King of the Assassins: How History’s Infamous Killer Cult Survives Under a Playboy Prince of Peace

BY J.T.O.

The name of the Assassins, the infamous murder cult that terrorized the medieval East from mountain strongholds, lives on in our term for political or professional killers. Pretty common knowledge, that.

But the virtually secret truth is that the Assassins themselves live on as well, under the Islamic sect’s correct name of the Nizari Ismailis, led by the dramatically titled prince Aga Khan IV. A Harvard-educated billionaire better known as a racehorse breeder and yacht resort developer than as an imam, the Aga Khan nonetheless stays attuned to the past; he recently funded the restoration of the famous Assassin castle Masyaf.1

The historical status as the original Muslim terrorist organization is essentially hidden in plain sight by the religion’s drastic change in fortune, tactics and mission. Nizari Ismailism has evolved from a dagger-wielding scourge fighting for survival into a pragmatic, non-ideological, business-friendly humanitarian organization that is respected everywhere from the City of London to the United Nations. So complete was the turnaround that the Assassin connection was forgotten by Ismailis themselves until scholars puzzled it out in the 1950s.

That evolution is a striking contrast with the Ismailis’ Crusade-era foe, the Roman Catholic Church, which in the same period has retreated from things temporal and attempted to preserve medieval values and structures (albeit with a similar focus on nonviolence).

The early Nizari Ismailis didn’t get along any better with mainstream Islam and its greatest secular hero, Saladin, whom they attempted to assassinate. But here again, the contrast in destinies is striking. Centuries before September 11, the Assassins pioneered panic-inducing suicide-mission martyrdom for sociopolitical ends. Yet they are no inspiration to modern Muslim terrorists, who spring from cults and gurus within the majority Sunni branch of Islam—all of whom would consider the ancient Assassins and modern Ismailis as infidels. Were they still alive and killing, the Assassins of old quite likely would be assassinating Al-Qaeda guerillas (and American neo-Crusaders, too).

The Assassins did not call themselves Assassins. “Assassin” is a Western corruption of Arabic “Hashishi,” as in “hashish,” and essentially means “pothead.” It was not the Ismailis’ term; indeed, there is no evidence that they ever used drugs. It was a generic slur applied by rival Muslims during a medieval version of the War on Drugs.2 And the vast majority of medieval Ismailis were normal folks who did not assassinate anyone.

But the image of the Assassins as mind-controlled druggies has thrived for centuries, right up to the recent hit video game “Assassin’s Creed.” 3 Muslim rivals alleged that the Assassins initiated their followers into a series of secret teachings that culminated in atheism. Crusaders and Marco Polo elaborated that into an exotic legend wherein a mysterious Old Man of the Mountain instilled fanatical devotion by drugging young men and transporting them to a lavish hidden garden stocked with women and banquet tables, which he claimed was a vision of Paradise; by dying a martyr’s death, they were guaranteed to see it again. So convinced were the followers, they would leap to their deaths from the castle walls at the Old Man’s whim, a display of authority he would use to terrorize visiting ambassadors.

(For convenience and clarity, I will use the term “Assassins” to refer to the Crusades-era Nizari Ismailis in general and their terrorist organization specifically. Also, I will frequently use “Ismailis” and “Nizari Ismailis” as interchangeable terms, but note that the Nizaris originally were a distinct Ismaili sect that arose about 250 years after the founding of Ismailism, only in modern times becoming the main face of Ismailism.)

Secretive by design, the early Ismailis left scant evidence of their actual lifestyle and thus allowed their enemies to define (or caricature) them—a common fate of minorities. Minority status also can confer benefits that are the common theme between the Assassins and modern Ismailis: a practical, take-care-of-our-own-first mindset and a cosmopolitan knack for gliding among cultures without really belonging to any of them. Technically at war with both the mainstream Muslim empire and the European invaders in the era of the Crusades, the realpolitik Assassins frequently allied with one or the other or both, all the while remaining more or less untouched in their mountain fortresses for centuries. Modern Ismailism has more roots in France and India than in the traditional Arab Muslim world, its peripatetic imam’s considerable global influence seemingly based on the same sort of charm provided by a hard-to-place accent—an intriguing vagueness. It’s Islam, but not that sort of Islam. It is a great religion of the East led by someone who looks, sounds and acts European. The Aga Khan is more likely to put money in your pocket than quote scripture at you.

Birth of a religion 4

Pluralistic ease and religious discretion are also why virtually no one knows that the Ismailis have Assassin ancestors. The Ismaili leadership slunk off to India in the 1800s and essentially reinvented the religion, leaving its past conveniently foggy. The Aga Khans appear to have never apologized for the Assassins’ excesses, and indeed rarely mention them at all (usually only to debunk the wild legends originating with the Crusaders).

Nor does modern Ismailism mention that, even putting the Assassins aside, its ancient version was often trouble-making. Ismailism arose around A.D. 765 in Syria from the ever-factional world of the Shia branch of Islam. Ja‘far al-Sadiq, the last generally agreed-upon Shiite imam, had just died, setting off a succession controversy. The designated successor was his son, Isma‘il, who was inconveniently already dead. Isma‘il’s son, Muhammad, was driven into hiding.

Ismailism originated in those Muslims who supported Isma‘il’s succession as imam. Some claimed that Isma‘il was not actually dead and would reappear. Others made similar claims about his son Muhammad. Either way, the groups went underground and for over a century tended covert lines of imams. Thus Ismailism was imbued with some of its essential characteristics: secretive, messianic, esoteric, revolutionary. (“Ismailism” was originally an outsiders’ term; believers called the sect al-da‘wa—“The Mission”—or some variant thereof.)

The “revolutionary” part was opposition to the Abbasid caliphate, a Baghdad-based Sunni empire that was no pushover. So it was a big deal when, in 899, a secret Ismaili imam calling himself Abd Allah came out of the closet. The result was a burst of frenetic energy that would propel Ismailism to both its grandest expression of power and its basest crimes.

Abd Allah’s claim to be the rightful Shiite imam set Ismailism at war with the Abbasids while also causing internal schism.5 He was forced to flee to North Africa, where his followers established the future Fatimid dynasty. Marked initially by a tolerance and creativity born of minority status, the Fatimid empire became one of Islam’s greatest, founding the grand Egyptian city of Cairo and lasting 250 years. The Aga Khan claims to be a direct successor of the Fatimids, the only ancient version of Ismailism to which he frequently refers.

A rival group, the Qaramita, set up a different kind of Ismaili state in Arabia—a combination of mystic commune and bandit camp. Puritanical fervor inspired the Qaramita to such spectacular atrocities as massacring caravan-loads of Hajj pilgrims. Their most infamous crime was the theft of the Black Stone, Islam’s holiest relic, from the Grand Mosque of Mecca. The Stone was later returned, damaged, for a huge ransom.

Ismailism’s many foes used the outrages of the Qaramita cult as a brush to tar the entire sect. Propagandists cast the Fatimid empire as a vast atheist conspiracy. Thus was born what one author calls the “black legend” of Ismailism: that all of its followers were part of a killer cabal with evil rites and crazed gurus.6 The Qaramita-inspired fears would be elaborated in the later tales of the Assassins, who some authors have confused with the earlier cult.

Among less melodramatic Muslims, there was still general suspicion of Ismailism’s mystical, neoplatonic version of Islam versus a fundamentalist reading of religious law. One derogatory term for Ismailis was Batiniyya—“Esoterics.”7 The theological implication was that Ismailis were being led astray.

Legends and schisms aside, the fact remains that Ismailism did produce at least two major killer cults, with differing impacts on the Fatamids. The Qaramita objected to the Fatimids, but never warred against them, and eventually were absorbed into the empire. The Nizari Ismailis, aka the Assassins, came to prominence as defenders of the Fatimid dynasty, then later helped to destroy the empire in order to save it.

Rise of the Assassins

By the 1050s, the overextended Fatimid empire was on the decline. On the plus side, its old rivals, the Abbasids, had fallen under the hegemony of the Seljuq Turks. On the negative side, the Seljuqs were even more anti-Ismaili. It was a hothouse atmosphere in which the covert, revolutionary brand of Ismailism bloomed again.

The darkest flower was one Hasan Sabbeh, the founder of the Assassins. A Persian convert, Hasan was trained in Egypt to be a secret Ismaili d‘ai—a propagandist or missionary. But Hasan was not only interested in capturing hearts and minds. Capturing fortresses sounded pretty good, too, as he planned a pro-Fatamid revolution behind Seljuq enemy lines in Shia-friendly pockets of northern Persia.

In 1090, Hasan seized a remote mountain fortress called Alamut, which would go down in history as the capital of the Assassins. He soon captured other forts, which proved impregnable to vengeful Seljuq forces. Hasan’s successes inspired imitation from his followers in Syria, who later would seize the key urban castle of Masyaf, the nexus of Crusader-era Assassin legends.

Open defiance from untouchable strongholds was counterbalanced in Hasan’s strategy with secretive political assassination. In its mature form, the assassination method was a still-classic terror tactic: a spectacular public killing carried out by sleeper agents who may have lurked in their victims’ households for months. The killings may have been under way by 1092.

Hasan’s guerrilla war might have been forgotten, a hard-to-reach itch on the back of a gigantic empire, were it not for two twists of history.

The first was a religious and political schism that gaped open in 1094 upon the death of the Fatimid caliph-imam Al-Mustansir. In yet another instance of the factionalism that defined early Ismailism, there was a major succession controversy. The caliph’s own choice was his son, Abu Mansur Nizar. But, in a melodrama-style plot twist, the caliph’s power-hungry vizier proposed a much younger son, knowing that the vizier could control him as a puppet ruler. The vizier was successful. Nizar was forced to flee, and was executed after a brief revolt.

The many Ismailis who supported Nizar—soon known as Nizaris—were driven into hiding or secrecy. All but one, that is: Hasan, whose mountain fortress afforded him freedom of speech and religion. The group we know as the Assassins thus became the Nizaris—the self-proclaimed mouthpieces for undercover imams descended from Nizar and the true defenders of the Fatimid dynasty. The majority of modern Ismailism is still Nizari Ismailism. When the Aga Khan claims a Fatimid lineage, he traces it through the corridors of Assassin castles.8

For Hasan and his successors, there were more immediate challenges and opportunities. The Assassins were now pitted against the very Ismaili empire that had spawned them and that they had once promoted, becoming a religious/political subsect without a country. But they also now were backed by a network of Nizari schismatics, making them more powerful political players than they ever could have been alone.

The dust had barely settled on the Nizari schism when history pulled a much bigger surprise: the 1097 invasion of the Seljuqs by the first Crusaders. This vast clash between East and West changed the political calculus. The Assassins took advantage of their rogue status, surviving by force and by freely shifting alliances of convenience. By being in the right place at the right time with the right wiles, the Assassins ensured their lasting notoriety.

