The Assassins

    The Muslims are divided into two great sections, the Sunnites, followers of tradition, who recognise the Caliphs of Damascus and Bagdad, and now the Sultan of Turkey, as the legitimate successors of Mahomet and the Shiites who, rejecting their authority, hold for Mahomet's true successor his nephew and son-in-law, Ali and the Imams his successors. The Shiites or followers of Ali soon split up into minute sections. Of these none was more famous than that of the Ismailites, who drew their name from Ismail, a descendant of Ali in the latter half of the ninth century. About the same time a certain Persian, Abdallah, conceived the idea of turning the new doctrines to a political end. Under the assumption that all religions were true and all false he established a secret society divided into various grades. Each grade, in ascending order, was taught the comparative worthlessness of preceding knowledge till the neophytes reached the final one, which, according to some authorities, inculcated the indifference of all actions and a creed whose practical results could be hardly distinguished from blank Atheism.

    A descendant of Abdallah established himself in Africa about the year 909 a.d. He pretended to be a descendant of Ali, and his third successor Moizz li din Allah founded the dynasty of the Fatimites, who ruled Egypt from about 960 a.d. to 1199. In the latter half of the eleventh century another Persian, Hasan ben Sabeh, after a Jife of unprincipled adventure, became an Ismailite and for a time settled in Egypt, whence he was before long banished for his share in a political intrigue. Returning home he soon settled himself (logo) in the impregnable Castle of Alamut, (the Vulture's Nest), south of the Caspian Sea, where the descendants of his immediate successor ruled for a century and a half, till they were overthrown by the Mongol prince Hulagu (1256 A.D.). It is to this section of the Ismailites founded by Hasan that the name Assassin or Hashashin, hempeaters, was applied, because a drug prepared from this plant, which is the great Frenchman's fiantagruelion, was used during the initiation of members or to nerve them for any extraordinary effort.

    Hasan's influence was political rather than religious; his teaching enforced a blind obedience to the grand master's commands ; and, for nearly two hundred years, the Ismailites became the terror of East and West. His devoted sectaries, assured that death itself was but the gateway to Paradise, never hesitated to execute their leader's mandate. Neither private friendship nor public greatness interfered with his plans ; and Hasan ordered the murder of his old schoolfellow Nizam-al-Mulk, the great vizier of Malik Shah, just as lightly as his followers in a later generation murdered caliphs in their tents or hurled themselves in succession against Saladin in his camp.

    Early in the twelfth century the Assassins began to multiply in Syria. By purchase or conquest they became masters of a ring of fortresses east of Tortosa among the mountains of Lebanon. Their first prior in Syria died about 1169, and was succeeded by the famous Sinan, Saladin's enemy, who, as it seems, sent the celebrated embassy to Amalric I. of Jerusalem, offering to become a Christian if released from his tribute to the Templars. Sinan seems to have introduced fresh tenets into his creed ; he threw off the authority of his nominal lord at Alamut, and in later days is said to have declared himself an incarnation of the Deity. He died in September, 1192. Eighty years later the great Syrian fortresses fell before the Mamlook Sultan of Egypt. Massiaf was taken 1270; Kadmous and Katif had fallen by July, 1273. In Persia Hulagu had already done his best to exterminate the Assassins; but in Syria Beibars contented himself with their political subjection. Fifty years later (1326) an Eastern traveller, Ibn Batutah, found the Ismailites inhabiting their old castles in the Lebanon. He tells us the Egyptian calif of that^time did not scruple to use the Ismailites against his enemies, and, to this day, a few thousands of the sect hang round the ruins of their old fortresses.

    More than twenty-five years ago it was discovered that a group of sectaries in Bombay— the Khodjas — were Ismailites, and paid a tribute of ^50,000 a year to their religious chief Aga Khan. He was the son of Khaliloullah, who in the latter half of the eighteenth century was chief of the Ismailites of Persia ; and his pedigree goes back to Hasan 'Ala Dhikrihissalam, the grand master of the Assassins in the middle of the twelfth century. In 1875, when the Prince of Wales was meditating his tour in India, Aga Khan wrote him an English letter with his own hand begging to be honoured with a visit ; and the possible successor of Richard Coeur de Lion accepted the hospitality of the descendant of the grand master of the Assassins, then living as a private gentleman in India and passionately addicted to racing and field sports. Aga Khan's son has several times ridden as a gentleman jockey in Bombay.


Hammer-Purgstall, Die Geschichte der Assassinen (Stuttgart-Tübingen, 1818), English trans., The History of the Assassins, tr. O.C. Wood, London, 1835

Lewis (B.), The Assassins: A Radical Sect in Islam, London, 1967.

Marshall (G.S. H.), The Order of Assassins, 82—84, 110—115, 133—137. The Hague: Mouton, 1955.

Daftary (F.), Introduction to The Assassin Legends (Online Article), at: