The Nizaris (Part 2). Debunking the legends of the Assassins

The Nizaris have managed to perpetuate themselves to this day along with the myths and the black legend that corrupt their true history. All these fables arose in the Middle Ages, first from rival Muslim groups and then from Crusaders and European chroniclers. Fueled by fascination, fear, ignorance or, merely, the desire to discredit, these fables have managed to survive over the centuries and unfairly impose themselves over the real history of the Nizaris. In this second part we will analyze these myths critically to separate the wheat from the chaff.

As stated by Farhad Daftary, a leading author on all matters concerning Ismailism and the Nizaris, our understanding of these doctrines has been based on the medieval black legend until the 20th century. In other words, our vision of the Ismailis and the Nizaris has been biased for most of the time, and it was not until the 1930s that some questions began to be clarified thanks to the public availability of Ismaili texts (the few that have survived to the present day) and their impartial study by specialists.

The black legend of the Ismailis and Nizaris begins to develop in Muslim sources, especially of Sunni origin. It is logical, because for Sunnis their creed was the only legitimate and correct one, and all those creeds that deviated in the slightest from their precepts were considered heretical and hostile. We have already mentioned in the previous article that the Abbasids persecuted the Ismailis (and other Shiites) on several occasions for political and religious reasons. However, the sword was not the only tool to silence antagonistic doctrines; the pen was of equal or greater importance.

It was during the periods when the Ismailis played a leading role or posed a direct threat to the Sunnis that Sunni propagandists and polemicists intensified their defamatory activities. It is not surprising, therefore, that during the Fatimid caliphate numerous works attacking Ismailism were published, false texts and abhorrent practices attributed to the Ismailis were disseminated, and intense defamation campaigns were conducted to sow controversy. The aim of all this was to demonstrate the heretical character of the Ismaili doctrines, considered by Sunni authors as a way to promote atheism and the destruction of Islam. These efforts eventually bore fruit, as several authors of successive eras used these texts and forgeries as a basis to portray the Ismailis (and the Nizaris by extension) and consolidate their black legend.

However, it was not only the Sunnis who took charge of delegitimizing the Ismailis. The various subgroups that broke away from the Ismaili core also defamed each other. A good example of this was the defamation campaign led by the Mustalids (one of the branches that, along with the Nizaris, were born out of the succession conflict arising from the death of the Fatimid caliph-iman al-Mustanṣir) against the Nizaris. The Mustalids, supported by the Fatimid caliphate, did everything they could to discredit the message of Nizar and his followers. In fact, it was a Fatimid caliph, al-Āmir, who in an epistle of 1122 first described the Nizaris of Syria with the term “hashishiyya”, from which would derive the word “assassin” by which the Nizaris would become known worldwide.

The legends about the Nizaris are essentially born from the pen of European Crusaders and chroniclers who traveled and settled in the Near East. In the illustration, Pope Urban II preaching at the Council of Clermont in 1095, the trigger for the First Crusade. [Livre des passages d’Outre-mer]. Sébastien Mamerot (Wikimedia Commons)

The Ismaili-Nizari black legend will definitely take shape with the arrival of medieval Europeans in the Mediterranean Levant in the context of the Crusades. Europeans already harbored numerous superstitions and misperceptions about Muslims based on ignorance and fear of the threat of a rapidly expanding Islam. Nor did it help that Muslim sources in Europe were then scarce and information about Islam very poor, a breeding ground for fabrications and fanciful speculations.

The First Crusade to conquer the Holy Land began in 1095. Only two years later, the Crusaders entered Syria and in 1099 took Jerusalem from the Fatimid caliphate. From then on, conflicts between Christians and Ismailis and Nizaris followed one after the other, and diplomatic, military and commercial contacts between the two factions became frequent. However, Crusaders did not take much interest in learning more about the culture of their enemies and, as a result, knowledge in Europe about the Ismailis and Islam in general remained stagnant. For their part, the European chroniclers who wrote about the Ismailis and especially the Nizaris often relied on unverified rumors and their own prejudices, helping to consolidate and legitimize the legend of the Assassins.