Outlandish Crusader myths granted the Assassins global infamy. But wipe all that fog away, and they still earn a place in the bloody annals of authentic history. The Assassins lie at the heart of their era’s great historical mystery, a Crusader assassination that was the JFK killing of its day, an event that continues to spawn conspiracy theories. And what is known of their historical impact must only be the tip of the iceberg (or mountain) for a quasi-state whose diplomacy was rooted in stealth and deception.

What the Crusaders found

Their blitzkrieg invasion a success, the first Crusaders established their first states in the Holy Land, and thus first encountered the Assassins as a Syrian organization. The Crusaders literally did not know who they were dealing with. The Europeans initially had no idea that the Assassins’ guru was based hundreds of miles away in Persia, letting alone grasping the political, cultural and religious motivations of the cult’s actions.

Because the Assassins apparently were content to be demonized, using hatred and fear to their advantage, scholars still have only a skeletal understanding of them today. But one trait that shines through is sophistication—not only in killing, but in philosophy and diplomacy.

Imagined today as masked killers, the Assassins were also intellectuals with a strong academic tradition. Several of their fortresses contained well-regarded libraries that were open to visiting scholars, including rival Sunnis and non-Muslims. Alamut is known to have had a particularly grand library; most of its contents were burned as heretical by a pious “historian” shortly after the Assassins’ fall.

It is unknown exactly what religious principles were preached in Assassin fortresses, but they were surely some version of the extant Ismaili doctrines that were already influential on such thinkers as Avicenna.9 The main principles include a neoplatonic vision of a god who transcends definition, and esoteric interpretation of scripture as holding hidden (or, at least, non-obvious) meanings.10 Like all Shia Islam, Ismailism required (and still requires) a human authority—the imam—for religious instruction and ultimately to hold reality itself together; in Nizari Ismailism of the time, that was either the head of the Assassins, or a hidden imam represented by him. In sum, the early Nizari Ismailis were philosophically liberal and organizationally authoritarian.

As with most cults, the Assassins also underwent some dramatic periods of philosophical shifts. The fourth leader of the Assassins, Hasan II, in 1164 proclaimed that qiyama—Judgment Day—had arrived. As Allah obviously did not make a dramatic appearance, what this actually meant was the Assassins had achieved enlightenment, everyone else was living in a benighted hell, and Hasan II was the messianic Ismaili imam. Outside critics read this decree as a license to ignore Islamic law, which a manifest Paradise would render irrelevant. These concerns came true to some extent among Syrian Nizaris, who indulged in “libertinism” and even armed rebellion that the local Assassin leader had to put down.11

This doctrine persisted for over 40 years until the sixth head of the Assassins, Jalal al-Din Hasan III (ruled 1210-21), not only quelled it, but declared the sect to be Sunni. It is unlikely that this sudden conversion was authentic. Instead, it likely illustrates to another Ismaili principle that served the Assassins well: taqiyya, or declaring a false religious belief to save your neck while keeping your fingers crossed. (The Syrian Nizaris reportedly voiced a similar false promise to the Crusaders, this time pledging a conversion to Christianity.) The Sunni pose gradually was dropped over the remaining decades of the Assassins’ reign.

The devoted killers

Most of the “Assassins” were thus not assassins. Some were scholars and religious authorities. Many of them were just regular people who lived in the villages and cities around Assassin fortresses. But it was that handful of killers who made the Assassins’ name, and made the organization more than just another wacky cult in a tumultuous age. The killers were real; they were vicious; they were infamous; they changed history, though not as much as they would have liked.

These Nizari assassins were known as fida’is, or “devotees.”12 While the legends about them are elaborate, very little is known of their actual lives and training. The scant information available reveals nothing more (or less) bizarre than is offered by history’s other suicide-mission “terrorists,” from the Jewish Zealots to the Japanese kamikazes to today’s fundamentalist jihadists. The fida’is appear to have been volunteers, with their murderous lifestyle choice sometimes supported by their mothers. The Assassins reportedly maintained “rolls of honour” listing the fida’is’ names and assassinations, though no such memorial is known to survive. There is some evidence that the Syrian Nizaris trained their fida’is as a separate, quasi-military group for at least part of their era, while the Persian Nizaris were not so formal.

The Assassins today are often conflated with Japanese ninja imagery as masters of kill-and-disappear stealth murder. But most Assassin assassinations were indeed suicide missions, apparently by choice. A standard Assassin plan involved planting multiple fida’is in the household of (or otherwise close to) a major enemy, with the killers waiting for months for the right moment to strike. The right moment was not when the enemy was asleep or in the bathtub or eating an easily poisoned dinner. The right moment usually was when the target was in a public place or ceremony, where his death by dagger would cause maximum horror. The likelihood of the assassins escaping such a scene alive was virtually nil.

Who the Assassins assassinated varied widely in concert with the sect’s ever-shifting allegiances and fortunes. And in a literally cloak-and-dagger age, it is likely that some murders were wrongly attributed to the Assassins, and likewise that they got away with other killings unsuspected.

The first killing attributed to the Assassins is that of Nizam al-Mulk, the Abbasid vizier to the Seljuq Turks, who was mysteriously murdered in 1092. In one of those decisions that looks monumentally bad in retrospect, Nizam had written a public denunciation of the Nizaris.

The Assassins’ last major hit was a 1254 attempt to kill the Great Khan of the Mongols—the empire that would finally succeed in invading Alamut and ending the Assassin era. If some later histories are accurate, the Assassins ended in irony, with the head of the cult fleeing his own assassins due to their outrage over his surrender to the Mongols.

