The Assassin Legends – Myths of the Isma’ilis – A Review

The Assassin Legends – Myths of the Isma’ilis by Farhad Daftary (I.B Taurus, London, 2001)
Review by Ahmad Amirali

Since centuries the legends of the Ismaili assassins have been told and narrated by many western-eastern scholars in a variety of ways. The most common among these stories are ‘the legends of the old man of the mountain’ and his follower assassins who had a stronghold in the Syrian mountains and northern Iran. These tales, myths or the legends first appeared in the Levant during the time of Crusades. Over the years, after crusades, the legends concluded in Marco Polo’s account who fabricated the new definition of Nizar Assassins. According to Polo’s accounts, the Nizari Assassin describe as a leader known as ‘the old man of the mountains’ who controlled the behaviour and will of his followers (devotees) by using hashish (drug) and the secret garden of paradise. This account became so mesmerised that the word ‘assassin’ entered the English language as a collective noun for the murderer. These tales over the time became legends and portrayed Ismailis as a sinister order of assassin by the western scholarship.

Farhad Daftary in his book, Assassin Legends – Myths of the Ismailis highlights the origins of the old Assassin legends and describes the historical context of these myths/legends that are fabricated and transmitted over centuries.  This book also provides the first English translation of French Orientalist Silvestre de Sacy’s famous 19th century “Memoire” on the Assassins.

The book starts with the introduction where Daftary (2001) discusses Edward FitzGerald’s English interpretation of Umar Khayam’s rhymes, ‘the tail of three schoolfellows’. In this poetry, Umar Khayyam linked with Seljuq vizier Nizam al-Mulk and Hasan-e-Sabah who known to the west, the founder of the so-called ‘Assassin Order’. In this story, Daftary (2001) remarkably made a discourse on how this eastern legend of assassins established its roots in mediaeval Europe. Furthermore, the author also highlights several legends emerged during 12 century and how Crusaders, Latin chroniclers, Muslim polemicists as well as occidental observers played a role of spreading the anti-Ismaili (black legends) which contributed to the westerners’ imaginative tales about Ismaili Assassins. According to these tales, “Isma’ili Imams did not truly descend from Imam ‘Ali, but rather that Ismailism was a conspiracy founded to destroy Islam from within” (Daftary, 2001, p. 25). It is incredible to know that this was the first ever legend (or Myth) appeared and fabricated by the other Muslims groups. Later, in 11 CE, significant efforts were made by the Abbasid and Seljuqs rulers in the form of critical works against Ismailis.  One such work penned by the Muslim philosopher and theologian al-Ghazali who wrote discourses using intellectual arguments disparaging Ismailis. In response to these arguments, Ismailis produced their treatise marking their own separate identity, their beliefs and the clear distinctions from Qarmatis.

However, due to the loss of Ismaili texts in 1171 and before that in 1094 the Mustali-Nizari split worsened the situation and position of Ismailis. This split not only helps to produced internal polemics but also led Ismailis to adopt policies of ‘Assassination’. According to Daftary (2001, p34), “The decentralised pattern of Seljuq power suggested to Hasan-e-Sabbah an important auxiliary technique for achieving military and political aims, the of assassination”. In this way, Isma’ilis eliminate their religious adversaries in a “self-sacrificing manner by the fi’dais or fidawias (self-sacrificing devotees)” (p.34). These self-sacrificing methods adopted by the Isma’ilis eventually provoked Seljuqs who further composed anti-Ismaili texts. During this struggling period or survival, Isma’ilis were mainly kept in the mountains as keeping themselves alive was their priority. Later, in 1164, with the announcement of qiyama, the new layer of misunderstanding by the other Muslims groups emerged and got strengthened as most of the Muslim groups considered qiyama as the abolishment of the Sharia for the Ismailis. This misinterpretation of qiyama considered Ismailis an “arch-heresy carefully designed to destroy Islam from within” (Daftary, 2001, p. 5). Later, when the Mongols arrived in Persia, they started to adopt the biases of the Muslim majorities, resulting in mass slaughtered done by Mongol and destruction of Ismaili forts and library.

During Primitive times, the West started their physical and spoken war against Islam in the name of Holy Wars – Crusades. Due to these conflicts, Europe began to view Islam as a religion of War. They began to question the presence of Muslims on their Holy land of Jerusalem. Therefore, the primary rationale behind the Holy Wars was to reclaim their Holy land which they considered the sole property of Christians. After the establishment of Frankish states, various groups of Muslims who lived in these states started to build economic and social relations with so-called Saracens.  Through which, the occidental scholars began to see Muslims as a follower of the civilised monotheistic faith.

However, Crusade-chroniclers like William of Tyre were not concerned in producing the accurate account of Muslim and their background. Instead, he only championed to present the necessity of Crusades against the infidels of Saracens. These chroniclers and scholars were solely aimed to ensure that the Christian West will continue to support these Wars and in pursuit of this aim, they started to inflate such imaginative stories again Muslims and Islam. During 13th C.E, these stories getting a new life where “Muslims were idolaters worshipping a false trinity and Muhammad was a magician” (Daftary, 2001, p. 57).

