Resorting to terror - I

Centuries ago, a persecuted group in the Muslim world adopted irregular warfare. Natasha Shahid examines whether this was a precedent to contemporary terrorism

Resorting to terror - I
Following the 9/11 attacks, the common perception about Muslims around the globe changed for the worse: this style of conducting “suicide” attacks against non-Muslims had begun to be touted as somewhat of a hallmark of the Muslim community. Soon enough, a few scholarly theories supporting this freshly conceived perception emerged, one of which attempted to link modern suicide attacks to those carried out by the Hashshashin – popularly known as the Order of the Assassins – in the 12th and 13th centuries in modern-day Iran, Iraq and Syria. One proponent of this line of thought, Dr. Sha’ul Shay – a military historian and former deputy head of Israel’s National Security Council – wrote in his book, The Shahids, that the Assassins’ assassinations were an “historical example of suicide attacks in the name of Islam”, implying that the medieval outfit was a group of “Holy Killers” – like modern so-called Muslim terrorists, in his opinion.

There is no denying the fact that modern presumably ‘Islamic’ terrorism is one of the most horrific threats to global peace and security in approximately six millennia of recorded history. Therefore, finding a “cure” to it is one of the most pressing challenges faced by the contemporary world. As most of the world’s intelligentsia, militaries, and politicians would probably have learnt by now, the cure to any ideology is not attempting to bulldoze it to the ground, but to discover its roots and remove it.

A scene from Fatimid court life, from a manuscript in the Islamic Museum in Cairo
A scene from Fatimid court life, from a manuscript in the Islamic Museum in Cairo

The Muslim world in which the Assassins arose was a melting pot of major and minor (mostly Sunni) empires

So has Sha’ul Shay spotted the true historical precedent of modern Islamic terrorism?

To answer that question, we must know the answers to the following three questions: Who were the Assassins and why were they so drawn to assassinations that this very activity became their defining characteristic? Were they truly “Holy Killers” or jihadists? And, most importantly, were they the medieval precedents of modern terrorist outfits, who claim and are believed to be waging a holy war in the name of Islam? The answers to these three questions are each expansive enough to have entire books dedicated to them. However, to encompass as much information as possible in the form of an article, this scribe would present a three-part series on this very subject, with each part tackling one of the three stated questions.

The first part – this current article – would, therefore, tackle the first question: Who were the Assassins?

The Muslim World of the 1090s

The Order of the Assassins was primarily a group of Isma’ilis formed by a former Twelver Shi’i Hassan bin Sabbah – variously also called Hassan-i-Sabbah – in approximately 1090 AD, five years before the First Crusade was launched in the direction of the Islamic world. This was a time in which the Islamic world itself was divided into a patchwork of dynasties.

Over much of what is known today as the Middle East, the Abbasid Caliphate technically held sway. However, by the period under question, the Abbasid Caliphate itself was reduced to the role of a religious figurehead, with practical political and military power possessed mostly by the Seljuqs and other minor dynasties. In what makes up Eastern Iran, Afghanistan, and Pakistan today, the Ghaznavids were the rulers. In Spain – or Al-Andalus – the Umayyads’ power had faded, giving way to the Almoravid dynasty. Modern-day Turkey was a battle ground for the Byzantines and Muslims – primarily the Seljuqs, but parts of the region seceded from their control and established the independent Sultanate of Rum in 1077 AD.

A depiction of the murder of Nizam-ul-Mulk Tusi, one of the earliest prominent victims of the Assasins
A depiction of the murder of Nizam-ul-Mulk Tusi, one of the earliest prominent victims of the Assasins

At the far western end of the expanse of the Muslim world, lay the Maghrib – the North Africa of today – where the Fatimid Caliphate reigned supreme as the only non-Sunni empire of the medieval Muslim world. The Fatimid Caliphate was an Isma’ili Shi’i caliphate, whose ruler had the unique distinction of being a Caliph, supreme leader, as well as the Isma’ili Imam. The Caliphate was also the only Muslim empire that did not swear its allegiance to the Abbasid Caliphate and the Caliph of Baghdad, thereby developing entirely independently of the rest of the Muslim world.

In sum, the Muslim world in which Hassan bin Sabbah and his Assassins arose was a melting pot of major and minor (mostly Sunni) empires, all but one of whom swore allegiance to the Abbasid caliph.

