From the archive, originally posted by: [ spectre ]




“The Hashshashin (also Hashishin, Hashashiyyin or Assassins) were an
offshoot of the Ismā’īlī sect of Shia Muslims. After a quarrel about
the succession of leadership in the ruling Fatimide dynasty in Cairo
around the year 1090, the losing Nizāriyya faction were driven from
Egypt. They established a number of fortified settlements in present
day Iran, Iraq, Syria and Lebanon under the charismatic leader Hasan i
Sabbah. Persecuted as infidels by the dominant sunni sect in the
Muslim world, they sent dedicated people to eliminate prominent Sunni
leaders whom they considered “impious usurpers.”[1] The sect was
decimated by the invading Mongols, their last stronghold being
flattened by Hülegü Khan in the year 1272.

Some scholars believe the term Hashshashin, a name given to them by
their enemies, was derived from the Arabic “haššāšīn” (حشّاشين,
“hashish user”), which they are alleged to have ingested prior to
their attacks, but this etymology is disputed. The sect referred to
themselves as al-da’wa al-jadīda (Arabic:الدعوة الجديدة), which means
the new doctrine, and were known within the organization as Fedayeen.

Most Muslim contemporaries were obviously suspicious of these “Holy
Killers”; in fact they were described using the term Batini. The term
was sometimes used pejoratively to refer to those, especially Ismaili,
who discerned an inner, esoteric level of meaning (batin) in the
Qur’an. This constant religious estrangement would eventually see them
go so far as allying with the Occidental Christians against Muslims on
a number of occasions.

The original place they started their elite group was in Iran (Persia)
and later traveled to other countries. Legends abound as to the
tactics used to induct members into what became both a religious and a
political organization. One such legend is that future assassins were
subjected to rites similar to those of other mystery cults, in which
the subject was made to believe that he was in imminent danger of
death. The twist was that they were drugged to simulate “dying”, to
later awaken in a garden flowing with wine and served a sumptuous
feast by virgins. The supplicant was then convinced he was in Heaven
and that the cult’s leader, Hassan-i-Sabah, was a representative of
the divinity and all his orders should be followed, even unto death.
This legend derives from Marco Polo, who visited Alamut after it fell
to the Mongols in the thirteenth century.

Other parts of the cult’s indoctrination claim that the future
assassins were brought to Alamut at a young age and, while they
matured, inhabited the aforementioned paradisaic gardens and were kept
drugged with hashish; as in the previous version, Hassan-i-Sabah
occupied this garden as a divine emissary. At a certain point (when
their initiation could be said to have begun), the drug was withdrawn
from them and they were removed from the gardens and flung into a
dungeon. There they were informed that if they wished to return to the
paradise they had so recently enjoyed, it would be at Sabbah’s
discretion. Therefore, they must follow his directions exactly up to
and including murder and self-sacrifice.

The group transformed the act of murder into a system directed largely
against Seljuk Muslim rulers who had been persecuting their sects.
They were meticulous in killing the targeted individual, seeking to do
so without any additional casualties and innocent loss of life,
although they were careful to cultivate their terrifying reputation by
slaying their victims in public, often in mosques. Typically, they
approached using a disguise. Their weapon of choice being a dagger or
a small blade, they rejected poison, bows and other weapons that
allowed the attacker to escape. For unarmed combat, the Hashshashin
practiced a fighting style called Janna which incorporates striking
techniques, grappling and low kicks. However, under no circumstances
did they commit suicide, preferring to be killed by the master

There are also, possibly apocryphal, stories that they used their well-
known deadliness for political goals without necessarily killing. For
example, a victim, usually high-placed, might one morning find a
Hashshashin dagger lying on their pillow upon awakening. This was a
plain hint to the targeted individual that he was safe nowhere, that
maybe even his inner group of servants had been infiltrated by the
cult, and that whatever course of action had brought him into conflict
with them would have to be stopped if he wanted to live.

Etymology of the word “assassin”
The name “assassin” is commonly believed to be a mutation of the
Arabic “haššāšīn” (حشّاشين); however, there are those who dispute this
etymology, arguing that it originates from Marco Polo’s account of his
visit to Alamut in 1273[2] It is suggested by some writers that
assassin simply means ‘followers of Al-Hassan’ (or Hassan-i-Sabbah,
the Sheikh of Alamut (see below)).

The word Hashish (of probable Arabic origin) refers to resin collected
from cannabis flowers. Important to remember, however, is that
narcotics such as cannabis are “Haram,” are strictly prohibited, by
most schools of Islam. Therefore, it is possible that the label or
attribution of Hashshashin to drug use was to portray them negatively.

Many scholars have argued, and demonstrated convincingly, that the
attribution of the epithet ‘hashish eaters’ or ‘hashish takers’ is a
misnomer derived from enemies of the Isma’ilis and was never used by
Muslim chroniclers or sources. It was therefore used in a pejorative
sense of ‘enemies’ or ‘disreputable people’. This sense of the term
survived into modern times with the common Egyptian usage of the term
Hashasheen in the 1930s to mean simply ‘noisy or riotous’. It is
unlikely that the austere Hasan-i Sabbah indulged personally in drug
taking. …There is no mention of that drug [hashish] in connection
with the Persian Assassins – especially in the library of Alamut (“the
secret archives”).
– Edward Burman, The
Assassins – Holy Killers of Islam

Although apparently known as early as the 8th century, the federation
of the Assassins is usually marked as 1090 when Hasan-i Sabbah
established his stronghold in the Daylam mountains south of the
Caspian Sea at Alamut. Hasan set the aim of the Assassins to destroy
the power of the Abbasid Caliphate by murdering its most powerful
members. Much of the current western lore surrounding the Assassins
roots from Marco Polo’s supposed visit to Alamut in 1273, which is
widely considered fictional (especially as the stronghold had
reportedly been destroyed by the Mongols in 1256).

