Hasan Sabbah and his unconditionally obedient assassins, the fedayin, the false paradise and great library of fort Alamut, the instant death dealt by the trust of a dagger to important officials by their seemingly obedient assassin servants have been part of a legend woven throughout the centuries. In this short article, rather than give a detailed historical account of this radical Islamic sect that terrorized the Middle East for decades, as there are already a number of competent books and Internet resources that can well fulfill this task. We will suffice with an evaluation of this order that has left its mark on history.
The word “assassin” is derived from the Arabic “asessen”, which means protector or guardian (some claim the “guardian of the mysteries”). Their enemies called them “Hashishi” (the Arabic for Hashish users) in contempt by taking advantage of the similarity in pronunciation. The western equivalent word “assassin”, a political killer is derived from this sect. In reality, the assassins are a branch of the Nizari Ismailis. A heterodox opposition group that originated after the Caliph Nizar son of the recently deceased Caliph el-Mutansir was overthrown by the commander of the army, Bedr ul Jemali in 1094 in favor of his brother.
Those who undertook the assassin cause were called the “daye.” This was originally the title for Nizari Ismaili missionaries. The word Arabic fedayin comes from this word as does the Persian word for self-sacrifice, “fedakar.” In his youth, Hasan Sabbah was a brilliant student in both the sciences and theology, he gave himself to the Ismaili cause after receiving lessons from the daye, and used his intelligence and knowledge to establish a terrifying disciplined order unrivaled in history. After capturing fort Alamut built on top of an inaccessible mountain, in a remote region of Persia, he proceeded to capture a chain of similar forts. Among those who retold the legend of the Sheik or “Old Man of the Mountain” (Sheik ul Jebel), the following account from Marco Polo is most famous:
“The Old Man was called in their language aloadın. He had caused a certain valley between two mountains to be enclosed, and had turned it into a garden, the largest and most beautiful that ever was seen, filled with every variety of fruit. In it were erected pavilions and palaces the most elegant that can be imagined, all covered with gilding and exquisite painting. And there were runnels too, flowing freely with wine and milk and honey and water; and numbers of ladies and of the most beautiful damsels in the world, who could play on all manner of instruments, and sung [sic] most sweetly, and danced in a manner that it was charming to behold. For the Old Man desired to make his people believe that this was actually Paradise. So he had fashioned it after the description that Mahommet gave of his Paradise, to wit, that it should be a beautiful garden running with conduits of wine and milk and honey and water, and full of lovely women for the delectation of all its inmates. And sure enough the Saracens of those parts believed that it was Paradise! ,
“Now no man was allowed to enter the Garden save those whom he intended to be his ashıshın. 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, and to these he used to tell tales about Paradise, just as Mahommet had been wont to do, and they believed in him just as the Saracens believe in Mahommet. 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 that they had what young men would have; and with their own good will they never would have quitted the place.
“Now this Prince whom we call the Old One kept his Court in grand and noble style, and made those simple hill-folks about him believe firmly that he was a great prophet. And when he wanted one of his Ashishin to send on any mission, he would cause that potion whereof I spoke to be given to one of the youths in the garden, and then had him carried into his Palace. So when the young man awoke, he found himself in the Castle, and no longer in that Paradise; whereat he was not over well pleased. He was then conducted to the Old Man’s presence, and bowed before him with great veneration as believing himself to be in the presence of a true prophet. The Prince would then ask whence he came, and he would reply that he came from Paradise! and that it was exactly such as Mahommet had described it in the Law. This of course gave the others who stood by, and who had not been admitted, the greatest desire to enter therein.
“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 should’st thou die, nevertheless even so will I send my Angels to carry thee back into Paradise.” So he caused them to believe; and thus there was no order of his that they would not affront any peril to execute, for the great desire they had to get back into that Paradise of his. And in this manner the Old One got his people to murder any one whom he desired to get rid of. Thus, too, the great dread that he inspired all Princes withal, made them become his tributaries in order that he might abide at peace and amity with them.”
However, there are also certain alternative views regarding the assassins in a more favorable light. Ismail Kaygusuz in his book Hasan Sabah and Alamut (in Turkish) wrote the following:
“Hasan Sabbah’s Alamut nation built on the basis of peace, equality and equal distribution lasted for 176 years. Alamut was a nation stretching from the Pamir mountains to the southeastern Mediterranean and Palestine governed by 300 head, who worked in coordination without private property, under fort settlements called “Dar ul Hijar” (migrant homes […].
“Hasan Sabbah did not train assassins (killers), not did he establish a narcotic heaven in his fortress nation as claimed by his enemies. But the fact that his enemies (the Sunni Baghdad Caliphs, the Selchuk Sultans, Crusaders, Mongols) were superior in numbers, propagated his Alamut defense in a guerrilla image. It is known that Hasan Sabbah trained an armed unit of select warriors (fedayin). Contrary to these “fedayin” claims, assassinations were conducted only against officials, who were oppressors.”
