The Assassins: The True Story

This fearsome group is held responsible for the assassinations of some very prominent figures
This fearsome group is held responsible for the assassinations of some very prominent figures

Their motive was political assassinations, but unlike modern-day terrorists, they would not involve innocent bystanders. ‘The order of the Assassins’, which was an organisation within the Nizari Ismaili sect, was supposedly a group of assassins that was established during the era of the Crusades. This fearsome group is held responsible for the assassinations of some very prominent figures of their time, making them more successful than modern-day terrorists.

However, as with every story, the story of ‘The Assassins’ has also been tampered with throughout the generations, especially by the opposing Sunni Muslims, Western Scholars and the Crusaders. This means that the legend of the Assassins will never be 100% accurate. Just as Farhad Daftary, an author and an expert in this field, writes in his book:

‘Western Orientalist’s indulged their European audiences with fabricated tales of passion, mystery and murder. The permutation of misinformation regarding the community by their Sunni contemporaries reinforced the existing European fictions as the crusaders took these damaging accounts home with them.’ The Travels of Marco Polo: Book 1, Chapter 23

However, from the few reliable sources available to us today, it is possible to draw an outline of their story. So what is ‘The order of the Assassins’ and their true story?

Who were the Assassins?

The official term used for the Assassins by their fellow Ismaili brethren was ‘Fidai’, which means ‘one who offers his life for a cause or sacrifices’. According to the famous 13th-century traveller Marco Polo, the assassins were an elite group of Ismaili followers who were drugged by ‘The Old Man of the Mountain’ (the ruler of the castle at the top of the mountain) with Hashish (from which the word ‘Assassin’ derives) and taken to a secret garden which resembled the physical description of paradise as mentioned in the Holy Qur’an. The Assassin Legends- Myths of the Ismaeilis, Farhad Daftary In fact, one of the fabrications which surfaced regarding this paradise was that actual streams of wine, honey and milk would flow in this secret garden, accompanied by beautiful women. Of course, this theory is not supported.

Marco Polo
Marco Polo

After this they were promised by ‘The Old Man’ that if they carried out their mission and were killed in the process, they would attain the very same paradise with a slight alteration, unlike the temporary secret garden, this paradise would be everlasting. With this motive, the Assassins ruthlessly carried out their missions, and within a few years managed to build a reputation that instilled fear in the hearts of their opponents.

Whilst living up to this reputation by carrying out missions, the group which is generalised as ‘the Assassins’ was shrouded with mystery. They would practice their religious rituals secretively, and would not let much of their religious beliefs be known to the outside world. Due to this level of secrecy, this group was starting to be perceived as a ‘secret organisation’, much like ‘the Freemasons’.

A group within Nizari Ismailism

This secret sect, however, had its reasons for its level of discretion. During the early years of this movement, the territories surrounding it were mainly under the Sunni rule. This was very troublesome for the Nizaris because the Sunni population was very hostile towards them. This was owed to the fact that Nizari Ismailism was a branch within the Shiite sect of Islam. Since Sunni Islam and Shia Islam were hostile to each other, the Ismailis were a natural opponent of the dominant Sunnis.

The Ismailis were known as a ‘heretical sect’ of Islam, and due to the hostilities that they were faced with, this sect had no choice but to uphold their discretion. This allowed many opponents to fabricate tales that resulted in the modern-day perception of the assassins- a merciless group of elite murderers under the influence of Hashish and motivated by the ‘secret garden’.

Map of Ismaili castles (Map by Baker Vail)

Another factor that added to the number of enemies this sect had was its devotion to ‘Nizar’. One of the dominant dynasties of the time was that of the ‘Fatimid dynasty’, which claimed direct descendance from Hazrat Fatimah raabbreviation for "May Allah be pleased with him/her/them" the daughter of the Holy Prophet saabbreviation for "Peace be upon him". The followers of this sect were called ‘Shias’, and they had established their own so-called Caliphate. Mustansir, the Caliph of the time designated his son ‘Nizar’ as the next Imam. However, Mustansir lost control of his empire near the end of his life, and when he passed away power shifted to an army officer, ‘Badr al Jamali’. The new ruler proclaimed one of Mustansir’s other sons, Mustali, to be the Imam, and naturally, Nizar did not accept this. However, after a brief civil war, Nizar lost, and after being captured and imprisoned, he was executed.

