Assassins was a name originally applied by the Crusaders and other medieval Europeans, starting in the twelfth century, to the Nizari Ismailis of Syria. Under the initial leadership of Hasan Sabbah (d. 1124), the Nizaris founded a state centered at the stronghold of Alamut, in northern Iran, with a subsidiary in Syria. The Nizari state in Iran was destroyed by the Mongols in 1256. In Syria the Nizaris reached the peak of their power and glory under Rashid al-Din Sinan (d. 1193), the original “Old Man of the Mountain” of the Crusaders, who had extended dealings with the Crusaders and their Frankish ruling circles in the Near East. The Syrian Nizaris permanently lost their political prominence when they were subdued by the Mamluks in the early 1270s.
The Nizaris and the Crusaders had numerous military encounters in Syria from the opening decade of the twelfth century. But it was in Sinan’s time (1163–1193) that the Crusaders and their occidental observers became particularly impressed by the highly exaggerated reports and widespread rumours about the Nizari assassinations and the daring behavior of their fida_is, or devotees, who carried out suicide missions against their community’s enemies in public places. The Nizari Isma_ilis became infamous in Europe as “the Assassins.” This term, which appears in medieval European literature in a variety of forms (Assassini, Assissini, and Heyssisini), was evidently based on variants of the Arabic word hashishi (plural, hashishiyya or hashishin), which was applied pejoratively to the Nizaris of Syria and Iran by other Muslims. The term was used in the sense of “low-class rabble” or “people of lax morality” without claiming 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 as well as by other European travelers and emissaries and was adopted to designate the Nizari Isma_ilis. Medieval Europeans, and especially the Crusaders, who remained generally ignorant of Islam and its 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, including the “hashish legend.” It held that as part of their training this intoxicating drug was systematically administered to the fida_is by their beguiling chief, the “Old Man of the Mountain.” The so-called Assassin legends revolved around the recruitment and training of the Nizari fida_is, who had attracted the Europeans’ attention. These legends developed in stages and culminated in a synthesized version popularized by Marco Polo, who applied the legends to the Iranian Nizaris and created the “secret garden of paradise,” where the fida_is supposedly received part of their indoctrination. Henceforth, the Nizari Ismailis were portrayed in European sources as a sinister order of drugged assassins bent on senseless murder and mischief.
Subsequently, Westerners retained the name Assassin in general reference to the Nizari Ismailis, even though the term had now become in European languages a new common noun meaning a professional murderer, although its etymology had been forgotten. Silvestre de Sacy (1758–1838) finally succeeded in solving the mystery of the name Assassin and its etymology, but he and other orientalists subscribed variously to the Assassin legends. Modern scholarship in Isma_ili studies, based on genuine Isma_ili sources, has now deconstructed the Assassin legends revealing their fanciful nature and also showing that the name Assassin is a misnomer rooted in a doubly pejorative appellation without basis in any communal or organized use of hashish by the Nizari Isma_ilis or their fida_is, Shi_ite Muslims who were deeply devoted to their community.