Much has been written about the assassins due to recent events in the Middle East. Bernard Lewis in his book, The Assassin – A Radical Sect in Islam, has made the following comment on the subject:
“Certainly, the resemblance between the medieval Assassins and their modern counterparts are striking: the Syrian-Iranian connection, the calculated use of terror, the total dedication of the assassin emissary, to the point of self-immolation, in the service of his cause and in the expectation of heavenly recompense. Some have seen a further resemblance, in that both directed their attack against an external enemy, the crusaders in the one case, the Americans and the Israelis in the other.
“There may indeed be such a resemblance, but if so, it is in the misapprehension rather than the reality of these attacks. According to a view widespread in the Western world since medieval times, the anger and the weapons of the Assassins were directed primarily against the Crusaders. This is simply not true. In the long list of their victims, there were very few Crusaders, and even these were marked down as the result of some internal Muslim calculation. The vast majority of their victims were Muslims, and their attacks were directed not against the outsider, seen as basically irrelevant, but against the dominant elites and prevailing ideas in the Islamic world of their time. Some modern terrorist groups do indeed focus on Israelis and on Westerners. But others, probably in the long run more important, have as their targets the existing — in their view apostate — regimes of the Islamic world, and as their objective, the replacement of these regimes by a new order of their own. These points emerged very clearly from the statements made by the assassins of the Egyptian President Anwar Sadat. When the leader of the group proudly proclaimed: ‘I have killed pharaoh,’ he was clearly not condemning pharaoh for making peace with Israel, but as the prototype — in the Qur’an as in the Bible — of the impious tyrant.
“There are also interesting resemblances and contrasts in their methods and procedures. For the medieval Assassins, the chosen victims were almost invariably the rulers and leaders of the existing order — monarchs, generals, ministers, major religious functionaries. Unlike their modern equivalents, they attacked only the great and powerful, and never harmed ordinary people going about their avocations. Their weapon was almost always the same — the dagger, wielded by the appointed Assassin in person.
“Islam, like Christianity and Judaism, is an ethical religion, and terror and blackmail have no place in its beliefs or commandments. Even while ordaining holy war as a religious duty, Islamic law lays down elaborate rules for the conduct of warfare, including such matters as the opening and termination of hostilities, the treatment of noncombatants, and the avoidance of certain indiscriminate weapons.”
Despite their Islamic appearance, the Ismailis embraced many pre-Islamic doctrines. The rule of the Fatimid caliphate, descending from the Imam Ismail, was known for its promotion of science, religious tolerance and, and ideals of social equality and justice. The Ismaili Assassins were a secret society with 9 degrees of initiation. The higher degrees were known for their radical heterodox doctrines. Cihangir Gener wrote the following in his book History of Esoteric Doctrines (in Turkish):
“Between 874 and 1256, the Ismailis were very influential in the Middle East. Their pwer has increased to such a level that the Ismaili Imam, Hasan the 2nd announced the Sharia (Islamic Laws) were abolished in the middle of Ramadan in 1164. He proclaimed to the people that fasting, daily Islamic prayers and other Islamic conditional requirements were no longer obligatory. His son Imam Mohammed the 2nd continued his policies. Islamic obligations returned only after the Selchuk regime removed the Ismaili pressure over the Baghdad caliphate.”
According to certain recent views, Haci Bektash Veli the founder of the Turkish Bektashi Order of Dervishes was a “daye.” It is not known to what extent the Order of the Knight Templars were influenced by the Assassins, but there are claims that it was highly significant. According to evidence provided by Michael Baigent and Richard Leigh in their book, The Temple and the Lodge, and other recent works, Freemasonry has its origins in the Templars and not in medieval mason’s guilds as some claim. Similarly, another western secret society, the Rosicrucians have their origin in the Ismaili Brethren of Purity according to Emile Dantinne in his article the Islamic Origins of the Rose Cross. Cihangir Gener wrote the following in his book History of Esoteric Doctrines (in Turkish):
“Hugs de Payens and other knights visited Hasan Sabbah at the Alamut fortress upon invitation. Here the knights personally observed the system founded by Hasan Sabbah and received first hand information on the organization and esoteric doctrine. The Templars, who were the foremost advocates of Catholicism upon entering Jerusalem, after going deeply into the Ismaili teachings, gradually distanced themselves from Catholic doctrines and adopted esoteric doctrines, which gives precedence to reason. While this change in the Templars’ beliefs spread throughout Europe due to the powerful organization they established, it caused a weakening of the Catholic Church. While the Templars’ relationship with the Ismailis caused a complete change in their philosophy, it eventually laid the seed of their destruction. The papacy seeking an excuse to disband the Templars, accused them of “having relationship with the Muslims” and even “Islamization.”
According to S. Ameer Ali, “The development of all heterodox secret societies has its origins in Crusaders contact with the Ismailis. All organizations such as the Templar and Hospitalers knights, the Jesuits founded by Loyola modeled the ideals of dedication to their cause on dedicated individuals the likes of which cannot be found in our present day. The origin of stern Dominicans, the mild Franciscans and all brotherhoods can be traced back to either Cairo, or Alamut. The Knight Templar especially show the most resemblance in their religious fervor and hierarchical structure to the Ismailis of the East.”
In 1256, The Mongol Hulagu Han transformed the Middle East into a pile of rubble and ash. The Kingdom of Alamut was wiped out along with Baghdad and Harran.