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Ismaili History 610 - Genesis of the word 'Assassin'

The Nizari Ismailis, an seminal branch of Shia Islam, are designated with a misnomer, Assassins in mediaeval Europe. This is an abusive term that had been given a wide currency by the Crusaders and their occidental chroniclers, who had first come into contact with the Syrian Ismailis in the Near East during the early decades of the 12th century. Charles E. Nowell writes in 'The Old Man of the Mountain'that, 'In the early years of the twelfth century, as the Christians spread their conquests in the holy land and Syria, they made the acquaintance of the Ismailis. Many of their historians had something to say about the sect, and what they gave was usually a mixture of information and misinformation' (cf. Speculum, vol. xxii, no. 4, 1947, p. 503).
The Ismailis were not a band of terrorists, but their fighting against their oppressors was a struggle for survival. Mediaeval Europeans, who remained absolutely ignorant of Muslim beliefs and practices, had transmitted a number of tales, and produced a perverted image of the Ismailis. Rene Dussaud writes in 'Histoire et Religion des Nosaires' (Paris, 1900) that, 'One of the very few Europeans who have appreciated the good points of this remarkable sect and who is of opinion that the judgements pronounced by western scholars are marked by an excessive severity. It is certainly wrong to confound as do the Musulman doctors, in one common reprobation. And the Old Man of the Mountain himself was not so black as it is custom to paint him.' In more recent times, too, many western scholars have continued to apply the ill-conceived term Assassins to the Nizari Ismailis without being aware of its etymology or dubious origin. Paul E. Walker makes his comments in his 'Abu Yaqub al-Sijistani: Intellectual Missionary' (London, 1996, p. 1) that, 'Until recently, however, the Ismailis were studied and judged almost exclusively on the basis of the evidence collected or fabricated by their enemies, including the bulk of the medieval Sunni heresiographers and polemicists who were hostile towards the Shi'is in general and the Ismailis among them in particular. These Sunni authors in fact treated Shi'ite interpretations of Islam as expressions of heterodoxy or even heresy. As a result, a `black legend' was gradually developed and put into circulation in the Muslim world to discredit the Ismailis and their interpretations of Islam. The Christian Crusaders and their occidental chroniclers who remained almost completely ignorant of Islam and its internal divisions, disseminated their own myths of the Ismailis, which came to be accepted in the West as true descriptions of Ismaili teachings and practices. Modern orientalists, too, have studied the Ismailis on the basis of hostile Sunni sources and the fanciful occidental accounts of medieval times. Thus, legends and misconceptions have continued to surround the Ismailis through the twentieth century.'

Benjamin of Tudela, the Spanish Rabbi of 12th century, who was the first European traveller to approach the frontiers of China (between 1159 and 1173). He is one of the early Europeans to have written about the Ismailis. He visited Syria in 562/1167, and described in his 'The Itinerary of Benjamin of Tudela' (tr. by Marcus N. Adler, London, 1907) the Syrian Ismailis under the term of Hashishin. Next extant description is found in a diplomatic report of 570/1175 of Burchard, an envoy sent to Egypt and Syria by the Roman emperor Frederick I Barbarossa (1152-1190), in which he has used the word Heyssessini (in Roman, segnors de montana) for the Ismailis of Syria. William (1130-1185), archbishop of Tyre, is the first historian of the Crusades to have described the Ismailis of Syria in 581/1186 with the name Assissini in his 'History of Deeds Done Beyond the Sea' (tr. by Babcock and Krey, New York, 1943, 2nd vol., p. 390), but also admits that he does not know the origin of this name, and by no means states that it was unknown to the Muslims. The German historian, Arnold of Lubeck (d. 610/1212) used for the Ismailis of Syria the term Heissessin in his 'Chronica Slavorum' (1869, 21st. vol., p. 240). James of Vitry, the Bishop of Acre (from 1216 to 1228), was perhaps the best informed occidental observer of Muslim affairs after William of Tyre. He produced his 'Secret Societies of the Middle Ages' (London, 1846), wherein he applied the term Assasini for the Syrian Ismailis. William of Rubruck (1215-1295), who had completed his visit of China in 653/1255, seems to have been amongst the first Europeans to have designated the Iranian Ismailis as Axasins and Hacsasins, hitherto used only for the Syrian Ismailis. The eminent French chronicler, Jean de Joinville (1224-1317) produced a most valuable 'Histoire de Saint Louis', (comp. 1305) relates the Syrian Ismaili ambassadors, who had come to see King Louis IX (1226-1270) at Acre. Joinville referred to the term Assacis for the Ismailis. Marco Polo (1254-1324) has also used the word Ashishin in his travelogue.

