A sect of the Isma’īlī or "Sevener" Shī’ī division (see shĪ’ites) of Islam, headed by the Agha Khān. At the death of the Isma’īlī Fāṭimid Caliph al-Mustanṣir in a.d. 1094, the all-powerful minister al-Afḍal passed over the caliph's eldest son, Nizār, and recognized Nizār's younger brother al-Mustā’lī as imĀm, or religious leader. The Isma’īlīs living outside Fāṭimid territory in Persia, under Ḥasan-i Ṣabbāh:, master of the fortress of Alamūt, maintained their loyalty to Nizār. They later claimed that their imāms were his descendants, a statement difficult to prove or disprove. Those Isma’īlīs who followed imāms of the line of Musta‘lī were, after the extinction of the Fāṭimid Caliphate by saladin in 1171, confined to the Yemen and the west coast of India, where they became known as Bohras.
Under ḥasan-i Ṣabbāḥ's "new preaching" the Nizārī sect, from its strongholds in Persia and Syria, passed to active struggle against the ‘Abbāsid and seljuk sunnĪ authorities (see ’abbĀsids; sunnites), seeking to establish its own version of the Islamic state. One of their most common weapons was the careful stalking and assassination of enemies of the sect, by devotees (fidā’-īyīn ) who usually lost their lives in the act. For this, their enemies gave them the contemptuous name of Hashshāshīn, addicts of hashish (intoxicating hemp), thus implying that only drug-crazed men could act so recklessly. The epithet has been europeanized as "assassin," and has become a name for any common murderer by violence. The act of the fidā'ī was regarded within the sect as heroic and meritorious.
The crusaders came in contact with a branch of the Nizārīs in Syria, where their local head was known as the Shaykh al-Jabal, the "Old Man of the Mountain." The most vigorous of these leaders, Rashīd al-Dīn Sinān, played an important role in the affairs of 12th-century Syria. In 1256 the strongholds of the sect in Persia were razed by the invading Mongols of Hūlāgū Khān, and the Nizārīs entered a period of voluntary concealment (taqīya ). In 1817 the Imām of the Nizārīs married a daughter of Fath ‘Alī Shāh of Persia and was given the title of Āghā Khān, which his descendants have since used as their secular title. In 1840 the Agha Khan emigrated to India where Nizārī missionaries had converted numbers of Hindus, now known as Khojas, to their doctrine. The Agha Khans of the present day have become international figures, and have done much to reorganize and modernize their community.
Bibliography: m. g. s. hodgson, The Order of Assassins (The Hague 1955). j. n. hollister, The Shi’a of India (London 1953). b. lewis, "The Isma’īlīs and the Assassins," The First Hundred Years, ed. m. w. baldwin, v.1 of A History of the Crusades, ed. k. m. setton (Philadelphia 1955– ). j. von hammerpurgstall, A History of the Assassins, tr. o. c. wood (London 1835).
[j. a. williams]