As with other Islamic sects, the Ismailis brought disunity to Islam. However, they brought it with dagger in hand, seeking to wipe out the leaders of their enemies. This tactic of eliminating one important man at a time was the most effective way for a small sect to take on the larger forces of Turks and Franks. Rumors of these assassins would spread to Western Europe. Several times the Assassins would be implicated in the demise of an important man. However, much of what Westerners knew about this sect was romantic myth. Most historical accounts of Ismaili activity has them fighting with the Turks or rival Muslim sects. Due to strict Ismaili beliefs on unity and obedience to their Imam, the Assassins devoted most of their time to taking down the Sunni Turks whom they considered heretics and usurpers. They rarely killed Franks or meddled in Frankish affairs, and in fact were helpful to Crusaders in some ways. They caused further disunity amongst their Muslim neighbors, and often drew Turkish attention away from Crusaders. For these reasons, the Assassins were more helpful to the Franks than destructive.
The Assassins often contrived to murder leaders of rival religious and political groups. To fully understand the Assassins’ motives, one must explore the differences between them and their enemies. Around the year 760AD, there was a split among Shiites as to who the Imam would be. There was a group who believed it should be a man named Ismail. This group adopted its own Imams and met secretly, fearing persecution. They became known as Ismailis. These believers sought to destroy the Abbasids, who they felt had usurped the Caliphate. The Ismailis won a major victory in 909 when a Fattimid Caliph was installed in North Africa. In 1094 another dispute broke out about who should be Imam. The Ismailis, under Hasan–i–Sabbah, believed Nizar should be the rightful Imam. When Nizar was denied his succession right, Hasan severed ties with the Fattimids. Hasan’s followers who supported Nizar became known as Nizaris. Westerners would come to know them as Assassins. They would be known as excellent infiltrators, trained to eliminate the leaders of their enemies under the guidance of their leader – the Old Man of the Mountain. Their first leader would make the Turks his primary target.
The first leader of the Assassins was a man named Hasan-i-Sabbah. He was born around 1050 to a Sunnite family. During his early adulthood he converted to Ismailism. At this time the Seljuk Turks were in power. The Turks had largely converted to Islam in the mid-tenth century. They were Sunnis and desired religious unity. They had conquered Baghdad in 1060 and restored the Abbasid Caliphate. The Persians had been the “dominating force” of the Abbasid Caliphate, and they resented now being underneath the Turks. The Persian Ismailis saw the Turks as “unwanted interlopers.” The Fattimids had failed to push the Sunni Turks back, and so the Ismailis stepped up. Hasan began traveling, preaching his “New Propaganda” to the masses. He saw the Turks as a threat to Ismailism and decided to revolt against them. It was not difficult for him to gain support. The Persians were generally opposed to the Turks. In addition to religious and “nationalistic” reasons, there was great economic and social unrest. There were also many displaced peasants who could gain little comfort from Sunni teachings. Hasan was able to convert many to his cause.
Hasan’s new teachings stressed obedience above all. It was believed that the hidden messages in the scriptures could only be revealed by an Imam. Hasan preached that man could never truly know God without the Imam. Since the Imam is God’s representative on earth, he should be followed with blind obedience. Hasan believed there were so many sects because people relied on their own intellect instead of the Imam. He stressed unity as “an indication of the true religion... and unity stems from the acceptance of the authority of the Imam.” Ismaili belief was somewhat Gnostic, believing the more hidden knowledge one received from the Imam the closer one was to unlocking secret powers. Hasan was a very pious man, said to have only left his quarters at Alamut four times. He was very strict, and is said to have even killed his own sons when they broke religious rules. He worked to unite Ismailis and make them each “feel himself a responsible member of the community and inseperable from it.” Hasan knew he would need a defensible headquarters from which to launch his attacks on the Turks. In 1090, he set his sights on the castle of Alamut. He sent dais (missionaries) to convert the local population around the castle, along with the garrison. Hasan supposedly assumed the name Dihkuda and infiltrated the castle. When Mahdi, the keeper of Alamut, finally realized who Dihkuda was most of the guards had already been converted. Outnumbered, Mahdi gave up the castle to Hasan and his followers. Mahdi was offered a note for 3,000 gold dinars in exchange for the castle. To his surprise, he actually received the money. Hasan then set about reinforcing the walls of Alamut and providing food and water for the castle. He set up an irrigation system and planted trees. He also captured or created castles on surrounding peaks. Alamut was located in the Persian mountains. It was on a high peak about 6,000 feet above sea level. There was only one way in - a steep narrow path. It also had the good fortune of being located at one end of a fertile valley which could be farmed to provide the castle’s inhabitants with food. Since many of the locals had been converted to Hasan’s cause, he had the perfect base of operations from which to launch attacks against the Turks.
