Hassan-e Sabbah, the Grand Master of Islamic Assassins

FROM THE LECTURE SERIES: Secret Societies

By Richard B. Spence, Ph.D., University of Idaho

As one of the most influential Shia figures in the history of Islam, Hassan-e Sabbah was the grand master of Islamic Assassins. His followers were so devoted to him that they were willing to go to any lengths to prove their loyalty to him. He had a peculiar method of attracting followers he had learned through his special training.

Ismaili lion calligram
Hassan-e Sabbah was an Ismaili Shia.
(Image: Original: Ishvara7; Vector: Smasongarrison/CC BY-SA 4.0/Public domain)

Where did Hassan-e Sabbah Come From?

Hassan-e Sabbah was born into a Shia family in the city of Ray, Iran. When he went to school, he was friends with two future prominent figures in the history of Iran; Omar Khayyam, the poet, and Nizam al-Mulk, who became a Seljuk vizier. These three schoolboys had a pact that any one of them who was the first to succeed would have to help the other two to become successful and wealthy. Nizam was the first to succeed, and contrary to their pact, he only helped Khayyam and not Sabbah. Presumably, this became Sabbah’s motivation to assassinate Nizam as a Seljuk vizier in the future.

Color image of Omar Khayyam.
Omar Khayyam, Hassan-e Sabbah’s old school friend. (Image: Atilin/A. Venediktov/CC BY-SA 3.0/Public domain)

He went to Cairo and was trained in a school belonging to a secret organization called Majlis al-Hakima, Society of Wisdom. It was originally a public library opened by Al-Hakim, a Fatimid Caliph, who secretly opened the school under cover of this library. Both men and women were allowed in this school which was uncommon in Islam.

The initiates had to go through a complicated nine-degree initiation process. This process is described by Al-Makrisi, an Egyptian Sunni historian, who was interested in Sabbah and his faithful men. The process of initiation consisted of brainwashing and psychological manipulation.

Learn more about Secret Societies: The Never Ending Story.

Artwork of Nizam's assassination.
Nizam al-Mulk, Hassan-e Sabbah’s old school friend and a Seljuk vizier, who was killed by Hassan’s followers. (Image: Topkapi Palace Museum, Cami Al Tebari TSMK, Inv. No. H. 1653, folio 360b/Public domain)

Degrees of Initiation in Majlis al-Hakima

The first degree consisted of shattering all the faith that the pupil had. The teacher created doubt in the minds of the pupils through devaluing everything, even the Holy Koran and Prophet Mohammad. The pupil had to have absolute faith in his teacher and obey him blindly. In the second stage, they learned about the mystery of numbers and the seven prophets Adam, Noah, Abraham, Moses, Jesus, Muhammad, and Ismail. These lawgivers were accompanied by seven helpers or silent prophets.

This is a transcript from the video series Secret Societies. Watch it now, on The Great Courses Plus.

The training proceeded to the sixth grade where the pupils learned about Aristotle and Plato. The analytical and destructive arguments were taught at this stage to support or reject any proposition through logic. The pupils were told that Islam and its rites and rituals were nothing but pointless hogwash. Also, at this stage, based on pre-Islamic Persian mythology, a mysterious deity called the Lord of Time was introduced to them.

In the seventh degree, they learned about pantheism, the idea that holds “all humanity and all creation are one.” Therefore, all seemingly opposing forces like good and evil, creation and destruction, are all one. There is no distinction between them, and any distinction of this kind is just an illusion.

The eighth degree, which aimed to prepare the pupils for the final revelation, gave the true God a nameless identity that is unpredictable and cannot be worshiped.

And the final degree revealed that “nothing is true, and everything is permitted.” Everything was denied, including God, heaven, hell, and even the truth. Action was at the center of everything, and the head of the sect was the only person who validated an action to be carried out.

These principles were in line with those of antinomianism. According to antinomianism, which could be considered a form of nihilism, there are no rules whatsoever regarding morality or any other realm. Assassins had a major difference in principles with antinomianism: it wasn’t true that they didn’t believe in anything. They believed in one thing: that they were right; “to the pure, all things are pure.”

Learn more about Secret Societies: The Underworld of History.

Sabbah Returns to his Homeland

After finishing all these grades, Sabbah returned to Persia as a da’i, or missionary to follow his secret mission. Manipulating the minds of others was his special ability. It is best manifested in a sea voyage when a storm hit. Panic-stricken, the passengers were praying to God to save them. But Sabbah refused to pray and claimed that the storm was created by his magical powers. Confident that the storm would stop based on his calculations, he convinced them if they prayed to him, the storm would stop. The passengers desperately prayed to him and saw that the storm subsided and thought they were saved by Sabbah. Naturally, they turned into firm believers of this mysterious savior with magical powers.

He had a special way of attracting followers. Instead of telling imaginary tales about things like paradise, he helped them see one in person. He would create a paradise based on the descriptions they had heard from religious teachings. Then, he drugged them and made them wake up in that false heaven. After letting them enjoy for several days, they were drugged again and returned to real life. With this sample taste of heaven, Sabbah promised them to have this heaven eternally after their death.

Common Questions about Hassan-e Sabbah, the Grand Master of Islamic Assassins

Q: Where was Alamut?

Alamut Castle was the first castle occupied by Hassan-e Sabbah, the grand master of Islamic Assassins. It was located in northern Persia in Alborz Mountains.

Q: Who was Hassan-e Sabbah?

Hassan-e Sabbah was a Shia missionary from Ray, Iran. He founded the order of Islamic Assassins with thousands of members.

Q: Was there a real Assassins order?

The Islamic Assassins was a real secret society with Hassan-e Sabbah as its grand master. They were ordered in hierarchies based on their professions and missions.

Q: What is the significance of Antinomianism?

Antinomianism is a system of thinking similar to nihilism. It holds that there are no rules, moral or otherwise.

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