Hassan and the Hashshashin

Around 925 years ago, a highly devout Muslim Missionary or “Daˤiyyīn” named Hassan-i Sabbah began leading a new Shiite sect. He preached a number of sermons from the south shore of the Caspian Sea to Cairo and all over Iran and everywhere in between. Hassan-i Sabbah became the founder of Nizari Ismailism, supporting Nizar and his successors as the Ismaili Imam in opposition to the 9th Fatimid Caliph-Imam. In the last decade of the 11th century, right before the First Crusade, during a crisis of succession to the Islamic caliphate, Hassan founded the Order of the Assassins. As the first Grandmaster of the Assassins, he chose an elite squad of men from his most devoted followers the Fedayeen. They became the true heart of the Order forming a deadly religious guild of radicalized warriors around themselves. They were incredibly devout militants who were more than willing to sacrifice anything and everything for their cause. They were utterly fearless holy warriors who were dressed in white. After all, Ismailis believe that their Imam possesses the key to unlock the true occult meaning of the Quran. The Assassins even trained relentlessly, in the heart of the Alborz Mountains of northern Persia, preparing for Holy War.

Hassan the Missionary spent decades studying, translating, praying, fasting, and directing the activities of the “Daˤwa” or Mission. Hassan developed the New Preaching which he set out in a treatise that is now lost called The Four Chapters. He attracted more and more acolytes everywhere he went. Hassan-i Sabbah called his most devout, God-fearing disciples “Asāsīyūn”, meaning the “people of principle”. The idea was that they were the most faithful to the foundation of the faith of their founder, as Ismaili Shiite Muslims in their Brotherhood. Their extraordinary level of pious commitment made the Assassins quite notorious in very little time. Since then, though, the word “assassin” has come to be used more generically to describe any killers with high-value targets, such as hitmen and certain lone wolf gunmen. Accordingly, this is also where the related term “assassination” comes from, because the Order of the Assassins engaged in the killing of high-profile targets for political reasons, as well. Sunni propagandists even put together a smear campaign against Hassan and his super Shiite soldiers, calling the men drug-addicted “Hashshashin”. This is the rather bizarre etymology of the term “assassin”. The Hashshashin always killed in classic Assassin fashion.

In the year 1090, the Order acquired a rather large mountain fortress in Alamut, in a remote area of Northern Persia. The Assassin’s Castle, also known as the “Eagle’s Nest”, sits atop a 300-foot sheer cliff overlooking deep gorges to be as well fortified as possible. Hassan then expanded the territory under his control fairly far and wide, acquiring about twenty castles spread across parts of what is now Iran and Syria. The Order also dispatched teams of Assassins to eliminate prominent people who were perceived to be a danger to the security of their Islamic state or a threat to the Ismailis. This included targets like the Seljuq vizier, Nizam al-Mulk who was killed in 1092. From just 1101 to 1103 the Order assassinated the Qadi of Isfahan, the Prefect of Bayhaq, and the Chief of the Karramiyya. The Assassins did at least a couple dozen high profile murders in their peak period. The assassinations were all covert military operations against a superior foe, as well as acts of terrorism in many ways. After all, they did use psychological warfare to create an atmosphere of dread through the use of seemingly supernatural stealth. Either way, without Hassan’s Nizari state, Ismailism may have never thrived in the past and survived into the present. The Sunni opposition had an army that was hundreds of thousands of men strong. So the outnumbered Shiites were forced to wage asymmetric warfare against them. The Assassins would gather intel on their enemies and then strike at them with extreme precision to protect and defend their fellow Shiites with the smallest cost to life.

The Assassins even went so far as to pay local informants to spy on people, doing whatever it took to get the job done right. They were expert black ops special forces, ancient secret agents. Members of the Order were expected to murder and torture people and even commit suicide without question if they were ever ordered to so. Because of this, they were a force to be reckoned with. The Hashshashin could make their way into anywhere using disguises. Sleeper cells even lied in wait ready to kill their enemies at a moment’s notice for months or even years on end. In 1174, Hashshashin agents even attempted the assassination of the sultan of the Sunnis, Saladin the Great. Then in 1191, the Order of Assassin’s took on a new enemy, namely the Christian Crusaders. They quickly infiltrated their ranks and began to learn everything they could for the coming Holy War to gain the Holy Land Jerusalem. Their top target became the next regional ruler the Crusader King Conrad. Assassins were then assigned the task of killing him. So, after forming a plan and training for the mission of their Missionary they ended his life on April 28th of 1192. Conrad of Montferrat left that evening in the port of Tyre to go meet a friend for dinner unaware of his impending demise as the Assassins followed him there and back completely undetected. Unfortunately for him he never made it all the way home. They stabbed and sliced him to death in the street with their signature daggers. It seemed that the Order simply could not be stopped.

In the end, although Hassan-i Sabbah had died in the first quarter of the 12th century, seven “Lords of Alamut” succeeded him as rulers of the Nizari State for generations to come. Those magnificent Missionaries took the highest oaths and attained the most esoteric knowledge of any of the Hashshashin concerning the Quran. They also did everything they could to protect their way of life. At one point, the Order of Assassins tried banding together with the Knights Templar. The thing was that even with a highly skilled Grandmaster leading the Assassins the Order ultimately came to an end at the hands of the Mongols like so many other armies in the days of old. The conquest of Khwarezmia beginning in 1219 marked the beginning of the Mongolian conquest of the Islamic states, including that of the Nizari. Of course, even if Hassan-i Sabbah and the Hashshashin really are all dead and gone they do still live on in myths, legends, and even our pop culture if nothing else. Just look at things like the Ubisoft Assassin’s Creed video games or possibly even the DC Comics character Ra’s al Ghul and his League of Assassins. Either way, the spirit of the Assassins will live on forever as some of the immortal souls of the dead and so much more.

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store