Benjamin of Tudela who traveled one hundred years before Marco Polo
mentions the Al-Hashshashin and their leader as “the Old Man.” He
notes their principal city to be Qadmous. The group inspired peace
into proportion to their many numbers and territory. The members were
organized into rigid classes, based upon their initiation into the
secrets of the order. The devotees constituted a class that sought
martyrdom and followed orders with unquestioned devotion, orders which
included assassination. Because of the secretive nature of the order,
it has often been invoked in chaos theories.

Notable victims include, Nizam al-Mulk (1092; although some historical
sources contradict this claim), the Fatimad vizier al-Afdal (1122),
ibn al-Khashshab of Aleppo (1124), il-Bursuqi of Mosul (1126), Raymond
II of Tripoli (1152), Conrad of Montferrat (1192), and Prince Edward,
later Edward I of England was wounded by a poisoned assassin dagger in
1271. It is believed that Saladin, incensed by several almost
successful Hashshashin attempts on his life, besieged their chief
Syrian stronghold of Masyaf during his reconquest of Outremer in 1176
but quickly lifted the siege after parley, and thereafter attempted to
maintain good relations with the sect. The sect’s own extant accounts
tell of Rashid ad-Din Sinan, stealing into Saladin’s tent in the heart
of his camp, and leaving a poisoned cake and a note saying “You are in
our power” on Saladin’s chest as he slept. Another account tells of a
letter sent to Saladin’s maternal uncle, vowing death to the entire
royal line, perhaps no idle threat; whatever the truth of these
accounts (and likely it will remain a mystery) he clearly heeded their
warning, and desisted.

The Hashshashin were often motivated by outsiders. The murder of the
Patriarch of Jerusalem, for example, was instigated by the
Hospitallers. It is rumoured the assassination of Conrad of Montferrat
may have even been hired by Richard the Lionheart. In most cases they
were aimed at retaining the balance of the Hashshashin’s enemies.

The power of the Hashshashin was destroyed by the Mongol warlord
Hulagu Khan, but several Ismaili sects share something of a common
lineage. During the Mongol assault of Alamut on 1256 December 15, the
library of the sect was destroyed, along with much of their power
base, and thus much of the sect’s own records were lost; most accounts
of them stem from the highly reputable Arab historians of the period.
The Syrian branch of the Hashshashin was destroyed in 1273 by the
Mamluk Sultan Baybars. The Hashshashin, in 1275, captured and held
Alamut for a few months but their political power was lost and they
were eventually absorbed into other Isma’ilite groups. They continued
being used under the Mamluks, Ibn Battuta recording in the 14th
century their fixed rate of pay per murder.”

FROM The Book of Grass: An Anthology on Indian Hemp  /  BY Philip K. Hitti

The Assassin movement, called the “new propaganda” by its members, was
inaugurated by al-Hasan ibn-al-Sabbah (died in 1124), probably a
Persian from Tus, who claimed descent from the Himyarite kings of
South Arabia. The motives were evidently personal ambition and desire
for vengeance on the part of the heresiarch. As a young man in al-
Rayy, al-Hassan received instruction in the Batinite system, and after
spending a year and a half in Egypt returned to his native land as a
Fatimid missionary. Here in 1090 he gained possession of the strong
mountain fortress Alamut, north-west of Qazwin. Strategically situated
on an extension of the Alburz chain, 10200 feet above sea level, and
on the difficult by shortest road between the shores of the Caspian
and the Persian highlands, this “eagle’s nest,” as the name probably
means, gave ibn-al-Sabbah and his successors a central stronghold of
primary importance. Its possession was the first historical fact in
the life of the new order.

From Alamut the grand master with his disciples made surprise raids in
various directions which netted other fortresses. In pursuit of their
ends they made free and treacherous use of th dagger, reducing
assassination to an art. Their secret organization, based on Ismailite
antecedents, developed an agnosticism which aimed to emancipate the
initiate from the trammels of doctrine, enlightened him as to the
superfluity of prophets and encouraged him to believe nothing and dare
all. Below the grand master stood the grand priors, each in charge of
a particular district. After these came the ordinary propagandists.
The lowest degree of the order comprised the “fida’is”, who stood
ready to execute whatever orders the grand master issued. A graphic,
though late and secondhad, description of the method by which the
master of Alamut is said to have hypnotized his “self-sacrificing
ones” with the use of hashish has come down to us from Marco Polo, who
passed in that neighborhood in 1271 or 1272. After describing in
glowing terms the magnificent garden surrounding the elegant pavilions
and palaces built by the grand master at Alamut, Polo proceeds:

