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“THE ASSASSINS: A Radical Sect in Islam”

by Bernard Lewis


The word "assassin" was brought back from Syria by the Crusaders, and in time acquired the meaning of murderer. Originally it was applied to the members of a Muslim religious sect. Their beliefs and their methods made them a by-word for both fanaticism and terrorism in Syria and Persia in the 11th and 12th centuries, and the subject of a luxuriant growth of myth and legend.  

Book Description

The Assassins is the most comprehensive, readable, and authoritative account of history's first terrorists. A fanatical sect of Islam, first mentioned in accounts of the Crusades, the Assassins were the first group to make planned, systematic use of murder as a political weapon. According to Medieval historians, and to such famous travelers as Marco Polo, the Assassins lived in the Levant Mountains and were ruled by a mysterious "Old Man of the Mountain" who housed his followers in a paradisical castle and sent them on murderous expeditions to visit rival princes and later imams.

One of "the hazards of the East," this group struck fear in the hearts of Crusaders and mainstream Muslims in and around Phoenicia, where tales abounded of princes felled in the night by Assassin daggers and of the Old Man's secret powers over his followers. (The name "assassin" comes from the Arabic "hashish," the narcotic effects of which were already known to Medieval Muslims.) According to Brocardus, a 14th-century German priest, "The Assassins...sell themselves, are thirsty for human blood, kill the innocent for a price, and care nothing for either life or salvation. Like the devil, they transfigure themselves into angels of light, by imitating the gestures, garments, languages, customs and acts of various nations and peoples; thus, hidden in sheep's clothing, they suffer death as soon as they are recognized."

In The Assassins, Bernard Lewis traces the history of this radical Islamic sect from the 13th century to the modern day. He studies the teachings of both the Assassins and their parent sect, the Ismailis, the spread of their ideas, and their continued influence on Muslim thought. He also traces the etymology of the word "assassin," which today is a common noun meaning one who kills by stealth or treachery, whose victim is a public figure, and whose motive is fanaticism or greed. Particularly insightful in light of the recent rise of Muslim fundamentalism, this readable, factual account of the group that lent its name to politically motivated murder places recent events in historical perspective and sheds new light on the fanatic mind.


5 out of 5 starsExcellent and Timely History, June 4, 2003

Reviewer: Michael G. Stathis from Cedar City, utah USA

Bernard Lewis remains one of the most respected Middle Eastern historians and is a name more Americans should be familiar with. "The Assassins" was originally published in 1967. This edition has been updated slightly but most of the text is unchanged. The work represents some of the best scholarly efforts of Professor Lewis, especially his work with original historical sources. Some readers may be disappointed with this book however, in that they may be looking for conncections with modern Islamic terrorism. Those connections are elusive. This is a history of sectarian divisions within Islam, particulary certain Ismaili sects of Shi'i Islam. Foremost among those divisions was a sect known generally as the Assassins (do not look for a direct connection between this fascinating religious sect and modern events...there is none). The Assassins began with the sinister Hasn i-Sabbah, and practiced religious and political murder often with the use of certain drugs (hashish for one which may have produced the Persian reference to this group). Oddly enough, most of the targets of the various orders of the Assassins were Sunni Muslims. Christians, such as the Crusaders, were only rarely singled out for their particular arts. As Lewis tells us the Ismailis were generally radical and the Assassins perphaps the most radical sect in Islam. This is a very readible volume, at a very affordable price. Although a scholarly work "The Assassins" is easily accessable to the general reader with an interest in the Middle East. As an undergraduate in college, this writer nearly wore out the single volume in the university library and is very happy to have a new edition in the bookshelf. --This text refers to the Paperback edition; by Amazon.

The First Islamic Terrorists, November 28, 2002

Reviewer: jeffergray (see more about me) from Reisterstown, MD United States

It's probably a fair guess that sales of Bernard Lewis's "The Assassins" were a lot slower before 9/11 than they are today. Many who purchased this book over the past year probably did so hoping that it would help provide some insight into Osama bin Laden and the terrorist network he heads. This book doesn't really do that, although that's no reflection on what Lewis has actually accomplished here. He wrote "The Assassins" more than a third of a century ago, and there are very significant differences between the Nizari Ismaili Order and the hate-filled fanatics of Al-Qaeda. But although this book won't help you understand what makes Osama bin Laden and his acolytes tick, it will introduce you to an important and little-known chunk of medieval Islamic history in which a lot of intriguing historical personalities play starring or supporting roles. This should be more than reward enough.

The group we call the Assassins are more accurately known as the Nizari Ismailis, an offshoot sect of Shi'i Islam. Their sect still survives today in the followers of the Aga Khan, whose communities from India to southern California reflect a progressive and humane face of Islam. From the late eleventh to thirteenth centuries, however, the Nizaris' struggle for survival in the midst of their more numerous and militarily powerful Sunni enemies led them to develop a form of defensive terrorism that proved remarkably effective in ensuring their security for almost two hundred years. In the end, however, the sect's lurid reputation proved its undoing -- for the Mongol khans ultimately concluded that their own safety could only be secured by the Assassins' extermination.

There are some similarities between the Assassins' modus operandi and that of today's Al-Qaeda terrorists. In each case, terrorists assigned to carry out missions for the group did not concern themselves with escape and expected to die whether their mission succeeded or not - a fact that added greatly to the apprehension of their enemies and their own mystique. Each group treated acts of terrorist violence as having a sacramental component - the Assassins always killed their victims up close and personal, choosing to use knives rather than poison or arrows, much as Mohammed Atta and his confederates observed certain rituals of personal hygiene and dress before carrying out their terrorist acts. The young men selected to carry out the actual terrorist operations in each case believed that their sacrifice for the sake of the cause would open the gates of paradise. And each group answered to the commands of s single leader, who styled himself as both a religious teacher and a political and military strategist.

But there the similarities end. Indeed, after reading Lewis's account, the most striking thing about the medieval Assassins is how much more civilized they seem to have been than the terrorists of Al-Qaeda. Their use of political assassination as a weapon was both highly focused and thoroughly pragmatic. Because they lacked the military strength to defeat their powerful enemies (primarily the Great Seljuks) in open combat, it made sense instead to strike at their opponents' command structure. Mass slaughter of faraway civilians for its own sake would have been incomprehensible to them. The Nizaris could plausibly have viewed their use of political assassination as both just and humane. They had legitimate grievances, for their community frequently suffered pogroms at the hands of their Sunni enemies that echoed the atrocities inflicted on the Jews of western Europe during this same period. By striking directly at the political, religious or military figures who had attacked their own communities, the Assassins could punish a current enemy, deter Sunni political and religious leaders from future attacks, and win the security they sought without the necessity of killing masses of their enemy's rank-and-file soldiery or risking the lives of more than a handful of their own members.

As Lewis points out, the Assassins were also masters of psychological warfare. They sometimes planted "sleeper" agents in the households of prospective enemies just in the event they might ultimately be needed. These agents did not always have to actually strike in order to achieve deterrence - a knife or a note left by an enemy's bedside while he was sleeping served to emphasize his vulnerability and was often sufficient to achieve the Assassins' political ends. (Sometimes, in fact, the Assassins did not even need to plant sleeper agents to accomplish their objectives - they might simply bribe an otherwise loyal member of their enemy's household to leave the note or the knife, thereby accomplishing the same effect without the need of even committing one of their own personnel.)

Lewis tackles and persuasively debunks most of the popular legends about the Assassins, such as the claim that their Grand Master secured the fanatical loyalty of his young followers by drugging them with narcotics and then conveying them for short periods to an artificial "paradise" of his own creation that was staffed by sensuous and accommodating young women. Lewis instead finds that a more straightforward (and plausible) explanation for the willingness of the Assassins' fida'is to offer themselves up for suicidal missions: religious passion and commitment to the Nizari community.

Lewis's short (140 pages) and elegant account will thus introduce you to an intriguing period of medieval Islamic history, one populated by a collection of memorable figures - the brilliant and ascetic Assassin leader Hassan i-Sabah, the real founder of the Order; the "Old Man of the Mountain," Sinan, who commanded the Order's Syrian branch during the most critical years of the Crusades; Saladin, who was at different times both a target and an ally of the Assassins; Hulegu, the grandson of Genghis Khan, who finally succeeded where the Seljuks had failed, rooting out the Order from its mountaintop fortresses and then ordering mass exterminations of its communicants; and last but not least, Marco Polo, to whose vivid tales can be ascribed much of the lingering fascination that continues to surround the Assassins. --This text refers to the Paperback edition; by Amazon.


-BERNARD LEWIS,  “ASSASSINS : A Radical Sect in Islam”, PHOENIX yayınları  2/2003, Isbn: 184212451X

-CORCI ZEYDAN, “SELAHADDİN EYYÜBİ VE HAŞHAŞİLER”, MİLENYUM yayınları  6/2002, Isbn: 9758455230  

Isbn: 975707609.

-AMIN MAALOUF, “SEMERKANT”, Çev:ESİN TALU ÇELİKKAN, YAPI KREDİ yayınları  11/1993, Isbn: 9753632231