Islamic Assassins: Their Allies, Enemies, and Fate

FROM THE LECTURE SERIES: Secret Societies

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

Back from Egypt as a da’i, or missionary, Hassan-e Sabbah draws on his legendary and peculiar cunning to attract followers for his secret mission. He had special ways of recruiting assassins to turn them into die-hard followers and firm believers of his faith.

Knights Templar crusade flag on silk and satin texture with mask.
Islamic assassins and Knight Templars were allies (Image: Tuncay sarican/Shutterstock)

How did Hassan-e Sabbah Capture the Alamut Castle?

Hassan-e Sabbah had a legendary power of manipulating others through his wiles. Several stories have been told that attest to his this exceptional ability. One of these cases is the capture of the Eagle’s Nest in 1090. Rather than using any form of violence, he drew on secrecy and his cunning. First, his agents penetrated the locals and attracted them. Then, in another instance of crafty trickery, he sent his agents to infiltrate the entourage of Alamut’s governor. He sent them to the governor with an offer to get a piece of land as big as a single cow’s hide in exchange for 3,000 gold pieces. This looked like an excellent offer. But, Sabbah had the hide turned into a long thread. The length of the thread was enough to encompass the whole Eagle’s Nest.

This story has been told about many other people, so it is very likely to be made-up. But it shows where his legendary fame comes from. His exceptional abilities reached a point that since he settled in Alamut ,for the next 35 years, he allegedly left his rooms only twice. These legendary tales turned him into a superhuman figure surrounded by mystery and creating horror. He was known as the Old Man of the Mountain.

Sabbah continued to expand his territory of invisible forces for the rest of his life. He had 18 castles all over Persia. These expansions continued even after his death. For example, in 1141, years after Sabbah’s death, they took over Masyaf Castle in Syria. This castle proved to be of high significance in the years to come. It outlasted Alamut and made the Assassins close to the Knights Templars, a secret society of Christian crusaders.

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

The Assassins and the Knights Templar

The Knights Templar were very much influenced by the Islamic Assassins. The Assassins’ members, like the Templars, had a hierarchy of ranks and positions. At the bottom were the laymen, including soldiers, masons, carpenters, and peasants. There were thousands of these helpers, who were just below the next level of initiates called the Fidavis, or the faithful. On the next level were the Rafiks, or companions, that formed the administrative body of the order. The next level consisted of the da’is, the missionaries. This rank was approximately equal to the Templar Knights. The highest level was the Dai al-Kebir, the grand master.

Another similarity between the Assassins and the Templars is seen in the color of their clothing. The Assassins wore a white tunic and a red sash, colors symbolizing purity and blood. The same colors were used in the Templar’s clothing.

 The Hashshashin's fortress of Alamut Castle.
Alamut Castle was sieged by Mongols. (Image: Unknown author/Public domain)

Learn more about the Knights Templar.

The Syrian Assassins and Crusaders

Sabbah’s descendants followed to fill his place for the next 135 years after his death. The Syrian Assassins, who had become more powerful than the Alamut’s Assassins, were in close contact with the Knights Templar. Their most prominent leader, ruling from 1162 to 1193, was Rashid al-Din Sinan. In 1172, he offered Amalric, the Templar’s overlord and a crusader king of Jerusalem, to drop the Assassins’ annual payment. In return, the order of Assassins would convert to Christianity. But the Templars killed Sinan’s envoy, maybe because they knew that the Assassins didn’t really believe in any religion and this offer was another devious ploy.

Another connection of the Assassins with crusaders is documented by a French clergyman who was the bishop of Acre, a major crusader fortress. Jacques de Virty mentions Assassins in his history of experiences. According to his writings, 40,000 soldiers served the Syrian Old Man of the Mountain, who had ten major impenetrable castles. The assassins had the slightest connection to Islam, idolizing their grand master like a god. They had their own religion, with their grand master as the subject of worship.

Watercolour of the conquest of Baghdad by the Mongols in 1258.
Baghdad was captured by in the Mongols (Image: Staatsbibliothek Berlin/Schacht/Public domain)

Learn more about the People’s Crusade.

The End of Islamic Assassins

The Assassin’s arch-nemesis was the Abbasids. Sinan tried to have one of the caliphates, Saladin, assassinated. But the Fidais couldn’t accomplish that. The caliphate was finally killed in the Mongols’ attack on Baghdad in 1258. The Mongols also put an end to the ruling of the Assassins. Alladin, the second to last leader of Assassins, had enraged Mongke, the Mongol Khan, by trying to have him killed. Mongke wiped them out and captured all of their castles, including Alamut.

The Assassins in Syria managed to live on for some more time. With the help of crusaders and Mongols, they invaded Syria and Russia. Then, they united with the Mongols’ enemies, the Mamluks in Egypt. But the Mamluks betrayed them and captured Masyaf in 1270. The Assassins who survived were told by an anonymous player to “conceal their faith and wait for a signal that the cult was in full operation again.” Nobody knows, they might still be waiting.

Common Questions about Islamic Assassins: Their Allies, Enemies, and Fate

Q: Did the Templars and the Assassins fight?

The Knights Templar and the Islamic Assassins were allies. They fought together against their common enemies.

Q: Were the Templars and the Assassins enemies?

No. the Templars and the Assassins were not enemies. They were allies, and the Assassins had many influences on the Templars.

Q: What caused the decline of the Abbasid dynasty?

The Abbasid dynasty, who were the Islamic Assassin’s main enemy, were destroyed by the Mongols. During the Mongol’s attack on Baghdad, their dynasty was wiped out.

Q: Were the Abbasids Sunnis or Shias?

The Abbasids were Sunnis. They were the main enemy of the Islamic Assassins who were led by Hassan-e Sabbah.

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