Hashashins: Origins of the Order of Assassins

The origins of the Assassin lie in the rise of the Islamic Empire during the Islamic Golden Age and the internal divisions that arose in successive Caliphates.

Beginning soon after the death of Mohammed the Founder of Islam, the Faith was split into two sects, Shia and Sunni based on a difference of opinion on whether Mohammed should be succeeded by one of his faithful followers, Abu Bakr or his Son-in-law, Ali.

The Sunni faction which supported Abu Bakr’s succession triumphed under the Patronage of the Umayyad Caliphate which was later suceeded by the Abbasid Caliphate.

The Abbasid Caliphate saw the rise of an opposing sectarian Shia Sect called the Ismaili.

This Shia sect conquered Egypt in 969 and firmly established itself.

However, beginning in the second half of the 11th century, the Shia Caliphate itself was faced with more internal and external problems as a dynastic crisis shattered Ismaili unity forever in December 1094, when Fatimid Caliph al-Mustansir passed away.

A succession dispute between the Caliph’s Son Abu Mansur Nizar, and his Father’s vizier Al Afdal would finally tear the Ismaili Dynasty apart.

Most of the Ismaili religious communities in Egypt and Syria eventually came to support the vizier’s appointment of Abu Mansu Nazir’s weaker younger Brother as Caliph.

However, Persians and others in the Muslim east, refused, continuing to support Abu Mansu Nizari. One of the most prominent figures of the Nizari faction who would also become known as the founder of the Assassins’ Order was Hasan-i Sabbah.

Hasan had sworn allegiance to the Naziri faction in Cairo during his travels to Egypt circa 1078.

By about 1081, the Abbasid Caliphate had been conquered by the Seljuk Turks who established a Sunni military empire which ruthlessly persecuted Shia Ismaili Muslims as heretics. 

In response, Hasan initiated a campaign against the Seljuk Turks that led to the capture of the Castle at Alamut, beginning what would become known as the Nizari Ismaili State.

It was during this time that Hasan’s campaign against both the Seljuk Turks and the vizier Nizam-Al-Mulk that Hasan’s Nizari faction began to utilize another strategy that had been used by Shia groups for centuries – Assassination.

The Nizari used Assassinations as a central part of their political strategy, dispatching long-standing Political rivals like the vizier along the way.

Eventually, what might be called a ‘cult of assassination’ arose in the Naziri stronghold at Alamut as well as at other Nizari fortresses.

It was during this time that Nizari Assassins known as Fi’dai or ‘those willing to sacrifice’ in what were largely suicide missions gained a notorious reputation.

The Nizari would eventually coalesce into a relatively stable and recognised State until the 13th Century when the Mongols arrived in the Muslim world. The Mongols were determined to conquer the stubborn and rebellious Nizari, and in November 1256 the final Nizari Imam Khurshah surrendered Alamut to the Mongols.

Following the surrender, Nizari fortresses were torn down, libraries torched and thousands of civilians slaughtered. By 1270 all the Fi’dai assassins in the Nizari mountain strongholds had been defeated putting an end to the Nizari Islamic State.

Despite the Mongol assault, the Nizari survived into the modern-day together with the legend of the glory of their self-sacrificing Assassin Ancestors.