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Curse of the Assassins

Part 2: Assassins Among Us

The cult of Hassan-i Sabbah underwent some remarkable changes.
But its deadly legacy lives on.

From Mastery towards Godhood

Events continued much as they had after the death of Hasan-i Sabbah. Alamut was besieged by the Turks, while Assassins in return struck down the Sultan’s Grand Vizir, and both the rival Egyptian and Arab Caliphs for good measure.

Gradually, the position of Master became even more exalted. Hasan did not want to found a dynasty — or in any case was prevented by his executions of his own sons — but his successor, Umid, did not have such limitations. Three days before his death in 1138 C.E., he named his son Muhammad as his successor.

Muhammad’s learned and popular son, Hasan II, who had avidly studied the writings of his namesake, interpreted doctrine more freely than his father did. Many came to believe he was the real Imam rather than merely his servant, fortified in their conviction by the rumor that he drank wine and was thus above the law. Muhammad denounced these ideas, and reportedly put to death 250 of his followers, which were strapped onto the backs of 250 others who were expelled.

As soon as Hasan became Master, things changed. During Ramadan, the Muslim penitential season (somewhat like Lent in the West), in 1164, Hasan declared to his assembled followers that he had received a message from the invisible Imam, and revoked the ritual law. The Ramadan fast was ended, even though it was only halfway through the month, and the feasting began.

The secret doctrine was made public, and Hasan was declared to be the Mahdi and the bringer of the Resurrection. By dispensing his followers from following Islamic practice, he brought a final rupture with the Sunni and in effect renounced the effort to conquer Islam. The Sunni were deemed henceforth to be spiritually dead.

Later it would be claimed that Hasan was actually the Imam Nazir’s physical descendant as well as spiritual son. All this was too much to bear by his brother in law, who stabbed him to death only two years later.

His successor, Muhammad II, further developed the theology of the Imam, declaring that upon the Imam, the one, only, sinless, and infallible source of the knowledge of God, depended the world’s very existance. He is the Proof of God, the earthly focus of their religious life, and salvation solely depends upon knowing and following his will.

Assassin and Templar

In 1099, the Crusaders reached the Holy Land and took Jerusalem in a bloodbath that spared no-one. Their first contact with the Assassins seems to have been at Apamea, where Syrian Assassins had recently burrowed under the wall and slain the ruler of the city and his household. The Regent of Antioch, Tancred, took the town, held some of the Assassins for ransom, and turned their leader over to the ruler’s surviving sons, who tortured him to death. Yet this intervention by the Christians does not seem to have roused the ire of the Assassins, who remained much more concerned with their Islamic enemies.

In fact, because of the enemies they had in common with the Crusaders, they took refuge among them, while still trying to take mountain strongholds in Syria as a base for further operations. One Assassin leader joined Raymond of Antioch, against Nuraddin, the lord of Aleppo, and fell with him in battle. Yet at other times they fought the Westerners, even murdering Count Raymond II of Tripoli. For this the Crusaders made war on the Assassins and even imposed tribute.

It is ironic that it should be the Knights of the Temple who exacted tribute, for founded a generation after the Assassins to protect Christian pilgrims to the Holy Land, their organization seems to have owed much to them. They took vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience, formed a hierarchy and also wore white. The weapon of assassination was ineffective against an order of their nature, for they could not be disorganized by the murder of their Grand Master. If he was killed, he was immediately replaced by a fellow knight.[1]

In 1162, Hasan II sent a new dai to represent him in Syria, Sinan, physically lame but quick-witted, who became infamous for his devious ploys and deceits. Many tales surround him, often echoing those of Hasan-i Sabbah. Appearing first in Syria as a saintly ascetic, it was supposedly only after he had been serving the chief dai for seven years did he admit to the old man on his deathbed that he was his replacement.

A plot formed against him among the fidai, but Sinan was warned by his own spy network. Disconcerted by their discovery, the plotters thought he was clairvoyant and submitted. Some other stories involve a belief in reincarnation, such as the one that he prevented his guards from killing a large snake because it was actually a recently-dead Assassin leader being punished for his sins.

