This is a paper that I wrote for history. I spent a lot of time on it, and I think it is very interesting. So, Enjoy!
The Hashshashin, better known today as the assassins, were a radical Islamic sect in the early Middle Ages. Because their library was destroyed by the Mongols, there are little to no original sources from the assassins themselves. The mystery of the assassins can be best seen in their name. Hashshashin might have been a derogatory term given to them by other Muslims, meaning ‘Hashish-user’. It might have also just simply come from the Egyptian Arabic word for ‘troublemaker’ (Szczepanski). Although not much is known for sure about the Hashshashin, their affects on the outside world were great and varied. They were an extremely religious group, with several charismatic and intelligent leaders. The first leader of the assassins was Hasan-i-Sabah, and he also proved to be the greatest.
Hasan-i-Sabah was born in Qum, Persia (modern-day Iran) around 1055 AD. He grew up in a Shi’ite family, and had a passion for learning about religion. But when he turned seventeen, he met a teacher of Ismailism; a different sect of Islam. At first he was resistant to its teachings, but Hasan’s respect for his teacher made him take a deeper look. He spent much time studying before devoting himself to Ismailism, and not long after, he was made a deputy dai. In 1080 AD, he travelled to Cairo, where he became a full dai. As a dai, Hasan’s responsibility was to spread the teachings of his religion, which he did, mostly in the mountainous region of Northern Persia. In 1088, he chose the Shi’ite controlled castle of Alamut to be his fortress. Over the next two years, he quietly converted residents and soldiers of the castle and its nearby villages. In September of 1090, Hasan himself was smuggled into Alamut. The Shi’ite leader realized that his holdings had been taken over, and he peacefully left. This technique for taking control of castles was used several times in the many years that followed. In 1095, the execution of the nineteenth Ismaili Imam (leader), Nizar, led to a dispute of who should be the next Imam. Many were unhappy with who had been chosen; Hasan included. He helped create the doctrine of succession, and afterwards became the leader of the new Nizari Ismaili state. In the subsequent years, Hasan never left Alamut. He lived an ascetic life, reading, recording his teachings, and administering the affairs of his realm. Besides religion, he was also versed in mathematics, astronomy, and alchemy. Through his followers, he expanded his reach; taking over several other castles. Eventually, though, he fell ill. In May 1124, he appointed his successor, and on the 23rd, he died.
What Hasan-i-Sabah is arguably best known for is his strategic use of assassination. His assassins were secretive, causing the outside community to be split on whether or not they supported them. As with much about the Hashshashin, not much is proved. What is known, though, is that the assassins, or fidai (‘faithful’), were well educated and very intelligent. They were given one mission, and they weren’t expected to survive. They would stalk their target for weeks and sometimes months, before choosing the best opportunity to strike. The assassinations always took place in the middle of the day, in someplace public. The assassins only used knives and small blades, and after killing their target, they would let themselves be cut down or captured by guards. Those who had been captured never admitted anything, even under torture. The targets were often important Sunni and anti-Nizari leaders. Sometimes the fidai murdered the enemies of their allies, but they held strong that they were not mercenaries. There were fifty reported assassinations under Hasan, and twenty-five under his immediate successors. After that, however, they more or less stopped, mainly because thousands of Nizaris were executed in retaliation. Several Sunni and Shi’ite historians claimed that Hasan drugged his young students with hashish, and took them to a place with beautiful plants and women, which he said was Paradise. He told his students that if they carried out a mission, they would be allowed to return there. The travelling Marco Polo also said this was the case. Whether or not this is true remains to be seen, considering that the other Islamic sects mostly hated the assassins and Marco Polo didn’t cross through the area until some time after the fall of the Alamut.