The Syrian branch of the Assassins either promulgated most of the cult’s murders, or simply had its violence better recorded for being in the crucible of the Crusader revolution and nearer the declining Fatimid empire. (That is not to question Alamut’s ruthlessness; Hasan Sabbeh reportedly had his own son executed for violating Islamic law by drinking wine.) Hasan sent reinforcements to his Syrian followers specifically to oppose the First Crusade. But the early Assassin action involved internal Muslim politics.

The Assassins’ first killing in what would become their trademark spectacular style came in 1103, when fida’is stabbed the ruler of Homs, Syria, in the city’s main mosque during worship. The motive apparently was the ruler’s rivalry with the ruler of Aleppo, the city that originally provided shelter to the Syrian Nizaris.

In 1130, the Assassins took revenge on what they considered to be the illegitimate remains of the Fatimid empire by assassinating the puppet caliph Al-Amir bi-Ahkam Allah. It was doubly personal; seven years before, Al-Amir had published (and perhaps authored) a denunciation of the Nizaris that, as it happens, contains the first known use of the word Hashishiyya, which would later morph into “Assassins.” The killing was part of the final destabilization of the Fatimids.

The Assassins’ two failed attempts to kill Saladin are a major element of their lore. Saladin was the great Muslim opponent of the Crusaders, but he was also an Abbasid vizier controlling the declining Fatimid dynasty (whose rule he would officially end in 1171) and an enemy of the Nizaris. The most spectacular attempt came around 1174, when three or four Assassins who had served as soldiers in Saladin’s army for months attacked him in his camp. Saladin fought the killers hand-to-hand, receiving slight wounds before the Assassins were killed.

Yet this did not stop Saladin from later allying temporarily with the Syrian Assassins against the Crusaders. Likewise, while the Assassins were nominal enemies of the Crusaders and killed many Christian leaders, they also frequently allied with the Europeans. Rashid al-Din Sinan, the most famous leader of the Syrian Assassins, held friendly meetings with France’s King Louis IX, now the Catholic Saint Louis. The Assassins generally had no friends, but only enemies of their enemies; their struggle against fellow Muslims explains part of their alliance with the Crusaders.             Another complexity is the internal struggles among the Crusaders themselves, who had competing states as well as independent—and often rogue—military orders in the Templars and Hospitallers. Both orders managed to exact tributes from the Assassins at various points. An indignant Pope Gregory IX in 1236 ordered the Hospitallers to end their association with “the Assassins, the enemies of God and the Christian name….”13

Thus, it is known that the Assassins in 1152 killed Raymond II, the Crusader king of Tripoli, but it is unclear why. Murky motivations have spawned conspiracy theories about the Assassins and the Crusaders, and quite appropriately, as there obviously was some kind of conspiracy to such well-planned yet inscrutable killings.

The ultimate head-scratching back-stabbing was the 1192 assassination of Conrad of Montferrat, the newly tapped Crusader king of Jerusalem. Conrad was murdered on the streets of Tyre by two killers who reputedly disguised themselves as Christian monks and stalked Conrad for months. The killing bore all the hallmarks of the Assassins, but no one could quite peg the motive, then or now. Suspects have included England’s Richard the Lionheart, who was no fan of Conrad; Saladin, who may have wanted a dual killing targeting Richard as well; the Assassins themselves for their own reasons; and various courtiers and family members of Conrad. It is a testament to the Assassins’ flexibile loyalties that any of these possibilities are plausible.

But focusing on the Assassins’ greatest hits can obscure the context of their actions. Their motives were not bewildering for the sake of bewilderment. A brief history of the rise of the Syrian Nizaris illustrates the matrix of violence and power that informed their decision-making.

The Syrian Assassins acquired their first fortress in 1106 by killing its ruler. But soon after, the Crusaders captured the fort and ransomed the Assassin leader. A wave of anti-Nizari repression from the government and general populace followed, including the execution of religious leaders and massacres of Nizari citizens. The Assassins then reorganized in Damascus, and actually sent troops to join the local army when the Crusaders invaded in 1125. As a reward, the local government granted them a fortress and allowed them to worship openly. But the peace was temporary, soon followed by more anti-Nizari repression and massacre. The Assassins then killed the leader of Damascus in a trademark suicide stabbing, then survived by nominally surrendering to the Crusaders and gaining asylum in the Kingdom of Jerusalem.

The vicissitudes of the Assassins matched the vicissitudes of the times. And their motivations were often as much defensive as offensive. While Nizari leaders were often untouchable in those fortresses, their followers were often massacred in the streets and fields. The Assassins were sometimes killers, but always survivors.

The mythology of the ‘Potheads’

The Crusaders were profoundly ignorant of Islam and local culture. Exposure did not seem to improve the situation; instead, the Crusaders tended to elaborate their misunderstandings into myths. It is notable that many of the Assassin myths were propagated by Europeans who met their leaders face-to-face.

A small example is the “Old Man of the Mountain,” the shadowy Assassin overlord of Crusader legend who supposedly kicked off assassination missions by handing a golden dagger to the killer tapped for the job. Granted, the Assassins were shadowy and had an overlord. But he lived in a major urban castle and was in regular communication with Crusader kings, and he certainly did not call himself the Old Man of the Mountain. The term is simply a fanciful translation of the now-familiar Arabic word “sheihk,” which can literally mean “old man,” but in practice is an honorific akin to “sire” or “lord.”14 (Marco Polo later confused things further by transferring this title for the chief Syrian Assassin to the leader of Alamut in Persia.)