There were many European authors who wrote about the Nizaris, but the one who stood out the most was undoubtedly Marco Polo, the well-known Venetian explorer and merchant. This is because in the work that collects his adventures in Asia, Il Milione (The Travels of Marco Polo or Book of the Marvels of the World in English; 1298), appears the most elaborated synthesis on the Assassin legends spread until then. Due to the great repercussion that the book had, the legendary corpus around the Nizaris and the Ismailis became established and consolidated in the popular imagination of medieval Europeans and the generations to come until the present day.

Marco Polo made a synthesis of the legends about the Nizaris in his great work Il Milione, which was decisive for the consolidation of these fables in the collective imagination. Wikimedia Commons

Later, with the birth of Orientalism, the first specialists examined the Nizaris and Ismailis on the basis of Sunni texts (being the most accessible and predominant), the book of Marco Polo, and the works of the Crusaders, producing distorted and inaccurate descriptions and contributing to the perpetuation of medieval legends. In fact, many Orientalists continued to use the derogatory term “assassin” when referring to the Nizaris.

The prevalence of these stories makes sense in view of the small number of Ismaili texts that have survived the passage of time and the fact that the surviving works began to be recovered and made accessible in the West very late: in the 19th century. In other words, it is only in recent times that the history of Ismailis as told by the Ismailis themselves has begun to be known and disseminated, while the apocryphal and tainted versions of their rivals have been the predominant ones for most of the time.

We have just seen the origins of the myths and legends about the Ismailis and the Nizaris. Now it is the turn to dig into these myths and see what is true and what is not. Broadly speaking, the legends of the Assassins can be summarized in three interconnected themes: the legend of paradise, the legend of hashish, and the death-leap legend.

The meaning of “hashishiyya”

“There is a difference, Altair, between what we are told to be true and what we see to be true.” – Al Mualim

Let’s start by talking about the origin of their nickname: “hashishiyya”, the origin of the word “assassin”. Why were they called this way? These derogatory nickname always came from people unrelated to the Nizaris. In other words, the Nizaris did not know themselves by these terms.

I have already pointed out that the first time this term is used is in a letter of the Fatimid caliph-iman al-Āmir dated 1122. From then on, numerous variants of this appellation will appear in the different Muslim and Christian sources: “hashishin”, “hashashin”, “heyssessini”, “assissini”, “assacis”, “axasins”, “hacsasins”, etc. It stands to reason that the Europeans who traveled to the Near East occasionally heard or saw this term around and reflected it in their writings as best they could. An important detail is that chroniclers did not understand its meaning or origin very well, as recognized by William, Archbishop of Tyre, the first historian of the Crusades who wrote about the Ismailis and whose descriptions served as a model for many later European authors. It is also important to note that this term was used in a derogatory sense and that, at first, it was directed specifically at the Syrian Nizaris. Depending on the author, the Nizaris of Persia or, directly, the entire Ismaili community would also be included in the same boat.

Both the morphology of the word and its meaning mutated over time. It is likely that the current meaning was born as a result of the impression made on Europeans by the activities of the fidā’īs, and this is how a new word was introduced into European languages.

The word “assassin” originated from a misinterpretation of an Arabic term used by Nizaris’ rivals to criticize their beliefs from a religious point of view. Ubisoft

Traditionally it has been claimed that “hashishiyya” and its variants alluded to a secret practice of the Nizari fidā’īs consisting of hashish consumption. Surely because of their phonetic and morphological resemblance to the word “hashīsh” and “hashshāsh” (the person who consumes hashish and whose plural is “hashshāshīn”), European authors would end up linking these terms. We will discuss later whether the Nizaris actually consumed this substance or not. Clearly we are faced with a case of misinterpretation, for there are no Arabic texts that use the adjective “hashshāsh” in relation to the Nizaris, the term one would expect them to employ for a hashish consumer. Rather, all of the above terms would be corruptions of the derogatory term “hashishiyya” (and its singular, “hashīshi”), which do appear in Arabic sources. The problem is that original words are not accompanied by any clarification of their meanings, although the contexts in which they appear point to a figurative and reproachful meaning, whose translation could be something like irreligious social outcasts. That is to say, they would have nothing to do with hashish. Expert Farhad Daftary explains:

“In all probability, the name hashishiyya was applied to the Nizaris as a term of abuse and reproach. The Nizaris were already a target for hostility by other Muslims and would easily qualify for every sort of contemptuous judgement on their beliefs and behaviour. In other words, it seems that the name hashishiyya reflected a criticism of the Nizaris rather than an accurate description of their secret practices.”