Different etymologies of the modern word Assassins are given in the occidental sources, such as Accini, Arsasini, Assassi, Assassini, Assessini, Assessini, Assissini, Heyssessini etc. Thomas Hyde in 'Veterum Persasrum Religionis Historia' (Oxford, 1700, p. 493) opines that the word Assassin must be the word hassas, derived from the root hassa, meaning, to kill or exterminate. This opinion was followed by Menage and Falconet. De Volney also adopted this etymology in his 'Voyage en Egypte et en Syrie' (1st. vol., p. 404) without citing any evidence. Historian Abul Fida (d. 732/1331) writes that Masiyaf, a town that was the headquarters of the Syrian Ismailis, is situated on a mountain, called Jabal Assikkin (Jabal al-Sikkin). The word sikkin means knife or dagger, and the name of this mountain may thus mean, 'the mountain of the knife.' This seems to be some analogy of the coinage of the above westeners, reflecting the view in Falconet's 'Memoires de l'Academie des Inscriptions' (17th vol., p. 163); who called it, la montagne du Poigard (mountain of the dagger). Silvestre de Sacy (1758-1838) however suggests that sekkin in this case is the name of a man, so that we should translate it 'the Sekkin's Mountain' (la montagne de Sekkin). Michel Sabbagh of Acre suggests the origin of al-Sisani. Instead of al-Sisani, the word often used is al-Sasani, means 'the family of Sasan.' This term is used by the Arabs to indicate an adventurer. Simon Assemani (1752-1821), the professor of oriental languages in Padua, used the word Assissana in his 'Giornale dell' Italiana Letteratura' (1806, pp. 241-262), and according to him, it is a corrupt form of Assissani in connection with the Arabic word assissath (al-sisa), meaning rock or fortress, and as such, Assissani (al-sisani) refers to one who dwells in a rocky fortress.

During the 17th and 18th centuries, the name Assassin received a good deal of attention from western scholars, who threw a flood of theories to explain its origin and significance. The mystery was finally seems to have solved by Silvestre de Sacy, who discovered that the word Assassin was Hashishiyya, i.e., the users of hashish.

The Muslims, having exhausted all their resources of condemnation, now restored to designate the Syrian Ismailis by different religious terms, such as Batiniyya and the Talimiyya. The Ismailis were also branded as Malahida (or Mulhidun) by their sworn enemies. Much less frequently, the Ismailis of Syria were called by other abusive term, such as Hashishiyya, i.e., the users of hashish. It seems that the oppressors had foiled in their attempt to extirpate the Ismailis and eventually made a last vehement strike upon them.

The earliest reported application of the term Hashishiyya to the Ismailis occurs in the anti-Ismaili polemical epistle issued in 517/1123 by the then Fatimid regime in Cairo on behalf of the caliph al-Amir (d. 524/1130), entitled 'Iqa Sawa'iqa al-irgham'. This epistle contains the term Hashishiyya for the Syrian Nizari Ismailis for two times, vide pp. 27 and 32. It must be known that the well- known event of qiyama celebrated at Alamut in 559/1164 became a main tool of the enemies of the Ismailis to discredit them. The orthodox Muslims waged a bitter propaganda, and uttered all the prevalent abusive terms for them. The dead term Hashishiyya once again was given a life, and it came to be used almost for the first time in the Seljuqid literatures. The earliest known Seljuqid chronicle is 'Nusratu'l Fatrah wa Usratu'l Fatrah' (comp. 578/1183) by Imadudin Muhammad al-Katib Ispahani (d. 597/1201), which is now extant only in an abridged version compiled by Fateh Ali bin Muhammad al-Bundari in 623/1226, entitled 'Zubdatu'n Nasrah wa Nakhbatu'l Usrah' (pp. 169, 195). Imadudin begins his chronicle from 485/1092, and did not put his work into its final form until 578/1183 when he had already been in Syria for 15 years. He seems first Seljuqid writer to have used the term, Hashishiyya for the Syrian Ismailis. Ibn Muyassar (d. 677/1278) simply states in his 'Tarikh-i Misr' (p. 102) that in Syria, the Ismailis are called Hashishiyya, in Alamut; they are known as Batiniyya and Malahida; in Khorasan as Talimiyya. Abu Shama (d. 665/1267) also used Hashishiyya for the Syrian Ismailis in his 'Kitab al-Rawdatayn fi Akhbar al-Dawlatayn' (1st. vol., pp. 240 and 258). Ibn Khaldun (d. 808/1406) writing after 13th century, mentions in 'Muqaddima' (1st. vol., p. 143) that the Ismailis of Syria, once called as al-Hashishiyya al-Ismailiyya, were known in his time as the Fidawiyya. All this sounds from the extant sources that the term Hashishiyya was commonly applied for the Syrian Ismailis between 11th and 12th centuries by the Muslims, and were ceased to be used since 13th century.