Hasan’s revolt against the Sunni Turks was beginning to take shape. He was able to effectively organize, “malcontents into a revolutionary movement.” He used a four-pronged approach: conversion, alliance, assassination and military action. His first goal was to convert as many people as possible. He sent out his dais, “often disguised as peddlers, beggars, or Sufi monks.” Converting people was much easier and more effective than killing them, and so really this was Hasan’s preferred method - not assassination. Ismailis had never forced conversion on anyone. As more and more people were converted to Hasan’s cause, the Persian revolt spread, until finally the new Ismaili state of Persia had been formed. People were attracted to this state for several reasons. In Nizari society there were no social ranks and leaders were appointed on merit alone. This, along with religious fervor and animosity towards the Turks, caused many Persians to join Hasan. This cause was so appealing that even non-Shiites joined the revolt. Alamut was occupied by vigorous young men and a few scholars. Assassination was seen as a sacred ritual which could only be performed with a dagger consecrated by the Old Man of the Mountain. Most boys were taken in early and were impressionable. Converts had to swear obedience to the master. This obedience united Ismailis at a time when Turks were disunified. The Seljuk rulers would rise to meet this threat.
When the Seljuk Sultan - Malikshah - heard that Alamut had been take, he sent troops to take back the castle. The men inside had no food and were ready to abandon. However, they held out and the siege was broken. Ismailis believed they prevailed because of “divine preparation.” Malikshah’s Grand Vizir, Nizam al-Mulk, was the next to try to end the revolt. In 1092 he was 74 years old and had crushed rebellion’s before. Hasan probably knew it was only a matter of time before Nizam came to snuff out the Ismaili effort. So, Hasan sent one of his fidais, that is a devotee, to assassinate the vizir. This devotee went, disguised himself as a holy man, calling himself Bu Tahir Arrani. Upon meeting Nizam the fidai stabbed him to death. Shortly after Nizam’s death, Malikshah also died. Some suspected that he was poisoned by Assassins. However, this is most likely incorrect, considering Assassins only killed with daggers usually in public places. However, in one year’s time Hasan found two of his largest threats eliminated. The Turkish power was now “dispersed among regional rulers.” Hasan knew he only needed to kill one key person to cripple an entire community. Assassination was not new to Islam, but Hasan made it his “core policy.” Hasan’s “relatively bloodless way of waging war” was countered by Turkish outbursts. Whenever a Seljuk was killed, local rulers would lash out against any Ismailis that could be found. After the death of Malikshah, the Turks fought amongst themselves for power. Meanwhile, the Assassins converted more followers and acquired more strongholds. They even began collecting taxes meant for the Turks. They would often become involved in Turkish quarrels, choosing one side over another. This sporadic support made the Turks even less unified, with some fighting Ismailis and some accepting aid from them.
