by Philip K. Hitti
From “The Book of Grass: An Anthology on Indian Hemp”, edited by George Andrews and Simon Vinkenoog.
The Assassin movement, called the “new propaganda” by its members, was inaugurated by al-Hasan ibn-al-Sabbah (died in 1124), probably a Persian from Tus, who claimed descent from the Himyarite kings of South Arabia. The motives were evidently personal ambition and desire for vengeance on the part of the heresiarch. As a young man in al-Rayy, al-Hassan received instruction in the Batinite system, and after spending a year and a half in Egypt returned to his native land as a Fatimid missionary. Here in 1090 he gained possession of the strong mountain fortress Alamut, north-west of Qazwin. Strategically situated on an extension of the Alburz chain, 10200 feet above sea level, and on the difficult by shortest road between the shores of the Caspian and the Persian highlands, this “eagle’s nest,” as the name probably means, gave ibn-al-Sabbah and his successors a central stronghold of primary importance. Its possession was the first historical fact in the life of the new order.
From Alamut the grand master with his disciples made surprise raids in various directions which netted other fortresses. In pursuit of their ends they made free and treacherous use of th dagger, reducing assassination to an art. Their secret organization, based on Ismailite antecedents, developed an agnosticism which aimed to emancipate the initiate from the trammels of doctrine, enlightened him as to the superfluity of prophets and encouraged him to believe nothing and dare all. Below the grand master stood the grand priors, each in charge of a particular district. After these came the ordinary propagandists. The lowest degree of the order comprised the “fida’is”, who stood ready to execute whatever orders the grand master issued. A graphic, though late and secondhad, description of the method by which the master of Alamut is said to have hypnotized his “self-sacrificing ones” with the use of hashish has come down to us from Marco Polo, who passed in that neighborhood in 1271 or 1272. After describing in glowing terms the magnificent garden surrounding the elegant pavilions and palaces built by the grand master at Alamut, Polo proceeds:
“Now no man was allowed to enter the Garden save those whom he intended to be his ASHISHIN. There was a fortress at the entrance to the Garden, strong enough to resist all the world, and there was no other way to get in. He kept at his Court a number of the youths of the country, from twelve to twenty years of age, such as had a taste for soldiering… Then he would introduce them into his Garden, some four, or six, or ten at a time, having first made them drink a certain potion which cast them into a deep sleep, and then causing them to be lifted and carried in. So when they awoke they found themselves in the Garden.
“When therefore they awoke, and found themselves in a place so charming, they deemed that it was Paradise in very truth. And the ladies and damsels dallied with them to their hearts’ content…
“So when the Old Man would have any prince slain, he would say to such a youth: ‘Go thou and slay So and So; and when thou returnest my Angels shall bear thee into Paradise. And shouldst thou die, natheless even so will I send my Angels to carry thee back into Paradise.'”
(from ‘The Book of Ser Marco Polo, the Venetian’, translated by Henry Yule, London, 1875.)
The Assassination in 1092 of the illustrious vizir of the Saljug sultanate, Nizam-al-Mulk, by a fida’i disguised as a Sufi, was the first of a series of mysterious murders which plunged the Muslim world into terror. When in the same year the Saljug Sultan Malikshah bestirred himself and sent a disciplinary force against the fortress, its garrison made a night sortie and repelled the besieging army. Other attempts by caliphs and sultans proved equally futile until finally the Mongolian Hulagu, who destroyed the caliphate, seized the fortress in 1256 together with its subsidary castles in Persia. Since the Assassin books andrecords were destroyed, our information about this strange and spectacular order is derived mainly from hostile sources.
As early as the last years of the eleventh century the Assassins had succeeded in setting firm foot in Syria and winning as convert the Saljug prince of Aleppo, Ridwan ibn-Tutush (died in 1113). By 1140 they had captured the hill fortress of Masyad and many others in northern Syria, including al-Kahf, al-Qadmus and al-‘Ullayqah. Even Shayzar (modern Sayjar) on the Orontes was temporarily occupied by the Assassins, whom Usamah calls Isma’ilites. One of their most famous masters in Syria was Rachid-al-Din Sinan (died in 1192), who resided at Masyad and bore the title shakkh al-jabal’, translated by the Crusades’ chroniclers as “the old man of the mountain”. It was Rashid’s henchmen who struck awe and terror into the hearts of the Crusaders. After the capture of Masyad in 1260 by the Mongols, the Mamluk Sultan Baybars in 1272 dealt the Syrian Assassins the final blow. Since then the Assassins have been sparsely scattered through northern Syria, Persia, ‘Uman, Zanzibar, and especially India, where they number about 150000 and go by the name of Thojas or Mowlas. They all acknowledge as titular head the Aga Khan of Bombay, who claims descent through the last grand master of Alamut from Isma’il, the seventh imam, receives over a tenth of the revenues of his followers, even in Syria, and spends most of his time as a sportsman between Paris and London.