The Order of Assassins held the world’s original assassins and inspired the media for centuries.
The word ‘assassin’ survived for centuries in literature, film, television, and art. With each creative mindset, the origin of an assassin changes, but their predecessors had the same origin as the Order.
Even after their downfall, they left a memorable mark.
The Hashashin, the original form of the word for ‘assassin’, was a medieval organization in the Middle East. They were known by other names, such as Nazari, Nizari, and Ismailis. They were also:
- Batinis, ‘people of the esoteric teachings’.
- Ta’limiyyah, ‘people of secret teachings’.
- Asāsiyyūn, ‘people who are faithful to the foundation’.
Hashashin and ‘assassin’ have an unknown origin with many theories regarding their meanings.
The common story is that Hashashin comes from the Arabic word hashish, meaning ‘hashish users’.
According to chroniclers, such as Marco Polo, the Hashashin committed political murders while under the influence of a drug, hashish. However, this derogatory term may have come after Hashashin. The founder strictly taught the Qur’an’s warning against intoxication.
Another theory comes from the Egyptian Arabic word, hashasheen, which means ‘noisy people’ or ‘troublemakers’.
It’s likely the name comes from what the founder called his disciples, Asāsiyyūn.
Hassan-i Sabbah, Founder of the Order of Assassins
Born in Qom, a major Shiite religious center, Hassan-i Sabbah was raised as a Twelver.
Twelvers believe there were 12 imams after the death of the Prophet Muhammad. The twelfth imam was kept alive by God and hidden somewhere on Earth.
Shi’a Muslims believe that when the twelfth imam makes himself known, he will bring equality to all.
Hassan spent his youth and early adulthood as a Sunni in Ra (now a suburb of Tehran, Iran).
As an earnest seeker of the truth, he found a passion for his studies at seven years old. He focused on mathematics and astronomy, leading to astrology and occult matters.
At 17, he met an Ismaili missionary, Amir Zarrab. Zarrab tried to convert Hassan, but, as interested as Hassan was in Zarrab’s words, he wasn’t convinced.
After Zarrab’s departure, Hassan continued to read Ismaili books, which troubled his mind.
He came down with a near-fatal illness. He didn’t want to die without finding the truth. He sought another Ismaili, nicknamed Saddler.
Hassan was then fully convinced and took an oath of allegiance.
A senior Ismaili, Abu Malik, saw and was impressed by Hassan’s devotion. A few years later, Hassan was sent to Cairo, where he was well-received.
In 1080, he returned home and became a highly active Ismaili propagandist. He traveled extensively and many men followed his command to cover other areas.
However, while spreading the word of Ismaili, Hassan became a wanted man. He managed to evade his would-be captors after warrants came out for his arrest.
Ismailis and other Persians (now Iranians) held resentment towards the ruling Seljuqs, a Turko-Persian Sunni Muslim empire. They placed heavy taxes on the citizens and divided the country’s farmland.
The lower and working classes continuously grew dissatisfied.
Hassan was appalled by the political and economic oppression. He responded by forming a resistance movement against the Seljuqs. The first thing that he needed to do was find a secure site to launch the revolt.
With the help of his supporters, Hassan planned to take a fortress. Alamut Castle. He sent his reliable followers to the valley near the fortress, where they built settlements around the castle near a village.
With his followers settled, Hassan began his journey to Alamut. He traveled along a mountainous route while disguised as a schoolteacher and would only reveal himself under one of two conditions: if enough supporters settled in the valley or gained employment in the fortress.
In 1090, key people within the castle, such as soldiers and deputies, converted.
With enough support, Hassan approached the lord of the castle.
After he removed his disguise, he declared the castle belonged to him. The lord of the castle called his guards to arrest and remove Hassan from the castle, but the guards followed Hassan’s every command.
There’s speculation about how Hassan firmly secured the castle as his.
The story is that he offered the lord 3000 dinars for enough land that would fit a buffalo’s hide. The lord agreed and believed that he had managed to secure the land from Hassan.
Hassan cut strips of a buffalo’s hide and joined them along the perimeter of the land, which is how he secured the land as his.
Hassan was well-known throughout Cairo, Syria, and the Middle East by other Ismailis, with several becoming his followers.
This admiration and popularity he acquired led to the creation of the Hashashins and, therefore, the Order of Assassins.