Even though, by the end of 12th C.E, the Crusaders were aware of the two major sects of Islam; Shi’i and Sunni, however, they were still unaware about the existing of Ismailis. They only knew that there is a group of mountain dwellers whom they started to call heisessini and assissini. According to this understanding, they considered Ismailis as a community who do not believe in Islam. Infect, they found a man, whose name is Sinan, as their Prophet. Later they started to call him ‘the old man of the mountain’. Further to this myth, this man has a line of follower-Assassins who can do anything to fulfil his command. This labelling was deemed confirmed when two fidawias arguably committed the murder of Conrad of Montferrat in 12 C.E.

These events led Crusaders to ignore the background of these Assassins and made them visit Ismailis forts and castles in 13 C.E. Where Crusaders dramatised the fidawias activities and the personality of Ismaili Da’i (preacher) Rashiduddin Sinan. Due to such sensationalised tales, occidental scholars like Frier Yves, who claimed that he visits Sinan in the mountains, considered Ismailis who “Did not believe in Mahomet, but followed the religion of Aly who was… the uncle of the Mahomet and further claimed that the Qiyama was a proclamation that Sinan wished to be Christian” (Daftary, 2001, p80-81).

During mid-13th C.E, these tales and myths of professionally trained Anti-Islamic Assassins reached its peak and shaped as Assassin Legends. Soon after this, the occidental chroniclers accessed the territories of Shi’i and Sunni against Ismailis and realised that Ismailis were infected Muslims. Muslim majorities started to depict Black Legends against Ismailis which later adopted by the Christian West. Majority of the Sunni treatise utilise the term ‘hashishiyya’ against Ismaili considering as a “low social and moral status” (p91). Western scholarship, however, took this term literally, according to which “the assassins were obedient because their leader drugged them with Hashish (a mind-altering substance)” (p. 93).  However, the use of hashish was a questionable allegory as fidawias need to execute their task accurately and thus the use of such substance can hinder the success of the mission.

These stories of Hashashin-Assassins have spread throughout the Western. These exaggerating beliefs were later circulated by the individuals who visited such the sites of Alamut long after its destruction by the Mongols. These individuals accepted these accounts and gradually these tales become legends according to which fidawias were “recruited in childhood and then trained by special teachers in complete isolation until they were ready to be dispatched on their missions, and the “Death Leap Legend” where the assassins would jump to their death at Sinan’s command” (Daftary, 2001, p97,104).

Like the Hashashin legends, later in this period the ‘Paradise Legends’ granted a further reason for the obedience of Assassins. The legends of granting the ‘secret garden of paradise’ to the ones who fulfil the order of the ‘old man of the mountain’ whom their follower Assassins also called a teacher. The James of Vitry first spread these legends in 13th C.E which later culminated by Marco Polo over the next century who gave these stories of ‘imaginative ignorances’ a new life (p108). According to Daftary (2001), Marco Polo, instead of generating his own stories he adopted the various legends that had gained importance in the West.

Dr Daftary also discussed the accounts of William De Sacy’s Memoir. According to which, After the destruction of Alamut, Ismaili adopted taqiyya (Precautionary concealment of one’s religious beliefs, especially in times of oppression or danger) which resulted in the perfect pause between Europeans and Ismailis. Due to which, Ismailis were unable to defend themselves from such imaginative accounts and mythical stories. These legends continued to develop. However, 17th C.E onwards many scholars made several attempts to re-surface the true origins of Assassin Legends and the term of ‘Assassin’. These attempts not only provide the etymology of the term ‘Assassin’ but also shed some light about the usage and first appearance of that term in history. De Sacy’s ‘Memoir of the Dynasty of the Assassins and on the Etymology of their Name’ was the pioneering work on the Nizar Ismailis history since this term Assassin was first developed. He not only included the accurate history of the Ismailis in his memoir but also provide the clear etymology of the term Assassin. He uses a variety of sources such as the accounts of Crusaders, occidental chroniclers and Arabic sources to avoid making assumptions in his memoir. He rejected many etymological explanations of the word Assassin made by earlier scholars arguing their authority over their language skills. Being an Arabic expert, de Sacy believes that the “word hashish, plural hashishin, is the origin of the corruption of heisessini, assassin, and assissini” (Daftary, 2001, p160). However, due to unavailability of the Ismaili works to him, de Sacy does not refute the Assassin Legends. Even uncovering the fact and the origin of the term Assassin, de Sacy approves the myths of Assassin in his Memoir. However, de Sacy’s Memoir was the breakthrough in Nizari Ismaili work on which Dr Daftary’s build upon his own argument that “the Assassin Legends [themselves] were generated as a result of an extraordinary type of tactical cooperation between the Christians and the Muslims during the Crusader times” (Daftary, 2001, p125).


In the final pages of the book, Dr Daftary discusses and credited Wladimir Ivanow, Marshall GS Hodgson and Bernard Lewis for their contribution in rectifying Ismaili history and their Islamic identity.

Leave a Reply