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The Hashshashin (also Hashishim), or Assassins were a religious sect (Nizaris) of Islam with a militant basis, thought to be active in the 8th through 14th (?) centuries as a group of brigands on the medieval Afghanistan Silk Road. Their own name for the sect was al-da'wa al-jadīda (الدعوة الجديدة) which means the new doctrine and they called themselves fedayeen from the Arabic fidā'ī which means one who is ready to sacrifice his life for the cause. The name Hashshashin was given to them by their Muslim enemies.

The group was the first to transform the act of murder into a system and an ideology directed against Muslim rulers that they saw as impious usurpers. They were careful to kill the targeted individual, seeking to do so without any additional casualties. Their weapon of choice was a dagger, rejecting poison, bows and other weapons that allowed the attacker to escape. However, under no circumstances did they commit suicide, preferring to be killed by their captors.

Etymology of the word "assassin"

The name "assassin" is commonly believed to be a mutation of the Arabic "haššāšīn" (حشّاشين, "hashish-eaters"). However, there are those who dispute this etymology, arguing that it originates from Marco Polo's account of his visit to Alamut in 1273, in which he describes a drug whose effects are more like those of alcohol than of hashish. It is suggested by some writers that assassin simply means 'followers of Al-Hassan' (or Hasan-i Sabbah, the Sheikh of Alamut).

History of the Hashshashins

Although known as early as the 8th century, the foundation of the Assassins is usually marked as 1090 when Hasan-i Sabbah established his stronghold in the mountains south of the Caspian Sea at Alamut. A Yemeni emigrant and an Ismaili Shiite, Hasan set the aim of the Assassins to destroy the power of the Abbasid Caliphate by murdering its most powerful members. Hasan ibn Sabbah was also known as "The Old Man of the Mountain," however, this is likely to have been a mistake in translation, since "Old Man" is the literal translation of "Sheikh." Much of the current western lore surrounding the Assassins stems from Marco Polo's supposed visit to Alamut in 1273, which is widely considered mythical (especially as the stronghold was allegedly destroyed by the Mongols already in 1256).

The group inspired an aura of fear out of all proportion to their power. Legends stated that the Assassins were trained using ideology and drugs to convince them that they were assured a place in paradise if they were successful in murder with their golden daggers. They subdued, kidnapped, drugged and seduced the fiercest caravan guards, convincing them with elaborate means that they had died and awakened in Paradise. Thereafter, on subsequent raids, they fought furiously, believing that their death would only return them to that Paradise. The training technique was sophisticated for its time, especially the use of Ismaeeli dogma, drugs, and sex in combination.

However, the "hashshashin" (often anglicized "hashishim") name was likely given to the Assassins by their enemies, and there is no evidence that the Assassins ever used drugs for this or any other purpose.

Most of the victims of the Assassins were Sunni Muslims. There were some extremely highly placed victims including Nizam-ul-Mulk. Christians were largely untouched by the depredations of the Assassins; it was not until the middle of the 12th century that they had even really heard of them, although Conrad of Montferrat - the King of Jerusalem - was a victim (the Assassins may have even been hired by Richard the Lionheart).

The power of the Hashshashin was destroyed by the Mongol warlord Hulagu Khan, but several smaller sects remain to this day, such as the sect led by the Aga Khan. During the Mongol assault, the library of the sect was destroyed, and thus much information about them was lost.

The assassins figure in several conspiracy theories.

See also