“Now no man was allowed to enter the Garden save those whom he
intended to be his ASHISHIN. There was a fortress at the entrance to
the Garden, strong enough to resist all the world, and there was no
other way to get in. He kept at his Court a number of the youths of
the country, from twelve to twenty years of age, such as had a taste
for soldiering… Then he would introduce them into his Garden, some
four, or six, or ten at a time, having first made them drink a certain
potion which cast them into a deep sleep, and then causing them to be
lifted and carried in. So when they awoke they found themselves in the

“When therefore they awoke, and found themselves in a place so
charming, they deemed that it was Paradise in very truth. And the
ladies and damsels dallied with them to their hearts’ content…

“So when the Old Man would have any prince slain, he would say to such
a youth: ‘Go thou and slay So and So; and when thou returnest my
Angels shall bear thee into Paradise. And shouldst thou die, natheless
even so will I send my Angels to carry thee back into Paradise.'”
(from ‘The Book of Ser Marco Polo, the Venetian’, translated by Henry
Yule, London, 1875.)

The Assassination in 1092 of the illustrious vizir of the Saljug
sultanate, Nizam-al-Mulk, by a fida’i disguised as a Sufi, was the
first of a series of mysterious murders which plunged the Muslim world
into terror. When in the same year the Saljug Sultan Malikshah
bestirred himself and sent a disciplinary force against the fortress,
its garrison made a night sortie and repelled the besieging army.
Other attempts by caliphs and sultans proved equally futile until
finally the Mongolian Hulagu, who destroyed the caliphate, seized the
fortress in 1256 together with its subsidary castles in Persia. Since
the Assassin books andrecords were destroyed, our information about
this strange and spectacular order is derived mainly from hostile

As early as the last years of the eleventh century the Assassins had
succeeded in setting firm foot in Syria and winning as convert the
Saljug prince of Aleppo, Ridwan ibn-Tutush (died in 1113). By 1140
they had captured the hill fortress of Masyad and many others in
northern Syria, including al-Kahf, al-Qadmus and al-‘Ullayqah. Even
Shayzar (modern Sayjar) on the Orontes was temporarily occupied by the
Assassins, whom Usamah calls Isma’ilites. One of their most famous
masters in Syria was Rachid-al-Din Sinan (died in 1192), who resided
at Masyad and bore the title shakkh al-jabal’, translated by the
Crusades’ chroniclers as “the old man of the mountain”. It was
Rashid’s henchmen who struck awe and terror into the hearts of the
Crusaders. After the capture of Masyad in 1260 by the Mongols, the
Mamluk Sultan Baybars in 1272 dealt the Syrian Assassins the final
blow. Since then the Assassins have been sparsely scattered through
northern Syria, Persia, ‘Uman, Zanzibar, and especially India, where
they number about 150000 and go by the name of Thojas or Mowlas. They
all acknowledge as titular head the Aga Khan of Bombay, who claims
descent through the last grand master of Alamut from Isma’il, the
seventh imam, receives over a tenth of the revenues of his followers,
even in Syria, and spends most of his time as a sportsman between
Paris and London.

Secrets of the Assassins  /  BY Peter Lamborn Wilson

After the death of the Prophet Mohammad, the new Islamic community was
ruled in succession by four of his close Companions, chosen by the
people and called the Rightfully-guided Caliphs. The last of these was
Ali ibn Abu Talib; the Prophet’s son-in-law.

Ali had his own ardent followers among the faithful, who came to be
called Shi’a or “adherents”. They believed that Ali should have
succeeded Mohammad by right, and that after him his sons (the
Prophet’s grandsons) Hasan and Husayn should have ruled; and after
them, their sons, and so on in quasi-monarchial succession.

In fact except for Ali none of them ever ruled all Islamdom. Instead
they became a line of pretenders, and in effect heads of a branch of
Islam called Shiism. In opposition to the orthodox (Sunni) Caliphs in
Baghdad these descendants of the Prophet came to be known as the

To the Shiites an Imam is far more, far higher in rank than a Caliph.
Ali ruled by right because of his spiritual greatness, which the
Prophet recognized by appointing him his successor (in fact Ali is
also revered by the sufis as “founder” and prototype of the Moslem
saint). Shiites differ from orthodox or Sunni Moslems in believing
that this spiritual pre-eminence was transferred to Ali’s descendants
through Fatima, the Prophet’s daughter.

The sixth Shiite Imam, Jafar al-Sadiq, had two sons. The elder,
Ismail, was chosen as successor. But he died before his father. Jafar
then declared his own younger son Musa the new successor instead.

But Ismail had already given birth to a son – Mohammad ibn Ismail –
and proclaimed him the next Imam. Ismail’s followers split with Jafar
over this question and followed Ismail’s son instead of Musa. Thus
they came to be known as Ismailis.

Musa’s descendants ruled “orthodox” Shiism. A few generations later,
the Twelfth Imam of this line vanished without trace from the material
world. He still lives on the spiritual plane, whence he will return at
the end of this cycle of time. He is the “Hidden Imam”, the Mahdi
foretold by the Prophet. “Twelver” Shiism is the religion of Iran

The Ismaili Imams languished in concealment, heads of an underground
movement which attracted the extreme mystics and revolutionaries of
Shiism. Eventually they emerged as a powerful force at the head of an
army, conquered Egypt and established the Fatimid dynasty, the so-
called anti-Caliphate of Cairo.