The travels of Hassan bin Sabbah from 1081 AD to 1090 AD
The travels of Hassan bin Sabbah from 1081 AD to 1090 AD

In Egypt, Hassan ibn Sabbah met with disappointment that possibly led to the formation of the Assassins

The Formation of the Order

As mentioned previously, Hassan bin Sabbah was a Twelver Shi’ite before he converted to Isma’ilism, which happened, according to scholar of Isma’ilism, Dr. Farhad Daftary, when he was approximately seventeen years of age. The cause for his conversion is vague at best, with the clearest picture drawn by Ata Malik Juvaini in his Tarikh-i-Jahangushay in which he quotes Hassan bin Sabbah’s autobiography: “I followed the religion of my fathers, that is Twelver Shi’ism. There was a person in Ray called Amira Zarrab who held the beliefs of the Batinis of Egypt. We constantly disputed with each other and he tried to destroy my beliefs. I did not give in to him but his words took root in my heart. Meanwhile I was overcome with a very dreadful illness and I thought to myself: ‘That is the true religion and because of my fanaticism I would not admit it. If, which Heaven forfend, my appointed hour should come, I shall have perished without attaining the truth.’ It so happened that I recovered from that illness.”

Whatever the reason behind his conversion, Hassan ultimately developed into a very strong believer, advocate, and ultimately propagator of the Isma’ili faith. After his conversion, he travelled all the way to Cairo, the capital of the Isma’ili Fatimid Caliphate, in c. 1076/7 AD – arriving there in 1078/9 AD – in order to learn more about his new faith. Here, however, he was met with scathing disappointment that possibly ultimately led to the formation of the Assassins.

A view of Alamut, the famous stronghold of Hassan as-Sabbah and his Ismaili followers
A view of Alamut, the famous stronghold of Hassan as-Sabbah and his Ismaili followers

Upon his arrival in Egypt, Hassan found the country completely in control of the vizier and Commander-in-Chief, known as Badr-al-Jamali, who was also the father-in-law of Caliph al-Mustansir’s second son, Abu’l Qasim Ahmad. Hassan – as quoted by Juvaini – wrote the following about his experience in Egypt:

“I stayed there nearly a year and a half, and during my stay, though I was not admitted before Mustansir, he knew of me and several times spoke in praise of me. Now Amir-al-Juyush [the vizier, Badr-al-Jamali], his Commander-in-Chief, who was an absolute and all-powerful ruler, was the father-in-law of his younger son, Musta’li [Abu’l Qasim] whom by a second designation he had made his heir. Now I, in accordance with the principles of my religion, conducted propaganda on behalf of Nizar [the eldest son of al-Mustansir]. On this account Amir-al-Juyush was ill-disposed towards me and girded himself to attack me so that they were compelled to send me by ship to Maghrib with a party of Franks.”


Hassan was expelled from Egypt in approximately 1080 AD and by 1081 AD he had arrived in Isfahan. His treatment at the hands of the Isma’ili Caliphate must have been hurtful and discouraging, but Hassan did not abandon the cause of his faith. Instead, he conducted propaganda on its behalf throughout Persia – from Isfahan to Kerman, Yazd, Khuzestan, and Faran – and gathered many followers.

Ultimately, in c.1090 AD, he arrived in Qazvin, near which was situated Alamut – the first and most important of the many strongholds held by the Assassins.

The Beginning of the Alamut Period

Hassan bin Sabbah’s capture of Alamut – from “alah amut”, “The Eagle’s Nest” – marked the beginning of what is known in Isma’ili history as the Alamut Period. Two years into this period, the Assassins assassinated their first target, the Seljuq vizier, Nizam-al-Mulk Hasan bin Ali bin Ishaq of Tus, otherwise known as Nizam-ul-Mulk Tusi.

A further two years later, in 1094 AD, Caliph al-Mustansir of the Fatimid dynasty died, exposing the caliphate’s internal feuds over accession. Hassan, who, while in Egypt conducted propaganda in favour of Nizar the eldest son of al-Mustansir, decided to support Nizar openly in the fight for the Fatimid throne and declared his allegiance to him. Ultimately, the struggle for Nizar was fruitless in Egypt, with Abu’l Qasim claiming the Imamate and Caliphate, however, the struggle led by Hassan bin Sabbah on his behalf in Iran was successful. Thence, Hassan bin Sabbah and his Assassins became known as Nizari Isma’ilis – distinguishing themselves from the followers of al-Musta’li – for eternity.

