views updated May 29 2018


ASSASSINS . The disparaging term assassins, originating in the Arabic ashīshīyah (users of hashish, Cannabis sativa ), has been used to designate the followers of the Nizārī Ismāʿīlī branch of Islam. In its original form, from about the twelfth century onward, the name was used by those hostile to the movement to stigmatize the Ismāʿīlīyah of Syria for their alleged use of the drug. The designation, as well as a growing legend about the group, was subsequently transmitted to Europe by Western chroniclers of the Crusades and travelers such as Marco Polo. The legend portrayed the Nizārī Ismāʿīlīyah as a religious "order of assassins" ruled by the diabolical "Old Man of the Mountain," who incited them to murder through the use of drugs and the creation of an illusory sense of paradise. Reinforced by early Western scholarship, the term and the distorted view of the Nizārī Ismāʿīlīyah became general, until disproved by modern research.

Historical Development

The Nizārī branch of the Ismāʿīlīyah had its origin in a succession dispute following the death of the Fatimid Ismāʿīlī imam al-Mustanir in 1094. Those who gave their allegiance to Nizār, al-Mustanir's eldest son, as the designated successor and imam organized themselves locally in various parts of Iran and Syria by building on and extending the groundwork already laid there during the Fatimid period.

Particularly in Iran, the Nizārīyah faced markedly changed circumstances, owing to the presence of the powerful, militantly Sunnī Turkish dynasty of the Seljuks. In addition to the hostility prevailing in political and military spheres, the Nizārī Ismāʿīlīyah, like their predecessors under the Fatimids, became the object of theological and intellectual attacks, the most significant one being that of the Sunnī theologian al-Ghazālī (d. 1111). This climate of threat accentuated a sense of isolation and prompted direct political and military action by the Nizārīyah against leaders of the Seljuk state, which in turn caused popular Sunnī feeling to harden further against them.

The focal point of the Nizārī Ismāʿīlī movement was the fortress of Alamut in the Elburz Mountains of northern Iran. This fortress, captured by the famous Ismāʿīlī leader asan-i abbā in 1090, now became the center for a number of growing strongholds that were established through military and diplomatic means. In time, these centers became part of a network in Iran as well as in Syria. According to Nizārī tradition, asan acted as the representative of the imam and organized the various settlements. This process of consolidation provided a basis for what was to become a Nizārī Ismāʿīlī state incorporating both Iranian and Syrian strongholds and ruled from Alamut by Ismāʿīlī imams descended from Nizār, who assumed actual control after the initial period of establishment. Though under constant threat, the state thrived for more than 150 years, when confrontation with the expanding Mongol power led to its downfall, the demolition of its principal strongholds, and a general and widespread massacre of the Ismāʿīlīyah.

The history of the Nizārī Ismāʿīlīyah following the destruction of their state and the dispersal of their leaders in Iran and elsewhere is little known. In Syria, as in Iran, they continued to survive persecution. The Nizārī sources speak of an uninterrupted succession of imams in different parts of Iran and, in the fifteenth century, the emergence of new activity that led to a further growth of the Nizārī Ismāʿīlīyah in parts of India and Central Asia. In modern times, the community has witnessed a remarkable resurgence under its imams, Sulān Muammad Shāh, Aga Khan III (18771957) and the present imam, Shāh Karīm Aga Khan (1957), both of whom have also played a major role in promoting development activities in Muslim and Third World countries. The Ismāʿīlīyah are currently found in various countries in Asia, Africa, the Middle East, and the West.


While still articulating the Shiʿi Ismāʿīlī vision of Islam developed under the Fatimids, the Nizārīyah laid particular emphasis on the principle of taʿlīm, authoritative teaching, and on the cosmic and metaphysical significance of the imam, whose role it was to impart that teaching. These fundamental notions acquired a more immediate relevance in conditions calling for greater discipline and obedience. Unfortunately, few Ismāʿīlī sources of the period have survived, and it is often difficult on the basis of available materials to gauge the precise significance of doctrinal development.

One religious event highlighted in the sources that came to have particular doctrinal consequence was the qiyāmah. Although it appeared to outsiders as a declaration of reform, it was essentially an affirmation of a religious impetus present in Ismāʿīlī doctrine from the beginning. Providing the culmination of Ismāʿīlī sacred history, the event marked the primacy of the spiritual and inner meaning of religious acts. The outward performance of ritual elaborated in the sharīʿah, or religious law, was not abrogated as is generally thought; as Henry Corbin, the noted French scholar of esoteric forms of Islam, has pointed out, the Ismāʿīlīyah affirm positive religion in order to inspire believers to exceed it. The symbolic meaning of the qiyāmah was this affirmation of the esoteric basis of Ismāʿīlī thought, the public proclamation of which came to represent a contrast with the sharīʿah- mindedness of those scholars of other schools who had developed a different synthesis of Islam.