The early Fatimids ruled in an enlightened manner, and Cairo became
the most cultured and open city of Islam. They never succeeded in
converting the rest of the Islamic world however; in fact, even most
Egyptians failed to embrace Ismailism. The highly evolved mysticism of
the sect was at once its special attraction and its major limitation.

In 1074 a brilliant young Persian convert arrived in Cairo to be
inducted into the higher initiatic (and political) ranks of Ismailism.
But Hasan-i Sabbah soon found himself embroiled in a struggle for
power. The Caliph Mustansir had appointed his eldest son Nizar as
successor. But a younger son, al-Mustali, was intriguing to supplant
him. When Mustansir died, Nizar – the rightful heir – was imprisoned
and murdered.

Hasan-i Sabbah had intrigued for Nizar, and now was forced to flee
Egypt. He eventually turned up in Persia again, head of a
revolutionary Nizari movement. By some clever ruse he acquired command
of the impregnable mountain fortress of Alamut (“Eagle’s Nest”) near
Qazvin in Northwest Iran.

Hasan-i Sabbah’s daring vision, ruthless and romantic, has become a
legend in the Islamic world. With his followers he set out to recreate
in miniature the glories of Cairo in this barren multichrome forsaken
rock landscape.

In order to protect Alamut and its tiny but intense civilization Hasan-
i Sabbah relied on assassination. Any ruler or politician or religious
leader who threatened the Nizaris went in danger of a fanatic’s
dagger. In fact Hasan’s first major publicity coup was the murder of
the Prime Minister of Persia, perhaps the most powerful man of the era
(and according to legend, a childhood friend of Sabbah’s).

Once their fearful reputation was secure, the mere threat of being on
the eso-terrorist hit-list was enough to deter most people from acting
against the hated heretics. One theologian was first threatened with a
knife (left by his pillow as he slept), then bribed with gold. When
his disciples asked him why he had ceased to fulminate against Alamut
from his pulpit he answered that Ismaili arguments were “both pointed
and weighty”.

Since the great library of Alamut was eventually burned, little is
known of Hasan-i Sabbah’s actual teachings. Apparently he formed an
initiatic hierarchy of seven circles based on that in Cairo, with
assassins at the bottom and learned mystics at the top.

Ismaili mysticism is based on the concept of ta’wil, or “spiritual
hermeneutics”. Ta’wil actually means “to take something back to its
source or deepest significance”. The Shiites had always practised this
exegesis on the Koran itself, reading certain verses as veiled or
symbolic allusions to Ali and the Imams. The Ismailis extended ta’wil
much more radically. The whole structure of Islam appeared to them as
a shell; to get at its kernel of meaning the shell must be penetrated
by ta’wil, and in fact broken open completely.

The structure of Islam, even more than most religions, is based on a
dichotomy between exoteric and esoteric. On the one hand there is
Divine Law (shariah), on the other hand the Spiritual Path (tariqah).
Usually the Path is seen as the esoteric kernel and the Law as the
exoteric shell. But to Ismailism the two together present a totality
which in its turn becomes a symbol to be penetrated by ta’wil. Behind
Law and Path is ultimate Reality (haqiqah), God Himself in theological
terms – Absolute Being in metaphysical terms.

This Reality is not something outside human scope; in fact if it
exists at all then it must manifest itself completely on the level of
consciousness. Thus it must appear as a man, the Perfect Man – the
Imam. Knowledge of the Imam is direct perception of Reality itself.
For Shiites the Family of Ali is the same as perfected consciousness.

Once the Imam is realized, the levels of Law and Path fall away
naturally like split husks. Knowledge of inner meaning frees one from
adherence to outer form: the ultimate victory of the esoteric over the

The “abrogation of the Law” however was considered open heresy in
Islam. For their own protection Shiites had always been allowed to
practise taqqiya, “permissable dissimulation” or Concealment, and
pretend to be orthodox to escape death or punishment. Ismailis could
pretend to be Shiite or Sunni, whichever was most advantageous.

For the Nizaris, to practise Concealment was to practise the Law; in
other words, pretending to be orthodox meant obeying the Islamic Law.
Hasan-i Sabbah imposed Concealment on all but the highest ranks at
Alamut, because in the absence of the Imam the veil of illusion must
naturally conceal the esoteric truth of perfect freedom.

In fact, who was the Imam? As far as history was concerned, Nizar and
his son died imprisoned and intestate. Hasan-i Sabbah was therefore a
legitimist supp-orting a non-existent pret-ender! He never claimed to
be the Imam himself, nor did his successor as “old Man of the
Mountain,” nor did his successor. And yet they all preached “in the
name of Nizar”. Presumably the answer to this mystery was revealed in
the seventh circle of initiation.

Now the third Old Man of the Mountain had a son named Hasan, a youth
who was learned, generous, eloquent and loveable. Moreover he was a
mystic, an enthusiast for the deepest teachings of Ismailism and
sufism. Even during his father’s lifetime some Alamutis began to
whisper that young Hasan was the true Imam; the father heard of these
rumors and denied them. I am not the Imam, he said, so how could my
son be the Imam?

In 1162 the father died and Hasan (call him Hasan II to distinguish
him from Hasan-i Sabbah) became ruler of Alamut. Two years later, on
the seventeenth of Ramazan (August 8) in 1164, he proclaimed the
Qiyamat, or Great Resurrection. In the middle of the month of Fasting,
Alamut broke its fast forever and proclaimed perpetual holiday.