His motives for finding the Order are unknown. A rumor states that it was for his own personal and political gain. Another stated he wanted to exact revenge on his enemies.
From Alamut, Hassan and his faithful followers established a network of strongholds. Their influence spread to nearby towns and districts. Agents gained political favor and intimidated the locals.
Hassan and his followers soon challenged the ruling Seljuq Turks.
He then developed the words and codes of beliefs for the Order of Assassins while spending his life within his fortress.
He passed away on June 12, 1124, in Alamut Castle.
The Order of Assassins Hierarchy
The Order’s structure worked on graded initiations, like modern Freemasonry. It followed a graded system of mystical and active achievement. They ranked according to the level of knowledge, reliability, and courage.
According to scholar Edward Burman, there were seven degrees for the Hashashin that were categorized into four groups.
This was the Hashashin Leader, Head of the Nizari Ismaili State, and Lord of Alamut, a position first held by Hassan-i Sabbah.
Group B – The ‘Propagandists’ of the Order of the Assassins
This group held fully initiated members. They acted as their leader’s eyes, ears, and voice on the front line of the land, in addition to likely controlling the actions of and spread of information to the lower grades.
There were three degrees of Group B, and all were the public faces of the Nizari Islamic State.
Cheif Da’i or Da’i d-Du’ato
Also known as the ‘Older Man of the Mountain’, the Chief Da’i fully comprehended the real nature and aim of their code.
They learned about the Being beyond Pre-existence and the Subsequent. This Being has no name or attribute and didn’t require worship. Teachings about the Being differed, which often led to confusion.
Chief Da’i learned that the Prophet isn’t miraculous but a construct to impose political, social, religious, and philosophical systems.
Symbolically, they needed to understand the end of the world, resurrection, future rewards and punishments, and other doctrines.
Their role, as assassins, was to capture multiple castles and act as chief subordinates for a region. Duties included being propaganda organizers and/or military commanders.
In Persia, they organized and planned assassinations.
Superior Da’i or Du’i ‘l-Kabir
They preceded the Cheif Da’i.
They were taught the mystical meaning of the rites and obligations of Ismailism by philosophical lawgivers.
The outward observance wasn’t important and was abandoned. Their teachers had to restrain a vulgar and unenlightened herd.
As for the roles of the Superior Da’i, they acted as lords of the castles, towns, and small villages. They were the ambassadors who helped organize assassinations and purchased or took hold of castles.
Da’i or Du’i
They were missionaries or masters that preceded the Superior Da’i and served as political and religious missionaries.
Training further instructed the Science of Numbers and to discard many traditions. They learned to speak disapprovingly of the State of Religion.
Regarding outward observance, they looked towards its ending. After that, they learned the importance of the number 12 for the 12 Hujjahs or ‘Proofs’.
It was their duty to spread the Ismaili teachings and search for potential initiates in the Order of Assassins. They often helped Chief and Superior Da’is with capturing strongholds.
This group consisted of partially initiated members.
Preceding the Da’i, their Rafiqs teachings surrounded three main topics:
- The code of the Seven Prophetic Periods and the nature of the Natiq (the speaker).
- The remaining six ‘Silent’ Imams.
- The abolition of each Natiq of the religion of his predecessor.
Moreover, they preached that the Prophet Muhammad wasn’t the last Prophet, and the Qur’an isn’t God’s final revelation to man.
The Rafiqs squatted around the Middle East and aided other assassins. They obeyed their superiors and helped their inferiors.
Primarily, they were teachers and field contacts for visiting assassins. They introduced assassins to the cities, provided them with information about their targets and locations, and coordinated and gathered information learned by the Lasiqs, who also served as contacts.
This group was of uninitiated members.
Lasiq or Adhert
As a novice in the Order, they learned that God’s approval can’t be won by observing the scriptures and the nature and number of the Imams.
The significance of the spiritual and material works of the number seven was recognized and detached from the Sect of the Twelve.
Through the assassin induction program, they were psychologically broken down to paper them for their initiation.
Novices were in a state of doubt about all conventional ideas, both religious and political. They believed everything they were taught was prejudiced and capable of being challenged. They aimed to learn from their teachers and see them as the only likely resource of knowledge.
Their teachers hinted that formal knowledge was a cloak. It concealed the hidden, inner and powerful truth and the secret would be revealed when the youth swore a vow of blind allegiance.