The group, which later became known as the Assassins, empathised with Nizar, because the Ismailis believed that once an Imam had been appointed by his predecessor, this decision could not be changed by anyone. Thus they did not pledge allegiance to Mustali, in result of which the came to be specifically known as the ‘Nizari Ismailis’. This caused them to effectively break off from the Fatimid Caliphate, which was now under the rule of Mustali.

The Origins of the Assassins

The legend began with an Ismaili missionary,’Hassan-Ibn-Sabbah’, who travelled throughout Iran and successfully gained many followers by converting them. His success made him a wanted criminal, and Nizam ul Mulk, who was the Vizier at the time, himself issued a warrant for his arrest. Hassan was determined to carry on his mission, and once he had gained enough followers the necessity of a place to establish as his base of operations surfaced.

Having found a suitable location, the castle of Alamut which was situated at the top of a mountain, it was infiltrated by Hassan and his men. The ruler of the castle, who was Sunni and considered Ismailis as his enemies, soon found out about this, but when he eventually acted, it was already too late. Hassan appeared in front of him, with a cheque of 3000 Gold coins for the castle, and occupied the castle with his followers. His legacy carried on throughout the reigns of his descendants, and most central bases of operations or strongholds for the Ismailis were fortresses on top of mountains, in front of which were small towns that fell under the rule of Nizari Ismailis.

Hassan ibn Sabbah

Hassan trained his assassins and sent them on missions in which they assassinated their targets, thus establishing ‘The Order of the Assassins’ within the Ismaili sect. Nizam ul Mulk, who opposed Hassan and his sect became the first victim of this organisation.

However, the story of the Assassins which is prevalent today can mainly be attributed to a subordinate of a descendant of Hassan. After Hassan passed away, his progeny inherited the leadership of the Castle of Alamut in Iran. Despite this, Rashid ad-Din Sinan, or ‘The Old Man of the Mountain’ as he came to be known, is the central figure in the legend of the Assassins. He was the grandmaster of the Syrian branch of Hassan’s sect, with Masyaf [pictured below] being the headquarters of his operations.

The Fortress of Masyaf

Although he was a subordinate to the then ruler of Alamut, Sinan managed to establish a separate identity of his Syrian branch to the Iranian branch of Alamut and was never answerable to the ruler of Alamut. He trained his own assassins and carried out many assassinations, especially during the time of the Crusades. Regarding the independence of the Syrian branch under the leadership of Sinan, Anthony Campbell, another expert in this field, writes in his book:

‘The Syrian Nizaris remained nominally under the control of Alamut, but it appears that during Sinan’s lifetime they enjoyed a good deal of autonomy.’ he Assassins of Alamut p.g 38, by Anthony Campbell

In fact, not only did Sinan’s branch act separately, according to Anthony Campbell, Sinan and Muhammad the second, who was the then Lord of Alamut, considered each other as enemies, as Anthony Campbell states in his book:

‘We do not know much about relations between Syria and Alamut at this time, but there are suggestions that they were strained and even that Muhammad the second wanted to get rid of Sinan and sent assassins against him; but Sinan discovered them in time and, instead of executing them, won them over.’he Assassins of Alamut p.g 38, by Anthony Campbell

In fact, Sinan was so devoted to his cause that it is said that after establishing his headquarters in Masyaf, Sinan only left the castle twice and went to the rooftop only once in his entire life. He was so absorbed in his duty that he would spend his days studying and planning missions inside the castle, very rarely stepping outside. How much truth there is to this story is not clear, since giving the Assassins a scholarly status was also a fabrication of Western scholars and the Crusaders.

The assassination of ‘Conrad of Montferrat’, who was one of the Christian leaders during the Crusades, in 1190AD contributed heavily to the fear that the demoralised Crusaders had for the Assassins. Having lost Jerusalem as well, the Crusaders returned to their homeland and narrated the tales of the ‘devilish cunning and mastery of disguise’ of the Assassins in the East.

One such story regarding the Assassins which came to surface in the West was regarding the level of ‘Obedience’ of the Assassins to their leader. According to the tale, Sinan was walking in his castle with one of the Christian rulers, discussing various topics. When the topic of obedience came up, in an effort to demonstrate the loyalty and obedience of his followers, Sinan made a hand gesture to two of his young disciples who were wearing white. They were sitting at the top of the mountain, and at their masters signal, they both leapt from where they were seated and shattered to pieces at the bottom of the mountain. This was the level of obedience that the Assassins had for the ‘Old Man’. This story was considered a fact until the 19th century when it was dismissed as a fabrication by researchers who had developed an interest in the tale of the Assassins.