In the following years the Ismailis would carry out more assassination missions. The fidais were masters at infiltrating courts, and rulers suspected everyone. In October of 1100 an Assassin killed an Emir in the “residence of Nizam’s son Fakhr al-Mulk.” When the Assassin was captured, he claimed that six more would soon die. When asked to reveal names, he stated he was too insignificant to be told such details. He was tortured, but revealed nothing, and was put to death. In the year 1106 Fakhr, now the Grand Vizir of Khurasan, was approached by a man dressed as a beggar. This man was actually an Assassin and Fakhr was stabbed to death. The Assassin was tortured and named twelve courtiers and officers who had supposedly aided him. Those named were all put to death. It was later revealed that most of these people were probably innocent. This Assassin had taken many significant enemies down with a single blade. In 1109 Ahmad, another son of Nizam’s, was crossing the Tigris when his boat was rammed. An Assassin jumped aboard stabbing Ahmad in the neck and paralyzing him. During this time the First Crusade was well under way. Jerusalem had been captured in 1099, and Baldwin had become king in 1100. However, none of the accounts describe Ismaili action against Frankish targets. The most powerful group which could oppose the Crusaders (if it had been organized) was the Seljuk Turks. However, the Assassins kept killing the Seljuk leaders. In this way, the Ismaili Assassins were actually aiding the Franks indirectly.
In the later 1100s Saladin would come to power. In 1181 Saladin wrote a letter claiming he had to fight for Islam on three fronts: the Franks, the Assassins, and the Zangid rulers of Mosul. There are three specific events where Assassins tried to take Saladin’s life. Between December of 1174 and January of 1175 Saladin laid siege to Aleppo. Some Assassins infiltrated his camp and made an attempt on his life. This attack failed, and it was suggested the rulers of Aleppo had actually hired the Assassins to kill Saladin. Again, in May of 1176 Saladin laid siege to Azaz. Some Assassins joined his army and eventually attacked him. Luckily for him, he was wearing armor and received only minor injuries. At this point Saladin began taking steps to protect himself. Saladin went on the offensive in July of 1176 invading Assassin territories. He laid siege to Masyaf. Eventually a truce was agreed upon, for reasons which are still disputed, and Saladin withdrew.
Although Assassins were not generally interested in killing Franks, there may have been some exceptions. Conrad de Montferrat died in Tyre in 1192. It appears that he may have been killed by Assassins, who were perhaps employed by rival Franks. They claimed at the time that the king of England, Richard, had ordered the Assassination. This event was more the exception than the rule. However, “maybe fewer than five Westerners fell” to the Assassins. Stories of the Nizari Ismailis became exaggerated in the West. Marco Polo meshed several legends together when he wrote of the garden at Alamut. He said fidais were given a potion that caused them to fall asleep. They were then taken to a lush garden paradise which the Old Man of the Mountain had created. After partaking in pleasures there, he was drugged again and transported to a room in Alamut where the master would ask him to perform a mission. The master would say if the devotee died on the mission he would experience that paradise forever. This was supposed to be a very effective tool in inspiring fidais. However, the truth of Polo’s account is questionable, since the area around Alamut was not very conducive to growing lush gardens. The largest way Assassins affected Westerners seems to be in their own imaginations. They were great fodder for romantic tales, such as Marco Polo’s. Just as moderns are often concerned with conspiracy theories, Medieval Franks often implicated Assassins as being responsible for suspicious deaths.
In the 11th and 12th centuries the Nizari Ismailis waged a war against the Turks and the Abbasids. From Malikshah to Saladin, the Assassins tried to eliminate the leaders of their enemies. However, the Mongols would soon put an end to this period. In 1256 the Mongols would burn Alamut, along with all of its books and religious writings. This was a great loss, from a historical perspective. The Mongols put an end to the Ismaili state of Persia. The Ismaili sect, however survived. And the Order of the Assassins also lived on in the imaginations of Westerners. Muslim disunity was a large factor in the First Crusade. The Ismailis helped to create this disunity, and so helped the Frankish Crusaders. They would continue to help, indirectly, by killing Turkish leaders. The Assassins were, in the end, more helpful to the Crusaders than destructive.
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Farhad Daftary, editor. Mediaeval Isma’ili History and Thought. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996)
Enno Franzius. History of the Order of Assassins. (New York: Funk and Wagnalls, 1969)
Bernard Lewis. The Assassins: A Radical Sect in Islam. (New York: Basic Books Inc. 1968)
Bernard Lewis. “Saladin and the Assassins”. Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London, 1953.
Jonathan Riley-Smith. The Crusades: A Short History. (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1987)