The resurrection of the dead in their bodies at the “end of time” is
one of the most difficult doctrines of Islam (and Christianity as
well). Taken literally it is absurd. Taken symbolically however it
encapsulates the experience of the mystic. He “dies before death” when
he comes to realize the separative and alienated aspects of the self,
the ego-as-programmed-illusion. He is “reborn” in consciousness but he
is reborn in the body, as an individual, the “soul-at-peace”.

When Hasan II proclaimed the Great Resurrection which marks the end of
Time, he lifted the veil of concealment and abrogated the religious
Law. He offered communal as well as individual participation in the
mystic’s great adventure, perfect freedom.

He acted on behalf of the Imam, and did not claim to be the Imam
himself. (In fact he took the title of Caliph or “representative”.)
But if the family of Ali is the same as perfect consciousness, then
perfect consciousness is the same as the family of Ali. The realized
mystic “becomes” a descendant of Ali (like the Persian Salman whom Ali
adopted by covering him with his cloak, and who is much revered by
sufis, Shiites and Ismailis alike).

In Reality, in haqiqah, Hasan II was the Imam because in the Ismaili
phrase, he had realised the “Imam-of-his-own-being.” The Qiyamat was
thus an invitation to each of his followers to do the same, or at
least to participate in the pleasures of paradise on earth.

The legend of the paradisal garden at Alamut where the houris,
cupbearers, wine and hashish of paradise were enjoyed by the Assassins
in the flesh, may stem from a folk memory of the Qiyamat. Or it may
even be literally true. For the realized consciousness this world is
no other than paradise, and its bliss and pleasures are all permitted.
The Koran describes paradise as a garden. How logical then for wealthy
Alamut to become outwardly the reflection of the spiritual state of
the Qiyamat.

In 1166 Hasan II was murdered after only four years of rule. His
enemies were perhaps in league with conservative elements at Alamut
who resented the Qiyamat, the dissolving of the old secret hierarchy
(and thus their own power as hierarchs) and who feared to live thus
openly as heretics. Hasan II’s son however succeeded him and
established the Qiyamat firmly as Nizari doctrine.

If the Qiyamat were accepted in its full implications however it would
probably have brought about the dissolution and end of Nizari
Ismailism as a separate sect. Hasan II as Qa’im or “Lord of the
Resurrection” had released the Alamutis from all struggle and all
sense of legitimist urgency. Pure esotericism, after all, cannot be
bound by any form.

Hasan II’s son, therefore, compromised. Apparently he decided to
“reveal” that his father was in fact and in blood a direct descendant
of Nizar. The story runs that after Hasan-i Sabbah had established
Alamut, a mysterious emissary delivered to him the infant grandson of
Imam Nizar. The child was raised secretly at Alamut. He grew up, had a
son, died. The son had a son. This baby was born on the same day as
the son of the Old Man of the Mountain, the outward ruler. The infants
were surreptitiously exchanged in their cradles. Not even the Old Man
knew of the ruse. Another version has the hidden Imam committing
adultery with the Old Man’s wife, and producing as love-child the
infant Hasan II.

The Ismailis accepted these claims. Even after the fall of Alamut to
the Mongol hordes the line survived and the present leader of the
sect, the Aga Khan, is known as the forty-ninth in descent from Ali
(and pretender to the throne of Egypt!). The emphasis on Alid
legitimacy has preserved the sect as a sect. Whether it is literally
true or not, however, matters little to an understanding of the

With the proclamation of the Resurrection, the teachings of Ismailism
were forever expanded beyond the borders imposed on them by any
historical event. The Qiyamat remains as a state of consciousness
which anyone can adhere to or enter, a garden without walls, a sect
without a church, a lost moment of Islamic history that refuses to be
forgotten, standing outside time, a reproach or challenge to all
legalism and moralism, to all the cruelty of the exoteric. An
invitation to paradise.

[Reprinted with from Peter Lamborn Wilson’s Scandal: Essays in Islamic
Heresy, published by Autonomedia, PO Box 568, Williamsburg Station,
Brooklyn, NY, USA.]

(2) Old Man of the Mountains

“Hasan-i Sabbah was a revolutionary of genius who devised and put into
practice the ‘new’ preaching or da’wa of the Nizari Isma’ilis, which
was to replace the ‘old’ da’wa of the Fatimid Isma’ilis at Cairo… It
is likely that he was born around 1060 in Qom, one-hundred-and-fifty
kilometers south of modern Tehran.”

“He had a fine mind, an excellent knowledge of theology, and evidently
possessed the phenomenal strength of will necessary to pursue his
ideal for so many years… We can imagine him converting the people of
Daylam just as he had himself been converted, by patiently digging
away at a potential proselyte’s religious doubts until they were
strong enough to admit the possibility of an alternative.”

“Hasan-i Sabbah had managed through careful theological argument and
relentless logic applied to the Shi’a doctrines, to create a powerful
sectarian sense of community based on the traditional secrecy and
conspiratorial nature of Isma’ilism.”

“The Alborz Mountains, which rise to a maximum height of over six-
thousand meters in the volcanic Mount Damavand, constitute a natural
barrier between the Caspian and the vast gently tilting plateau which
constitutes Central Iran. Although not distant as the crow field from
Tehran, this mountainous area has always been and still is remote. It
was presumably for this reason that many shi-ite sects and fleeing
Isma’ilis and other Moslem heretics had… for many centuries taken
refuge in the mountain kingdom of ancient Daylam.”

