The medieval tales known as Legends of the Assassins were fabricated stories about the Nizari Ismailis of Persia and Syria. In early history, Muslim communities, unaware of the sub-divisions within the Ismailis, categorised them as one, which had serious long-term implications. In particular the Qarmatis, who split off from the Ismailis in 899 CE, went on to commit violent acts which were attributed to the Ismailis, in addition to the theft of the black stone from the Kaba. Sunnis created the ‘Black Legend,’ a tale stating that the Ismaili Imam did not truly descend from Imam Ali, but rather that Ismailism was a conspiracy to destroy Islam from within. In addition, scholars such as al-Ghazali (d. 1111 CE) were commissioned to denounce the Ismailis. Although the Ismailis produced their own treatises discussing their distinction from the Qarmatis and proving the Black Legend as fictitious, the sensational appeal of the Abbasid accounts and the loss of Fatimid Ismaili texts in 1171 CE allowed for the wide circulation of these controversial tales. The anti-Ismaili polemicists contributed significantly to shaping the hostility of Muslim society at large towards the Ismailis.
The situation worsened after 1094 CE with the Nizar-Mustali schism, which led to the appearance of Nizari Ismailis in remote mountain regions of Syria and Iran. To protect themselves from constant attacks, the Nizaris acquired or constructed fortresses, and trained members of the community to defend them. Since they were struggling for survival, responding to the polemics was not their priority.
(More on the Nizari Ismaili State of Alamut).
Furthermore, the Mongols, who arrived in Persia in an environment hostile to the Ismailis, adopted the biases of the Muslim majorities. “In 1256 CE, the Mongols massacred the Ismaili community of the Alamut period, damaged their forts, burnt their [renowned] library and with it destroyed all evidence countering Ismaili polemics. Thereafter, fearing for their safety, the Ismailis adopted taqiyya (precautionary dissimulation of one’s true religious belief in the face of danger). With the exception of the Fatimid period [909-1171], when Ismaili doctrines were preached openly in the Fatimid dominions, Ismailism developed in utmost secrecy until the 19th century” (Guide p 4).
While the Ismaili minority were subject to slander at the hands of the Muslim majorities, the Christian West began their verbal and physical crusade against Islam. The West was also unfamiliar with the various interpretations of Islam. William of Tyre [1130-1186] and other chroniclers of the Crusaders were only interested in garnering support from those at home in the Christian West, thereby continuing to spread, and even exaggerate, these stories, despite having learned to be false through their economic and social interactions with the Ismailis including Rashid al-Din Sinan.”
(More on Sinan)
Not only had the Muslim majorities created a heretical identity for the Ismailis, but the Christian West had begun to compose their own polemical works identifying the Ismailis as an exclusive community of trained assassins. In the mid-13th century, these anti-Ismaili perspectives merged to formulate the infamous Assassin Legends (Reading Guide, IIS p 5).
The occidental chroniclers soon learned that the assassins of Syria had counterparts in Persia. However, this was the extent of their accurate information. The Westerners adopted the fabricated tales of the Muslim majority. In several of their treatises the Sunni authors utilised the term “Hashishiyya” in reference to the Ismailis to denote their low social and moral status (Ibid). These Sunni works “were not accusing the Ismailis of taking drugs; unfortunately, however, Western readers used the term literally. For the West, obedience to the Old Man was unheard of and required an explanation. Whereas Muslim communities understood martyrology, Western observers were new to the notion and found their answer in the label. Dr Daftary points out that since the fida’is had to execute their tasks discreetly and with precision, their use of hashish – a mind altering substance – would have been counter-productive” (Ibid). However, these stories of their drug use spread quickly in the West.
With the Ismailis adopting a policy of taqiyya for several centuries after the Mongol attacks, the direct contact between Europeans and Ismailis halted. Rather than ending the tales, travellers such as Marco Polo (1254-1324) added further sensation, giving them a new life; Marco Polo had never encountered the Old Man of the mountain. The Ismailis, continuing in taqiyya, could not defend themselves as these legends developed unchecked.
