East in 1096 to recapture the Holy Land from the Muslims, and their fellow Muslims, many of whom were of Turkish origin and belonged to the Sunni majority. There had been massacres and acts of vengeance. A large number of Ismailis had left the cities and gathered in the mountainous region of north-central Syria. It was there, in the castle of Kahf, where Sinan began his work as chief dai of the Assassins, as his group of Ismailis were commonly called.

Sinan Unites the Syrian Ismailis

Abu Muhammad, Sinan's predecessor, had not been very successful in establishing a Syrian homeland for the Assassins. Under the leadership of Sinan, new fortresses were built in the mountainous region where they lived and worshiped. Besides Kahf, the most famous of these were Masyaf and Qadmus. Already famous as a teacher and healer with telepathic, or mind-reading, powers, Sinan began recruiting new members to the faith. He taught these members various languages then in use in the Middle East, including French and English, and what would come to be called spy craft: gathering information, putting all communications in a secret code, and using pigeons to send messages. He was able to keep in constant contact with various Ismaili commanders by means of this communication system; in fact, his "pigeon post" may have given rise to the stories about his telepathic powers.

It appears that Sinan, though he had been sent by Hasan II to Syria, was independent of the Persian leadership at Alamut. His followers began to believe in him as the imam and nearly worshiped him as a god. Under his leadership, the Syrian Ismaili sect became far more than just a branch of the new religion. Declaring itself independent of Alamut and Hasan II, it became a powerful new force in the Middle East, one feared by Crusaders and mainstream, or traditional, Muslims alike. Sinan's use of assassination struck fear in the hearts of all his enemies. Westerners called Sinan the Old Man of the Mountain, but actually this appears to be a mistranslation or a too-exact translation of the Persian word pir, which means "master" or "sheik" (chief). Sinan was not simply a fanatic (extremist); his reign in Syria proved that he was capable and talented, and he preserved Ismaili independence against the attacks of various foes.

Sinan's enemies included anyone who tried to consolidate, or organize, the region, for that would have threatened the Ismailis' independence. Thus Sinan found enemies among both the Christian Crusaders—or Franks, as the Arabs called them—and the Sunni Muslim leaders, such as Nur al-Din and Saladin, who were attempting to unite Islam. When these two men overran Egypt in 1169, they roused Sinan's anger, for that was one of the centers of Shiite and Ismaili power. In 1174, when Saladin put an end to the Fatimid caliphate, the Shiite dynasty ruling from Cairo, Sinan knew he must act. Saladin suddenly became the most powerful man in the Middle East, for Nur al-Din had died that year, as had the main Christian Crusader leader. Saladin moved into this power vacuum, and Sinan knew he must stop this military leader before he gained total control of Iraq and Syria. Twice Sinan sent his fidai to assassinate Saladin—and both times they failed.

In 1176 Saladin invaded Sinan's territory. After surrounding the castle of Masyaf and discovering that Sinan was not there, Saladin mysteriously withdrew. The reasons given for this retreat differ, depending on who tells the story. Abu Firas, an Ismaili historian and source of many stories about Sinan, claimed that Saladin was warned off when he discovered an Assassin's dagger on his pillow, a warning he took to heart. Others say that Saladin found that the threat from the Franks was more urgent and that fighting the Ismailis was a waste of his time. Whatever the reason, it seems that after about 1176 a truce was called between Sinan and Saladin. Some historians even report that in 1187 Assassins fought alongside Saladin and his forces in the decisive battle against the Crusaders at the Horns of Hattin, a victory that allowed Saladin to later recapture Jerusalem from the Christians.

Sinan's Relations with the Crusaders

Sinan and his followers came into direct conflict with the Crusaders because their mountainous homeland had been taken from these Christians. Many of the strongest Crusader fortresses, such as Krak des Chevaliers, were located very close to the Assassins' strongholds. Before Sinan's arrival, the Ismailis were forced to pay tribute (a kind of tax) to the Templar order, the group of military monks who controlled much of the region near the Ismaili lands. When Sinan came to power, he tried to achieve peace with these Crusader forces, fearful of fighting two enemies at the same time. To this end, in 1172 or 1173 he entered into negotiations with Amalric, the leader of the Crusaders and king of Jerusalem.