Their goal was to become a Rafiq. Until then, they acted as contacts and information gatherers. Subsequently, they were castle guards, warriors in raids and skirmishes, or bodyguards for Imams.
These members gave their lives to the Order of Assassins. As young uninitiates, they were the Order’s frontline troops and carried out the assassination missions.
They physically train for combat. It was possible for some to be ‘born into the ORder’ and start their training at an early age.
Language training was essential to infiltrate foreign communities and gather information. Their philosophical and religious training tied with the Order of Assassin’s favored targets: religious and political heads of state.
The Furusiyya was the Islamic warrior code. The Fida’i trained in its early form in combat, disguise tactics, and horseback riding. Their most used disguises were Christian monks, Sufi dervishes, Muslim fakirs, traveling merchants, school teachers, and soldiers.
An example of their commitment to the Order is the assassination of Conrad of Montferrat. The Fida’i disguised themselves as monks and, allegedly, were baptized and lived in a monastery to remain close to their target.
The Furusiyya followed the codes of conduct and followers learned the art of war, language, and strategies. Such strategy teachings included chess, archery, and sword fighting.
When not in disguise or when in Hashashin territory, the assassins wore white tunics with a red sash around their waist.
White presented innocence and red symbolized blood.
The Imams wore white tunics with white turbans.
Techniques of the Order of Assassins
To keep their enemies at bay, the Hashashin used physiological warfare, threats, and intimidation.
Threats were by dagger and note, and when one received either, they weren’t safe anywhere. The only way to avoid the Hashashin was for the individual to end what had gotten him targeted.
The Order of Assassins sought to complete missions without any additional casualties or loss of innocent life.
What gave them a terrifying reputation was that they killed their targets in public. They typically approached the target in disguise and their weapon was either a dagger or a small blade.
When a Hashashin was caught by the enemy, they committed suicide. The Hashashin instead either died at the hands of the captors or attempted to escape.
The Mongol Advance
In 1219, the rule of Khwarezin (now Uzbekistan) ordered the assassination of a group of Mongol traders. This grave mistake infuriated Genghis Khan, who later led an army to Central Asia to punish Khwarezin.
While aware of the situation, the leader of the Order of Assassins pledges loyalty to the Mongols.
By 1237, the Mongols had conquered most of Central Asia. All of Persia was theirs, except for the Order’s strongholds. Approximately 100 of their fortresses remained untouched. They enjoyed their free land in the region from 1219 to 1260. The Mongols focused elsewhere and ruled lightly.
Soon, the Order’s freedom would come to an end.
Genghis Khan’s grandson, Mongke Khan, had a new goal: to conquer the Islamic lands.
The Order feared the accomplishment of this goal and sent a group of Hashashin to kill Mongke. Their plan was to pretend to submit to Mongke Khan and stab him. However, as skilled as they were, the Mongol guards grew suspicious and the Hashashin turned away, but the damage was done.
Mongke was determined to put an end to the Order of Assassins once and for all.
The Downfall of the Order of Assassins
Mongke’s brother, Hulagu, set out to surround the Order’s primary location, Alamut.
The Mongol military attacked with everything they had. Only if the Order’s leaders surrendered would the Mongol offer mercy.
On 19 November 1256, the leader surrendered.
Hulagu paraded the surrendered leader in front of the remaining strongholds and, one by one, the strongholds yielded. Places within the Order’s control were town down to ensure the Hashashin couldn’t take refuge or regroup.
In 1257, the former Assassin leader sought permission to travel to Karakorum, the Mongol capital. After a grueling journey, he arrived but was denied an audience. He and his followers were then killed in the mountains, bringing an end to the Order of Assassins.
The Syrian branch of the Order continued to offer services but was reduced to a mercenary force throughout the 14th century.
Although they never recovered, the Hashashin left an everlasting mark. Their effective methods and systematic elimination helped in creating their eternal legend, but important details are still shrouded in mystery.
The Order of Assassins inspired fiction and art, such as the Assassin’s Creed franchise.
At the same time, the term ‘assassin’ is now a standard term that refers to highly effective killers targeting high-profile figures. Some say this is a fitting legacy for the Order of Assassins.
Today, the descendants of the Hashashin thrive, but not as a militant group. The Imam Prince Karim Aga Khan leads over 15 million Nizari Ismailis around the world.
“Nothing is true and everything is permitted.”
– Hassan-i Sabbah.