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.