Hashashin versus Crusader Knight

The Assassins were a secretive Islamic sect of ascetic religious fanatics that carried out political murder and were active in Iran and Syria from the 11th to the 13th century. They came into being at the end of the 11th century and lasted for about a 150 years until their impregnable cliffside castle in Persia was breached by the Mongols. Some regard them as being the first terrorists and sowing the seeds of terrorist thought and tactics in the Islamic world. They called themselves “fidayeen” (“martyrs”), which is what many suicide bombers today call themselves. [Source: Pico Iyer, Smithsonian magazine, October 1986]

The Assassins (more properly known as the Hashshashin) belonged to a mystical Sufi Muslim sect and smoked hashish. They were best known for their dramatic executions of Abbasid and Seljuk political figures. So well known were the Assassins that maps during The Crusades marked the Syrian coast as the "Country of the Assassins." The English word “assassin” was derived from "hashishin," which means "taker of hashish."

Marco Polo described the Assassins as men who were drugged with hashish wine and then taken to a lush valley where all of their sexual desires were fulfilled to gain their loyalty. From then on the leader of the sect, the story goes, could order these men to carry out any command, even brutally killing themselves. Leaders of kingdoms in the Middle East hired members of the sect for great sums of money to carry out assassinations.◂

Founding of the Assassins

The assassins were founded and first led by Hasan-i Sabbah, who became an avid follower of Ismailism (a Shiite sect now ruled by the Aga Khan) after he nearly died from a wasting disease when he was 17. After being thrown in jail on several occasions for his radical beliefs he wandered the desert and attracted a group of followers, made up primarily of other outcasts, that grew into the assassins.

Afghan hashish

Hasan-i Sabbah was known as the Old Man of the Mountains. He and his followers converted the occupants of a fortress near the Caspian Sea called Alamut to their belief. The fortress was located at the end of a nearly vertical path near the top of a 2000-meter-high ridge in the Elburz Mountains in present-day Iran. Hasan is said to have spent most of his 33 years in the fortress meditating and reading about theology, astronomy and magic. It is said he only left his tiny hut twice, both times to visit the roof. The Crusader historian Jacques de Vitry (in Bongars, I, 1062) shows knowledge that the headquarters of the sect was in Persia.

Sire de Joinville (1225-1317) wrote in "Le Vieil de la Montaingne ne creoit pas en Mahommet, aincois creoit en la Loi de Haali, qui fu Oncle Mahommet": “About A.D. 1090 a branch of the Ismaili stock was established by Hassan, son of Sabah, in the mountainous districts of Northern Persia; and, before their suppression by the Mongols, 170 years later, the power of the quasi-spiritual dynasty which Hassan founded had spread over the Eastern Kohistan, at least as far as Kain. Their headquarters were at Alamut ("Eagle's Nest"), about 32 miles north-east of Kazwin, and all over the territory which they held they established fortresses of great strength. De Sacy seems to have proved that they were called Hashishiya or Hashishin, from their use of the preparation of hemp called Hashish; and thence, through their system of murder and terrorism, came the modern application of the word Assassin. The original aim of this system was perhaps that of a kind of Vehmgericht, to punish or terrify orthodox persecutors who were too strong to be faced with the sword. I have adopted in the text one of the readings of the G. Text Asciscin, as expressing the original word with the greatest accuracy that Italian spelling admits. In another author we find it as Chazisii (see Bollandists, May, vol. ii. p. xi.); Joinville calls them Assacis; whilst Nangis and others corrupt the name into Harsacidae, and what not.

