Among the world’s most famous secret societies, the Assassins emerged out of the Ismaili sect of Islam in the late eleventh century CE. Their founder, Hassan-i-Sabah, came from a Persian Shiite family but converted to the Ismaili sect after a long period of spiritual doubt capped by a serious illness. In 1078 he went to Cairo, then the center of Ismaili activity, and sought permission from the Caliph to spread the Ismaili faith in Persia. The Caliph agreed, but required that Hassan pledge to support the claim of the Caliph’s eldest son Nizar to the Caliphate. From this pledge came the formal name of Hassan’s order, the Nizaris.
In the years that followed, Hassan wandered Persia, teaching the Ismaili faith and winning converts. He seized control of the fortress at Alamut, high in the northern mountains of Iran, and made it his center of operations. As his following increased, he began to use assassination as a core strategy for dealing with opponents, and expanded his power through protection rackets backed up by the knives of his followers. In 1094, when the Caliph died and Nizar’s claim to the succession failed, Hassan was strong enough to become an independent force, seizing additional mountain strongholds as far west as Syria and using these to extend his reach through the Middle East.
Hassan imposed a strict hierarchy on his followers. Members of the lowest rank of the order, who carried out assassinations, had the title of fidai or devotee; above these were the ranks of lasiq or lay brother, rafiq or companion, and da’i or teacher. A group of senior da’is formed Hassan’s inner circle. A rule of total obedience bound those at each level to follow orders from their superiors. According to medieval accounts, Hassan reinforced the loyalty of his followers with a clever trick. After completing a course of martial arts training, each fidai was given wine drugged with hashish, and taken into a hidden garden full of fruit trees, modeled on the paradise described in the Quran, where wine flowed in streams among gilded pavilions and lovely women provided every sensual delight. The fidai stayed there for a few days, until another dose of drugged wine returned him to his ordinary life. Convinced that Hassan had literally transported them to Paradise and back, the fidais readily risked their lives for him in the belief that death simply meant a one-way trip back to the garden.
Hassan died in 1124, but his first two successors pursued his policies and made the Assassins a name to be feared throughout the Muslim world. The fourth head of the order, Hassan II, pursued a different course. After becoming Sheik of the order in 1162, he proclaimed himself the Mahdi, the prophet whose arrival marked the coming of the millennium, and abandoned Islam for a religion of his own invention centered on the teaching that “nothing is true, and everything is permissible.” After four years, he was murdered by his brother-in-law, and the Assassins returned to orthodox Islam, but Hassan II’s troubled rule allowed the head of the Syrian branch of the Assassins, Rashid ad-Din Sinan, to break free of Alamut’s control.
Syria at that time was divided between the Crusader kingdoms to the south and a Sunni Muslim kingdom centered on Aleppo in the north, and Sinan played these off against each other to maintain his own independence. When the great Arab general Saladin (Salah al-Din al-Ayyubi, 1138–93) took power in Aleppo, Sinan responded by ordering his death, but by this time Arab rulers had begun to learn Assassin ways and Sinan’s agents failed twice. He was more successful against Conrad of Montferrat, King of Jerusalem, who was cut down by two Assassins in 1192. Against the Knights Templar, who owned several large castles in southern Syria and had copied many elements of Assassin discipline, Sinan was more circumspect, and at one point paid them a yearly tribute of 2000 pieces of gold to keep them at bay. See Knights Templar.
After Sinan’s time, the Assassins moved away from their sectarian roots and became an organization of hired knives who killed for money. Like the rest of the Arab world, they were fatally unprepared for the arrival of the Mongol armies in the middle of the thirteenth century. The threat of assassination meant nothing to the Mongols, who responded to the least resistance by slaughtering entire populations. Faced with these tactics, Alamut surrendered to the Mongol warlord Hulagu Khan in 1256. The Syrian branch of the order dissolved not long afterwards, and most of its members entered the service of the Sultan of Egypt as hired killers.
The Element Encyclopedia of Secret Societies : the ultimate a-z of ancient mysteries, lost civilizations and forgotten wisdom written by John Michael Greer – © John Michael Greer 2006