The doctrine also projected a spiritual basis for the nature of the imam and for the inner transformation effected in the being of individual followers as they sought to acquire this understanding. Naīr al-Dīn ūsī (d. 1274), the noted Shīʿī scholar, was one of those attracted by the intellectual milieu of the Ismāʿīlī state and during his stay there became an exponent of Ismāʿīlī doctrine. Within the esoteric perspective, according to his works, the physical bond between imam and follower was to be transcended by the development of a spiritual bond, so that in addition to acceptance of the historical and formal aspect of the imam's role, the believer would also be led to a recognition of the ha-aiqah, the aspect of Islam that, in the Ismāʿīlī view, complemented the shariʿah and constituted the highest level of reality in Islam.

The goal of religious life offered to the individual Ismāʿīlī by this vision was a continuing quest for inner transformation and a graduation to successively higher levels of spiritual growth and understanding. In the period following the fall of Alamūt, the inward, personal search for religious meaning would lead to increasing interaction between Ismāʿīlī doctrine and some of the principles of Sufism.

See Also

Aga Khan; Imamate; Shiism, article on Ismāʿīlīyah.


The standard modern work on the Nizārī Ismāʿīlī state is Marshall G. S. Hodgson's The Order of Assassins: The Struggle of the Early Nizari Ismaīlis against the Islamic World (1955; reprint, New York, 1980), of which an excellent summation will be found in his article entitled "The Ismāʿīlī State," in The Cambridge History of Iran, vol. 5, edited by J. A. Boyle (Cambridge, Mass., 1968), pp. 422482. The legend and its transmission are discussed in Bernard Lewis's The Assassins: A Radical Sect in Islam (London, 1967) and in an unpublished paper by Amin Haji, "The Term 'Assassin' and Its Transmission in Muslim and European Sources" (Institute of Ismaili Studies, London, 1984). Henry Corbin's work on the Ismāʿīlīyah represents the most perceptive analysis of its esoteric dimension; articles relevant to Nizārī teachings are contained in his Cyclical Time and Ismāʿīlī Gnosis (London, 1983). Naīr al-Dīn ūsī's Taawwurāt has been edited and translated by W. Ivanow as Rawdatuʾt-Taslim, Commonly Called Taawwurāt (Leiden, 1950). For the Ismāʿīlīyah in general, see the various essays in Ismāʿīlī Contributions to Islamic Culture, edited by Seyyed Hossein Nasr (Tehran, 1977).

Azim Nanji (1987)


views updated May 14 2018


The contemporary term "assassin," referring to someone murdering a political or religious leader, derives from the use of the term to describe a mystical Islamic sect that arose in the twelfth century following the destruction of the Fatimid dynasty in Egypt. Following the emergence of Islam, it had split into factions due to differences over the leadership of the community. One group saw the leadership passing to the descendents of Muhammad. Today these Muslims are known as Shi'ites and constitute about 20 percent of Islam. They are concentrated in Iran and Iraq, but there are large Shia minorities in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

For several centuries after Muhammad's death, the Shia community was headed by an Imam. The 12th such leader, Muhammad ibn al-'Askari, took office in 873 C.E., after his father died. He was only four years of age. Within days he disappeared, never to be seen again. As he had no brothers, the lineage ceased to exist. The Shia community was in crisis. Refusing to believe that they had been left leaderless, the community came to believe that the 12th Imam was still alive and that at some point in the future would reappear as the chosen one mentioned in the Quran, as the Madhi. Because of their belief in the 12th, Shia Muslims are often referred to as Twelvers. In the meantime, leadership passed to a council of leaders, the Ayatollahs.

In the century before the crisis of the 12th Imam, Isma'il, the eldest son of the sixth Imam, died before his father. While most Shias supported the younger son as the new Imam, a minority refused to recognize him and declared the lineage extinct with the passing of Isma'il in 762. They became known as Ismailis, or Seveners, as Isma'il would have been the seventh Imam.