It however must bear in mind that Juvaini and Rashiduddin do not use the term Hashishiyya for the Ismailis of Iran, as the term was not prevalent during their time in Iran. W. Madelung has however recently discovered in his 'Arabic Texts Concerning the History of the Zaydi Imams of Tabaristan, Daylaman and Gilan' (Beirut, 1987, pp. 146 & 329) that the Ismailis of Iran too were named Hashishiyya in some contemporary Zaidi sources compiled in the Arabic language at the Caspian region during the first half of the 13th century. The Zaidi Shiites were the closest rivals of the Ismailis in northern Iran and had prolonged military confrontations with them in the Caspian region, had launched their own anti-Ismaili literary campaign. This tends to reveal that these Arabian sources had referred to the Iranian Ismailis under the misnomer prevalent in their region for the Syrian Ismailis.

Hashish or Hashisha is the Arabic word for hemp, which is latinized cannabis sativa. Its variety is Indian hemp or Cannabis Indica, have been known and used in the Near East since ancient times as a drug with intoxicating effects. The earliest express mention of the word hashish contained in 'at-Tadhkirah fi'l Khilaf' by Abu Ishaq ash-Shirazi (d. 476/1083). The use of hashish grew in Syria, Egypt and other Muslim countries during 12th and 13th centuries among the inferior strata of society. Numerous tracts were compiled by Muslim authors, describing that the use of hashish would effect on the users' morality and religion. Consequently, the users of hashishqualified for a inferior social and moral status, similarly to that of a mulhida, or heretic in religion. Neither the Ismailis of Syria nor the contemporary non-Ismaili Muslim texts, which were rigorous towards the Ismailis, ever attested to the use of hashish among the Nizari Ismailis.

Hashish, a narcotic drug was a common usage in the Sufic orbits in Damascus since 11th century, and they were subjected to the hatred of the theologians. Franz Rosenthal writes in 'The Herb: Hashish versus Medieval Muslim Society' (Leiden, 1971, p. 53) that, 'The use of hashish by Sufi fraternities and their presumably large role in the spread of hashish use can be accepted as a fact in view of all the later evidence pointing in this direction.' The Sufi initiates were called Hashishiyya, and it was commonly known among them as Hashish al-Fuqara (the herb of the faqirs). Among them, the other titles for hashish were 'digester of food' (hadim al-aqwat), 'rouser of thought' (baithat al-fikr), 'queen of insanity' (sultanat al-junun), 'the green one' (al-akhdar), 'daughter of cannabis' (ibnat al- qunbus) etc.

