On The Assassin's Creed: Part 2 (of 3)
The tenth century is referred to as the Shii century. 909 marked the beginning of a “golden age” for the Ismailis. An Ismaili state, known as the Fatimid caliphate, was established.
Its leader was both Imam and caliph, and his name was al-Mahdi Billah. He’d taught some Ismailis that the seventh Imam, Ismail, had not in fact gone into occultation but that the Imamate line had continued and Ismail’s son, his rightful heir, and subsequent rightful heirs, had been in hiding, preaching, avoiding the Abbasids, a Sunni dynasty headquartered at the time in Baghdad. The Abbasids represented “the Sunni establishment,” “the Muslim majority.”
When Abbasid leaders learned of the establishment of the Fatimid caliphate, they saw this as a legitimate threat to “Sunni orthodoxy,” and waged a campaign, which involved, among other things, violence, in order to discredit the Ismailis.
In 1094, the already divided Ismailis divided once again over the issue of succession. The eighth Fatimid caliph died, and—in keeping with earlier Muslim history—there was a dispute over who would lead. Some Ismailis felt that the caliph’s eldest son, Nizar, should lead. Thus, the Nizari Ismailis, better known as The Assassins, were born.
In the context of the Nizari Ismailis, the name “assassin” is a problematic one. The name came into currency for a number of reasons, probably the least of which is the fact that Nizaris were assassinating people. Dr. Farhad Daftary points out the difficulty in trying to study the Nizaris, or the Ismailis in general, objectively. He argues that, until the middle of the twentieth century, “Ismailis were…studied and judged almost exclusively on the basis of evidence collected or often fabricated by their enemies.”
Medieval Europeans, among them Marco Polo, were drawn to the stories of daring, devout Nizaris holding off the much stronger Abbasid caliphate and the dynasty of the Saljuq Turks, who were also Sunni and “overlords of the Abbasids.” The Nizaris were in very hostile territory, surrounded on all sides by well-established armies. Having separated from the Fatimid caliphate, they were a vulnerable minority. They established settlements in the mountains of Persia and Syria; and they kept their literature and “inventive” theology a secret to avoid inflaming their enemies. In Persia, some Nizaris pretended to be Sufi, Sunni, or Twelver to safeguard against the sword.
Like many historical underdogs, Nizaris did use guerrilla tactics to pursue a “religio-political agenda.” However, the term “assassin,” used to describe them, was picked up in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries and was propagated by Europeans. But it originated with Sunni detractors. The Arabic word Sunnis used to mock the Nizaris, from which our word “assassin” derives, was hashishi. The word means “an irreligious social outcast,” but many medieval Europeans, who were enticed by fantastical legends of the sect, also used the word in its literal sense: “one who takes hashish.”
It’s not surprising, then, that the stereotype of the Nizaris as “nihilistic” drug-addicted terrorists has found its way into our popular culture.