The Origins of the Islamic Assassins

FROM THE LECTURE SERIES: Secret Societies

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

It is the year 1092 – the Islamic year 484, Alborz Mountains, Persia. Three men are standing near the Alamut castle, originally called the Eagle’s Nest. One of these men is wearing a white tunic and a red sash, and he jumps off the mountain as the other man signals with a nod. Why did he do that, and who were the three men?

View from the Alamut Castle.
Alamut Castle in the Alborz mountains, Iran.
(Image: Alireza Javaheri/CC BY 3.0/Public domain)

One of the three men was an envoy of Sultan Malik Shah, of the Seljuk dynasty. The other was Hasan-e Sabbah, the grand master of a religious order. And the man who killed himself was Hassan-e Sabbah’s acolyte. Why did he jump off the mountain? To prove his deep devotion to Sabbah. He was one of the 70,000 men who were the steadfast followers of Sabbah and were devoted to killing or being killed for him.

Engraving of the Elder from the Mountains, as Hassan-e Sabbah was called, 19th century.
Hassan-e Sabbah the Grand Master of the Islamic Assassins. (Image: Unknown author/CC BY-SA 4.0/Public domain)

Who was Hassan-e Sabbah?

Hassan-e Sabbah was the grand master of a secret religious society called Asāsiyyūn, which means ‘the faithful’. It is the name Sabbah had given his followers. This order was so powerful and widespread that it could be considered an autonomous empire comparable with and even more powerful than Malik Shah’s empire.

Engraving of Hassan-e Sabah on horseback.
Hassan-e Sabbah, the Old Man of the Mountains. (Image: Unknown author/Public domain)

The name of the order, Asāsiyyūn, is sometimes wrongly considered synonymous with Hashashin (hashish eaters). This is where the word ‘assassin’ comes from. It is one of the secret societies concealed in mysteries and secrecy due to a lack of written records by them.

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

What did Islamic Assassins Originate From?

The Assassins had their origins in the early years of Islam in the 7th century. After the death of Muhammad, a dispute among his followers raged regarding who would be his successor. According to some followers, Muhammad had Ali – his cousin and son-in-law – in mind to be his successor. Other followers did not accept Ali’s succession, either out of jealousy or the fear of a bloodline being born out of it. They weren’t completely wrong as it was what exactly Ali’s supporters had in mind. They believed that a holy bloodline ran through Muhammad to his daughter, Fatima, and her and Ali’s children. This is where Islam divided into two schisms, the Sunni and the Shia.

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The Shias, a Schism in Minority

The word Shia means ‘sect’ in Arabic. The Shias believed that Ali is the true successor to Muhammad, and the holy bloodline runs through Ali and Fatima’s descendants, or as Shias have called them, imams. However, Ali did not become a caliph for 25 years after the death of Muhammad. Three other caliphs preceded him until his opportunity showed up to take power.

The Shia, which can be compared with the Christian Protestants, did not remain a unified sect. It was further divided into sub-sects, and each sub-sect split into other sub-sects. All these sub-sects were created based on the central question of who had the holy bloodline and could be accepted as an imam. For example, one sub-sect, called the Twelvers, believed that there were 12 imams. Or, Seveners believed there were seven imams, the last of them being Ismail. The Seveners, or the Ismailis, were also divided into another sub-sect called Nizaris. So, this sub-sub-sub sect is where Hassan-e- Sabbah and his order, Asāsiyyūn came from.

As a minority, the Shias were always subject to persecution. In some eras, they had to live an underground life to avoid being arrested or murdered. They had to practice utmost secrecy even to the point of adopting Taqiyya, which means ‘prudence or dissimulation of religious beliefs’. According to Taqiyya, in order to avoid persecution, Shias were allowed to hide their religious beliefs or even lie about them.

However, the Shias were not always a persecuted minority, although they were always outnumbered by Sunnis. For instance, around the year 900, they established the Fatimid Caliphate in Egypt after they took over the country. Its powerful rival was the Abbasid Caliphate, which belonged to the Sunni sect in Baghdad. The Fatimids wanted to fight the Abbasids both physically and psychologically.

On the frontline of this war were the shock-troops called da’is. They were missionaries who had special training as a sort of secret agent. They infiltrated the enemy’s forces and gathered information about their societies to unify the Shias. They wanted to establish a Shia caliphate to replace the Abbasids. Hassan-e Sabbah was one of these da’is.

Common Questions about The Origins of the Islamic Assassins

Q: What does Hashashin mean?

Hashashin means hashish eaters. It is wrongly attributed to the origin of the word assassins. However, the origin of this word is the Arabic word Asāsiyyūn, which was adopted by Hassan-e Sabbah to refer to his followers. It means faithful.

Q: Why did Sunni and Shia split?

The split of Sunni and Shia was the result of disagreements among the followers of Prophet Muhammad about his successor. The Shias believe that Ali, who was Muhammad’s cousin and son-in-law, was the true successor, and this is what Muhammad wanted. However, Sunnis do not accept that.

Q: What does Taqiyyah mean?

Taqiyyah was a strategy adopted by the Shias to avoid persecution by Sunni caliphates. It means hiding and even lying about one’s religious beliefs to preserve one’s life.

Q: Who are the Twelvers and Seveners?

Twelvers and Seveners are sub-sects of Shia, which is itself a sub-sect of Islam. Shias believe that the successors of Muhammad, called imams, are the descendants of his daughter and son-in-law, Fatima and Ali. Twelvers believe there were twelve imams, while Seveners believe there were seven of them.

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