The word ‘assassin’ comes from the nickname for a sect of fanatical 13th century professional killers, based on their supposedly heavy use of hashish. The story goes like this…
Birth of the Nizaris
Back around 1200A.D., like today, the Middle East was a dangerous place. At that time, the problems revolved around conflicts between three major powers:
- A ‘Fatimid’ Caliphate (Ismaili Shiite, centered in Cairo)
- A ‘Seljuk’ Empire (Sunni, centered in Baghdad)
- Crusader States (Christian, centered in Jerusalem)
Then, out of this turmoil, there emerged a small but (at the time) very violent new sect, calling themselves the ‘Nizaris’—a group that was simultaneously opposed to all three empires.
How does one little sect fight three big powers? You can’t do it in open battle, of course. So instead, the Nizaris decided to focus on a niche: terrifying and intimidating their opponents through targeted political killings.
Basing themselves in a series of impregnable fortresses in Iran and Syria, the group developed squadrons of professional killers, and sent them out on secret missions to ‘deep-six’ such high-profile victims as:
- The King of Jerusalem
- The Count of Tripoli
- The Crown Prince of Tripoli
- A Grand Vizier
- At least two Caliphs
And hundreds, possibly thousands, more. Every killing was done with a special dagger. Every mission was a suicide mission. And in this way the Nizaris developed an outstanding reputation as world-class professional killers: able to take out anyone, anywhere, anytime. Scary dudes.
Oddly, given their amazing discipline and martial skill, the 13th century Nizaris got another reputation, too: as heavy users of hashish. There are at least two competing stories about why:
- Some sources say the killers would always get high before going on a mission—something not unheard of, of course, in modern warfare, or modern suicide missions, either.
- Other sources say that the Nizaris used drugs as part of their initiation rituals, triggering hallucinations of paradise in the minds of the trainees; having glimpsed paradise, the story goes, the soldiers were eager and willing to die on a mission.
The stories may not even have been true, but they became wide-spread, and ‘hashish-users’ became a common nickname for the group—so that, after a political killing people would say ‘Oh, those hashish-users have struck again!’
Assassin is simply an adaptation from this usage of the Arabic word for ‘hashish-users’. In the Islamic world it was never more than a nickname for the Ismaili Nizaris (if that); but in Europe, via Latin, ‘Assassins’ became a standard medieval name for the whole group, and you will see areas marked ‘Land of the Assassins’ on many medieval maps. We then generalized the word, to the modern sense of ‘assassin’ as anyone who carries out targeted political killings.
The Ismaili Nizari religious group still exists, but you have no reason to fear them today: the group long ago mellowed out, ‘closed the veil’ on their program of targeted killing, and converted to a more mainstream branch of Islam. Whew!
The modern leader of the group—a jet-setting millionaire with the title of Aga Khan—is actually devoted to social welfare, and runs all kinds of awesome programs. You probably still shouldn’t mess with the guy, though.
- Esposito, John L. The Oxford History of Islam. New York, NY: Oxford UP, 1999. Print.
- Haag, Michael. The Templars: the History and the Myth. New York And London: Harper, 2009. Print.
- “Oxford Dictionary of English.”, Second Edition, Revised, Soanes, Catherine and Angus Stevenson eds.
- “Oxford English Dictionary.”, Oxford University Press
- Online Etymology Dictionary
- Wintle, Justin. The Rough Guide History of Islam. London: Rough Guides, 2003. Print.
Audio is by Ms. Wafa Al-Ali, thanks so much. All media for this post is original to DexterousTongue.com.