'The Assassins' sheds light on one of the most dangerous cults in Islamic history

The Egyptian series premiered on the first day of Ramadan and tells the story of the 11th-century cult leader Hasan i-Sabbah, whose followers were credited as pioneers of organised assassinations

Karim Abdel Aziz from the Al-Hashshashin series.
Karim Abdel Aziz from the Al-Hashshashin series.

'The Assassins' sheds light on one of the most dangerous cults in Islamic history

The first episode of the Egyptian television series Al-Hashshashin aired on the first day of the Holy Month of Ramadan and provides viewers with a general overview of Islamic history after the death of the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH).

The narrator starts the story with the Umayyad Dynasty and continues until the 11th century, when “esoteric cults" emerged. One infamous cult was the Hashshashin, or the Order of the Assassins, founded by Hasan i-Sabbagh.

Egyptian actor Karim Abdul Aziz plays the mysterious leader.

The series describes Sabbah as one of the “most dangerous and strangest” phenomena in Islamic history, adding, right at the start of the second episode: “In darkness lies a great secret, and Hasan i-Sabbah affiliated himself, his soul, and body, with darkness.”

The series has been lauded for its production and craft, but critics say the plot lacks historical credibility.

What word came first?

The Al-Hashshashin series was shot in Malta and Kazakhstan, rather than Persia (modern-day Iran), where its story unfolds and where Sabbah was born sometime in 1037.

During his lifetime, Sabbah was an acclaimed mathematician and philosopher, but he is better known to history today as a preacher of the Nizari Ismaili sect, from which a militia emerged calling itself fedayeen (like the word self-used by Yasser Arafat to describe his fighters back in the 1970s).

Karim Abdel Aziz from the Al-Hashshashin series.

Its adherents swore absolute and unwavering loyalty to Sabbah and would carry out a series of high-profile assassinations, earning them the title “assassins.”

The word itself was popularised in the Western world, based on the term “hashish” in Arabic, which can mean either grass or opium.

Many accused Sabbah of drugging his followers and then exposing them to all the pleasures of life, showing them heaven on earth before sending them to the battlefield to seek it in the afterlife.

Italian traveller Marco Polo used another title, Sheikh al-Jabal, or Old Man of the Mountain, but others claim that this was attributed to an Ismaili chief in Syria and not Hasan i-Sabbah.

Other Europeans tried unravelling the mystery surrounding him, and the first serious attempt was made by Denis Lebey de Batilly of France, who prepared a study in 1603.

Then came Barthalemy de’Herbelot, another French Orientalist, who wrote about the Order of the Assassins in his Oriental encyclopedia, followed by Sylvester de Sacy in 1809, who argued that the word Hashshashin originated from Arabic and not the West.

The fedayeen swore unwavering loyalty to Sabbah and would carry out a series of high-profile assassinations, earning them the title "assassins."

Who was Hasan i-Sabbah?

The first scene in Al-Hashshashin shows a young soldier in Sabbah's forces jumping off the high walls of his castle, ending his own life to prove his loyalty.

Sabbah joined the Ismaili sect at the age of 17 and moved to Fatimid Egypt in 1078, where he worked in its governmental accounting department. He spent a total of three years in Egypt, during which the caliph al-Muntasir Billah died and discord erupted over who should succeed him.

One party nominated his son Nizar, while another chose his brother al-Musta'li. When the latter was enthroned, Nizar led an uprising that was crushed, and he was executed on al-Musta'li's orders.

Many refused to believe Nizar was gone and claimed he was "missing" and would return in due course. Sabbah never positioned himself as a full-fledge imam but rather as Nizar's legitimate representative on Earth, dubbing in his absence until his return.

From this religious-political position, he established and expanded his power base in Persia and beyond.

He was arrested in Egypt and exiled, first to Baghdad and then Aleppo, before reaching Isfahan on 10 June 1081. He soon returned to Persia, roaming small towns before establishing himself in the ancient city of Dagan (east of Tehran today).

A clip from the Al-Hashshashin series.

He would make it a temporary base for himself and his followers, sending disciples to preach Nizari Ismailism in Syria. Sabbah successfully swayed Ridwan, the sultan of Aleppo, and upon his death, his son led a massive persecution of the Ismailis with mass arrests, torture, and exile.

Sabbah eventually exiled himself to Almut Castle, a mountain fortress in present-day Iran. He entered it in September 1090 and never left until his death.

In total, Sabbah spent around 34 years in Almut, organising not only conversion campaigns but military ones as well. The initial goal was to take all neighbouring citadels and fortresses.

He would occupy the entire district of Rudbar and reach all the way up to the present Iranian-Afghani borders. Those who converted peacefully were spared and enlisted into his forces; those who didn't were flogged, their territory confiscated, and their family members killed.

Assassination spree

The Seljuks ordered two missions to take him down, which both ended rather terribly and on 14 October 1092, Hasan i-Sabbah retaliated by killing the prominent Seljuk vizier, Nizam al-Mulk.

The Seljuk official was a man of letters who had opposed Sabbah since the latter's early stay in Egypt. It was the month of Ramadan, and he had stopped near Nahavand to break his fast when one of Sabbah's men approached him, feigning piousness, before taking out a dagger and stabbing him to death.

Sabbah hailed the assassination as the "beginning of blessing" for him and his followers. It would be the first of a series of killings carried out by the Hashshashin, including a failed attempt on the life of the famed sultan, Saladin.

Methods varied between direct attack by knives and daggers or murder from afar by poisoned arrows.

The list of victims includes Janah al-Dawla, the emir of Homs who was killed at a mosque during Friday prayer in 1103, Muwlud Ibn Altuntash, the governor of Mosul in 1113, the Fatimid vizier Al-Afdal Shahenshah in 1121, and the tenth Fatimid caliph Al-Hakim Bi Amrallah in 1130.

Foreigners included Raymond II, count of Tripoli, and Conrad of Montferrat, the prince of Jerusalem. The Order of the Assassins made no distinction between old and new and would live far longer than Sabbah himself, for nearly 200 years, until they were put to the sword by the Mongol invasion of Almut Castle in 1256.

The Order of the Assassins did not invent assassination; they only organised it. Political assassinations are as old as history itself, but before Sabbah, they were often carried out by individuals or small groups with no proper training or coordination.

They killed to spread fear in the hearts of people, both enemy and friend alike, justifying their actions by the long list of assassinations that had taken place in Islam since the murder of two of the prophet's immediate successors and companions, Omar Ibn al-Khattab and Othman Ibn Affan.

For them it was perfectly reasonable to kill kings and caliphs, justified both historically and politically.

Hasan i-Sabbah would die an old man, at his fortress, aged 87, on 12 June 1124. His grave at Almut, once a visiting site for his followers, was later overrun by the Mongols.

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