The Ismailis developed an esoteric doctrine built around the number seven. Allah (God), for example, was seen as the seventh dimension who held the other six in balance. The world would last for seven millennia. More importantly, they took one of Isma'il's descendents as their new Imam, suggesting that a new line of seven Imams was beginning. Their belief was finally put together in a book, Rasa'il ikhwan al-safa (Epistles of the Brethren of Purity). As a minority, in order to survive, the Ismailis created a secret underground culture, and would pose as Christians and Jews in some countries. The Imam remained in seclusion. Only in the tenth century were they able to rise up and establish a homeland in Egypt. Their rulers were known as the Fatimids, after Fatima the daughter of Muhammad. The Fatimids, who turned Cairo into a major city and created their famous university, ruled until 1173, when they were driven out by Sunni Muslims (the majority party in the world of Islam).

In the wake of the fall of the Fatimid dynasty, two parties arose, each attempting to regain the throne. The first supported the Fatimid prince, al-Tayyib. The other supported al-Tayyib's brother Nizir. Unable to regain the throne, the Niziriyah moved their headquarters to Syria and resumed the under-ground existence that had been standard in the Ismaili community prior to the dynasty in Egypt. In expectation of the imminent arrival of the Madhi, they also introduced the doctrine of repudiation of the law which the Madhi would restore. The effect of this doctrine was to introduce alcohol, and more significantly, hashish use into the community. The word "assassin" means, literally, hashish user.

The Niziriyah again moved their headquarters, to the Alamut Valley in northern Persia, and here built a mountain fortress. The men who resided in the fortress smoked hashish and learned the fine art of killing. They were masters of the sword and proficient with poisons. They became the terror of Muslim lands for the next two centuries. Alamat was designed as an earthly representation of Paradise and those sent out on killing missions were assured that if they died during their mission they would go straight to the heavenly Paradise. Alamut was finally captured in 1256, but assassin fortresses in Syria survived until the sixteenth century. The assassins gradually dropped their distinctive ways, including murder and hashish, reconciled with the other Ismaili factions, and continue to the present under their present Imam, still a descendent of Nizir, the Aga Khan.


What Is Islam?: A Comprehensive Introduction. London: Virgin, 1998.


views updated May 09 2018


Assassins was a name originally applied by the Crusaders and other medieval Europeans, starting in the twelfth century, to the Nizari Isma˓ilis of Syria. Under the initial leadership of Hasan Sabbah (d. 1124), the Nizaris founded a state centered at the stronghold of Alamut, in northern Iran, with a subsidiary in Syria. The Nizari state in Iran was destroyed by the Mongols in 1256. In Syria the Nizaris reached the peak of their power and glory under Rashid al-Din Sinan (d. 1193), the original "Old Man of the Mountain" of the Crusaders, who had extended dealings with the Crusaders and their Frankish ruling circles in the Near East. The Syrian Nizaris permanently lost their political prominence when they were subdued by the Mamluks in the early 1270s.

The Nizaris and the Crusaders had numerous military encounters in Syria from the opening decade of the twelfth century. But it was in Sinan's time (1163–1193) that the Crusaders and their occidental observers became particularly impressed by the highly exaggerated reports and widespread rumours about the Nizari assassinations and the daring behavior of their fida˒is, or devotees, who carried out suicide missions against their community's enemies in public places. The Nizari Isma˓ilis became infamous in Europe as "the Assassins." This term, which appears in medieval European literature in a variety of forms (Assassini, Assissini, and Heyssisini), was evidently based on variants of the Arabic word hashishi (plural, hashishiyya or hashishin), which was applied pejoratively to the Nizaris of Syria and Iran by other Muslims. The term was used in the sense of "low-class rabble" or "people of lax morality" without claiming any special connection between the Nizaris and hashish, a product of hemp. This term of abuse was picked up locally in Syria by the Crusaders as well as by other European travelers and emissaries and was adopted to designate the Nizari Isma˓ilis.

Medieval Europeans, and especially the Crusaders, who remained generally ignorant of Islam and its divisions, were also responsible for fabricating and disseminating, in the Latin Orient as well as in Europe, a number of interconnected legends about the secret practices of the Nizaris, including the "hashish legend." It held that as part of their training this intoxicating drug was systematically administered to the fida˒is by their beguiling chief, the "Old Man of the Mountain." The so-called Assassin legends revolved around the recruitment and training of the Nizari fida˒is, who had attracted the Europeans' attention. These legends developed in stages and culminated in a synthesized version popularized by Marco Polo, who applied the legends to the Iranian Nizaris and created the "secret garden of paradise," where the fida˒is supposedly received part of their indoctrination. Henceforth, the Nizari Isma˓ilis were portrayed in European sources as a sinister order of drugged assassins bent on senseless murder and mischief.

