We all know the meaning of the word Assassins. But how many of us know where the name is derived off, let alone the history of this Shi’ite sect ? In this post I will focus on the first aspect, the full details of the latter would lead me into an uncomprehensible wandering throughout the history of Shi’a Islam. Not that is aspect is not worth our attention; this might follow later on. Just know this, it was during the Crusades they became known in the west; it were historiographers in the 19th and early 20th century who created the myth.
Killers on dope
The word Assassin is derived from the word hašīš, an Arabic word originally meaning “dried grass”, but nowadays commonly known to describe the well known hemp derivate. The plant, cannabis sativa, or the more common variant cannabis indica, is being used since ages in the Middle East because of it’s intoxicating effects. In the Middle Ages the use of this drug was widely spread throughout the region. The word hašīš knows some derivations in Arabic to denote the users of the drug. Words like Hašīšī (plural Hašīšiyya or Hašīšīn) and Hašāš (plural Hašāsīn) were introduced in the Arabic vocabulary.
The Assassin sect is known in name only, mostly because of the video game I presume. In short it was a dissident Shi’ite sect that spread terror in the Middle East (mainly around the 1170’s – 1190’s). They became infamous because of their modus operandi; one or more of them killed high ranking enemy officials, preferably in public. Usually the assassins were killed shortly after the strike; they can be seen in one way as the forefathers of modern day suicide attackers. The Muslim hero Salāh ad-Dīn (Saladin conquered Jerusalem in 1187 on the crusaders) was attacked twice, he survived. He tried to force them out of their stronghold Masyāf (Syria), but suddenly left the battleground. It is said that Saladin woke up one night finding a dagger pinning down a note right next to his head. Another major “terrorist act” followed in 1192. The Assassins killed the new King of Jerusalem (before his coronation), Conrad de Montferrat.
History and Historiography
In the 12th and 13th century more and more people throughout the Middle East started using hashish. Especially the ones on the lower scales of the social ladder found the way to the high. More and more Arabs started writing about it; hashish eaters were believed to be low-class people, who rejected all form of religion and morality. The Sunnī majority in the region just used the term to denote their Shi’ite foes, and especially this sectarian group of killers.
After Napoleon’s (failed) expedition to Egypt (1798-1801), due to the richness of Arab sources found by the French, the interest for the Crusades and Assassins was stirred. On May 19th 1809 Silvestre de Sacy published Mémoire sur la dynastie des Assassins, et sur l’origine de leur nom; after studying numerous texts he discovered that the term Assassin was indeed related to the Arabic word hašīš. But de Sacy brought the story of the Assassins with such passion that every single referral to them would be related to the medieval myth; the evil Shi’a sectarians using drugs to kill Sunni rulers and Crusaders.
This idea prevailed in Western and Arabic historiography: an assassin is a zealous individual, drugged by religion, on a mission to kill and to be killed …
Source: Pieter Van Ostaeyen – Ğurğī Zaydān en de Mythe der Assassijnen – Master thesis Leuven 2003