The contemporary term ‘‘assassin,’’ referring to someone
murdering a political or religious leader, derives from the use
of the term to describe a mystical Islamic sect that arose in the
twelfth century following the destruction of the Fatimid dynasty
in Egypt. Following the emergence of Islam, it had split into
factions due to differences over the leadership of the community.
One group saw the leadership passing to the descendents of
Muhammad. Today these Muslims are known as Shi’ites and
constitute about 20 percent of Islam. They are concentrated in
Iran and Iraq, but there are large Shia minorities in Afghanistan
and Pakistan.
For several centuries after Muhammad’s death, the Shia
community was headed by an Imam. The 12th such leader, Muhammad
ibn al-’Askari, took office in 873 C.E., after his father
died. He was only four years of age. Within days he disappeared,
never to be seen again. As he had no brothers, the lineage
ceased to exist. The Shia community was in crisis. Refusing
to believe that they had been left leaderless, the community
came to believe that the 12th Imam was still alive and that at
some point in the future would reappear as the chosen one
mentioned in the Quran, as the Madhi. Because of their belief
in the 12th, Shia Muslims are often referred to as Twelvers. In
the meantime, leadership passed to a council of leaders, the
In the century before the crisis of the 12th Imam, Isma’il,
the eldest son of the sixth Imam, died before his father. While
most Shias supported the younger son as the new Imam, a minority
refused to recognize him and declared the lineage extinct
with the passing of Isma’il in 762. They became known as
Ismailis, or Seveners, as Isma’il would have been the seventh
The Ismailis developed an esoteric doctrine built around
the number seven. Allah (God), for example, was seen as the
seventh dimension who held the other six in balance. The
world would last for seven millennia. More importantly, they
took one of Isma’il’s descendents as their new Imam, suggesting
that a new line of seven Imams was beginning. Their belief
was finally put together in a book, Rasa’il ikhwan al-safa (Epistles
of the Brethren of Purity). As a minority, in order to survive,
the Ismailis created a secret underground culture, and would
pose as Christians and Jews in some countries. The Imam remained
in seclusion. Only in the tenth century were they able
to rise up and establish a homeland in Egypt. Their rulers were
known as the Fatimids, after Fatima the daughter of Muhammad.
The Fatimids, who turned Cairo into a major city and created
their famous university, ruled until 1173, when they were
driven out by Sunni Muslims (the majority party in the world
of Islam).
In the wake of the fall of the Fatimid dynasty, two parties
arose, each attempting to regain the throne. The first supported
the Fatimid prince, al-Tayyib. The other supported alTayyib’s
brother Nizir. Unable to regain the throne, the Niziriyah
moved their headquarters to Syria and resumed the underground
existence that had been standard in the Ismaili
community prior to the dynasty in Egypt. In expectation of the
imminent arrival of the Madhi, they also introduced the doctrine
of repudiation of the law which the Madhi would restore.
The effect of this doctrine was to introduce alcohol, and more
significantly, hashish use into the community. The word ‘‘assassin’’
means, literally, hashish user.
The Niziriyah again moved their headquarters, to the Alamut
Valley in northern Persia, and here built a mountain fortress.
The men who resided in the fortress smoked hashish and
learned the fine art of killing. They were masters of the sword
and proficient with poisons. They became the terror of Muslim
lands for the next two centuries. Alamat was designed as an
earthly representation of Paradise and those sent out on killing
missions were assured that if they died during their mission
they would go straight to the heavenly Paradise. Alamut was fiAssagioli,
Roberto Encyclopedia of Occultism & Parapsychology • 5th Ed.
nally captured in 1256, but assassin fortresses in Syria survived
until the sixteenth century. The assassins gradually dropped
their distinctive ways, including murder and hashish, reconciled
with the other Ismaili factions, and continue to the present
under their present Imam, still a descendent of Nizir, the
Aga Khan.
What Is Islam A Comprehensive Introduction. London Virgin,