Some historians write that Sinan offered to convert to Christianity to further his cause. It is known that Sinan did not strictly follow the Shiite teachings; as a philosopher he was interested in the teachings of Christianity. Whether conversion was part of the bargain is unknown, but Amalric canceled the tribute Sinan was forced to pay to the Templars. This, in turn, angered the Templars, and they had Sinan's messenger killed on his return journey from Jerusalem. Thus the Crusaders lost the possibility of having Sinan and his men as their allies. With the death of Amalric in 1174, and once the disagreements with Saladin had been repaired, Sinan and the Syrian Ismailis became allies with the other Islamic forces against the Christians.

The End of Sinan

Sinan demanded absolute loyalty from his followers. Several stories tell of how many of his followers would jump to their deaths at the snap of his fingers. His telepathic powers are celebrated in tales by the Arab historian Abu Firas. Toward the end of his life Sinan was responsible for one of the most famous and hotly debated assassinations of the Crusades. Conrad of Montferrat, a Frankish leader of the Third Crusade (1189–92), arrived in the Holy Land too late to help out at the port and fortress of Acre (in modern-day Israel), which had already been taken by Saladin. He sailed on to the city of Tyre (in present-day Lebanon), which he helped defend against the Muslim forces. There, Conrad earned the hatred of most of the Islamic world for his slaughter of Muslim prisoners. Conrad was also a rival to England's Richard I, the Lionheart (see entry). Moreover, he had personally angered Sinan by seizing one of the Assassins' ships that had landed in Tyre. When Sinan asked for the return of this prize, Conrad refused, killing the ship's captain instead.

In 1192 Sinan had his revenge. Two Assassins who had been disguised as monks in Conrad's household attacked the man in the streets of Tyre, stabbed him repeatedly, and finished the job in a church where the injured Conrad had been taken. One Assassin was killed, and the second was captured and tortured. At first he claimed that Richard I hired him to kill Conrad. Only later did the truth come out—namely, that Sinan was again scheming from a distance.

Sinan died either that same year or in 1193. It is not clear whether he died from natural causes or if there was foul play involved, but many of his followers believed Sinan had actually gone into hiding from enemies and would reemerge to lead them once again when it was safe for him to do so. The man who became the new leader of the Assassins did not have Sinan's force of character or organizational abilities. Never again were the Syrian Ismailis as strong as they had been under Sinan. As Enno Franzius noted in his History of the Order of Assassins, Sinan "was not only an outstanding personality but also an efficient administrator. He consolidated the Assassin position in Syria, organizing and training fidais (probably in the Castle of Kahf), acquiring and erecting new castles, rebuilding and fortifying old ones." For James Reston Jr. "Sinan was brilliant, clairvoyant [able to read minds], ruthless, deceitful, pious [devoutly religious] and ascetic [self-disciplined], with eyes fierce as meteors, a physician's power of healing, and a tyrant's power of awesome destruction."

For More Information


Franzius, Enno. History of the Order of Assassins. New York: Funk & Wagnalls, 1969.

Hodgson, Marshall G. S. The Order of the Assassins: The Struggle of theEarly Nizari Isma'ilis against the Islamic World. The Hague, Netherlands: Mouton, 1955.

Lewis, Bernard. The Assassins: A Radical Sect in Islam. New York: Basic Books, 1968.

Mirza, Nasseh Ahmed. Syrian Ismailism: The Ever Living Line of theImamite, AD 1100–1260. Richmond, UK: Curzon, 1997.

Reston, James Jr. Warriors of God: Richard the Lionheart and Saladin in theThird Crusade. New York: Doubleday, 2001.

Web Sites

"Glossary." The Institute of Ismaili Studies. (accessed on July 22, 2004).

"Rashid al-Din Sinan." Alamut: Bastion of Peace and Information. (accessed on July 22, 2004).