Nuruddin Ali bin al-Jazzar writes in his 'Qam al-Washin fi dhamm al-barrashin' (comp. before 991/1583) that the accursed hashish 'was originated by some group around the five hundreds' (ahdathaha ba'd fi'ah fi nahw qarn al-khams mi'ah). According to Franz Rosenthal, 'The word fi'ah (group) is used here for the sake of the rhyme and thus may very well mean Sufis, rather than sectarians or soldiers.' (Ibid. pp. 53-4) Thus, it seems possible that hashish had been discovered around 500/1106 by the wandering Sufis, who qualified the title of mulhida, or heretic in religion, and the term Hashishiyya became a common abuse in the society. Az-Zarkashi (745-794/1344-1392) in 'Zahr al-arish fi ahkam al-hashish' and al-Ukbari (d. 690/1291) in 'Kitab as-Sawanih' however write that it was believed that a Sufi Shaikh Hyder (d. 618/1221), the founder of Hyderi Sufi Order, discovered hashish in the province of Nishabur around the year 550/1155. This seems almost imponderable version. Franz Rosenthal writes to this effect that, 'The use of the drug became common among Haydar's followers only years after his death. Therefore, the Khurasanians ascribed the introduction of the drug to him who was completely innocent of it.' (Ibid. p. 45) Others also connected the introduction of hashish with a certain Sufi Ahmad as-Sawaja. In sum, hashishseems to have been discovered by the Sufis around 500/1106, but its propaganda to use and the special way of preparing it to use was introduced by the followers of Shaikh Hyder after his death. The Turkish poet, Fuzuli (885-963/1480-1556) writes in his poem, 'Layla Megnun' (p. 167) that, 'Hashish can claim to be the friend of dervishes and to be available in the corner of every mosque and among all kinds of scholars.' Hashish also enjoyed particular favour in the Sufic poems, such as Ibn Kathir (13th vol., p. 314) quotes the following verses:-

Hashish contains the meaning of my desire.

You dear people of intelligence and understanding.

They have declared it forbidden without any justification on the basis of reason and tradition.

Declaring forbidden what is not forbidden is forbidden.

Al-Badri quotes a poem of a certain Muhammad bin Makki bin Ali bin al-Hussain al-Mashhadi, which reads:-

The use of hashish is censured by all silly persons, weak of mind, insensitive,

To the censure coming from stupid and envious individuals.

Share hashish with a goodly young man firm.

In the preservation of friendship and appointments.

Is it not a relaxation for the mind? Thus enjoy

It, all you sensible men!

Consequently, the Sufis using hashish had been rigorously condemned. Ibn ash-Shihnah (d. 815/1412) composed a couple of verses that:-

I am surprised to find a Shaikh who commands people to be pious.

But himself never heeds the Merciful One or shows piety towards Him.

He considers it permissible to eat hashish as well as usury. And (says that) he who studies truly the Sahih (Bukhari) is a heretic.

The Muslim jurists also condemned the use of hashish and demanded severe punishment, declaring it dangerous to Islam and society. Gradually, the word Hashishiyya became an abusive term mostly in Syria. One who was hated, he was branded as Hashishiyya in the society, and thus, the Syrian Ismailis were also lebelled with the same misnomer by their enemies.

Running parallel with this, it is worth keeping in mind that the Syrian Ismailis too called themselves as al-sufat (the pure, or sincere), resembling the term sufi. According to 'Bustan al-Jami' (comp. 561/1165), the Ismailis in Syria called themselves as al-Sufat. Ibn al-Azim (d. 660/1262) however writes in his 'Zubdat al-Halab' (comp. 641/1243) that a faction of the Syrian Ismailis at Jabal as-Summuq called themselves al-Sufat. Both Ismailism and Sufism are similar in a way, but it should be known that, Every Ismaili is a Sufi, but no every Sufi is an Ismaili. Ismailism is an esoteric tariqah as well as a social system with its own rules and characteristics, while Sufism is an individual concern. The Ismailis however never allowed themselves to be submerged totally into the general esoteric medley, and their form of Shiite Sufism remained quite distinctive from other mystical orders of Islam. The Ismailis were the main target of the Sunni Muslims, who used all misnomers and abusive words to discredit them. Incorporating the Ismailis with the Sufis due to their potential affinity, the Sunni Muslims and others had designated the Ismailis too with the same term. Franz Rosenthal writes, 'It is worthy of note that attacks on the Ismailiyah accusing them of being hashish eaters were apparently not made very often, although this would have been an effective verbal slur.' (op. cit., p. 43) Paul Johnson writes in his 'Civilizations of the Holy Land' (London, 1979, p. 211) that, 'Much nonsense has been written about this sect, which had nothing to do with hashish.' Curiously enough, the term seems to have become so specific for the Syrian Ismailis that the Sufi circles using hashish had been ignored to be designated alike. After the schism of Nizari and Musta'lian, the influence of the Musta'lians in Syria was less than the Nizaris, and therefore, the Musta'lian faction also shifted this misnomer on the rival group. It is not surprising that when people cannot find the solution of a difficulty in the natural manner, they concoct a supernatural explanation, just as when they like or dislike a thing, they go to extremes, invent and contrive superstitious tales and give vent to credulous stories tinged with different misnomers.