History of Assassins

Philip K. Hitti wrote in “The Book of Grass: An Anthology on Indian Hemp:” “The Assassin movement, called the "new propaganda" by its members, was inaugurated by al-Hasan ibn-al-Sabbah (died in 1124), probably a Persian from Tus, who claimed descent from the Himyarite kings of South Arabia. The motives were evidently personal ambition and desire for vengeance on the part of the heresiarch. As a young man in al-Rayy, al-Hassan received instruction in the Batinite system, and after spending a year and a half in Egypt returned to his native land as a Fatimid missionary. [Source: Philip K. Hitti, “The Book of Grass: An Anthology on Indian Hemp,” edited by George Andrews and Simon Vinkenoog]

Hasan i Sabbah, founder of the Assassins

Here in 1090 he gained possession of the strong mountain fortress Alamut, north-west of Qazwin. Strategically situated on an extension of the Alburz chain, 10200 feet above sea level, and on the difficult by shortest road between the shores of the Caspian and the Persian highlands, this "eagle's nest," as the name probably means, gave ibn-al-Sabbah and his successors a central stronghold of primary importance. Its possession was the first historical fact in the life of the new order.

“From Alamut the grand master with his disciples made surprise raids in various directions which netted other fortresses. In pursuit of their ends they made free and treacherous use of th dagger, reducing assassination to an art. Their secret organization, based on Ismailite antecedents, developed an agnosticism which aimed to emancipate the initiate from the trammels of doctrine, enlightened him as to the superfluity of prophets and encouraged him to believe nothing and dare all. Below the grand master stood the grand priors, each in charge of a particular district. After these came the ordinary propagandists. The lowest degree of the order comprised the "fida'is", who stood ready to execute whatever orders the grand master issued.

“As early as the last years of the eleventh century the Assassins had succeeded in setting firm foot in Syria and winning as convert the Saljug prince of Aleppo, Ridwan ibn-Tutush (died in 1113). By 1140 they had captured the hill fortress of Masyad and many others in northern Syria, including al-Kahf, al-Qadmus and al-'Ullayqah. Even Shayzar (modern Sayjar) on the Orontes was temporarily occupied by the Assassins, whom Usamah calls Isma'ilites. One of their most famous masters in Syria was Rachid-al-Din Sinan (died in 1192), who resided at Masyad and bore the title shakkh al-jabal', translated by The Crusades' chroniclers as "the old man of the mountain". It was Rashid's henchmen who struck awe and terror into the hearts of the Crusaders.

Marco Polo on the Assassins

location of Alamut Castle in Iran

Marco Polo provides us with a description of the garden surrounding the pavilions and palaces built by the grand master at Alamut and then gives a secondhad account of the method by which the master is said to have hypnotized his "self-sacrificing ones" with hashish. Polo passed near the Assassin area in 1271 or 1272. He wrote in “Concerning the Old Man of the Mountain” (Travels of Marco Polo, Book 1, Chapter 23): “Mulehet is a country in which the Old Man of the Mountain dwelt in former days; and the name means "Place of the Aram." I will tell you his whole history as related by Messer Marco Polo, who heard it from several natives of that region. [Source: “The Book of Ser Marco Polo, the Venetian”, translated by Henry Yule, London, 1875]

“The Old Man was called in their language ALOADIN. He had caused a certain valley between two mountains to be enclosed, and had turned it into a garden, the largest and most beautiful that ever was seen, filled with every variety of fruit. In it were erected pavilions and palaces the most elegant that can be imagined, all covered with gilding and exquisite painting. And there were runnels too, flowing freely with wine and milk and honey and water; and numbers of ladies and of the most beautiful damsels in the world, who could play on all manner of instruments, and sung most sweetly, and danced in a manner that it was charming to behold. For the Old Man desired to make his people believe that this was actually Paradise. So he had fashioned it after the description that Mahommet gave of his Paradise, to wit, that it should be a beautiful garden running with conduits of wine and milk and honey and water, and full of lovely women for the delectation of all its inmates. And sure enough the Saracens of those parts believed that it was Paradise!

On Marco Polo’s account,Sire de Joinville wrote in "Le Vieil de la Montaingne ne creoit pas en Mahommet, aincois creoit en la Loi de Haali, qui fu Oncle Mahommet": This is a crude statement, no doubt, but it has a germ of truth. Adherents of the family of 'Ali as the true successors of the Prophet existed from the tragical day of the death of Husain, and among these, probably owing to the secrecy with which they were compelled to hold their allegiance, there was always a tendency to all manner of strange and mystical doctrines; as in one direction to the glorification of 'Ali as a kind of incarnation of the Divinity, a character in which his lineal representatives were held in some manner to partake; in another direction to the development of Pantheism, and release from all positive creed and precepts. Of these Aliites, eventually called Shiahs, a chief sect, and parent of many heretical branches, were the Ismailites, who took their name, from the seventh Imam, whose return to earth they professed to expect at the end of the World.”

