Why Are Assassins So-called?
Some murderers are called assassins because this name was given in the 11th Century to a sect of Shi’ite Muslim fanatics who pledged themselves to murder those who did not believe in their religion. Asymmetric warfare, psychological warfare, and surgical strikes were often an employed tactic of the assassin (hashashin), who would draw their opponents into submission rather than risk killing them.
The word assassin comes from the Arab hashishi or hashish eater, supposedly because the killers were alleged to take hashish to give ecstatic visions of paradise before setting out on a mission which might well end in their own deaths. We use the word now for one who kills a public figure.
The history of the Shi’ite Muslim sect began in 1090 in Persia, where it was founded by Hassan iban al-Sabbah and where its endeavors were chiefly directed against the regime of the Seljuks, a Turkish family who had invaded western Asia and founded a powerful empire. Sabbah is typically regarded as the founder of the Assassins, founding the so-called “Nizari Ismaili state” with Alamut Castle as its headquarters.
In the 12th Century the assassins extended their activities to Syria, where the expansion of Seljuk rule and the arrival of the Christian crusaders gave them ample scope. They seized a group of castles and waged a war of terror against rulers and crusaders.
At one time, they made a pact with Saladin (1138-1193) and murdered Conrad de Montferrat, a crusader who had been made king of Jerusalem. The successive assassin chiefs in Syria were known as the “Old Man of the Mountain”. The chief of the sect in Persia proclaimed himself as ruler or Imam.
The end of the power of the assassins came in the 13th Century. The last of their castles fell in 1272. There are still followers of the sect to be found in Syria, Iran and Pakistan, where they are known as Khojas. Today they owe allegiance to the Aga Khan, as the spiritual leader of the Nizari Isma’ili sect of the Shi’ite Mohammedans.
While “Assassins” typically refers to the entire medieval Nizari sect, in fact only a class of acolytes known as the fida’i actually engaged in assassination work. Lacking their own army, the Nizari relied on these warriors to carry out espionage and assassinations of key enemy figures and over the course of 300 years successfully killed two caliphs, and many viziers, sultans, and Crusader leaders.
Under leadership of Imam Rukn-ud-Din Khurshah, the Nizari state declined internally, and was eventually destroyed as the Imam surrendered the castles to the invading Mongols. Sources on the history and thought of the Ismailis in this period are therefore lacking and the majority extant is written by their detractors. Long after their near-eradication, mentions of Assassins were preserved within European sources – such as the writings of Marco Polo – where they are depicted as trained killers, responsible for the systematic elimination of opposing figures. The word “assassin” has been used ever since to describe a hired or professional killer, leading to the related term “assassination”, which denotes any action involving murder of a high-profile target for political reasons.
The Nizari were feared by the Crusaders, who referred to them collectively as “Assassins”. The Crusader stories of the Assassins were further embellished by Marco Polo. European orientalist historians in the 19th century – such as Joseph von Hammer-Purgstall – also referred to the Nizari collectively as “Assassins” and tended to write about the Nizari based on uncritical use of biased accounts by medieval Sunni Arab and Persian authors.