On the Assassin's Creed: Part 3 (of 3)

Where does the phrase “nothing is true / everything is permitted” come from? Did a Nizari Ismaili actually say this? Traditionally, the phrase is ascribed to Hasan-i Sabbah, the leader of the Nizaris in Persia. In 1090, Hasan led a successful revolt against the Saljuq Turks and established a fortress at Alamut, which would serve, for the next 166 years, as the command center of the Nizari state.

Hasan was known erroneously as “The Old Man of the Mountain.” He is often depicted—in sources as late as the 1950s and in the video game too—as a kind of bin Laden figure: an austere and ascetic man hiding in the mountains, sending faithful fida’is, “self-sacrificing devotees,” on suicide missions. He is supposed to have said “nothing is true / everything is permitted” on his deathbed, dying in 1124 of natural causes. There is, however, no historical record of him ever having said it. 

This “assassin’s creed” shows up in many sources that predate the video game. The novel Alamut, by Vladimir Bartol, on which the video game is based, puts the words in the mouth of a fictional Hasan.

The phrase shows up more than fifty years later in the obscure comic-book series X, by Steven Grant. Here it is also attributed to Hasan.

Even the Beat writer William Burroughs quotes Hasan’s creed in his novel Cities of the Red Night. The earliest instance of the phrase, though, is in Friedrich Nietzsche’s philosophical novel Thus Spoke Zarathustra. But, unlike the other sources, Nietzsche doesn’t explicitly mention Hasan. In his novel, the Persian prophet Zarathustra has a demonic, nihilistic Shadow. Nietzsche puts the assassin’s creed in the mouth of this Shadow.

***

Where did Nietzsche get this phrase? Did he also ascribe it, in his mind, to Hasan-i Sabbah?

It is, of course, possible that Nietzsche wrote the phrase on his own, without any knowledge of Hasan. It is more likely, though, that he heard (or read) the phrase somewhere and incorporated it, almost verbatim, into his novel. But where did he hear (or read) it? Before Nietzsche, there is no written record at all of this phrase, let alone of Hasan saying it.

I have a theory, which the philosopher Maurice Stanley Friedman seems to agree with. The theory goes that Nietzsche heard this “assassin’s creed,” which had been dubiously attributed to Hasan, because of rumors that were circulating around the German-speaking world at the time. Around the middle of the nineteenth century, scholarly interest in the Ismailis and in heterodox Islam had reached a fever pitch. In particular, a German-speaking orientalist named Joseph von Hammer-Purgstall (1774-1856) made several trips to Persia and to Syria to study the Nizaris.

It’s important to remember that few, if any, Ismaili texts survived the Mongol invasions in 1256; and the few texts that did survive were not unearthed until “the opening decades of the twentieth century.” So, for his research, von Hammer would have had to rely mostly on the history and heresiography of neighboring Sunnis and the polemics of Christian Crusaders. We know also that von Hammer borrowed from unpublished Persian (Sunni) sources for his first book. That book, published in German in 1818, was called The Order of the Assassins. It was a huge success in Europe and was the authority on the Ismailis until 1930.

The book didn’t mention “nothing is true / everything is permitted,” but this was perhaps another piece of misinformation that von Hammer brought back with him from Syria and Persia, which Nietzsche then made use of in his own work. 

The “assassin’s creed,” whether Hasan said it or not, is a testament to how far and fast word can travel. And if Hasan didn’t say it, the creed is even more a testament to the staying power of a good rumor.

 

Works I consulted for this post: 

Karen Armstrong, A History of God

Jill N. Claster, Sacred Violence: The European Crusades to the Middle East 1095-1396

Farhad Daftary, “The ‘Order of the Assassins:’ J. von Hammer and the Orientalist Misrepresentations of the Nizari Ismailis”

Farhad Daftary, Ismailis in Medieval Muslim Societies: A Historical Introduction to an Islamic Community 

Maurice Stanley Friedman, My Friendship with Martin Buber

Bernard Lewis, “The Sources for the History of the Syrian Assassins”

Henry Munson, Islam and Revolution in the Middle East

Willam Popper, “The Order of the Assassins by Marshall G. S. Hodgson: A Review”