Rants & Essays
By Philip K. Hitti
The Assassin movement, called the "new propaganda" by its
members, was inaugurated by al-Hasan ibn-al-Sabbah(1), 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
hierarchy. 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 northwest of Qazwin. Strategically situation on
an extension of the Alburz chain 10,200 feet above sea level and on the
difficult but 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 the 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 secondhand, 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'
"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.'"(2)
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 subsidiary castles in Persia.
Since the Assassin books and records 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(3). 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 Sayzar(4) 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(5), 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, Persian, 'Uman, Zanzibar and especially
India, where they number about 150,000 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, who
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.
The above excerpted from "The Book of Grass: An Anthology on
Indian Hemp," edited by George Andrews and Simon Vinkenoog.
(1) Died in 1124.
(2) From 'The Book of Ser
Marco Polo, the Venetian,' translated by Henry Yule, London, 1875.
(4) Modern "Sayjar."
(5) Died in 1192.