He used spies and a secret system of carrier pigeons to communicate. One night, his attendant caught him talking to such a pigeon, and Sinan informed him it was the late Hasan II.

Then one day, Sinan called his fidai into his chamber. On the floor was a plate with the head of one of their comrades, apparently decapitated after the accomplishment of a murder. Addressing it, Sinan asked whether he wanted to return to Earth. The head replied without hesitation that it preferred Paradise, describing it in glowing terms. After the fidai left, Sinan was said to have uncoupled the plate from the neck of the man, whose body was hidden in a space below the floor. He then rewarded the young man who had just spoken so rapturously of Paradise by sending him there with a single blow of his scimitar.

SaladinOne of Sinan’s enemies was Saladin, reknowned for his chivalry, who took over Egypt and returned it to the Sunni confession after the death of the last Shiite Caliph. His push into Syria caused no less than three attempts on his life, but he finally came to some sort of agreement with Sinan, who left him unmolested while Saladin took Jerusalem from the Crusaders in 1187. Sinan however did send his fidai disguised as Christian monks after Conrad of Montferrat, the titular King of Jerusalem who was rebuilding forces to try to regain the city. The fidai were slow-roasted and flayed alive, naming Richard the Lion-Hearted as the one who had hired them. Although Richard’s previous choice for King of Jerusalem, Henry of Champagne, married the widow and was acclaimed King with unseemly haste, it seems unlikely. (Henry later made peace with Sinan, it will be recalled, after witnessing fidai throw themselves off the parapet at their Master’s whim.)

The Wrath of the Mongols

Hasan III became Imam in 1210 and seemingly converted to the Sunni faith, restoring Muslim ritual law and invited Sunni teachers to come to Alamut. He was the first to recognize the danger of the Mongols and sought to pledge allegiance to the new terror of the steppes.

His son, Muhammed III or Aladdin (“Height of the Faith”), went back to the old ways, but his reign was overshadowed by his own madness. Anyone who contradicted him risked mutilation, amputation of limbs, and dead by torture. Whether it was his insanity or his determination to resist the Mongols, the Assassin leaders swore fidelity to his son Khurshah, but before he could act, the father was mysteriously murdered, apparently by a former favorite catamite.

The initial friendly relations between Assassins and Mongols quickly waned, and Hulagu Khan was sent from Karakoram to destroy the Assassins. He slowly and deliberately went after each mountain stronghold. Khurshah submitted and pleaded that Alamut be spared, but it was not. Neither was he — finally being murdered on the way back from a useless trip to try to see the Great Khan. Through trickery and brutality, the Mongols slew all the Assassins they could find, including babies.

Then Hulagu advanced on Baghdad, besieged it, and when the Caliph surrendered, butchered his retinue. The last Arab Caliph was trampled to death by horses after he revealed the hiding place of his treasury. Then Baghdad was raped, pillaged, and sacked — 800,000 were slaughtered indiscrimately. The ancient irrigation system was wrecked and Mesopotamia never recovered.

However, some Assassins of Alamut survived. Several years after Marco Polo visited, it was retaken by them, only to have the fortress finally reduced by the Mongols.

The Mongols advanced on Syria, causing the Assassins there to seek a treaty with St. Louis of France. The hordes were finally being stopped near Nazareth in 1260, thus sparing Egypt. Later Assassins stabbed King Edward I five times at Acre at the behest of the Sultan of Egypt, but Edward survived. The Assassins, however, had acquired a reputation for political murder among the Europeans, and would be blamed for many such in Europe until the 1600s at least.

Assassins in India

Islam, which had produced a magnificent, tolerant civilization, became narrow, rigid, and adverse to new ideas after the Mongol holocaust, even though the Mongols converted. After them came Tamerlane, another butcher from the steppes, but slowly Persia recovered under the Safavid dynasty. But around 1780, Aga Muhammad began to conquer the land. Castrated as a child, he brought brutality to new levels. Enraged by the resistance of one city, he ordered the defenders’ eyes torn out, personally counting 7,000 of them and assuring his officer in charge that had one had gone missing, his own would have been added to the pile. He gave the women and children of the city to his warriors. Yet he created modern territorial state of Iran, which includes neither Iraq nor Afghanistan — the latter having become independent in 1747.

