Chronicle of the Middle East and North Africa

The Hashashin: Shia Islam’s Mysterious Sect

Masyaf Castle
Masyaf Castle, Syria. Photo: kylepounds2001 / Flickr

A branch of the Nizari Ismaili sect of Shia Islam, the story of the Hashashin goes back to the death in 765 CE of Imam Jafar al-Sadiq. The question of succession after al-Sadiq’s death was the cause of division among Shiites who considered his eldest son Ismail, who had reportedly died before his father, to be the next imam, and those who believed his third son, Musa al-Kadhim, was the imam. The first group became known as the Ismailis and the second, larger group was named the Twelvers.

In 909 CE, the Ismailis established the first Shiite caliphate that extended from North Africa to the Levant, Persia and Central Asia. It was called the Fatimid Caliphate, named after Sayyidah Fatima, daughter of the Prophet Muhammad, and centred in Cairo, Egypt.

In 1094, before his death, the eighth Fatimid caliph, al-Mustansir Billah, recommended the mandate be passed to his elder son Nizar. However, his younger brother al-Mustali Billah succeeded in seizing the throne with the help of Badreddine al-Jamali, commander of the caliphate’s armies. After al-Mustali Billah seized the throne, Nizar was imprisoned and killed in 1095. His son, al-Hadi, fled to Iran where he was supported by missionary Hasan al-Sabah, originally a Twelver who converted to Ismailism. Al-Sabah called for the reinstatement of Nizar’s mandate and eventually established the Nizari Ismaili sect and its fedayeen military group, known as the Hashashin.

In search of a base from which to lead his religious missions, al-Sabah found and captured the Castle of Death, a fortress in the Alborz Mountains, in 1088. He lived in the castle for 35 years until his death in 1124. The castle remained the centre of the Hashashin community until 1256, when the invading Mongol armies destroyed the building and burned its library, causing the loss of many of the details about the sect.

Nevertheless, Iran continued to be the base of the imamate until the death of the 45th Nizari Imam Shah Khalilullah in 1817 and the appointment of his elder son Hasan Ali Shah as head of the imamate. The Qajar king of Persia (now Iran) appointed Ali Shah as the ruler of the Shiite holy city of Qom, married him to one of his daughters and gave him the title of Aga Khan, meaning ‘the lord and the master’. However, tensions between the Aga Khan and the Qajar ruling family led to military clashes in 1840, eventually forcing the Aga Khan to flee to Afghanistan, then to Sindh Province in Pakistan before he settled in Mumbai, India in 1884.

There are several stories about the origin of the name Hashashin, including the unsupported theory that members used hashish. Other more likely narratives suggest that the word ‘hashashin’ was a modification of ‘hassassan’, relating to Hasan al-Sabah, or a modification of the word ‘assasun’, derived from the word ‘assas’, which means ‘guards who protect castles at night’, or from the word ‘assassins’, meaning murderers.

The latter suggestion has merit. Under al-Sabah, the Hashashin developed a completely new military strategy, avoiding direct confrontations in conflicts and field wars for fear that thousands could die. Instead, they killed prominent political, religious and military figures, including ministers, kings and clerics, using fedayeen (‘death-seekers’) who were trained in disguise, espionage, equestrian skills, assassination techniques and, most importantly, were willing to die to achieve their goal. These fedayeen rarely survived their missions, and many of them committed suicide to avoid being captured by their enemies. Some fedayeen would infiltrate the royal court or the armies of their enemies and wait until the right moment to carry out their mission, a strategy that instilled terror into the hearts of the Hashashins’ opponents and made them legendary over time.

Although historians generally agree that the Mongol invasion in the 13th century marked the end of the Hashashin in Persia, the aura of mystery surrounding them inspired several so-called ‘Assassin legends’ that developed in stages and tended to receive new embellishments at each stage. In The Legend of Paradise, for example, Italian traveller Marco Polo described ‘a secret garden of paradise’, where physical pleasures were supposedly procured for the fedayeen as part of their indoctrination and training.

Over the following centuries, Hashashin appeared in other regions around the world although adherents became known as Nizaris, who constitute the majority of Ismaili Muslims. Today, the sect runs more than 140 for-profit and not-for-profit organizations spanning more than 30 countries to serve the Ismaili community. These organizations employ approximately 58,000 staff and about 20,000 volunteers.

The Nizaris share many similarities with the Ismailis as well as other Shia Muslim groups. They believe in the seven pillars of faith – prayer, fasting, almsgiving, hajj, purity, jihad and martyrdom – as well as in the mystical interpretation of the Koran, followed in terms of holiness by another book of religious teachings called the Book of Jinan.

However, they differ from other Shiites in that they do not believe in a hidden imam who will return as the mahdi or ‘divinely guided one’ for the Last Judgment. According to Nizari tradition, there must be a present and living imam until the end of time, and Ali ibn Abi Talib and his descendants are considered the only legitimate successors of the Prophet Muhammad.

Despite the splits in Shiism, the Nizari sect has survived. Today, their 49th imam is Shah Karim Husseini or Agha Khan IV, who took over the imamate in 1957. Like his predecessor, the current Aga Khan, who lives in France, is known for his philanthropic work through the Aga Khan Development Network.