To Europeans who only vaguely comprehended Islam as a kind of Christian heresy, the Assassins were particularly inexplicable. Conducting diplomacy with the Assassins did not lessen their secrecy about their religious teachings (indeed, scholars were not certain that the Assassins were Nizari Ismailis until the last century), or reduce the terror inspired by their murder tactics. The Crusaders got most of their information from the Assassins’ ideological enemies, who freely mixed fact and slur. Crusader elaborations of Muslim polemics have left Assassin history doubly veiled: a myth built on a myth.

That’s why we call them “Assassins”—the eventual English corruption of Arabic Hashishiyya (singular, Hashishi). It roughly means “Potheads,” but there is no evidence, even from the Assassins’ enemies, that they were systematic drug users. Hashishiyya was just one of several generic terms of abuse applied to the Nizari Ismailis by mainstream Muslims. In fact, the use of hash—typically mixed with honey in a kind of medicinal candy—was widespread in the Arab world at the time. But marijuana was frowned upon by religious authorities of the 1100s and 1200s in what appears to be a miniature moral panic akin to our “War on Drugs.” Then, as now, “pothead” was a way to brand someone as lower-class and immoral, whether their actual drug use could be proven or not.15

The first known use of Hashishiyya was in an 1123 polemic by the aforementioned Assassin victim Al-Amir. He used the term without explanation, indicating that it was already in wide circulation. An Arabic word, it was largely applied only to the Syrian-based Nizaris and not to the Persian-speaking Nizaris around the Alamut headquarters. However, perhaps influentially, some Muslim critics did use the term Hashishiyya specifically when mocking Alamut’s fida’is subgroup.

European chroniclers adopted the term in a wide variety of butchered transliterations. William of Tyre was among the earliest to offer the version “Assassins,” which made its way into Romance language vernacular by the 1300s. While William had a relatively sophisticated understanding of the Nizari, he claimed that the origin of the term “Assassins” was unknown even among Muslims.

However hampered they were by their own misspellings, the Europeans eventually picked up the idea that the Assassins were on drugs. In the early 1200s, the German chronicler Arnold of Lübeck introduced the legend of the Assassins being drugged with a potion that duped them into murder with visions of Paradise. This legend proved so popular that it apparently recurved back into Muslim polemics and pop culture, where hashish was well known. The former general “Pothead” slur was now taken literally—never mind the obvious fact that marijuana doesn’t throw people into homicidal mania or hypnotize them into killing.

Drugged killers and a fake Paradise are always paired in these legends, continuing right up to modern culture’s conspiracy theories of mind-controlled assassins drugged by government agencies. It is probable that the false Paradise element had a grain of truth. Surely the fida’is, like modern jihadist terrorists, were promised heavenly rewards for their martyrdom. Hasan II’s declaration of Paradise on Earth may have influenced the legend. So might the gardens and fields of Alamut and other Assassin fortresses.

As the fantasy became more elaborate, other legends may have been plundered for detail. The image of fanatically loyal fida’is leaping to their deaths to impress a visitor may be borrowed from local myths about Alexander the Great.

Whatever the source of the legends, they shared the same purpose: helping Europeans to interpret, and local mainstream critics to mock, a bizarre, esoteric cult. To Crusaders driven by greed and glory, kidnapping and drugging seemed the only plausible explanation for suicide assassins. In their legends of an “Order of the Assassins,” described as a paramilitary organization with a hierarchy of perverse ritual indoctrination and conspiratorial aims, we can see curious echoes of the Crusaders’ own Templars and Hospitallers and the myths about them.

End of the Assassins

The Assassins were successfully in conserving their religion for more than 150 tumultuous years, staving off the new Sunni and Crusader empires that were the novel menaces of their chaotic era. But finally, the Assassins met their match in yet another new invader: the infamous Mongol hordes.

Political chaos swirled through Persia just as it had in the Levant, with the local Seljuq client state becoming quasi-independent, and then falling in turn to Mongol invasion in the early 1200s. Alamut remained literally above it all in the remote mountains. Like the Syrian Nizaris, the Persian Nizaris played all sides of the conflicts and sometimes suffered reprisal massacres, but remained politically stable in their fortresses.

However, it soon became clear that the overwhelming manpower and sheer brutality of the Mongols—who brooked no hint of independence from their underlings—posed a serious threat to the Assassins. Contrary to the myth of invincible killers, the Assassins first tried negotiation. In perhaps the ultimate example of Assassin pragmatism making for strange bedfellows, the master Assassin Ala al-Din Muhammad III joined Abbasid ambassadors on a 1246 trip to Mongolia to sue for peace. One struggles to imagine the campfire chats on that long voyage. The effort was unsuccessful, probably in part due to the Mongols having heard about the Assassins’ murderous tactics from the Seljuqs.

The Assassins and the Abbasids may next have attempted an even stranger alliance by sending ambassadors to Europe to seek mutual aid. Whether or not that effort actually happened, the alliance obviously did not.

So, if quasi-legendary history is to be believed, the Assassins reverted to what they did best: assassination. In 1254, the story goes, a band of Assassins attempted and failed to kill the Great Khan, Möngke, in his own palace. (This story is sometimes conflated with the Assassin leader’s visit to Mongolia.) Despite having earned a fearsome reputation, the Assassins were notably inept at killing truly powerful leaders, as in the case of Saladin.

What is certain is that Mongol pressure finally took out Alamut—not with a bang, but with a whimper. The last master of the Assassins, Rukn al-Din Khurshah, surrendered the castle to the Mongols in 1256, apparently under promises of protection. In typical Mongol style, Rukn was promptly executed and Nizaris were massacred.

