This is an edited version of an article that was originally published in Medieval Islamic Civilization, An Encyclopaedia, Vol. I, p. 72-73, ed. Josef W. Meri, Routledge (New York-London, 2006)
Assassin is a name that was applied originally by the Crusader circles in the Near East and other medieval Europeans to the Nizari Ismailis of Syria. From the opening decade of the twelfth century, the Crusaders had numerous encounters with the Syrian Nizaris,
who reached the peak of their power under the leadership of Rashid al-Din Sinan (d. 1193 CE), their most famous da‘i and the original “Old Man of the Mountain” of the Crusaders. It was, indeed, in Sinan’s time (1163—1193 CE) that the Crusaders and their European observers became particularly enchanted by the highly exaggerated reports and rumors about the daring behavior of the Nizari fida’is, who were believed to selectively target and remov their community’s prominent enemies in specific localities. As a result, the Nizari Ismailis became famous in Europe as the Assassins, the followers of the mysterious “Old Man of the Mountain.”
The term assassin, which appeared in European languages in a variety of forms (e.g., assassini, assissini, and heyssisini), was evidently based on variants of the Arabic word hashishi (pl. hashishiyya, hashishin). The latter was applied by other Muslims to Nizaris in the pejorative sense of “low-class rabble” or “people of lax morality,” without any derivative explanation reflecting any special connection between the Nizaris and hashish, a product of hemp. This term of abuse was picked up locally in Syria by the Crusaders and European travelers and adopted as the designation of the Nizari Ismailis. Subsequently, after the etymology of the term had been forgotten, it came to be used in Europe as a noun meaning “murderer.” Thus, a misnomer rooted in abuse eventually resulted in a new word, assassin, in European languages.
Medieval Europeans—and especially the Crusaders—who remained ignorant of Islam as a religion and of its internal divisions were also responsible for fabricating and disseminating (in the Latin Orient as well as in Europe) a number of interconnected legends about the secret practices of the Nizaris, the so-called “assassin legends.” In particular, the legends sought to provide a rational explanation for the seemingly irrational self-sacrificing behavior of the Nizari fida’is; as such, they revolved around the recruitment and training of the youthful devotees. The legends developed in stages from the time of Sinan and throughout the thirteenth century. Soon, the seemingly blind obedience of the fida’is to their leader was attributed, by their occidental observers, to the influence of an intoxicating drug like hashish. There is no evidence that suggests that hashish or any other drug was used in any systematic fashion to motivate the fida’is; contemporary non-Ismaili Muslim sources that are generally hostile toward the Ismailis remain silent on this subject. In all probability, it was the abusive name hashishi that gave rise to the imaginative tales disseminated by the Crusaders.
The assassin legends culminated in a synthesized version that was popularised by Marco Polo, who combined the hashish legend with a number of other legends and also added his own contribution in the form of a secret “garden of paradise,” where the fida’is supposedly received part of their training. By the fourteenth century, the assassin legends had acquired wide currency in Europe and the Latin Orient, and they were accepted as reliable descriptions of the secret practices of the Nizari Ismailis, who were generally portrayed in European sources as a sinister order of drugged assassins. Subsequently, Westerners retained the name assassins as a general reference to the Nizari Ismailis, although the term had now become a new common noun in European languages meaning “murderer.” It was A.L. Silvestre de Sacy (1758—1838) who succeeded in solving the mystery of the name and its etymology, although he and the other orientalists continued to endorse various aspects of the assassin legends. Modern scholarship in Ismaili studies, which is based on authentic Ismaili sources, has now begun to deconstruct the Assassin legends that surround the Nizari Ismailis and their fida’is— legends rooted in hostility and imaginative ignorance.
Hodgson, Marshall G.S. The Order of Assassins, 82—84, 110—115, 133—137. The Hague: Mouton, 1955.
Lewis, B. The Assassins, 1-12, 124-40. London; Weidenfeld and Nicolsön, 1967.
Polo, Marco. The Book of Ser Marco Polo, 3rd revised ed. by H. Cordier, ed. and transl. H. Yule, vol. 1, 139-146. London: J. Murray, 1929.
Silvestre de Sacy, A.L. “Memoir sur La Dyanastie des Assassins, et sur L’Etymologie de leur Nom.” Memoires de sins, et sur l’Institut Royal de France 4(1818): 1-84. (English translation in F. Daftary, The Assassin Legends, 136-188.)