Hasan-i-Sabah had seven successors before the destruction of the Nizari state he established. The first was his most trusted general, Buzurgamid. Buzurgamid faced many opponents, but was still able to expand the region under Nizari influence to its largest size. He passed control to his son Muhammad in 1138 AD. Muhammad was very conservative, focusing on the religious aspects of his society, rather than trying to take over more land. He appointed his son Hasan II to be the next leader. Hasan II proclaimed the Qiyama; essentially, a religious act that meant all followers of Nizari Ismailism would go to Paradise, and all others were condemned to Hell. His son, Muhammad II, continued the teachings of his father, and contributed much to the Nizari theology. As was tradition now, his son, Hasan III, became the next leader. Hasan III seemed to embrace the Sunni belief, inviting Sunni scholars to Alamut. By accepting Sunnism, however, none of the other Muslims were allowed to attack the Hashshashin. His son, Muhammad III, would be the penultimate leader of the Nizaris. He quietly returned Alamut to Shi’ism, and from there, back to Ismailism. Muhammad III, also known as Aladdin, might have been mentally unstable or possibly insane, for as he grew older, he is reported to have acted like a madman. He was cruel, sadistic, alcoholic, and unpredictable. Other assassin leaders planned to replace him with his son, but their plan was unnecessary. In 1255, while in a drunken stupor, Aladdin was murdered by his homosexual lover (Wasserman, 126). Throughout his reign, the Mongol invasion was a threat, but in his son Khurshah’s reign, it was inevitable. Huelgu, younger brother of the supreme Khan, had been sent to destroy the Nizaris. Khurshah submitted to him in 1256, in an attempt to save his people. He ordered the assassins to leave their castles, but many did not. Khurshah himself was later beaten and stabbed to death by his Mongolian guards. The end of the Hashshashin had come. The Mongols attacked and destroyed assassin-controlled castles. Alamut, the headquarters of Nizari Ismailism, after over 160 years of resisting sieges from Crusaders and Muslims alike, surrendered in the December of 1256. Huelgu himself marveled at the castle; food and weapons stockpiled from the time of Hasan-i-Sabah, massive water tanks that ran through stone channels in the walls, and a huge underground library. The Mongols destroyed it all. Several other fortresses held out longer, but by 1276 AD, the Hashshashin lay in ruin.
There was, however, another group of Nizari Ismailis. During Hasan-i-Sabah’s travels as a dai, he had spread his teachings to some areas of Syria. A small community of Syrian assassins emerged, and it took them many years to secure a fortress; Qadamus, in 1132. Eight years later, in 1140, they were able to take the castle of Masyaf. Masyaf would become very important, especially during the Third Crusade. The first major leader of the established Nizaris of Syria was Rashid al-Din Sinan, also known as the Old Man of the Mountain. Sinan was born near Basra, in southern Iraq, but later fled to Alamut. In Alamut, he befriended Hasan II, who later helped him succeed control of Masyaf. Sinan, like Hasan-i-Sabah, was a charismatic and very intelligent leader. Right from the start of his reign, he faced issues. The third invasion of Christians was on the horizon, and the powerful Saladin was slowly gaining the support of the various Islamic sects. In addition to paying tribute to the Templars, Sinan attempted to foster an alliance with the Crusader kings, but his messenger was killed by a knight (Wasserman, 134). He took this as a sign of aggression, and instead turned his focus on Saladin. Several assassins were sent against him, and one was even able to injure him. In the August of 1176, he led his troops in an attempt to siege and destroy Masyaf. One morning, however, Saladin woke up with a note stuck via dagger into his pillow and a plate of scones in the assassin’s symbol next to him. He claimed Sinan himself had snuck in, and soon after he called off his troops. Rashid al-Din Sinan continued to hold off against other threats, until his death in 1192. Even though he left the Syrian assassins in a strong and independent state, his successors eventually returned Masyaf to the control of the Persian assassins. Masyaf itself held out against the Mongols for seventeen more years than Alamut, but by 1273, it had been taken.
After the fall of the Hashshashin fortresses, the unity that had for so long held together the Nizari Ismaili community vanished. In Syria, the assassins hired themselves out to other leaders. In Persia, many of the remaining Nizaris became Sufi. Those that remained true spread out across the Middle East, the largest group ending up in Northern India. The Indian Nizaris of today are very westernized, due to extensive contact with the British. In conclusion, although the original Hashshashin did not last into more modern times, their legacy and influence on the world is far reaching and very extensive. They introduced the idea of political assassination to the Europeans, along with inspiring the romanticized image of the assassin. They brought about the end of dozens of influential Muslim leaders, and they greatly reshaped the political landscape of the Middle East and beyond.