These words were basically used by Europeans. Arab authors preferred to use other kinds of expressions to refer to the Nizaris or Ismailis, such as “nizāriyya,” ismā’īliyya, or malāhida (heretic).

Hashish: the way to paradise

Altaïr: You think these men were drugged, then? Poisoned?

Al Mualim: Yes, if it truly was as you describe it.

Altaïr: Herbs. This seems a strange method of control.

Al Mualim: Our enemies have accused me of the same.

Altaïr: The promise of paradise…

Undoubtedly, the missions of the fidā’īs and the (often exaggerated) accounts of them greatly shocked and surprised the Europeans, who tried to find an explanation for the great fidelity shown by those young men to their master and their irrational acts. Needless to say, the Nizaris were not the only ones to use the strategy of selective assassination. Christian Crusaders or Seljuk Turks also directed assassination attacks against rival political or religious leaders, especially when power was atomized and divided among various local leaders. Even so, the Nizaris became the assassins par excellence and practically any important assassination that occurred in the Near East during that period was attributed to them, whether or not they were responsible for it.

European chroniclers began to speculate about the type of training to which the Nizari fidā’īs were subjected to obtain the necessary courage to face such assignments. All kinds of sophisticated and harsh training were proposed, such as that described in a letter of 1175 addressed to Emperor Frederick I Barbarossa, considered one of the first references to the legend of the Assassins and where it was assured that the fidā’īs were raised in isolation and taught to obey from infancy. It also spoke of strict training in various disciplines, such as languages, all for the sake of ensuring the infiltration of the daring Assassins into the inner circles of their targets and the successful accomplishment of their missions. Other authors described the training sites. According to Jacob de Vitry, Bishop of Acre, they were “secret and delightful places,” suggesting that the harshness of training was cushioned by certain pleasures.

Hashish is one of the psychotropic drugs obtained from the plant Cannabis sativa and the substance that was supposedly taken by Nizari assassins to lose their fear and face the most dangerous missions. PsicoActiva

We know very little about the system of training and recruitment of the fidā’īs actually. It does seem that, occasionally, fidā’īs disguised themselves (as servants or monks, like the assassins of Conrad I of Jerusalem) to approach their prey without arousing suspicion and to act at the right moment, but nothing is known about the sophisticated training that appears in some chronicles. It is most likely that no special indoctrination was necessary and that a strong solidarity with their community and the feeling of group were the driving forces behind the young Nizaris. Let us remember that, precisely, the targets to be eliminated were usually important authorities that could pose a threat to the Nizaris, so that the sacrifice of the fidā’īs would be a way to prevent the suffering of the rest of the community.

Among all these fables arose one of the legends that most attracted Europeans and was most widely spread, since it gave a simple answer to the irrational behavior of the Nizaris. According to several authors, beginning with the German monk and chronicler Arnold of Lübeck, the young fidā’īs were forced to consume hashish as part of their training. These stories tell that the Syrian Nizari leader, the “Old Man of the Mountain” (another mythical and inaccurate nickname found only in European sources), administered to his disciples an enigmatic potion to keep them under his control, ensure their blind obedience, and motivate them to perform the dangerous assassination missions. A substance about whose formulation nothing was known.