The Syrian Assassins were left leaderless and weakened, but managed to hold onto power through yet another marriage of convenience. This time the unlikely partner was the new Mamluk Sultanate, with whom the Assassins allied against the Mongols. However, the Mamluks gradually sought to stamp out the fida’is while showing fitful tolerance for Ismaili worship. The last Assassin fortress fell into Mamluk hands in 1273.

The Mamluks may have sponsored assassinations by fida’is even during this period of suppression; one possibility is the attempted killing of the soon-to-be King Edward I of England in 1272. But the Assassins were finished as a rogue state and engine of terror. They were, at best, simply assassins; and soon, they were not even that.

The Aga Khans16

The power and the killings were gone, but Nizari Ismailism was not, and its worshippers continued daily life as best they could. (Even the term Hashishiyya appears to have fallen out of use by the 1300s, with other slurs being favored.) In Persia, some followers fled to India, while others remained but kept quiet about their religious beliefs. These Persian Ismailis allegedly maintained a secret line of imams for two centuries, which seems a bit too orderly for the factional history of Ismailism. Indeed, something about those times was so fractious that the religion’s leaders apparently forgot about their historical connection to the Assassins in the interim. In any case, Nizari Ismailism survived and eventually came out of the closet again. By the late 1700s, Nizaris had openly re-entered political life, holding regional governorships in Persia.

Among them was the 46th Nizari imam, Hasan Ali Shah, a violent character who would have fit right in with his Assassin ancestors. As recompense for the 1817 murder of his father in an apparent small-town religious dispute, Hasan received the grandiose title Aga Khan, a combination of military and political titles roughly meaning “Lord Chief.” (There is no direct relation to the Mongol khans who destroyed the Assassins.)

But the Aga Khan had his own official quarrels, which escalated into his 1837 armed rebellion against the local government. Defeated, he was embraced by the British as a warlord in their Afghanistan war. That position also lacked job security, and the Aga Khan eventually fled to India, which became the new headquarters of Ismailism. The British welcomed him there and recognized his foreign royal title. The sect that had once terrorized European invaders was now a client of one.

The war-prone Aga Khan reputedly assassinated dissenters as he began consolidating his religious authority. The 3,000 children he boasted of fathering in his sexual escapades perhaps compensated for his bloodletting. However crude his excesses, the Aga Khan laid the foundation upon which his dynasty is built: a prominent, singular Ismaili imam; a pan-national perspective; a comfortable role as a puppet of the British Empire; and a love of racehorses.

The title of Aga Khan and the Nizari imamate are technically not hereditary, but things initially worked that way. Hasan’s son Ali Shah became Aga Khan II upon his father’s 1881 death and proved to be just as bloodthirsty, though he expressed it in the form of incessant tiger-hunting. However, Aga Khan II, in his four-year reign, also established education and humanitarianism as Ismaili agendas. Schools and charities were organized for Ismaili self-help.

Under the first Aga Khans (and the earlier Assassins), Nizari Ismailism became internationalist by necessity. Under Aga Khan III (born Sultan Muhammad Shah), it became internationalist by taste and design—and with unprecedented influence. Aga Khan I served alongside Queen Victoria’s troops; Aga Khan III was served dinner at Queen Victoria’s table.

Thus began modern Ismailism’s talent for cultural chameleonics. Aga Khan III (1877-1957) was an Indian-born prince who consolidated control over Ismaili communities as far afield as Africa. Yet he was also an ardent Europhile, and able to pass among Western royalty thanks to his highly educated multilingualism and fortuitously light complexion. The obscurity of the religion of which he was head likely aided rather than detracted from his acceptance in the upper echelons. The British seem to have regarded him vaguely as an appurtenance of the Raj, able to rein in the nascent Muslim-Hindu tensions.

The third Aga Khan was often a buffoonish kinglet with an “Arabian Nights” air. At extravagant jubilees, he had his followers pay tribute with offerings of his very unhealthy weight in gold, platinum and diamonds; he perched on one pan of a giant scale while the treasures were stacked on the other. He married an Italian ballerina who called him “Aggy,” and later a former Miss France 30 years his junior whose love he is said to have literally bought with a suitcase containing 1 million francs. His last wish was to be entombed in Egypt in the express hope that he would be mummified like a pharaoh.

But such excesses were possible because Aga Khan III also was a shrewd investor who amassed a breathtaking fortune. And while he did not anticipate the pacifist and women’s rights movements after World War I, he supported them with a freedom his European peers lacked. (Characteristically, he nominated himself for a Nobel Peace Prize.) Aga Khan III became the de facto head of India’s Muslims, whatever their denomination, as president of the All-India Muslim League and later as a representative to the world peace organization League of Nations (where he served as president of the General Assembly). In those roles, and in the constitution he established for his global Ismaili organization, Aga Khan III relentlessly mandated the equal treatment of women, including in marriage and in education. The proceeds of his obscene jubilees went largely back into the welfare and education of the Ismaili community.

Yet he was a not-quite-enlightened despot—more an enthusiastic and good-natured one. He spent at least as much time on (and saw more success with) breeding racehorses as he did on forging world peace. He was an early supporter of Hitler. The high point of his relationship with his renowned countryman, Gandhi, was allowing the rabble-rouser to be imprisoned in luxury in one of the Aga Khan’s palaces.