Assassin Hashish Training

Alamut region of Iran

New recruits to the Assassin sect, it was said, were taken into the sect’s luxurious gardens and given large amounts of hashish and were told that their euphoria was just a hint of the pleasures that waited them in heaven if they became martyrs while fulfilling their missions. Sect members also reportedly took hashish to give them courage to carry out their dangerous missions.

Young followers who aimed to become assassins were trained in the use of daggers and swords, and forbidden to drink alcohol or play the flute with the penalty for transgressors being a death sentence. Two of Hasan's own sons broke the rules and were executed as an example.

Many of the stories about the Assassins and the hashish taking appear to have been made up by their rivals to make them look bad or weirder than they really were. Since the Assassins own books and records were destroyed, our information about the group is derived mainly from hostile sources.

According to a Chinese account as rendered by Remusat: "The soldiers of this country (Mulahi) are veritable brigands. When they see a lusty youth, they tempt him with the hope of gain, and bring him to such a point that he will be ready to kill his father or his elder brother with his own hand. After he is enlisted, they intoxicate him, and carry him in that state into a secluded retreat, where he is charmed with delicious music and beautiful women. All his desires are satisfied for several days, and then (in sleep) he is transported back to his original position. When he awakes, they ask what he has seen. He is then informed that if he will become an Assassin, he will be rewarded with the same felicity. And with the texts and prayers that they teach him they heat him to such a pitch that whatever commission be given him he will brave death without regret in order to execute it."

The Arabic narrative in a kind of historical romance called The Memoirs of Hakim provides a detailed description of the Paradise, and the transfer into it of the aspirant under the influence of hashish. On awaking and seeing his chief enter, the aspirant says, "O chief! am I awake or am I dreaming?" To which the chief: "O such an One, take heed that thou tell not the dream to any stranger. Know that Ali thy Lord hath vouchsafed to show thee the place destined for thee in Paradise.... Hesitate not a moment therefore in the service of the Imam who thus deigns to intimate his contentment with thee."

castles in the Alamut region

William de Nangis (died 1300) speaks of a Syrian Shaikh: "He was much dreaded far and near, by both Saracens and Christians, because he so often caused princes of both classes indifferently to be murdered by his emissaries. For he used to bring up in his palace youths belonging to his territory, and had them taught a variety of languages, and above all things to fear their Lord and obey him unto death, which would thus become to them an entrance into the joys of Paradise. And whosoever of them thus perished in carrying out his Lord's behests was worshipped as an angel."

On the implicit obedience rendered by the Fidawi or devoted disciples of the Shaikh, Fra Pipino and Marino Sanuto relates what Henry Count of Champagne (titular King of Jerusalem) told him on a visit to the Old Man of Syria: “One day as they walked together they saw some lads in white sitting on the top of a high tower. The Shaikh, turning to the Count, asked if he had any subjects as obedient as his own? and without giving time for reply made a sign to two of the boys, who immediately leapt from the tower, and were killed on the spot.” The same story is told in the Cento Novelle Antiche, as happening when the Emperor Frederic was on a visit (imaginary) to the Veglio”.

In “How the Old Man Came By His End” (Travels of Marco Polo, Book 1, Chapter 25), Marco Polo wrote: “Now it came to pass, in the year of Christ's Incarnation, 1252, that Alaue, Lord of the Tartars of the Levant, heard tell of these great crimes of the Old Man, and resolved to make an end of him. So he took and sent one of his Barons with a great Army to that Castle, and they besieged it for three years, but they could not take it, so strong was it. And indeed if they had had food within it never would have been taken. But after being besieged those three years they ran short of victual, and were taken. The Old Man was put to death with all his men [and the Castle with its Garden of Paradise was levelled with the ground]. And since that time he has had no successor; and there was an end to all his villainies.”