Subsequently, Westerners retained the name Assassin in general reference to the Nizari Isma˓ilis, even though the term had now become in European languages a new common noun meaning a professional murderer, although its etymology had been forgotten. Silvestre de Sacy (1758–1838) finally succeeded in solving the mystery of the name Assassin and its etymology, but he and other orientalists subscribed variously to the Assassin legends. Modern scholarship in Isma˓ili studies, based on genuine Isma˓ili sources, has now deconstructed the Assassin legends revealing their fanciful nature and also showing that the name Assassin is a misnomer rooted in a doubly pejorative appellation without basis in any communal or organized use of hashish by the Nizari Isma˓ilis or their fida˒is, Shi˓ite Muslims who were deeply devoted to their community.

See alsoCrusades ; Shi˓a: Isma˓ili .


Daftary, Farhad. The Assassin Legends: Myths of the Isma˓ilis. London: I. B. Tauris and Co., 1994.

Lewis, Bernard. The Assassins: A Radical Sect in Islam. London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1967.

Farhad Daftary


views updated May 18 2018

Assassins ★★½ 1995 (R)

Stallone gets to play elder statesman in the very deadly rivalry between two contract killers. Robert Rath (Stallone) is the man—number one with a bullet—whose reputation has caught up with him. Hot-headed Miguel Bain (the ever-smoldering Banderas) wants to off Rath and assume the position of top hitman. Caught in the middle of this macho posturing is surveillance expert—and potential murderee—Electra (Moore). It's Stallone to the rescue but his character pays more attention to Pearl, Electra's pampered Persian cat than to the lovely lady herself. But then romance isn't what this film is about—and director Donner does know his action. 132m/C VHS, DVD . Sylvester Stallone, Antonio Banderas, Julianne Moore, Anatoly Davydov; D: Richard Donner; W: Brian Helgeland, Andy Wachowski, Larry Wachowski; C: Vilmos Zsigmond; M: Mark Mancina.


views updated May 23 2018

Assassins (Fr., from Arab., ḥashīshī, ‘one who consumes hashish’). An Ismāʿīlī (Nizārī) sect at the time of the crusades, founded by al-Ḥasan b. al-Sabbah, who resorted to assassination supposedly under the influence of the drug (though the name ḥashīshī is not often used outside Syrian texts). Taking advantage of the confused conditions, the sect gained considerable strength, but was driven out of its mountain strongholds in the 13th cent. CE. The ruler of the Syrian assassins was known as shaikh al-jabal, ‘the Old Man of the Mountain’.


views updated Jun 11 2018


Possibly from the Arabic hashshasheen, designating a smoker of hemp (hashish, in Arabic). This name was given in the Middle Ages by the European Crusaders to adepts of the Nizari branch of the Ismaʿili sect settled in the Syrian mountains. The members of this Shiʿite sect swore absolute obedience to their leader, Rashid al-Din Sinan, called "The Old Man of the Mountain," who led a revolt against Seljuk power in 1090. This secret society, created by Hasan al-Sabah, included a special group composed of fidaʾi, who are alleged to have used hashish as a stimulant during incantatory rituals or for the accomplishment of dangerous missions.

SEE ALSO Ismaili;Seljuks.


views updated May 17 2018

as·sas·sin / əˈsasin/ • n. a murderer of an important person in a surprise attack for political or religious reasons. ∎  (Assassin) hist. a member of a sect of Muslims at the time of the Crusades. Renowned as militant fanatics, they were reputed to use hashish before going on murder missions.


views updated May 21 2018

assassin (hist., in pl.) Muslim fanatic engaged to murder Christians; one who kills treacherously. XVII. — F. assassin or medL. assassīnus — Arab. ḥaššīšī HASHISH-eater.
Hence assassinate (see -ATE3), assassination XVII.


views updated May 14 2018

assassin (Arabic, users of hashish) Name given to a Muslim sect of Ismailis, founded in c.1090 by Hasan ibn al-Sabbah. They fought against orthodox Muslims and Christian Crusaders and committed many political murders, until their eventual defeat in the 13th century.


views updated May 23 2018

Assassins the Nizari branch of Ismaili Muslims at the time of the Crusades, renowned as militant fanatics and popularly supposed to use hashish before going on murder missions. The name comes (in the mid 16th century, from French or medieval Latin) from Arabic ḥašīšī ‘hashish-eater’.

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