But Aga Khan III appears to be the first Nizari imam on record to have a natural abhorrence of violence. Granted, there were nasty rumors early in his rule that he was behind the killings of some family members who might have challenged his power; one of the killings was conducted by a fanatic still known in Ismaili vernacular as one of the fida’is. But the only definite assassination plots in the life of Aga Khan III were attempts involving him as the target: Nazi agents in World War II tried to blow up his car and poison his coffee. The sect of the Assassins had undergone a total turnabout.

Aga Khan III was thus poised to pass along a kinder, gentler Nizari Ismailism. But his nominal successor, son Aly, was busy emulating other aspects of the Aga Khan’s lifestyle—drinking, adultery and horseracing. A playboy with a notorious appetite for sex, Aly drew embarrassing headlines in the 1930s-’50s with his scandalous affairs, including one with Hollywood star Rita Hayworth. Upon Aga Khan III’s death in 1957, it was revealed that Aly would be passed over as his successor in favor of young grandson Karim.

The disinheritance had a sobering effect on Aly, and perhaps the entire family, which rapidly rose into even greater influence via the United Nations. That same year, Aly became Pakistan’s U.N. representative, and soon was made a vice president of the U.N. General Assembly. (A fatal car crash a few years later prematurely ended his redeemed life.) And Aly’s half-brother, Sadruddin, became the U.N.’s high commissioner for refugees in 1959.

Karim became Aga Khan IV while a student at Harvard, being schooled in the ways of the modern, Western world. The current Aga Khan has a bit of his father and grandfather in him: a talent with racehorses and a fashion-model wife, a private jet and vast estates. But he has taken the modern Ismaili tenets of humanitarian aid and self-improvement seriously, founding a gigantic, billion-dollar network of private development and cultural agencies that work closely with the U.N. The Aga Khan Development Network (AKDN) works in dozens of countries that major powers will not, or do not understand if they do. Poverty, health and women’s rights remain the focal points.17

Aga Khan IV is not above crass opportunism; he took a ribbing 30 years ago for creating an entire luxury city and yacht port in Sardinia on cheaply bought land, dubbed “Agaland” by the press. It is a picture, as one author put it, of “imam as financial guru.”18

This Aga Khan indeed seems more interested in selling than in preaching, in the practical more than the spiritual. But that may be because he views as false the Western dichotomy between religion and business. Aga Khan III once wrote that “markets make peace,” a line that his grandson could use as a motto.19

While yacht resorts make headlines, the far more influential development work of AKDN does not. Offering aid to Ismailis and non-Ismailis alike, the network is often shrewdly precise in its efforts. For example, it does not simply pump money and supplies into a needy system; it may conduct market research to see what new industries might best suit a region and then work to establish them.

Like his grandfather, Aga Khan IV is a natural for this peripatetic, global work. Born in Switzerland, raised in Kenya, educated in America, and now based in France, he is a true internationalist. He looks and sounds like he could have come from just about anywhere besides East Asia or central Africa. He has a “Star Trek” aura of humane braininess—he talks a lot about “logic”—devoted to world-saving.20

The Aga Khan has used blunter instruments at times. In surely the most complete divestment from apartheid-era South Africa, he simply ordered all Ismailis to leave the racist state.21 But clearly, he prefers nuanced approaches. Pacifism now goes without saying; Ismailism preaches deference to local governments, and must be one of the few sects with millions of followers to go decades without producing violence. (However, it can still attract it; in 1983, the Irish Republican Army kidnapped and apparently killed one of the Aga Khan’s racehorses.22)

In 1994, Aga Khan IV gave the commencement address at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. The crucial modern challenge, he said, is to synthesize the values and lessons of the Western world, the Muslim world and the “ex-Communist” world.23 This sweeping, syncretic vision is as characteristic of Aga Khan IV’s Ismailism as it is unusual of religions in general. Where the world sees conflicts, the Aga Khan IV sees collaborations.

But one thing is always left out of the Aga Khan’s big picture: the Assassins. The Assassin past is a taboo of modern Ismailism, even as the AKDN funds restoration of the killer cult’s castle.

The Assassin taboo

The AKDN website offers a brief history of the Nizari Ismailis at the time of the Crusades: a “cohesive state, with numerous mountain strongholds” that “collapsed only under the onslaught of the all-conquering Mongols.”24 Studiously avoided is any use of the term “Assassins.”

The AKDN certainly knows better. The history was written by Dr. Farhad Daftary, who also authored “The Assassin Legends,” a thorough investigation of myth and reality and one of the very few books on the subject that is not full of ignorant conspiracy theories. But Daftary, based at AKDN’s Institute for Ismaili Studies, is not an unbiased source himself. Preoccupied with debunking Assassin myths as the work of ideological enemies, Daftary underplays how the Assassins also earned their infamy by stabbing people to death in the street.

Aga Khan IV apparently simply never talks about the Assassins, though he dips back into the past for Fatimid dynasty references frequently enough. Neither the Aga Khan’s secretariat nor Dr. Daftary responded to questions about how the Assassins are viewed by modern Ismailism.

Aga Khan III was not so discreet in his memoirs. He refers to the Alamut cult as “my ancestors” before evasively reporting:

“They established a stronghold on the craggy peak of Alamut in the Elburz mountains…. Legend and history intertwine here in the strange tale of the Old Man of the Mountains [sic], and of those hereditary Grand Masters of the Order of the Assassins who held Alamut for nearly two hundred years.”26

He then does not explain either the legend or history, and judging from his mistakes, he may not have known much about them. The identity of the Assassins as the Nizari Ismailis had only recently been puzzled out at that time.