The Musta'lian group was designated by the Nizari Ismailis in Syria as Jamat al-Amiriyya, and the latter were lebelled by the former as Jamat al-Hashishiyya as the Musta'lian group did not like that the rival group be known as Jamat al-Nizaria. Soon afterwards, the Musta'lian group disappeared almost from Syria in 524/1130, but they left behind the name Hashishiyya in their sources, and thus, it became a general usage for the Nizari Ismailis in Syria since 517/1123.

The occidental chroniclers, travellers and envoys to the Latin East borrowed the term Hashishiyya for the Ismailis of Syria, whom they pronounced as Hashishin, Heyssessini or Haisasins. Silvestre de Sacy delivered a lecture entitled 'Memoirs on the Dynasty of the Assassins and the origin of their name' on May 19, 1809 in the Institute of France, which was a landmark in the relative study. In addition to the few oriental sources published or referred by previous scholars, de Sacy was able to draw on the rich Paris collection of Arabic manuscripts, and states that, 'Nor should there be any doubt, in my opinion, that the word hashishi, plural hashishin, is the origin of the corruption heissessini, assassini, and assissini. It should not surprise us that the Arabic shin was transcribed by all our writers who used the Latin language by an s, and in the Greek historians by a sigma. They had no choice. It should, moreover be observed that the shin is pronounced less strongly than ch in French. What can rightly be asked is the reason why the Ismailis or Batinis were called Hashishis.'

After picking up the word Hashishiyya for the Syrian Ismailis, the Crusaders attested further fabrications. The daring behavior of the Ismaili fidais, who usually carried their mission - a struggle for survival, had exceedingly impressed the Crusaders, who would rarely endanger their own lives for other than worldly rewards. The Crusaders failed to compete with the valour of the Ismaili fidais, therefore, they propagated that they were using hashish before fighting, but they forgot to understand that the drunkenness caused by hashish merely consists of a kind of quiet ecstasy, rather than a vehemence apt to fire the courage to undertake and carry out daring and dangerous missions. Franz Rosenthal writes in 'The Herb: Hashish versus Medieval Muslim Society' (Leiden, 1971, pp. 42-3) that, 'It has been pointed out that hashish does not have the properties that would ordinarily make it a serviceable stimulant for anyone being sent on a dangerous mission of assassination.' The editors of 'Encyclopaedia Britannica' write in 'The Arabs' (New York, 1978, p. 94) that, 'Stories of the terrorists' use of hashish before setting out to commit murder and face martyrdom are doubtful.' Bosworth also writes in 'The Islamic Dynasties' (cf. Islamic Survey, series no. 5, Edinburgh, 1967, p. 128) that, 'The story related by Marco Polo and others, that hallucinatory drugs were used to stimulate the assassins to bolder efforts is unconfirmed in any of the genuine Ismaili sources.' The Muslim authors, unlike the western authors, did not fantasize about the real spirit of sacrifice of the fidais in defending their faith around aggressive milieu. Instead of knowing their struggle, they branded them with the then prevalent abusive term, Hashishiyya. Hence, the misnomer Hashishiyya, picked up by the Crusaders in the beginning of the second half of the 12th century, mainly through oral channels, came to be pronounced as Hashishin, Heyssessini or Haisasins. It further underwent corruptions, and evolved as Axasin, Accini, Assassini, Assacis, Ashishin, Assassini, and finally resulted the modern genesis of the English word, Assassin. It later was coloured by spurious and extravagant fables, smacking exaggeration in western popular lore and literature.

It deserves notice, however, that Henry, Count of Champagne (d. 593/1197) had visited the Syrian Ismaili territories in 590/1194, where he had personally alleged to have witnessed the falling down of the two Ismaili fidais from a lofty turret upon the signal of the Ismaili leader to demonstrate an example of obedience. This event became famous in the occidental sources bluntly by the end of 13th century without perception of the spirit of sacrifice of the fidais. Thus, in the West, the Ismailis have been the subjects of several hotchpotch of legends, and were portraited in different terms, so as to designate them ultimately as Assassins. Farhad Daftary writes in'The Assassin Legends' (London, 1994, p. 84) that, 'In sum, mediaeval Europeans learned very little about Islam and Muslims, and their less informed knowledge of the Ismailis found expression in a few superficial observations and erroneous perceptions scattered in Crusader histories and other occidental sources.'

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