A medieval depiction of Hassan as-Sabbah
A medieval depiction of Hassan as-Sabbah

The Khudawands of Alamut and the hilltop castles

Over the approximately 170-year-long period, eight rulers ruled from the seat of Alamut, the first three of which were simply called Khudawands, or lords, and the last five were Imams. Hassan lived long enough to ensure sufficient expansion of his influence by capturing more castles in Northern Iran – such as Maymun-Diz, Lammasar, and Girdkuh – as well as sending da’is (propagandists or preachers) to spread his message to other areas like Quhistan as well as modern-day Syria. Much of the work for the cause of the Assassins, therefore, had been done by Hassan bin Sabbah himself. However, death was inevitable and somebody had to take the seat of Alamut after Hassan passed away.

Despite levelling allegations of heresy against Hassan bin Sabbah, even his adversaries – such as the chronicler Ata Malik Juvaini, who, incidentally, was a Shi’i – accepted his quintessentially Islamic piousness and “austerity”. So much so that he had both of his sons put to death for drinking wine. As a result, Hassan most likely had no issue, leading to his follower, Kiya Buzurg-Ummid claiming the Alamut throne after Hassan bin Sabbah’s death in 1124 AD.

Buzurg-Ummid (reign: 1124 AD to 1138 AD) was an honest disciple of Hassan, who continued his work for the cause of Nizari Isma’ilism to the best of his abilities. However, by the arrival of the third Khudawand – Muhammad, the son of Kiya Buzurg-Ummid (reign: 1138 AD to 1162 AD) – the strength of the Assassins began to fade.

The fourth Khudawand, the son of Muhammad, Hasan (reigned 1162 AD to 1166 AD), was declared also as the descendant of Nizar – by virtue of a grandson of Nizar having a child with Muhammad’s wife, or Muhammad’s biological son being replaced by Hasan in infanthood – and, therefore, also an Imam. From thence began the Assassins’ own Caliph-Imamate.
The impregnability of the Assassins' castles ensured their survival in a sea of hostility

The Beginning of the End

Hasan’s reign drifted the already estranged Nizari Isma’ilis further away from orthodox Islam, as the first Imam of Alamut declared the arrival of the period of “Resurrection” (c.1164 AD). In this period, everything that was declared as unlawful in the era of Shar’iah (that preceding the era of the Resurrection) became lawful, thereby (by some accounts) drinking and adultery became not only lawful but also ‘obligatory’.

These measures not only succeeded in turning the orthodox Sunni Seljuqs and Abbasids – in whose territory the Assassins occupied hilltop castles – against the Nizaris, but also made some Nizari Isma’ilis abandon their faith. A later Imam, Jalal-ud-Din Hasan (reign: 1210 AD to 1221 AD), attempted to make amends for Hasan’s decisions, reaching out to the Abbasid Caliph, following which the latter “reconverted” the Nizaris to Islam. However, as is the case with all the empires that ever rose in the world, the Imamate of Alamut also saw its fall.

Unlike most empires, however, Alamut’s incompetent rulers did not lose their territory gradually. Instead, they did not lose it at all until the Mongol Ilkhan Hulagu laid ruin to each and every one of them. The impregnability of the Assassins’ castles was one of the most important factors behind their survival in a sea of hostility (every empire active in the region, from the Sunni Seljuks to the Isma’ilis Fatimids, to the Christian Crusaders, abhorred the sect and was hostile towards its followers, which is possibly what made them turn to assassinations). The impregnability, in turn, was due to their architecture and location – they were almost always situated on sharp hilltops, making it hard even for the massive and mighty Seljuq armies to take them down. However, with Hulagu’s hordes and catapults, taking down even the Nizaris’ castles was possible – and inevitable.

Alamut fell in the year Baghdad was sacked – 1258 AD – and other castles followed suit. The last of the Khudawands of Alamut, Rukn-ad-Din was humiliatingly murdered, and mass murders of the Nizari Isma’ilis were conducted citing Chingiz (Genghis) Khan’s yasa (code of laws) and Mengu Qa’an’s decree, both of which, according to Juvaini, decreed that none of the Nizari Isma’ilis must be spared, “not even the babe in its cradle”.

Hulagu’s genocide, however, seems to have been unsuccessful, as some of the Nizari Isma’ilis managed to survive the onslaught. Today, the Nizari Isma’ilis are known as Aga Khanis in Pakistan, with their lineage of Imams having reached the 49th in a line.