Within a high mountain valley stands “the castle of Alamut, the
fortress retreat of Hasan-i Sabbah, which became almost legendary
after the supposed 1273 visit of Marco Polo and his description of the
‘Old Man of the mountains’ and the ‘Ashishin’…”
– Edward
Burman, The Assassins – Holy Killers of Islam

“The Old Man kept at his court such boys of twelve years old as seemed
to him destined to become courageous men. When the Old Man sent them
into the garden in groups of four, ten or twenty, he gave them hashish
to drink. They slept for three days, then they were carried sleeping
into the garden where he had them awakened.”

“When these young men woke, and found themselves in the garden with
all these marvelous things, they truly believed themselves to be in
paradise. And these damsels were always with them in songs and great
entertainments; they; received everything they asked for, so that they
would never have left that garden of their own will.”

“And when the Old Man wished to kill someone, he would take him and
say: ‘Go and do this thing. I do this because I want to make you
return to paradise’. And the assassins go and perform the deed

– Marco Polo – on his visit to Alamut in 1273

“That Hasan-i Sabbah and other early Assassin Masters had gardens
seems likely since the garden is such an important part of Persian
noble life and of mysticism. The water channels and meticulous care to
ensure regular water supplies at Assassin castles echo the care which
Persian and Arab villages and country houses today give to the
presence of running water. So the legend of the garden in which
Assassins were taken probably has its origins in fact.”

“Many scholars have argued, and demonstrated convincingly, that the
attribution of the epithet ‘hashish eaters’ or ‘hashish takers’ is a
misnomer derived from enemies the Isma’ilis and was never used by
Moslem chroniclers or sources. It was therefore used in a pejorative
sense of ‘enemies’ or ‘disreputable people’. This sense of the term
survived into modern times with the common Egyptian usage of the term
Hashasheen in the 1930s to mean simply ‘noisy or riotous’. It is
unlikely that the austere Hasan-i Sabbah indulged personally in drug

“There is no mention of that drug [hashish] in connection with the
Persian Assassins – especially in the library of Alamut (’the secret

“Once established in a secure and permanent base, Hasan sent da’is
[missionaries] out from Alamut in all directions, At the same time he
pursued a policy of territorial expansion, taking castles either by
means of propaganda or by force, and building others… Life at Alamut,
and we may suppose in the other fortresses at this time, was
characterized by extreme asceticism and severity.”

“Political assassination was not unknown in Islam before Hasan-i
Sabbah. Earlier sects had used murder as a political technique, and
there is evidence that Mohammed himself disposed of his enemies by
suggesting that they did not deserve to live – and hoping that
faithful followers would take the hint. There had even been an
extremist Shi’ite group known as the ’stranglers’ after their
preferred method of assassination.”

The word assassin “definitely entered the literary vocabulary when it
was used by Dante.” In The Divine Comedy: Hell, Book XIX, “Dante
describes himself as ‘like a friar who is confessing the wicked
assassin’: ‘Io stava come il frate che confessa; Lo perfido assassin…’
“Here the strongest possible noun is required since the criminal being
confessed is being buried alive head down, thus denoting a sin of
particular horror. The connection of assassin with wickedness
reinforces the clarity and precision with which Dante used the word,
and it was in this sense that ‘assassin’ then passed into other
European languages.”
– Edward Burman,
The Assassins – Holy Killers of Islam


AKDN’s Ethical Framework

The Aga Khan Development Network (AKDN) brings together a number of
agencies, institutions, and programmes that have been built up over
the past forty years by the Aga Khan, and in some instances by his
predecessor, Sir Sultan Mahomed Shah, Aga Khan III.

Their combined mandate is to improve living conditions and
opportunities, and to help relieve society of the burdens of
ignorance, disease, and deprivation. AKDN agencies conduct their
programmes without regard to the faith, origin or gender of the people
they serve. Their primary focus of activity includes some of the
poorest peoples of Asia and Africa. The impulses that underpin the
Network are the Muslim ethic of compassion for the vulnerable in
society and the duty, guided by the ethics of the Islam, to contribute
to improving the quality of all human life. The pivotal notion in the
ethical ideal of Islam is human dignity, and thus, the duty to respect
and support God’s greatest creation, Man himself.

At the heart of Islam’s social vision is the ethic of care of the weak
and restraint in their sway by the rich and powerful. The pious are
the socially conscious who recognise in their wealth, whether personal
talent or material resources, an element of trust for the indigent and
deprived. But while those at the margin of existence have a moral
right to society’s compassion, the Muslim ethic discourages a culture
of dependency since it undermines a person’s dignity, the preservation
of which is emphatically urged in the Quran. From the time of the
Prophet, therefore, the emphasis in the charitable impulse has been to
help the needy to help themselves.

The key to the dignified life that Islam espouses is an enlightened
mind symbolised in the Quran’s metaphor of creation, including one’s
self, as an object of rational quest. “My Lord! Increase me in
knowledge,” is a cherished prayer that the Quran urges upon all
believers, men and women alike. Like education, good health is also a
precious asset for a life of dignity since the body is the repository
of the divine spark. This spark of divinity, which bestows
individuality and true nobility on the human soul, also bonds
individuals in a common humanity. Humankind, says the Quran, has been
created from a single soul, as male and female, communities and
nations, so that people may know one another. It invites people of all
faiths, men and women, to strive for goodness.

