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The Nizari Isma’ili Assassins: The Story behind Ubisoft’s “Assassin’s Creed”

“When the Christian Crusaders in the Orient came across that invincible Order of Assassins – that order of free spirits par excellence whose lowest order received, through some channel or other, a hint about that symbol and spell reserved for the uppermost echelons alone, as their secret: ‘nothing is true, everything is permitted’. Now that was freedom of the spirit, with that, belief in truth itself was renounced”—Friedrich Nietzsch,  “On the Genealogy of Morals”

The “Assassins” have entered modern popular consciousness through the medium of fiction. Novels such as Vladimir Bartol’s Alamut or James Boschert’s Assassins of Alamut are the primary examples of such works. However, in the past several years, nothing has compared with the fast-spreading and pervasive phenomenon of the Assassins Creed video game franchise in both popularity and creativity in utilizing the historical and legendary material related to the Assassins. Drawing upon the views of German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, who held up the Assassins as representatives of reason and enlightenment and the “free spirit” of humanity, and capitalizing on the worldwide interest in both secret societies (Da Vinci Code) and heroic outlaws (Dark Knight, Robin Hood, etc.), the producers of Assassins Creed has popularized this perception in the minds of millions across the globe by portraying the Assassins as an organization devoted to upholding justice and ensuring the continuing freedom of conscience of humanity. Through its emphasis on the Assassins’ use of violence as a means of social change, the game raises important, yet controversial, theological and ethical question in ways which are both educational and entertaining. Although the creators and producers of the game have reiterated that there is no specific underlying message, it is clear that the themes of faith, loyalty, belief, ethics, justice, and destiny all pervade the series, an unsurprising fact for anyone familiar with the Assassins’ historical reality. The Assassins were, in fact, a medieval Islamic sect whose story is only now becoming clearer to scholars and who, through games such as Assassins Creed, have become associated in the Western mind (non-Muslim as well as Muslim) with reason-based enlightenment and a form of agnosticism, a reality in which truth is both transcendental and unattainable. The following piece is a not-so-brief exposition of some of the “real” history behind the story of the Assassins.

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So, who were the Assassins?

Most English-language etymologies assert that the term “assassin” comes into English through the Romance languages and originally derives from the Arabic “hashashiyun” (hashish users). According to the Online Etymology Dictionary, the term derives from “Arabic hashishiyyin, pl. of hashishiyy). A fanatical Isma’ili Muslim sect of the time of the Crusades, under leadership of the “Old Man of the Mountains,” with a reputation for murdering opposing leaders after intoxicating themselves by eating hashish.”[1]  So, Muslims consuming drugs before going to murder people on the orders of an old man on a mountaintop? Charming, right?

Generations of Western scholars have taken the association between the Nizari Isma’ilis, murder, and the use of hallucinogens as an established fact. Drawing upon legends from Crusader accounts and polemical literature, these authors have painted a picture of an entire religious sect mobilized for murder, drawn to martyrdom by the lure of paradise, and utilizing hashish as a stimulant during their assassination missions.[2] Unsurprisingly, such an image of the Assassins does not stand up to serious examination.[3] There is almost no evidence to suggest that the Assassins utilized hashish, or any other drug for that matter; in fact, much of the documents which survive suggest a strict conformity to their interpretation of the Shari’ah, which included the prohibition of all intoxicants. Did the Nizaris utilize assassination to remove their theological and political opponents? This is where myth and fact intersect. It is from their use of high-profile public assassinations where the English term “assassin” derives its meaning. However, it is specifically how this fact is contextualized that makes a difference between the Assassin mythology and the Nizari Isma’ili historical reality. [4]

Historical Background

From the outset, it is important to establish that the Order of Assassins did in fact exist. It was founded by the Nizari da’i (propagandist/preacher) Hasan-i Sabah sometime around 1080 as a means of confronting the many challenges facing his nascent community. It has been suggested by the Lebanese scholar Amin Maalouf that the term “Assassin” does not derive from “hashishiyyun” as has been suggested. Rather, he views the word as deriving from “asasiyyun,” or people who are faithful to the Asas, meaning “foundation” of the faith, an important theological concept in Isma’ilism. From their fortresses in Masyaf (modern-day Syria) and Alamut (modern-day Iran) and directed by figures who they called imams, both spiritual guides and political leaders—Rashid al-Din Sinan (so-called “Old Man of the Mountain”) and Hasan-i Sabah—the Assassins launched their fida’is (literally: self-sacrificers), expert master assassins, to carry out important missions against enemies of the Isma’ili creed. These warriors were among the best-trained and disciplined in the known world. It is far too easy to look to the Assassins and assume that murder lay at the heart of their existence. This tactic was simply that: a tactic, not a foundational principle. The rise of the Seljuk Turkish dynasty, the Crusades, and the introduction of repressive measures against their faith prompted the Nizaris to use terrorism as a weapon against the governing authorities in order to weaken their persistent persecution of Isma’ilism.[5] Public assassinations—in the mosques, palaces, and marketplaces of major cities—were perceived by the Nizaris to be particularly efficient as they instilled fear in the populations of Syria, Iraq, and Iran. The Assassins were extremely effective as they ensured that oppressive local governors, overly-inquisitive theologians, determined viziers, and even the Seljuk sultan himself, met their demise by their blades; as such, despite their extremely small numbers, they established themselves as a force to be reckoned with. In the long-run, however,  assassination proved to be a futile tactic which was perceived as weakening the pillars of the Islamic polity and contributed to the emergence of a hostile opposition to their activities in the form of armed anti-Isma’ili mobs and led to their being hunted down and killed by the authorities. The eminent scholar Abu Hamid al-Ghazali, in particular, wrote hostile treatises against the Nizaris (and Isma’ilism more generally), perceiving them to be not only a threat to public order but a theological menace as well.[6] Their incredible feats, although hailed by their supporters as heroic, led to them being identified as villains by the Muslim masses. This hostility on the part of the Islamic world prompted the Nizaris to withdraw to their secure fortresses at Alamut and Masyaf, where they continued to adhere to their beliefs and cultivate a series of complex alliances in order to ensure their political survival.