Marco Polo on the Hashish Training of the Assassins

Marco Polo wrote: “Now no man was allowed to enter the Garden save those whom he intended to be his ASHISHIN. There was a Fortress at the entrance to the Garden, strong enough to resist all the world, and there was no other way to get in. He kept at his Court a number of the youths of the country, from 12 to 20 years of age, such as had a taste for soldiering, and to these he used to tell tales about Paradise, just as Mahommet had been wont to do, and they believed in him just as the Saracens believe in Mahommet. Then he would introduce them into his garden, some four, or six, or ten at a time, having first made them drink a certain potion which cast them into a deep sleep, and then causing them to be lifted and carried in. So when they awoke, they found themselves in the Garden.

Marco Polo

In “How the Old Man Used to Train His Assasins” (Travels of Marco Polo, Book 1, Chapter 24): Marco Polo wrote: “When therefore they awoke, and found themselves in a place so charming, they deemed that it was Paradise in very truth. And the ladies and damsels dallied with them to their hearts' content, so that they had what young men would have; and with their own good will they never would have quitted the place.

“Now this Prince whom we call the Old One kept his Court in grand and noble style, and made those simple hill-folks about him believe firmly that he was a great Prophet. And when he wanted one of his Ashishin to send on any mission, he would cause that potion whereof I spoke to be given to one of the youths in the garden, and then had him carried into his Palace. So when the young man awoke, he found himself in the Castle, and no longer in that Paradise; whereat he was not over well pleased. He was then conducted to the Old Man's presence, and bowed before him with great veneration as believing himself to be in the presence of a true Prophet. The Prince would then ask whence he came, and he would reply that he came from Paradise! and that it was exactly such as Mahommet had described it in the Law. This of course gave the others who stood by, and who had not been admitted, the greatest desire to enter therein.

So when the Old Man would have any Prince slain, he would say to such a youth: "Go thou and slay So and So; and when thou returnest my Angels shall bear thee into Paradise. And shouldst thou die, natheless even so will I send my Angels to carry thee back into Paradise." So he caused them to believe; and thus there was no order of his that they would not affront any peril to execute, for the great desire they had to get back into that Paradise of his. And in this manner the Old One got his people to murder any one whom he desired to get rid of. Thus, too, the great dread that he inspired all Princes withal, made them become his tributaries in order that he might abide at peace and amity with them...I should also tell you that the Old Man had certain others under him, who copied his proceedings and acted exactly in the same manner. One of these was sent into the territory of Damascus, and the other into Curdistan.”

Assassins as Killers and Terrorists

The Assassins were masters of disguise and stealth. They often masqueraded as soldiers or servants and worked themselves into a position of trust, sometimes taking months to achieve this, so they could easily kill their victim—a vizier, a prince, a religious leader, warrior or king.

19th century view of Hasan i Sabbah

Almost all their assassinations were carried out with daggers. The Assassins looked down on poisons and weapons that could be used from a distance such as crossbows as cowardly. Those that carried out their missions were not expected to survive. Like modern suicide bombers they believed that their ultimate death would give them a free ticket to paradise.

The Assassins were renowned for their loyalty and courage. It was considered such a sin to return alive from a mission that if one did so shame was cast on his entire family . On hearing the death of a son on an assassin mission one women is said to have "rejoiced and anointed her eyelids with kohl." When she later found he in fact had survived "she was grieved, and tore her hair and blackened her face."

Worrying about the threat of the Assassins was almost as bad as being assassinated. Sect followers were difficult to identify and trained to resist torture. It is said that those who were captured chose death before betraying other Assassins. Leaders who felt threatened by the Assassins were paranoid and distrustful of all those around them and some barricaded themselves in their homes. "By one single warrior on foot," wrote one Ismaili poet, "a king may be stricken with terror, though he owns more than 100,000 horsemen." The daggers of the assassins were named fidais, or faithful.

The Assassins believed they were helping ordinary people repressed by their leaders but their violent methods turned many people off and resulted in many innocent Ishamelis being rounded up and tortured. The sect helped create negative impressions of the Ishmalis, Sufiis and Shiites.

