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Article from the 1911 Encyclopedia


ASSASSIN (properly Hashishin, from Hashish, the opiate made from the juice of hemp leaves), a general term for a secret murderer, originally the name of a branch of the Shiite sect (see Shiites), known as Isma'ilites, founded by Hassan (ibn) Sabbah at the end of the 11th century, and from that time active in Syria and Persia until crushed in the 13th century by the Mongols under Hulaku (Hulagu) in Persia, and by the Mameluke Bibars in Syria. The father of Hassan Sabbah, a native of Khorasan, and a Shiite, had been frequently compelled to profess Sunnite orthodoxy, and from prudential motives had sent his son to study under an orthodox doctor at Nishapur. Here Hassan made the acquaintance of Nizam-ul-Mulk, afterwards vizier of the sultan Malik-Shah (see Seljuks). During the reign of Alp-Arslan he remained in obscurity, and then appeared at the court of Malik-Shah, where he was at first kindly received by his old friend the vizier. Hassan, who was a man of great ability, tried to supplant him in the favour of the sultan, but was outwitted and compelled to take his departure from Persia. He went to Egypt (1078-79), and, on account of his high reputation, was received with great honour by the lodge at Cairo. He soon stood so high in the caliph Mostansir's favour as to excite against him the jealousy of the chief general, and a cause of open enmity soon arose. The caliph had nominated first one and then another of his sons as his successor, and in consequence a party division took place among the leading men. Hassan, who adopted the cause of Nizar, the eldest son, found his enemies too strong for him, and was forced to leave Egypt. After many adventures he reached Aleppo and Damascus, and after a sojourn there, settled near Kuhistan (Kohistan). He gradually spread his peculiar modification of Isma`ilite doctrine, and, having collected a considerable number of followers, formed them into a secret society. In 1090 he obtained, by stratagem, the strong mountain fortress of Alamut in Persia, and, removing there with his followers, settled as chief of the famous society afterwards called the Assassins.

The speculative principles of this body were identical with those of the Isma`ilites, but their external policy was marked by one peculiar and distinctive feature - the employment of secret "assassination" against all enemies. This practice was introduced by Hassan, and formed the essential characteristic of the sect. In organization they closely resembled the western lodge at Cairo. At the head was the supreme ruler, the Sheik-al-Jabal (Jebel), i.e. Chief, or, as it is commonly translated, Old Man of the Mountains. Under him were three Da'i-al-Kirbal, or, as they may be called, grand priors, who ruled the three provinces over which the sheik's power extended. Next came the body of or priors, who were fully initiated into all the secret doctrines, and were the emissaries of the faith. Fourth were the Refiqs, associates or fellows, who were in process of initiation, and who ultimately advanced to the dignity of da`is. Fifth came the most distinctive class, the Fedais (i.e. the devoted ones), who were the guards or assassins proper. These were all young men, and from their ranks were selected the agents for any deed of blood. They were kept uninitiated, and the blindest obedience was exacted from and yielded by them. When the sheik required the services of any of them, the selected fedais were intoxicated with the hashish. When in this state they were introduced into the splendid gardens of the sheik, and surrounded with every sensual pleasure. Such a foretaste of paradise, only to be granted by their supreme ruler, made them eager to obey his slightest command; their lives they counted as nothing, and would resign them at a word from him. Finally, the sixth and seventh orders were the Lasigs, or novices, and the common people. Hassan well knew the efficacy of established law and custom in securing the obedience of a mass of people; accordingly, upon all but the initiated, the observances of Islam were rigidly enforced. As for the initiated, they knew the worthlessness of positive religion and morality; they believed in nothing, and scoffed at the practices of the faithful.

The Assassins soon began to make their power felt. One of their first victims was Hassan's former friend, Nizam-ul-Mulk, whose son also died under the dagger of a secret murderer. The death by poison of the sultan Malik-Shah was likewise ascribed to this dreaded society, and contributed to increase their evil fame. Sultan Sinjar, his successor, made war upon them, but he was soon glad to come to terms with enemies against whose operations no precaution seemed available. After a long and prosperous rule Hassan died at an advanced age in 1124. He had previously slain both his sons, one on suspicion of having been concerned in the murder of a da`i at Kuhistan, the other for drinking wine, and he was therefore compelled to name as his successor his chief da'i, Kia-Busurg-Omid.

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