Similar legends have not been found in any of the mediaeval Islamic sources, including contemporary histories of Syria. Educated Muslims, including their historians, did not fantasise about the secret practices of the Nizaris, even though they were hostile towards them. The findings of modern scholarship has aided in distinguishing legend from reality especially in connection with the Nizaris of the Alamut period who were the objects of the seminal Assassin legends (Daftary).
Sir Sultan Muhammad Shah Aga Khan III’s meeting with a Turkish dignitary
These tales impacted the Turkish official Sultan Abdul Hamid who met Sir Sultan Muhammad Shah Aga Khan III in 1898 in Constantinople (modern-day Istanbul). In his Memoirs, Aga Khan III says:
“The Sultan was also Caliph and, therefore, recognized head of the whole Sunni branch of the Islamic world, and I was head of the Ismaili section of the Shias, The grounds for speculation were obvious… When I was ushered into his room, the doors were immediately locked, and the sultan and I were alone except for an interpreter. I do not speak Turkish and Abdul Hamid, though I believe he could read both Arabic and Persian, refused to speak either of the languages… The Sultan sat huddled in an enormous greatcoat, with Field-Marshal’s epaulettes heavy on its shoulders. Slowly I realized that this bulky and cumbrous garment was armoured, and about as bullet proof as was possible in those days. Did he think (I wondered) that I had come there to murder him? (p 67).
It is interesting and not without irony to realize that the word “assassin,” which has its special contemporary meaning, was first applied many centuries ago to my ancestors and their Ismaili followers. From time immemorial, small and oppressed minorities have had to be given a bad name – after all, you cannot kill a dog unless you give it a bad name – and in the Middle Ages the Ismailis were such a minority, fighting for their lives and their rights. Their oppressors had to give them a bad name; they associated the Ismailis with the manufacture and use of the drug hashish, and it was alleged that they were addicts. The bad name, thus invented, stuck” (Ibid. p 67, footnote 1).
These tales hindered the publication of Ivanow’s Ismaili works commissioned by Aga Khan III:
In 1931, Sir Sultan Muhammad Shah Aga Khan III employed the Russian scholar Wladimir Ivanow (1886-1970) in India, to conduct research on Ismaili studies. Ivanow proposed a publication of his research material to the Bombay Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society, and describes the resulting discourse in his memoirs Fifty Years in the East:
“One of the members of the Council, a retired Hindu official, had assured his colleagues that the proposal should be turned down because if they published the books, the Aga Khan might send his ‘assassins’ to murder them all. This evoked protests and a learned Parsi said although such a things was certainly quite improbable, he advised that the proposal and the grant money for it should be rejected because publication of such books might provoke street riots. All this now seems ridiculous, but it demonstrated what even the most educated people were then capable of believing” (p 91-92).
Dafary states “the legends, rooted in some popular misinformation were transmitted rather widely due to their sensational appeal by the Crusaders and other western observers of the Nizaris; and they do, essentially, represent the ‘imaginative constructions’ of these uninformed observers (Introduction to The Assassin Legends, IIS).
Farhad Daftary, Introduction to The Assassin Legends, The Institute of Ismaili Studies
Farhad Daftary, Assassin Legends: Myths of the Ismailis, Reading Guide, The Institute of Ismaili Studies
The Memoirs of Aga Khan, World Enough and Time, Cassell and Company Ltd., London, 1954
Fifty Years in the East, The Memoirs of Wladimir Ivanow, Ed. by Farhad Daftary, I.B. Tauris, London, 2015
Contributed to Ismailimail by Nimira Dewji. Nimira is an invited writer although she has contributed several articles in the past (previous articles). She also has her own blog – Nimirasblog – where she writes short articles on Ismaili history and Muslim civilisations. When not researching and writing, Nimira volunteers at a shelter for those experiencing homelessness, and at a women’s shelter. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.