The New International Encyclopædia/Assassins

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ASSAS'SINS (Fr. assassin, OF. plur. hassasis, from Ar. hashashin, plur. of hashash, hashish-eater). A secret order of Islam, partly religious and partly secular in character, and an offshoot of the sect of Ismaili, which was in turn a branch of the great Shiite faction. The members of the Order of Ismaili derived their name from Ismail, a descendant of Ali, in whose line they considered the religious headship of the Mohammedan world to be rightfully vested. They united to this tenet the belief in the moral indifference of all actions and in the worthlessness of popular religion. Toward the middle of the Eleventh Century, Hassan ben Sabbah, a Persian of gifted mind and energetic character, came to Cairo and attained to a high rank among the Initiated of the Ismaelite Order. Political reasons forced him to flee to Persia. In 1090 he acquired the fortress of Alamut, in the district of Rudba, and made it the home of a new organization, whose principles were in the main those of the Ismailites, with the addition of a new feature, namely: the practice of the secret assassination of all enemies of the Order. At the head of the new organization stood an absolute ruler, the Sheikh-al-Jebal, or, as he became known in mediæval folk-lore, ‘The Old Man of the Mountain.’ Below him were three deputy-masters, in the provinces of Jebal, Kohistan, and Syria. Next in rank were the Dais, or Initiated, and the Refiks, or Students, who were only partially acquainted with the secrets of the Order, but were graduated in time into the rank of Dais. Below these came the active members of the Order, the Fedavis, or Fedais, meaning ‘The Devoted Ones,’ young men who were kept in absolute ignorance of the teachings of the Order, but from whom complete obedience was expected. These were the blind instruments in the work of assassination planned by the leaders. Before they were assigned to their tasks these youths were stupefied by means of hashish, or the hemp plant, and while in an ecstatic condition they were plunged into all the pleasures of the senses as a foretaste of the bliss which awaited them in Paradise if they should faithfully execute the commands of their superiors. But the word hashashin, or hemp-eaters, was changed by the Europeans into assassins, and acquired the common meaning of murderers, which it bears at present. The novices, mechanics, and laborers formed the sixth and seventh classes of the Order, and upon them the observance of Islam was strictly enjoined, though the Initiated were exempted from its precepts. For 150 years the Order of Assassins held Asia Minor and Persia in terror. More than one caliph fell a victim to their knives. Princes paid tribute to the ‘Old Man of the Mountain,’ and the services of his followers were even hired by contending political factions. In all, there were six Grand Masters of the Order besides Hassan, who died in 1124. Of these, Hassan II., in 1163, extended the secret privilege of the Initiated (that is, exemption from the precepts of religion) to the people generally, and abolished Islam in his dominions; but he was speedily assassinated, and under his grandson, Hassan III., the old institutions were restored. Under Mohammed II. the Deputy Grand Master of Syria made himself independent, and during the wars of the Crusades wielded a terrible power. The murder of Conrad of Montferrat and other distinguished victims of assassination was attributed to him. The Mongol rulers of Persia broke up the Order in 1255. The Syrian branch was put down by the Mameluke Sultan Bibars; but remnants of the sect lingered in Kohistan, and are still said to exist in different parts of India, Persia, and Syria.

Consult: Hammer-Purgstall, Geschichte der Assassinen (Stuttgart and Tübingen, 1818); F. Walpole, The Ansayrii, or Assassins (London, 1851); Heckethorn's Secret Societies of All Ages and Countries (New York, 1897), which contains much curious information, but is ill-digested and unreliable; Guyard, Fragments rélatifs à la doctrine des Ismaélis (Paris, 1874-77).