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Assassins

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The Islamic World: Past and Present What is This? Accessible coverage of Islam from the seventh century to the twenty-first century

    Assassins

    The Assassins were a group whose practices included the murder of political and religious enemies. The term assassin is derived from the Arabic word hashishiyun or hashshashin, which means “smoker of hashish.” This name, given to them by their enemies, refers to their supposed use of the drug hashish as part of their violent activities. The Assassins were active from about the 1090s to the mid-1200s.

    The Assassins were members of the Nizari Ismaili, a movement within a larger group of Shi'i Muslims, the Ismaili. The Ismaili had come into being in the 700s. Following the death of the sixth Shi'i imam, Jafar al-Sadiq , a dispute arose over who was to succeed him. One group, later known as the Ismailis, insisted that Jafar's son Ismail should be the seventh imam.

    Over the centuries, the Ismailis experienced a number of divisions over religious and political matters. One of these splits led to the establishment of the Fatimid dynasty in Egypt. In 1094 Nizar , eldest son and the chosen successor of the Fatimid caliph, was captured by political enemies and imprisoned. The Ismailis who remained loyal to Nizar became the Nizari Ismailis. A missionary named Hasan-i Sabbah became leader of the Nizaris Ismailis. Hasan's impressive religious scholarship and strong personality helped him amass a fiercely devoted following, which came to be known as the Assassins.

    Hasan's Assassins made their headquarters in a mountain stronghold in Iran called Alamut. From this fortress, the group carried out its murderous campaigns. Targeting enemies among the Fatamids and other groups, their methods included suicide attacks. Murdering their enemies was considered a religious duty.

    The Alamut stronghold became legendary through the writings of Marco Polo , the famed traveler from Venice. Polo claimed to have visited Alamut in 1273 , and he wrote of the Assassins' use of hashish and of their spectacular gardens. The gardens were designed to resemble the gardens of paradise to which the Assassins would go after completing their missions. Some skepticism exists as to whether Marco Polo ever actually visited Alamut and whether his stories are based on hearsay.

    It is known, however, that the Assassins remained active through the 1100s and into the early 1200s. Finally, in 1256 , Alamut was captured by the Mongols, an Asian people who conquered vast territories in Europe and Asia. Following the fall of Alamut, the Assassins gave up their violent ways. The Nizari Ismailis eventually established communities in Syria, Iran, Iraq, Central and South Asia, and India. Followers in India became known as the Khojas. Led by an imam known as the Aga Khan, the Khojas continue to thrive. See also Fatimid Dynasty; Ismaili; Shi'i Islam.

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