History of the Ismaili Community in the 20th Century

Under the leadership of Sir Sultan Mahomed Shah, Aga Khan III, the
first half of the twentieth century was a period of significant
development for the Ismaili community. Numerous institutions for
social and economic development were established on the Indian sub-
continent and in East Africa. Ismailis have marked the Jubilees of
their Imams with public celebrations, which are symbolic affirmations
of the ties that link the Ismaili Imam and his followers. Although the
Jubilees have no real religious significance, they serve to reaffirm
the Imamat’s world-wide commitment to the improvement of the quality
of human life, especially in the developing countries.

The Jubilees of Sir Sultan Mahomed Shah, Aga Khan III, are well
remembered. During his 72 years of Imamat (1885-1957), the community
celebrated his Golden (1937), Diamond (1946) and Platinum (1954)
Jubilees. To show their appreciation and affection, the Ismailis
weighed their Imam in gold, diamonds and, symbolically, in platinum,
respectively, the proceeds of which were used to further develop major
social welfare and development institutions in Asia and Africa.

On the subcontinent of India and Pakistan, social development
institutions were established, in the words of the late Aga Khan, “for
the relief of humanity”. They included institutions such as the
Diamond Jubilee Trust and the Platinum Jubilee Investments Limited
which in turn assisted the growth of various types of cooperative
societies. Diamond Jubilee Schools for girls were established
throughout the remote Northern Areas of what is now Pakistan. In
addition, scholarship programmes, established at the time of the
Golden Jubilee to give assistance to needy students, were
progressively expanded. In East Africa, major social welfare and
economic development institutions were established. Those involved in
social welfare included the accelerated development of schools and
community centres, and a modern, fully-equipped hospital in Nairobi.
Among the economic development institutions established in East Africa
were companies such as the Diamond Jubilee Investment Trust (now
Diamond Trust of Kenya) and the Jubilee Insurance Company, which are
quoted on the Nairobi Stock Exchange and have become major players in
national development.

Sir Sultan Mahomed Shah also introduced organisational forms that gave
Ismaili communities the means to structure and regulate their own
affairs. These were built on the Muslim tradition of a communitarian
ethic on the one hand, and responsible individual conscience with
freedom to negotiate one’s own moral commitment and destiny on the
other. In 1905 he ordained the first Ismaili Constitution for the
social governance of the community in East Africa. The new
administration for the Community’s affairs was organised into a
hierarchy of councils at the local, national, and regional levels. The
constitution also set out rules in such matters as marriage, divorce
and inheritance, guidelines for mutual cooperation and support among
Ismailis, and their interface with other communities. Similar
constitutions were promulgated in the Indian subcontinent, and all
were periodically revised to address emerging needs and circumstances
in diverse settings.

Following the Second World War, far-reaching social, economic and
political changes profoundly affected a number of areas where Ismailis
resided. In 1947, British rule in the Indian subcontinent was replaced
by the two sovereign, independent nations, of India and Pakistan,
resulting in the migration of at least a million people and
significant loss of life and property. In the Middle East, the Suez
crisis of 1956 as well as the preceding crisis in Iran, demonstrated
the sharp upsurge of nationalism, which was as assertive of the
region’s social and economic aspirations as of its political
independence. Africa was also set on its course to decolonisation,
swept by what Mr. Harold MacMillan, the then British Prime Minister,
aptly termed the “wind of change”. By the early 1960s, most of East
and Central Africa, where the majority of the Ismaili population on
the continent resided (including Tanganyika, Kenya, Uganda, Malagasy,
Rwanda, Burundi and Zaire), had attained their political independence.

This was the world in which the present Aga Khan acceded to the Imamat
in 1957. The period following his accession can be characterised as
one of rapid political and economic change. Planning of programmes and
institutions became increasingly difficult due to the rapid changes in
newly-emerging nations. Upon becoming Imam, the present Aga Khan’s
immediate concern was the preparation of his followers, wherever they
lived, for the changes that lay ahead. This rapidly evolving situation
called for bold initiatives and new programmes to reflect developing
national aspirations.

In Africa, Asia and the Middle East, a major objective of the
Community’s social welfare and economic programmes, until the mid-
fifties, had been to create a broad base of businessmen,
agriculturists, and professionals. The educational facilities of the
Community tended to emphasise secondary-level education. With the
coming of independence, each nation’s economic aspirations took on new
dimensions, focusing on industrialisation and modernisation of
agriculture. The Community’s educational priorities had to be
reassessed in the context of new national goals, and new institutions
had to be created to respond to the growing complexity of the
development process.

In 1972, under the regime of the then President Idi Amin, Ismailis and
other Asians were expelled, despite being citizens of the country and
having lived there for generations. The Aga Khan had to take urgent
steps to facilitate the resettlement of Ismailis displaced from
Uganda, Tanzania, Kenya and also from Burma. Owing to his personal
efforts most found homes, not only in Asia, but also in Europe and
North America. Most of the basic resettlement problems were overcome
remarkably rapidly. This was due to the adaptability of the Ismailis
themselves and in particular to their educational background and their
linguistic abilities, as well as the efforts of the host countries and
the moral and material support from Ismaili community programmes.

