Dear Straight Dope:
Recently, one of my friends confidently asserted that the word assassin is derived from the word hashish? He then proceeded to tell me of a legend that he had learned in history of an elite group of medieval pothead assassins. I admit that I had no idea what he was talking about and initially wrote off his hypothesis as idiotic. But recently, I overheard a conversation wherein another person posited the same theory. Please let me know if there is any validity to his statement, and if so then please give me the straight dope.
Your friend is actually on point. The word "assassin" is widely believed to share its etymological roots with hash, although this remains in dispute. As for the "elite group of medieval pothead assassins, " we need to separate myth from fact. Legends about the medieval assassins derive primarily from sensational Sunni Muslim and European writings and are greatly exaggerated. But they contain a core of truth.
Some background: Muslims are divided into two camps, Sunni (the majority) and Shiite, who historically have been bitter rivals, similar to Catholics and Protestants. In the 1090s a large group of Shiite Muslims known as Isma’ilis splintered into two sects, the Musta’lians and the Nizaris. The Musta’lians settled primarily in Cairo while the Nizaris seized several castles and fortifications in Persia, eventually settling in Iran and Syria. Under the leadership of Hasan Sabbah, the Nizaris rapidly developed into an extremely secretive and disciplined religious sect.
Legend has it that the Nizaris functioned primarily as assassins. They wrought havoc throughout Europe and the Middle East and gained notoriety in a number of chronicles, including those of Marco Polo and Joinvelle. Their leader, known simply as the Old Man of the Mountain, recruited followers by administering an "intoxicating potion" to them and transporting them to a "garden of paradise" to enjoy the forbidden delights of women, drugs and food. The primary ingredient of the potion, according to medieval reports, was hashish. The visit to the garden of paradise was brief, and the drugged-out recruits were told they could return only if they did the Old Man of the Mountain’s bidding, including political and religious assassinations. The Old Man’s reputation grew and he soon was heralded as a killer of kings. His followers terrorized Muslims and Europeans alike, demanding tribute from the likes of St. Louis and Saladin. The Nizaris, shrouded in secrecy, were soon connected to tales of incest, drugs, and suicide.
Research by historians such as Bernard Lewis, however, has cast doubt on this lurid picture. In Lewis’s view, the Nizaris were primarily a disciplined and secretive group of Shiite Muslims fighting for survival. They were responsible for contributions in architecture, philosophy, science, and theology. While they did attack their enemies, they didn’t engage in random slaughter. Assassinations were carried out by an elite group of Nizaris known as Fida’is, whom Lewis describes as "the first terrorists." They primarily targeted Sunni princes and religious dignitaries–fewer than eight attempts on Europeans were recorded. The bizarre stories that became so closely connected with the group sprouted from the medieval Muslim majority’s attempt to condemn the Nizaris as immoral and heretical and were crystallized in the later writings of the Crusaders.
Inaccuracies did not hinder the dissemination of the Nizari legend and medieval chroniclers eventually opted to use the Arabic term hashishiyya (user of hash) over a myriad of other colorful terms to designate the Nizaris. The word became inseparable from the stories of murder, treachery, and excess and is thought to have evolved into the modern word assassin, although this etymology is not universally accepted. In any case, there is no basis for the belief that Nizari assassins did their business while hopped up on drugs. Still, leaving out the pothead part, were the Fida’is an "elite group of medieval assassins"? The answer appears to be yes.
The political power of the Nizaris in Syria and Persia (modern Iran) was destroyed in the 13th century. In the 19th century the Nizaris were reorganized under the Aga Khan, the group’s religious leader, and moved to India, where Nizari missionaries had organized several communities centuries earlier. The group thrived and India remains a stronghold of the Nizaris today, with offshoots elsewhere in the world. Successor Aga Khans have continued to lead the group. Westernized and wealthy, the current Aga Khan is a member of the international jet set.
For further reading: Bernard Lewis wrote the most significant modern work on the Nizari, The Assassins: A Radical Sect in Islam (1968). A more recent book, The Assassin Legends: Myths of the Isma’ilis by F. Daftary (1994), has been written off by some critics as a pro-Muslim rehashing of Lewis’ arguments. See www.humnet.ucla.edu/humnet/cmrs/publications/comitatus/26/26babak.htm for a review of Daftary’s book and more detail about the Nizaris.
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