Victims of the Assassins

Unlike modern terrorists, the Assassins always chose individuals as their targets. The victims were almost always Muslim political, military or religious leaders regarded as usurpers, sources of evil, or enemies viewed as threats to themselves or their allies. Sometimes the Assassins went after people with religious views different than theirs, and sometimes they killed for hire. In the waning years of the sect Assassins were hired more and more by local rulers to serve as guards and hitmen.

Assassination of Nizam al-Mulk

Many Assassin victims were Seljuks. The first sect victim is said to have been Nizam al-Mulk, Grand Vizier of the Seljuk sultan Malikshah. The executioner, disguised as a holy man, stabbed the vizier with a dagger while he was being carried on his litter to his harem. Another Seljuk vizier was stabbed to death in his stables by assassins masquerading as grooms. Philip K. Hitti wrote: “The Assassination in 1092 of the illustrious vizir of the Saljug ]Seljuk] sultanate, Nizam-al-Mulk, by a fida'i disguised as a Sufi, was the first of a series of mysterious murders which plunged the Muslim world into terror. When in the same year the Saljug Sultan Malikshah bestirred himself and sent a disciplinary force against the fortress, its garrison made a night sortie and repelled the besieging army. Other attempts by caliphs and sultans proved equally futile.” [Source: Philip K. Hitti, “The Book of Grass: An Anthology on Indian Hemp,” edited by George Andrews and Simon Vinkenoog]

The assassins were active in The Crusades. A few Europeans were targets but most were Muslims. Saladin, the Kurdish warrior who drove the Crusaders from Jerusalem, was an Assassin target who escaped attacks two times because he avoided contact with strangers and slept in a special wooden tower. Under the torture of slow fire and flaying, two executioners disguised as Christian monks confessed they had been ordered to kill the King of Jerusalem by Richard the Lionhearted.

Mongols Attack the Assassin’s Fortress

Attempts to capture the assassin's fortresses were unsuccessful until Genghis Khan captured it and butchered the last descendants of Hasan. Survivors of the sect fled to Syria. In 1256, before striking at Baghdad, the Mongol army under Hulagu made a detour to the Elburz mountains on the southern shores of the Caspian Sea in Iran to assault the Assassins. By some counts 12,000 assassins and their supporters were killed. The Mongols hammered the remote Assassin fortress until their leader Rukn ad-Din surrendered. Hulagu destroyed the caliphate and seized the fortress along with its subsidary castles in Persia. Rukn ad-Din was sent to Karokorum where he was, in Juvaii's words, "kicked to a pulp and put to the sword."

After Hulaku (Hulagu) received the command of the army destined for Persia and Syria, according to the footnotes of “Travels of Marco Polo”: “The complaints that came from the Mongol officers already in Persia determined him to commence with the reduction of the Ismailites, and Hulaku set out from Karakorum in February, 1254. He proceeded with great deliberation, and the Oxus was not crossed till January, 1256. But an army had been sent long in advance under "one of his Barons," Kitubuka Noyan, and in 1253 it was already actively engaged in besieging the Ismailite fortresses. In 1255, during the progress of the war, ALA'UDDIN MAHOMED, the reigning Prince of the Assassins (mentioned by Polo as Alaodin), was murdered at the instigation of his son Ruknuddin Khurshah, who succeeded to the authority. A year later (November, 1256) Ruknuddin surrendered to Hulaku. [Source: “Travels of Marco Polo,” Book 1, Chapter 25, by Marco Polo, translated by Henry Yule]

Siege of Alamut (1256)

“The fortresses given up, all well furnished with provisions and artillery engines, were 100 in number. Two of them, however, Lembeser and Girdkuh, refused to surrender. The former fell after a year; the latter is stated to have held out for twenty years — actually, as it would seem, about fourteen, or till December, 1270. Ruknuddin was well treated by Hulaku, and despatched to the Court of the Kaan. The accounts of his death differ, but that most commonly alleged, according to Rashiduddin, is that Mangku Kaan was irritated at hearing of his approach, asking why his post-horses should be fagged to no purpose, and sent executioners to put Ruknuddin to death on the road. Alamut had been surrendered without any substantial resistance. Some survivors of the sect got hold of it again in 1275-1276, and held out for a time. The dominion was extinguished, but the sect remained, though scattered indeed and obscure.” [Ibid]