Spiritual allegiance to the Imam and adherence to the Shia Imami
Ismaili tariqah (persuasion) of Islam according to the guidance of the
Imam of the time, have engendered in the Ismaili community an ethos of
self-reliance, unity, and a common identity. The present Aga Khan
continued the practice of his predecessor and extended constitutions
to Ismaili communities in the US, Canada, several European countries,
the Gulf, Syria and Iran following a process of consultation within
each constituency. In 1986, he promulgated a Constitution that, for
the first time, brought the social governance of the world-wide
Ismaili community into a single structure with built-in flexibility to
account for diverse circumstances of different regions. Served by
volunteers appointed by and accountable to the Imam, the Constitution
functions as an enabler to harness the best in individual creativity
in an ethos of group responsibility to promote the common well-being.

Like its predecessors, the present constitution is founded on each
Ismaili’s spiritual allegiance to the Imam of the time, which is
separate from the secular allegiance that all Ismailis owe as citizens
to their national entities. The guidance of the present Imam and his
predecessor emphasised the Ismaili’s allegiance to his or her country
as a fundamental obligation. These obligations discharged not by
passive affirmation but through responsible engagement and active
commitment to uphold national integrity and contribute to peaceful

In view of the importance that Islam places on maintaining a balance
between the spiritual well-being of the individual and the quality of
his life, the Imam’s guidance deals with both aspects of the life of
his followers. The Aga Khan has encouraged Ismaili Muslims, settled in
the industrialised world, to contribute towards the progress of
communities in the developing world through various development
programmes. In recent years, Ismaili Muslims, who have come to the US,
Canada and Europe, mostly as refugees from Asia and Africa, have
readily settled into the social, educational and economic fabric of
urban and rural centres across the two continents. As in the
developing world, the Ismaili Muslim Community’s settlement in the
industrial world has involved the establishment of community
institutions characterised by an ethos of self-reliance, an emphasis
on education, and a pervasive spirit of philanthropy.

From July 1982 to July 1983, to celebrate the present Aga Khan’s
Silver Jubilee, marking the 25th anniversary of his accession to the
Imamat, many new social and economic development projects were
launched, although there were no weighing ceremonies. These range from
the establishment of the US$ 300 million international Aga Khan
University with its Faculty of Health Sciences and teaching hospital
based in Karachi, the expansion of schools for girls and medical
centres in the Hunza region, one of the remote parts of Northern
Pakistan bordering on China and Afghanistan, to the establishment of
the Aga Khan Rural Support Programme in Gujarat, India, and the
extension of existing urban hospitals and primary health care centres
in Tanzania and Kenya.

These initiatives form part of an international network of
institutions involved in fields that range from education, health and
rural development, to architecture and the promotion of private sector
enterprise and together make up the Aga Khan Development Network.

It is this commitment to man’s dignity and relief of humanity that
inspires the Ismaili Imamat’s philanthropic institutions. Giving of
one’s competence, sharing one’s time, material or intellectual
wherewithal with those among whom one lives, for the relief of
hardship, pain or ignorance is a deeply ingrained tradition which
shapes the social conscience of the Ismaili Muslim community.

[From the Preface of Farhad Daftary, The Ismailis: Their history and
doctrines (Cambridge University Press, 1990, pp.xv-xvi. See also A
Short History of the Ismailis: Traditions of a Muslim Community,
(Edinburgh University Press, 1998) by the same author.]

“The Ismailis have had a long and eventful history. In mediaeval
times, they twice established states of their own and played important
parts for relatively long periods on the historical stage of the
Muslim world. During the second century of their history, the Ismailis
founded the first Shia caliphate under the Fatimid caliph-imams. They
also made important contributions to Islamic thought and culture
during the Fatimid period. Later, after a schism that split Ismailism
into two major Nizari and Mustalian branches, the Nizari leaders
succeeded in founding a cohesive state, with numerous mountain
strongholds and scattered territories stretching from eastern Persia
to Syria. The Nizari state collapsed only under the onslaught of all-
conquering Mongols. Thereafter, the Ismailis never regained any
political prominence and survived in many lands as a minor Shia Muslim
sect. By the second half of the eighteenth century, however, the
spiritual leaders or imams of the Nizari majority came out of their
obscurity and actively participated in certain political events in
Persia and, then, in British India; later they acquired international
prominence under their hereditary title of Agha Khan (Aga Khan).”

Because of political developments in Iran in the late 1830s and early
1840s the 46th Imam, Aga Hasan Ali Shah, emigrated to the Indian
subcontinent. He was the first Imam to bear the title of Aga Khan,
which had been previously bestowed on him by the Persian Emperor, Fath
Ali Shah. He settled in Bombay in 1848 where he established his
headquarters, a development that had an uplifting effect on the
community in India and on the religious and communal life of the whole
Ismaili world. It helped the community in India gain a greater sense
of confidence and identity as Shia Ismaili Muslims, and laid the
foundations for its social progress. It also marked the beginning of
an era of more regular contacts between the Imam and his widely
dispersed followers. Deputations came to Bombay to receive the Imam’s
guidance from as far afield as Kashgar in China, Bokhara in Central
Asia, all parts of Iran, and the Middle East. In the second half of
the 19th and early 20th centuries, Ismailis from the Indian sub-
continent migrated to East Africa in significant numbers.