But the Aga Khan returned venomously to the subject in a later edition of the memoir, in a footnote to a reference of a sultan’s fear of assassination:

“It is interesting and not without irony to realize that the word ‘assassin,’ which has its special contemporary meaning, was first applied many centuries ago to my ancestors and their Ismaili followers. From time immemorial, small and oppressed minorities have had to be given a bad name—after all, you cannot kill a dog unless you give it a bad name—and in the Middle Ages the Ismailis were such a minority, fighting for their lives and their rights. Their oppressors had to give them a bad name; they associated the Ismailis with the manufacture and use of the drug hashish, and it was alleged that they were addicts. The bad name, thus invented, stuck.”27

It’s an interesting point that the belittling term “Assassin” may have made it easier for enemies to massacre Ismailis. But, like Daftary, Aga Khan III would have us forget that the Assassins did a lot of killing themselves to earn their reputation and their name. The mixture of dissembling defensiveness and pride in his statement probably tells us all we need to know about the Assassins’ place in modern Ismailism.

Perhaps it is time for Nizari Ismailism to embrace its past and reclaim the word “Assassin.” Aga Khan III was right that the Assassins were an oppressed minority putting up a long and successful fight, branded with an insulting name. Christians, Quakers and countless other oppressed groups have turned insulting names into vessels of pride about their virtuous struggles. The term “Assassin” cannot be assassinated, and could take on a richer meaning than it has today.

Admittedly, embracing a Muslim terrorist past could be problematic today. But that only highlights the changes in a sect that, once famed for taking lives, now has far more power by saving and improving them.

Nine hundred years ago, Nizaris were led in part by a supposed “Old Man of the Mountain” who ordered spectacular murders. Today, Nizaris are led by an old man who orders the rejuvenation of crumbling countries, his mountains now those around Geneva, where AKDN offices share a city with the Red Cross.

To avoid the word “Assassins” while rebuilding Assassin castles seems hypocritical at best. It is a missed opportunity to celebrate an impressive history while showing how dramatically a religion, and people, can change.

 

 

                1 “Secrets of Assassins’ fort unearthed in Syria” by Tom Perry, Reuters, July 13, 2007, at http://uk.reuters.com/article/2007/07/13/uk-syria-castle-assassins-idUKL1114464920070713?src=071407_0754_DOUBLEFEATURE_snapshots&pageNumber=1.

                2 “The Assassin Legends: Myths of the Isma‘ilis” by Farhad Daftary. Many other etymologies for “assassin” have been proposed; some are entertaining, all are wrong.

                3 “Assassin’s Creed: Director’s Cut Edition” (PC edition), Ubisoft, Inc., 2008.

                4 All of the information on the ancient Nizari Ismailis and the etymology of “Assassins” that follows in this essay draws heavily and fundamentally from Daftary, op. cit.

                5 Abd Allah (sometimes transliterated as Ubaidallah) was originally known as Said ibn Husayn.

                6 Daftary, op. cit.

                7 Daftary, ibid.

                8 Daftary, ibid.; “The Memoirs of Aga Khan: World Enough and Time” by Aga Khan III; and “Assassin,” Columbia Encyclopedia (5th ed.).

                9 “Early Philosophical Shiism: The Ismaili Neoplatonism of Abū Ya‘qūb al-Sijistānī” by Paul E. Walker.

                10 Walker, ibid.

                11 Daftary, op. cit.

                12 Daftary, op. cit.

                13 Daftary, op. cit.

                14 Daftary, op. cit.

                15 It is intriguing to note that attempts to create drug-controlled assassins are not a reality of the Crusader era, but rather of our own time, with infamous experiments by various governments, including the U.S. CIA’s LSD experiments.

                16 My crucial and fundamental source on the Aga Khan dynasty is “Throne of Gold: The Lives of the Aga Khans” by Anne Edwards.

                17www.akdn.org.

                18 Edwards, op. cit.

                19 Aga Khan III, op. cit. Aga Khan IV recently said, “If you travel the developing world, you see poverty is the driver of tragic despair, and there is the possibility that any means out will be taken….[By offering business assistance] we are developing protection against extremism.” (Source: “The Aga Khan, a jet-setter who mixes business and Islam” by G. Pascal Zachary, New York Times, July 9, 2007, at http://www.nytimes.com/2007/07/09/business/worldbusiness/09iht-khan.4.6569846.html.)

            On a much smaller scale of Ismaili political power, the city of Calgary, Canada, in 2010 elected an Ismaili man to be its mayor. Mayor Naheed Nenshi is also Harvard-educated and business-minded. (See http://www.theismaili.org/cms/1103/Ismaili-Muslim-elected-mayor-of-the-thirdlargest-city-in-Canada.)

                20www.akdn.org.

                21 Edwards, op. cit.

                22 Edwards, ibid. Without downplaying peace and pacifism, it is worth noting the shower of death threats that some Ismaili commenters rained upon the maker of a YouTube video depicting the Aga Khans, family members and Britain’s Prince Charles dancing suggestively. (“Agha Khan in DANCING With The STARS,” www.youtube.com/watch?v=Eit3ZGveGBM; the comments have since been removed.)

                23 Edwards, ibid.

                24 “Ismaili Community: History” at www.akdn.org/about_community.asp.

                25 “Crusaders and Crusading in the Twelfth Century” by Giles Constable, via Google Books.

                26 Aga Khan III, op. cit.

                27 Aga Khan III, ibid. The publication year of the subsequent edition was unclear. The first edition was published in 1954. I accessed both editions at the Boston Public Library.

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