What is the Hashashin?

Matt Brady

The Hashashin, also spelled Hashashiyyin or Hashshashin, were a radical sect within the Nizari Ismaili branch of Shi'i Islam. They formed during the 11th century and lasted until the 13th century. The group came to be known as something of an assassin's cult, a reputation they earned by their habit of covertly gaining access to high-profile political targets before murdering them in broad daylight. As a result, some believe that the word "assassin" originated from the name of this sect, a connection that's not difficult to make in light of their legendary brutality. The order was headquartered in Alamut, located in the Alborz Mountains of Persian Iran, and from this strategic center, they spread their operations out over various regions in Iran, Iraq, Egypt and Syria.

Hashashin headquarters were located in the Alborz Mountains of what is now known as Iran.
Hashashin headquarters were located in the Alborz Mountains of what is now known as Iran.

Toward the end of the 11th century, Ismaili leader Hassan al-Sabah formed his assassin's group, primarily as a counter-movement to al-Musta'li, the new caliph of the Egyptian Fatimid Empire. The empire had undergone a political coup, through which the ailing Caliph's younger son, al-Musta'li, was appointed the new ruler. The rightful heir apparent, al-Musta'li's older brother Nizār, was subsequently killed in an attempt to wrest back control of the empire. Hassan had been a supporter of Nizār, and this episode is the reason why the Hashashin have also been called the Nizari.

Daggers were the weapon of choice for Hashashin assassins.
Daggers were the weapon of choice for Hashashin assassins.

In one of their first major developments, the group captured Alamut. The city was located on the peak of Alah Amut, which some believe means "Eagle's Nest." Alamut served as an ideal hill fortress for Hassan and his followers, offering a barracks, training center and hideout all in one.

For the next two centuries, the Hashashin specialized in assassinating their religious and political enemies. These killings were often conducted in full view of the public, so as to instill more terror in their foes. Assassinations were primarily carried out with a dagger, which was sometimes tipped with poison.

Due to being immensely outnumbered in enemy territory, the sect tended to specialize in covert operations. Sleeper agents would often assimilate themselves in the towns and regions of their targets and, over time, stealthily insert themselves into strategic positions. They didn’t always assassinate their targets, however, preferring at times to try threatening an enemy into submission. This could sometimes be accomplished with a dagger and a threatening note placed on an enemy's pillow. The assassin group was indeed feared enough that these threats were often taken seriously, as in the case when Saladin, the Muslim Sultan of Egypt and Syria, made an alliance with them to avoid more assassination attempts.

The history of the Hashashin is muddled with colorful legends that some experts regard as mere myth. For example, in Marco Polo's account of the sect, he described recruits being given hashish, or cannabis, as a controlling agent. When the young men awoke from the drug, they'd find themselves surrounded by beautiful women in a luscious garden. Polo said these men were given whatever they desired and, within this drug-induced paradise, the leaders could command anything of the men. This account led many to believe the Islamic sect used cannabis, but the authenticity of this claim has been questioned by scholars. Nevertheless, some still speculate whether the word hashish originated from the name of the group.

By the 13th century, the group was fighting for its survival. At one point, it even reached out to Christian crusaders, offering to convert to Christianity in exchange for an alliance that would help ensure their safety, but the deal ultimately failed. Weakened in 1257 by a Mongol attack that destroyed their fortress at Alamut, the group was wiped out by Mamluk Sultan Baibars about a decade later.

The Hashashin spread their influence out from Iran.
The Hashashin spread their influence out from Iran.

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Discussion Comments


Salahuddin was one of few greatest heroes the world has ever known. Please don't glorify Hashashin. Salahuddin would have killed all Hashahin. He was a merciful king.


Hashashins were Persian not Arabs, and hashish was used first for medical purposes in Persia. The word assassin did, in fact, originate from hashashins. europeans would tell stories about hashashins but ended up pronouncing it as assassins.


anon230388: Way to label people as good and bad! Don't forget that Shias were the minority then and they had no other way to defend themselves against the cruel majority which did not stand other beliefs other than their own. Come to Alamut and see the greatness and wisdom in Hasan Sabah's headquarters architecture and try to think objectively. This was way before America was discovered and when many people still lived in tents!


During that time, Shia people were minorities under pressure of cruel Sunni governments. They had no choice but using guerrilla warfare and assassination against their enemies.


To other commenters: cannabis and opium had medical uses back then (and still do today). They called them hashashin because they grew cannabis (and khashkhash) and made hashish from it and sold it to fund their operation, Not because they were using hashish. If someone is called a florist, it doesn’t mean he/she eats flowers!

I live two hours from "alamut" and have been there many times and studied about them. Trust me. Opium and cannabis addicts are not capable of killing kings and sultans in front of their bodyguards.


What Marco Polo said about hashashin is questionable and probably not true. Obviously, they were not fans of sharing their secret ways with passing strangers.

Back then "hashashin" meant pharmacist. Their specialty was making drugs. Opium and hashish were drugs back then. For example, opium is an antidote to many poisonous bites in small quantities. Even today, alamut is full of herbs that they bring there.

Hashashin was a military branch of "Ismaili". They have seven imam instead of 12 like other Shiias. This seventh imam is different from the seventh of other Shiias and his name is Ismail.

Some say there were nationalists and anti-Islamic ideas behined there act of terror, at least at the beginning. I read some of their few remaining books. It seems that their goal was to destroy Sunni dominance in Persia, starting with destroying Sunni Islam and replacing it with Shiia, and after that, replacing Shiia with some Zoroastrianism-like religion. There are many similarities between them and another ancient and pre-Islamic Persian group. And I'm Persian.


@anon345041: The term "assassins" was applied to the hashashins later. At the time they were referred to as "hashishiyya" by Muslims, metaphorically meaning "irreligious outcasts" because of their use of hashish. However, this is rooted in ignorance.


Hashashin is an Arabic word translated into English (Hashish (grass) users). It does not mean assassins. Ask any Arabic speaking person.


I'm still confused. Is there a modern day organization like this? Or does this group have any trace of present existence?


Hashashins were not terrorist or assassins. They were into cannabis or hashish sales. Hashish in arabic is a drug and drug sales is hashash. So hashashin is the plural form of hashash from the arabic and hashashin and assassin aren't the same.


You've forgotten to mention one thing: we still exist.


I was under the impression that the Hashashin were a radical sect of shia, not a purely fundamentalist group. Could you elaborate more?


I'm an arab and I will explain something about Hashashin (Assassin ). They are a group of muslim shia who want to kill any king sunni, for example, Salah al-Din. If you don't know anything about Islam, there are two parts: Shia and Sunni.

For centuries, the Shia wanted to kill all the Sunnis until now, so the Assassins are groups of Shia (bad people) and just kill the kings or the leader. They don't kill the armies or guards. It's exactly like the Game Assassin's Creed, but they making Salaat al-Din tp be just a businessman, but history shows Salah al-Din is a hero.


thanks for the answers to my GCSE history essay.


There have always been radical groups of different religious groups, of which the Hashashin, assassins and others, are just one. It's important to remember this, since these days only a few extreme groups get any significant attention.


There is also a Hashashin clan in Gothic 3 is that the same one?

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