In the meantime, the belief that the Assassins had been wiped out by Hulagu and Tamerlane proved false. The Imams remained in Persia and gradually came out of concealment, although in 1817 one was slain by a mob led by enraged mullahs.

The Shah, fearful of revenge, tortured the murderers (the leader was thrown into an icy pond and beaten to death with thorny sticks), and bestowed on the slain Imam’s son the title of Aga Khan, the hand of his daughter, a governorship and lands.

During this period, while some Assassins reverted to the old practice of concealing their faith, others had fled to India and the Himalayas. In India, several missionary dais or pirs (“saints”) were particularly successful. Some performed miracles, including raising a child and some fried birds from the dead. Others adopted their doctrine to the Hindus, teaching that Ali was a long-awaited incarnation of Vishnu. The Indian Assassins became known as the Khojas (“honorable converts”) and paid their tithes to the Imam, but they should not be confused with the Thugees, the stranglers devoted to the bloody Hindu goddess Kali.

Bloody Afghanistan

In 1840, the Aga Khan, who had moved to Bombay, sought to make his own kingdom in Afghanistan. Defeated, he turned to the British who were occupying Kandahar for assistance. The British, fearful that the Persian Shah might try to invade India with Russian help, were willing to listen.

The ruler of Afghanistan, Dost Muhammad, had welcomed a Russian representative. This alarmed the British, who invaded in 1839, captured the emir and sent him to captivity in India. They were still engaged in hostilities with his son when the Aga Khan arrived and offered them his sword.

In January 1842, the British occupation of Kabul became untenable, and it was decided to retreat through the passes to India. 17,000 left Kabul yet only one single man made it through. In the course of less than a week all the others were slain through betrayal, the inept leadership of their commanders, the winter weather, and the constant ambushes by the Afghanis. It is arguably the worst disaster in British military history.

The redcoats returned the next year, and in revenge, blew up the grand bazaar in Kabul, and rampaged indiscrimately. The First Afghan War inspired many Aghanis with hatred for the West and with their own invincibility that served them well in the war with the Soviets a century and a quarter later, and now perhaps in the conflict the Taliban (“religious students”) find themselves in today.

Ishmaelis Today

In 1850, some dissidents, claiming that the Aga Khan was not divine, refused to pay the tithe. This so enraged the orthodox Assassins that a band invaded the rebels’ council hall and killed four of them. A British court ordered four of the assailants hung. The hanged men were regarded as martyrs and the Aga Khan himself wrote verses from the Qu’ran on their shrouds. But as far as is known, this was the last time the Assassins settled a dispute in their traditional manner.

The Aga Khan and his descendants generally remained friends of the British, supporting them during the Sepoy Mutiny and also the First and Second World Wars. From playboys and libertines, they slowly matured through several generations into spokesmen for the Muslims in India and worked for Indian independence.

Aga Khan and grandsonThe third and now current Aga Khans, around 1953

The Aga Khans have more recently played down their divine claims, though the third was given his weight in gold on his jubilee of his Imamate, and in diamonds ten years later. His son, Aly, like his father married Western women, including the actress Rita Hayworth, but was considered by his father to be unsuitable as Imam, and was passed over in favor of his grandson, Karim, in 1957. This Harvard-educated Imam, having his own fortune, and possessing title to the Assassin properties, generally busies himself with managing that fortune for the benefit of his followers.

The Lessons of History

As the song says, what a long, strange trip it has been for the Assassins, from murderous insurgents to social reformers and organizers of charity. The lesson here is that cults and cultures can change. Terrorism takes root only when there is crushing poverty, despair, and such powerlessness that such things as otherworldly cults fomenting murder make sense.

These underlying causes must be fought in this “war against terrorism” as well as the hidden minions of bin Laden and others like him. As history shows, military might can be used to destroy networks and support, but as even the Mongols could not wipe out the Assassins, neither will we ever be able to prevent every fanatic from succeeding in a suicide mission.

[1] Much of this article was derived from History of the Order of Assassins, by Enno Franzius, Funk & Wagnalls, New York, 1969. This quote is taken from page 106. Back

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