Sinan’s disputes with Salahuddin

At this point in history, an ‘Ummah’ was being united under the banner of a man called Salahuddin al Ayyubi, known as one of the greatest army generals to set foot on this earth. It was Salahuddin who marched an army of 200,000 soldiers into battle against the Christian Crusaders, otherwise known as the ‘Franks’, and recaptured Jerusalem. Salahuddin was a Sunni, and the Nizari Ismailis considered every Sunni Muslim, despite his piety or righteousness, an enemy, out of fear of hostility.

Sinan was known for his disputes with Salahuddin al Ayyubi and even attempted to get Salahuddin assassinated twice. Once, his assassins got close enough to Salahuddin and attempted to stab him, only to find that Salahuddin was wearing armour under his clothes. The other time Sinan’s Assassins, through their expertise in disguising themselves, managed to attack Salahuddin. Despite some of his men dying in this attempt, Salahuddin was not fatally wounded and managed to escape with his life.

Both times, Sinan failed, and Salahuddin considered Sinan an enemy who had to be dealt with, so Salahuddin laid siege to Masyaf. Sinan was not in the castle at the time, but after a few exchanges of letters through their messengers, Salahuddin and Sinan settled their differences and joined in an alliance. Salahuddin had already retaken Jerusalem, and by finding a common enemy- The Crusaders- the Assassins were able to establish themselves even more in the land which was now controlled by Salahuddin.

Political Targets

The Assassins are also known for the assassinations of some central figures of their time, one of which was the Abbasid Caliph, Mustarshid. Later, his son, Caliph Rashid was also assassinated by the Nizaris, but they did not stop there. In 1121AD the commander-in-chief, Afdal, was assassinated by three Ismailis from Aleppo, and in 1130AD the Fatimid Caliph himself, despite being a Shia, was also assassinated. After this, however, the Nizaris focused on their internal affairs and on improving their already established position in the mountains.

Unlike modern adaptations of assassinations, an Ismaili Assassin’s method of assassination consisted of openly executing his target in public. Neither was poison used nor was the target stabbed in the back in a dark alley, in fact, the only weapon an Assassin used was a dagger, which after assassinating his target he would throw down and surrender himself. Days like Friday, where there was a large crowd present for the Friday prayer, were preferred by the Assassins. The aim was as much publicity as possible, and after the assassination of one’s target, they would surrender and be killed on the spot. This was the way of an assassination; very rarely did an Assassin come home after a mission. Even if he did, it would not be celebrated.

There is a famous story of a mother who wore her best attire and celebrated when the news reached her that her assassin son had been ‘martyred’ in a mission. However, when her son eventually returned home from his mission, his mother, after realising that her son had not been ‘martyred’, went into mourning for a few days.

The Decline of the Assassins

The decline of the Assassins came at the hands of the hoarding Mongols [pictured below], who; under the leadership of Genghis Khan and later Hulagu Khan, destroyed everything in their paths, leaving nothing but devastation behind. First came the destruction of the Castle of Alamut, where the descendants of Hassan Ibn Sabbah, the very founder, were all executed. The destruction of the Castle of Masyaf came after this, and although the destruction was not on the same scale as that of Alamut’s, the Mongols managed to leave little for future historians to work on. Libraries, paintings, furniture, even the castle itself did not escape the hoarding Mongols.

The Assassins were exterminated, but as for the Nizari Ismailis as a whole, this was not the end. They survive even to this day, but of course, there is always room for conspiracy and speculation, so even the survival of the Assassins is argued over by historians. However, judging by the trend of the hoarding Mongols, it is very unlikely that this sect had survived the onslaught, and unfortunately, the discretion which had kept them safe for so long now became a canvas for passionate fabrications- which gave birth to the modern legends of the Assassins.


This article was originally published in the Annual Printed Edition of Majallatul Jamia

Daniyal Kahlon

Daniyal Kahlon

Read Next

Ehtesham ul Islam

Earth in the Qur’an

We seek knowledge of our surroundings and therefore to seek this knowledge we look to our understanding to comprehend the beautiful world we live in. However, who knows more about this creation than the Creator Himself?

Read More »