There is some account of the rock of Alamut and its exceedingly slender traces of occupancy, by Colonel Monteith, in J. R. G. S. III. 15, and again by Sir Justin Sheil in vol. viii. p. 431. There does not seem to be any specific authority for assigning the Paradise of the Shaikh to Alamut; and it is at least worthy of note that another of the castles of the Mulahidah, destroyed by Hulaku, was called Firdus, i.e. Paradise. In any case, I see no reason to suppose that Polo visited Alamut, which would have been quite out of the road that he is following.

It is possible that "the Castle," to which Colonel Monteith alludes in J. R. G. S. III. 15, is the Assassins castle was Girdkuh, 10 or 12 west or north-west miles of Damghan, but is more likely the Tigado of Hayton: "The Assassins had an impregnable castle called Tigado, which was furnished with all necessaries, and was so strong that it had no fear of attack on any side. Howbeit, Halooen commanded a certain captain of his that he should take 10,000 Tartars who had been left in garrison in Persia, and with them lay siege to the said castle, and not leave it till he had taken it. Wherefore the said Tartars continued besieging it for seven whole years, winter and summer, without being able to take it. At last the Assassins surrendered, from sheer want of clothing, but not of victuals or other necessaries." This attack endured until 1270 by some accounts placing it relatively close to the time of Marco Polo’s visit to the area.

Philip K. Hitti wrote in “The Book of Grass: An Anthology on Indian Hemp:” “After the capture of Masyad in 1260 by the Mongols, the Mamluk Sultan Baybars in 1272 dealt the Syrian Assassins the final blow. Since then the Assassins have been sparsely scattered through northern Syria, Persia, 'Uman, Zanzibar, and especially India, where they number about 150,000 and go by the name of Thojas or Mowlas. They all acknowledge as titular head the Aga Khan of Bombay, who claims descent through the last grand master of Alamut from Isma'il, the seventh imam, receives over a tenth of the revenues of his followers, even in Syria, and spends most of his time as a sportsman between Paris and London. [Source: Philip K. Hitti, “The Book of Grass: An Anthology on Indian Hemp,” edited by George Andrews and Simon Vinkenoog]

Revival of the Assassins

Later the Assassin sect was revived. In the early 19th century two dozen devotees leapt from some bushes to execute the Caliph of Baghdad. A famous religious scholar was threatened by an assassin masquerading as a student who threatened the scholar after asking him to discuss a difficult religious matter. When the student pulled out a dagger, it was said, the scholar decided to change some religious positions that went against those of the Assassins.

In the sect was most active in the 1830s and 40s. When it was discovered they were behind a plot to assassinate the Shah of Iran they were exiled to India. The leader had been given the name of Aga Khan by the Shah. Today there are some 12 to 15 million followers of Ismaili Islam. Their present leader is the Harvard-educated fourth Aga Khan.