Marco Polo adopted this fable and added new elements of his own, thus giving birth to the legend of the garden of paradise. Moreover, he did not set the story in Syria, but in Persia, helping to spread the legend to the entire Nizari community. According to the Venetian, once drowsy and intoxicated with hashish, the young assassins were led to a beautiful, lush garden located somewhere secret in the Nizari castle. It was an extremely protected place available only to the fidā’īs. It was dotted with sumptuous palaces and exotic fruit trees and at its center was a fountain emanating wine, milk, water, and honey. Gorgeous women delighted the fidā’īs by playing instruments and singing like angels. With all this, the Old Man of the Mountain intended to deceive his disciples with a recreation of the Paradise described in the Qur’ān. In this state, the young assassins believed they were really experiencing the Paradise that awaited them after death because of all the joys and pleasures to which they were subjected. Thus, it was easier for their leader to convince them to embrace death by accepting any task no matter how dangerous, for the reward awaiting them on the afterlife was infinitely better than any earthly pleasure.

Some European authors mentioned the existence of a secret and paradisiacal place where the Old Man of the Mountain took his apprentice assassins to manipulate and deceive them. Wikimedia Commons

Needless to say that no Muslim author refers to these activities or places, neither the Nizaris nor even their enemies, which clearly indicates that it is an invention of European authors. Nor does it make much sense that the formula for the intoxicating potion was a secret, since both the hashish and its effects were already known at that time. Likewise, if there had been a hidden garden in a Nizari castle, it should have been discovered and documented when the Mongols razed and dismantled the fortresses in the area. However, no such place has been found in any of the Persian or Syrian fortresses.

As I have already mentioned, it is more likely that the fidā’īs were willing to sacrifice themselves stimulated by a strong loyalty to their leader and solidarity towards their community, an approach that the medieval European mentality found difficult to understand, hence they turned to hashish and the garden of paradise to explain such extravagant and fanatical behavior in their eyes. On the contrary, the available evidence highlights the sober character of the fidā’īs.

Such was the ignorance on this subject that, on several occasions, the fidelity of the young fidā’īs was greatly exaggerated, attributing to them fanciful practices and behavior bordering on the most absurd fanaticism.

The death-leap

“My men do not fear death, Robert (de Sable)! They welcome it, and the rewards it brings!” – Al Mualim

An iconic element of Assassin’s Creed is the leap of faith, a leap made by assassins from dizzying heights onto a bale of straw either to hide from their enemies and pursuers or as an initiation ritual. Well, this is also based on another legend about the Nizaris. Some continuators of the chronicler William of Tyre claimed that the fidā’īs took their lives by tjumping from high towers as a sign of loyalty to the Old Man of the Mountain.

Such was the loyalty the fidā’īs professed to the Old Man of the Mountain that they were capable of taking their own lives by jumping from great heights to impress their master’s guests. This was another of the numerous exaggerations about the Nizaris [Les Mystères de la Franc-Maçonnerie]. Pierre Méjanel (Wikimedia Commons)

This story seems to have its origin in an alleged meeting between Henry II of Champagne, king of Jerusalem, and the leader of the Syrian Nizaris in 1194. Allegedly, the Nizari leader invited Henry to his abode to offer him a series of entertainments. After a brief tour of his lands, the Old Man of the Mountain took him to his castle to offer him the final show and demonstrate the unparalleled loyalty shown by his soldiers. At the top of the fortress towers several white-clad guards awaited their lord’s orders. At a mere signal, two of the sentries jumped, crashing against the rocks and leaving the European monarch impressed by the unwavering loyalty of the Nizaris. As usual, there is no hard evidence to confirm this story, so the death-leap must continue to be considered a myth.

Fortunately, the growing interest in the Nizaris and Ismailism has given rise to serious academic studies that have partially banished the legends of the Assassins and brought to light the real history of the Nizaris, which is much more interesting and exciting than the fables.

If you want to know the history of the Nizaris in a synthesized form, you can access the first part of this series of posts in the following link:

The Nizaris (Part 1): The Muslim group that inspired Assassin’s Creed


  • Daftary, F. (2005). Ismailis in Medieval Muslim Societies. I.B. Tauris, New York.

  • Daftary, F. (2007). The Ismailis. Their History and Doctrines. Cambridge University Press, New York.

  • Nowell, C.E. (1947). The Old Man of the Mountain. Speculum 22, 497-519.

  • Polo, M. (1298). El libro de las maravillas. Ediciones Generales Anaya, Madrid.

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