1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Assassin

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ASSASSIN (properly Hashīshīn, 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 Ismaʽīlites, founded by Ḥassan (ibn) Ṣabbāḥ 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 Ḥassan Ṣabbāḥ, 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 Ḥassan made the acquaintance of Nizām-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. Ḥassan, 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 Mostanṣir’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. Ḥassan, who adopted the cause of Nizār, 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 Ismaʽīlite 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 Alamūt 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 Ismaʽīlites, 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 Ḥassan, 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 ʽi-al-Kirbāl, 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 ʽis, or priors, who were fully initiated into all the secret doctrines, and were the emissaries of the faith. Fourth were the Refīqs, associates or fellows, who were in process of initiation, and who ultimately advanced to the dignity of ʽis. 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 hashīsh. 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 Lāsiqs, 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 ʽi at Kuhistan, the other for drinking wine, and he was therefore compelled to name as his successor his chief ʽi, Kia-Busurg-Omid.

During the fourteen years’ reign of this second leader, the Assassins were frequently unfortunate in the open field, and their castles were taken and plundered; but they acquired a stronghold in Syria, while their numerous murders made them an object of dread to the neighbouring princes, and spread abroad their evil renown. A long series of distinguished men perished under the daggers of the fedais; even the most sacred dignity was not spared. The caliph Mostarshid was assassinated in his tent, and not long after, the caliph Rāshid suffered a similar fate. Busurg-Omid was succeeded by his son Mahommed I., who, during the long period of twenty-five years, ruthlessly carried out his predecessor’s principles. In his time Massiat became the chief seat of the Syrian branch of the society. Mahommed’s abilities were not great, and the affections of the people were drawn towards his son Hassan, a youth of great learning, skilled in all the wisdom of the initiated, and popularly believed to be the promised Imam become visible on earth. The old sheik prevented any attempt at insurrection by slaying 250 of Hassan’s adherents, and the son was glad to make submission. When, however, he attained the throne, he began to put his views into effect. On the 17th of the month Ramadan, 1164, he assembled the people and disclosed to them the secret doctrines of the initiated; he announced that the doctrines of Islam were now abolished, that the people might give themselves up to feasting and joy. Soon after, he announced that he was the promised Imam, the caliph of God upon earth. To substantiate these claims he gave out that he was not the son of Mahommed, but was descended from Nizār, son of the Egyptian caliph Mostansir, and a lineal descendant of Ismaʽīl. After a short reign of four years Hassan was assassinated by his brother-in-law, and his son Mahommed II. succeeded. One of his first acts was to slay his father’s murderer, with all his family and relatives; and his long rule, extending over a period of forty-six years, was marked by many similar deeds of cruelty. He had to contend with many powerful enemies, especially with the great Atabeg sultan Nureddīn, and his more celebrated successor, Saladin, who had gained possession of Egypt after the death of the last Fatimite caliph, and against whom even secret assassination seemed powerless. During his reign, also, the Syrian branch of the society, under their ʽi, Sinan, made themselves independent, and remained so ever afterwards. It was with this Syrian branch that the Crusaders made acquaintance; and it appears to have been their emissaries who slew Count Raymund of Tripoli and Conrad of Montferrat.

Mahommed II. died from the effects of poison, administered, it is believed, by his son, Jelaleddīn Hassan III., who succeeded. He restored the old form of doctrine—secret principles for the initiated, and Islam for the people—and his general piety and orthodoxy procured for him the name of the new Mussulman. During his reign of twelve years no assassinations occurred, and he obtained a high reputation among the neighbouring princes. Like his father, he was removed by poison, and his son, ʽAla-ed-dīn Mahommed III., a child of nine years of age, weak in mind and body, was placed on the throne. Under his rule the mild principles of his father were deserted, and a fresh course of assassination entered on. In 1255, after a reign of thirty years, ʽAla-ed-dīn was slain, with the connivance of his son, Rukneddīn, the last ruler of the Assassins. In the following year Hulaku (Hulagu), brother of the Tatar, Mangu Khan, invaded the hill country of Persia, took Alamūt and many other castles, and captured Rukneddīn (see Mongols). He treated him kindly, and, at his own request, sent him under escort to Mangu. On the way, Rukneddīn treacherously incited the inhabitants of Kirdkuh to resist the Tatars. This breach of good faith was severely punished by the khan, who ordered Rukneddīn to be put to death, and sent a messenger to Hulaku (Hulagu) commanding him to slay all his captives. About 12,000 of the Assassins were massacred, and their power in Persia was completely broken. The Syrian branch flourished for some years longer, till Bibars, the Mamelūke sultan of Egypt, ravaged their country and nearly extirpated them. Small bodies of them lingered about the mountains of Syria, and are believed still to exist there. Doctrines somewhat similar to theirs are still to be met with in north Syria.

See J. von Hammer, Geschichte der Assassinen (1818); S. de Sacy, Mémoires de l’Institut, iv. (1818), who discusses the etymology fully; Calcutta Review, vols. lv., lvi.; A. Jourdain in Michaud’s Histoire des Croisades, ii. pp. 465-484, and trans. of the Persian historian Mirkhond in Notices et extraits des manuscrits, xiii. pp. 143 sq.; cf. R. Dozy, Essai sur l’histoire de l’Islamisme (Leiden and Paris, 1879); ch. ix.  (G. W. T.)