small Assassin state south of Antioch in present-day, Syria, in 1100

A very strange case that came before Sir Joseph Arnould in the High Court at Bombay in 1866 threw much new light on the survival of the Ismailis. According to the footnotes of “Travels of Marco Polo”: “Some centuries ago a Dai or Missionary of the Ismailis, named Sadruddin, made converts from the Hindu trading classes in Upper Sind. Under the name of Khojas the sect multiplied considerably in Sind, Kach'h, and Guzerat, whence they spread to Bombay and to Zanzibar. Their numbers in Western India are now probably not less than 50,000 to 60,000. Their doctrine, or at least the books which they revere, appear to embrace a strange jumble of Hindu notions with Mahomedan practices and Shiah mysticism, but the main characteristic endures of deep reverence, if not worship, of the person of their hereditary Imam. To his presence, when he resided in Persia, numbers of pilgrims used to betake themselves, and large remittances of what we may call Ismail's Pence were made to him. Abul Hassan, the last Imam but one of admitted lineal descent from the later Shaikhs of Alamut, and claiming (as they did) descent from the Imam Ismail and his great ancestor 'Ali Abu Talib, had considerable estates at Mehelati, between Kum and Hamadan, and at one time held the Government of Kerman. His son and successor, Shah Khalilullah, was killed in a brawl at Yezd in 1818. Fatteh 'Ali Shah, fearing Ismailite vengeance, caused the homicide to be severely punished, and conferred gifts and honours on the young Imam, Agha Khan, including the hand of one of his own daughters. In 1840 Agha Khan, who had raised a revolt at Kerman, had to escape from Persia. He took refuge in Sind, and eventually rendered good service both to General Nott at Kandahar and to Sir C. Napier in Sind, for which he receives a pension from our Government.” [Source: “Travels of Marco Polo,” Book 1, Chapter 25, by Marco Polo, translated by Henry Yule]

“For many years this genuine Heir and successor of the Viex de la Montaingne has had his headquarters at Bombay, where he devotes, or for a long time did devote, the large income that he receives from the faithful to the maintenance of a racing stable, being the chief patron and promoter of the Bombay Turf! A schism among the Khojas, owing apparently to the desire of part of the well-to-do Bombay community to sever themselves from the peculiarities of the sect and to set up as respectable Sunnis, led in 1866 to an action in the High Court, the object of which was to exclude Agha Khan from all rights over the Khojas, and to transfer the property of the community to the charge of Orthodox Mahomedans. To the elaborate addresses of Mr. Howard and Sir Joseph Arnould, on this most singular process before an English Court, I owe the preceding particulars. The judgment was entirely in favour of the Old Man of the Mountain. [Ibid]

Tale of Two Hashish-Eaters

One tale from “1001 Arabian Nights” goes: “There was once, my lord and crown upon my head, a man in a certain city, who was a fisherman by trade and a hashish-eater by occupation. When he had earned his daily wage, he would spend a little of it on food and the rest on a sufficiency of that hilarious herb. He took his hashish three times a day: once in the morning on an empty stomach, once at noon, and once at sundown. Thus he was never lacking in extravagent gaity. Yet he worked hard enough at his fishing, though sometimes in a very extravagent fashion.

Asabah (Hasan-i Sabbah)

“On a certain evening, for instance, when he had taken a larger dose of his favorite drug than usual, he lit a tallow candle and sat in front of it, asking himself eager questions and answering with obliging wit. After some hours of this delight, he became aware of the cool silence of the night about him and the clear light of a full moon abouve his head, and exclaimed affably to himself: "Dear friend, the silent streets and the cool of the moon invite us to a walk. Let us go forth, while all the world is in bed and none may mar our solitary exaltation." Speaking in this way to himself, the fisherman left his house and began to walk towards the river; but, as he went, he saw the light of the full moon lying in the roadway and took it to be the water of the river. "My dear old friend the fisherman," he said, "get your line and take the best of the fishing, while your rivals are indoors." So he ran back and fetched his hook and line, and cast into the glittering patch of moonlight on the road.

“Soon an enormous dog, tempted by the smell of the bait, swallowed the hook greedily and then, feeling the barb, made desperate efforts to get loose. The fisherman struggled for some time against this enormous fish, but at last he was pulled over and rolled into the moonlight. Even then he would not let go his line, but held on grimly, uttering frightened cries. "Help, help, good Mussulmans!" he shouted. "Help me to secure this mighty fish, for he is dragging me into the deeps! Help, help, good friends, for I am drowning!" The guards of that quarter ran up at the noise and began laughing at the fisherman's antics; but when he yelled: "Allah curse you, O sons of bitches! Is it a time to laugh when I am drowning?" they grew angry and, after giving him a sound beating, dragged him into the presence of the kadi.