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Imaginations have run wild and plenty of ink has been spilled enumerating Orientalist fantasies and pious fears about “what actually happened” in the Nizari fortresses. Suggestions range from illicit hashish-driven sexual activities to occult-like ceremonies in which demons were summoned, or sometimes a strange combination of both. These myths are hardly a novelty, since, in the medieval Islamic world, theological error (“heresy”) was often equated with sexual deviance. Once one casts these fantastical stories aside, it becomes apparent that the Assassins were far more sophisticated and developed than one would otherwise assume. Nurturing their esoteric (batini) doctrines, which emphasized the use of reason and philosophy as a way to reach higher theological truths, the Assassins produced a massive amount of scholarship, specifically in the fields of Qur’anic interpretation, mysticism, philosophy, astronomy, natural sciences, and ethics.[7]  In addition to these accomplishments, the Nizaris of Alamut established important political and religious ties with the Abbasid Caliphate under the Caliph al-Nasir (r.1180-1225), effectively healing the long-standing division between the Nizari Isma’ilis and the rest of the Muslim community. This was especially significant since it gave the Assassins and the Abbasids the opportunity to present a united front against the rising power of the Mongols. Unfortunately, this reconciliation was largely symbolic and came too late to save the Muslim community from the impending catastrophe. Alamut fell to Mongol armies in 1256 and Baghdad was conquered in 1258. In both cases, the populations were subjected to extreme violence and the massive libraries incinerated. After the late-thirteenth century, it becomes virtually impossible to document the activities of the Assassins.

Based on fragments of information, we are told that the Nizaris in Iran went underground, posing as respectable Sunni or Twelver Shi’ite Muslims in public but continuing to adhere to their beliefs in secret. The Nizaris in Syria, whose last stronghold at Masyaf was conquered by the Mamluks in 1265, were apparently allowed to continue to exist and were employed as blades-for-hire by the authorities, a miserable existence for those who once pushed the limits of theological inquiry and thrived on intellectual and political independence. The Nizari Isma’ili community resurfaced on the political map in the 19th century when the title “Aga Khan” was bestowed upon their remaining imam, Hasan Ali Shah, claimant to the title of imam of the Nizari Isma’ilis and inheritor of the legacy of the Assassins. His descendants, including the current Aga Khan, continue to lead the Nizari Isma’ili community today, which numbers close to 15 million worldwide.

Notes

[1] “Assassin,” Online Etymology Dictionary, http://www.etymonline.com/index.php?term=assassin&allowed_in_frame=0

[2] For example, see Bernard Lewis, The Assassins: A Radical Sect in Islam (New York: Basic Books, 2003).

[3] Perhaps the best work on the Nizari Isma’ilis to date remains Marshall Hodgson, The Order of the Assassins: The Struggle of the Early Nizari Isma’ilis against the Islamic World (The Hague: Mouton and Co. Publishers, 1955)

[4] For more on the “Assassin legend,” see Farhad Daftary The Assassin Legends: Myths of the Isma’ilis (London: I.B. Tauris, 1995)

[5] Their enemies included, among others, the Seljuk Turks, local ‘ulema’, members of the Fatimid dynasty, the Frankish Crusaders, the Abbasid Caliphate, and, for a time, the Kurdish general Salah al-Din al-Ayyubi

[6] For more on this, see Farouk Mitha, al-Ghazali and the Isma’ilis: A Debate on Reason and Authority in Medieval Islam (New York: I.B. Tauris, 2001)

[7] Generally speaking, Nizari Isma’ilism is a path within Shiite Islam which emphasizes social justice, pluralism, and human reason within the framework of mysticism. Unfortunately, most of the works written by the Nizaris have been totally destroyed and we are left with little more than hundreds upon hundreds of titles of works that existed, but were systematically burned on the order of the Mongol conquerors of Syria and Iran in the 13th century.


3 Comments

  1. mmapreacher says:

    Reblogged this on The MMA Preacher and commented:
    Yep. Its about time I claim my share of the royalty from the creators of ‘Assassin’s Creed’.

  2. no name says:

    They didnt eat hash thats bull colombus listened too the sunnis and started going around sayin the assasins eat hash even though he never came acros one his hole life he just heard hear say from sunnis who didnt like shias

    • Mechacontext says:

      The incorrectness of the hashish thing is referenced in the article in multiple locations:

      “There is almost no evidence to suggest that the Assassins utilized hashish, or any other drug for that matter; in fact, much of the documents which survive suggest a strict conformity to their interpretation of the Shari’ah, which included the prohibition of all intoxicants.”

      “From the outset, it is important to establish that the Order of Assassins did in fact exist. It was founded by the Nizari da’i (propagandist/preacher) Hasan-i Sabah sometime around 1080 as a means of confronting the many challenges facing his nascent community. It has been suggested by the Lebanese scholar Amin Maalouf that the term “Assassin” does not derive from “hashishiyyun” as has been suggested. Rather, he views the word as deriving from “asasiyyun,” or people who are faithful to the Asas, meaning “foundation” of the faith, an important theological concept in Isma’ilism.”

      Also, what does Columbus have to do with this? Also, I doubt Columbus “listened” to anyone at all, Sunni or Shi’i. If you’re referencing anything legitimate here about Columbus, take into account that the polemical environment at the time probably promoted a fear/fascination of the Nizaris. And not without cause, either.

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