Ubisoft’s Assassin’s Creed has gained immense popularity over the past few years. But do gamers know who the historical Assassins really were and whether the video game is historically accurate?
Truth is Stranger than Fiction
They may not have leapt from rooftops a hundred feet high nor daggers materialized from their gauntlets in the blink of an eye, but the Hashshashin – popularly known as the Order of the Assassins – were a marvel of warfare in their own right. Thriving between the 11th and 13th centuries in what is now Iran and Syria, the Assassins had absolutely no links to Leonardo da Vinci, George Washington or Caribbean pirates – as suggested by the eponymous video game.
Similar to their virtual counterparts, however, the Hashshashin were expert assassins with an extremely high success rate, despite the fact that death was almost certain in their “adventures” whether or not their own mission succeeded. