Assassin: The word and its root

Culture Nilanjan Hajra
Flashback
Assassin at starry night
Photo : Dreamstime

People, even with a rudimentary knowledge of English, know the meaning of the word assassin. It means, according to Oxford dictionary, “a person who murders an important person for political or religious reasons.” However, most people are unaware of the word’s origin. The same Oxford dictionary states that the root of the word is ‘Arabic hasisi, hashish eater’. And herein comes the second meaning of the word assassin: “A member of the Nizari branch of Ismaili Muslims at the time of the Crusades”.

History

The Encyclopedia of Islam and the Muslim World states, “Assassins was a name originally applied by the Crusaders and other medieval Europeans, starting in the twelfth century, to the Nizari Ismailis of Syria.” Nizaris, led by Hasan Sabbah (died 1124), founded a state in northern Iran. It also had a subsidiary in Syria. Mongols destroyed the Nizari state in 1256. In Syria the Nirari state reached the height of its glory during the rule of Rashid al-Din Sinan (died 1193).

The Nizaris and the Christian Crusaders were engaged in a series of battles since the beginning of the 12th century. However, during the reign of Sinan (1163 – 1193) highly exaggerated rumours of Nizari devotees carrying out suicide missions against enemies of their community impressed the Crusaders. Through such rumours any member of the Nizari Ismaili Muslim community came to be called in Europe an ‘assassin’. Evidently, Europeans derived the word from the Arabic term hashihi, in plural hashishiya or hashishin.

Connection with the custom of taking Hashish

Early scholars had often claimed that a Nizari assassin would take hashish, before carrying out the murder. However, there is much controversy over such beliefs of the Europeans. Indeed, evidences suggest there was no connection between the two. While Europeans did derive at the term assassin from its Arabic root hashishin, the Arabic word actually had noting to do with taking of hashish. Reality is, some other Islamic groups applied the term hashishin to Nizari Ismailis simply to mean ‘enemies’ or “disreputable people”. This particular meaning of the term survived in Egypt till as late as the 1930s. The Egyptians used the term to mean ‘noisy or riotous’ people.

Since the use of hashish disoriented the mind, the use of the substance is outlawed in Islam. It is not difficult to surmise therefore why opponents of the Nizari Ismailis used the term in a pejorative sense against them.

Hashishin to Assasin 

The reality is that the Crusaders were generally ignorant of various divisions within the Islamic community. Naturally they had no clear idea about their various practices. Under such circumstances, rumours gave birth to legends, Europeans took them at face value and widely circulated them. The assassin nomenclature, including the use of hashish part, was born out of such legends. Marco Polo particularly popularized the legend, applying it to the Iranian Naziris. He even created a so called ‘secret garden of paradise’, states the Encyclopedia of Islam, where every assassin was indoctrinated.

Westerns retained the name Assassin to generally refer to the Naziri Ismailis. And over the ages the word assassin became a common noun to mean a professional murderer irrespective of her or his religion.