“At this point Shahrazad saw the approach of morning and discreetly fell silent. Allah had willed that the kadi should also be addicted to the use of hashish; recognizing that the prisoner was under that jocund influence, he rated the guards soundly and dismissed them. Then he handed over the fisherman to his slaves that they might give him a bed for calm sleep. After a pleasant night and a day given up to the consumption of excellent food, the fisherman was called to the kadi in the evening and received by him like a brother. His host supped with him; and then the two sat opposite the lighted candles and each swallowed enough hashish to destroy a hundred-year-old elephant. When the drug exalted their natural dispositions, they undressed completely and began to dance about, singing and committing a thousand extravagances.

“Now it happened that the Sultan and his wazir were walking through the city, disguised as merchants, and heard a strange noise rising from the kadi's house. They entered through the unlatched door and found two naked men, who stopped dancing at their entrance and welcomed them without the least embarrassment. The Sultan sat down to watch his venerable kadi dance again; but when he saw that the other man had a dark and lively zabb, so long that the eye might not carry to the end of it, he whispered in his wazir's startled ear: "As Allah lives, our kadi is not as well hung as his guest!" "What are you whispering about?" cried the fisherman. "I am the Sultan of this city and I order you to watch my dance respectfully, otherwise I will have your head cut off. I am the Sultan, this is my wazir; I hold the whole world like a fish in the palm of my right hand." The Sultan and his wazir realized that they were in the presence of two hashish-eaters, and the wazir, to amuse his master, addressed the fisherman, saying: "How long have you been Sultan, dear master, and can you tell me what has happened to your predecessor?" "I deposed the fellow," answered the fisherman. "I said: 'Go Away!' and he went away."

“"Did he not protest?" asked the wazir. “"Not at all," replied the fisherman. "He was delighted to be relased from the burden of kingship. He abdicated with such good grace that I keep him by me as a servant. He is an excellent dancer. When he pines for his throne, I tell him stories. Now I want to piss." So saying, he lifted up his interminable tool and, walking over to the Sultan, seemed to be about to discharge upon him.

“"I also want to piss," exclaimed the kadi, and took up the same threatening position in front of the wazir. The two victims shouted with laughter and fled from that house, crying over their shoulders: "God's curse on all hashish-eaters!"

“Next morning, that the jest might be complete, the Sultan called the kadi and his guest before him. "O discreet pillar of our law," he said, "I have called you to me because I wish to learn the most convenient manner of pissing. Should one squat and carefully lift the robe, as religion prescribes? Should one stand up, as is the unclean habit of unbelievers? Or should one undress completely and piss against one's friends, as is the custom of two hashish-eaters of my acquaintance?"

“Knowing that the Sultan used to walk about the city in disguise, the kadi realized in a flash the identity of his last night's visitors, and fell on his knees, crying: "My lord, my lord, the hashish spake in these indelicacies, not I!" But the fisherman, who by his careful daily taking of the drug was always under its effect, called somewhat sharply: "And what of it? You are in your palace this morning, we were in our palace last night." "O sweetest noise in all our kingdom," answered the delighted King, "as we are both Sultans of this city, I think you had better henceforth stay with me in my palace. If you can tell stories, I trust that you will at once sweeten our hearing with a chosen one." "I will do so gladly, as soon as you have pardoned my wazir," replied the fisherman; so the Sultan bade the kadi rise and sent him back forgiven to his duties.

"L'effetto dell'hashish" by Pasquale Liotta, 1875

Image Sources: Wikimedia, Commons

Text Sources: Internet Islamic History Sourcebook: “World Religions” edited by Geoffrey Parrinder (Facts on File Publications, New York); “ Arab News, Jeddah; “Islam, a Short History“ by Karen Armstrong; “A History of the Arab Peoples“ by Albert Hourani (Faber and Faber, 1991); “Encyclopedia of the World Cultures“ edited by David Levinson (G.K. Hall & Company, New York, 1994); “ Encyclopedia of the World’s Religions” edited by R.C. Zaehner (Barnes & Noble Books, 1959); Metropolitan Museum of Art, National Geographic, BBC, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Smithsonian magazine, The Guardian, BBC, Al Jazeera, Times of London, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, Associated Press, AFP, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Last updated September 2018

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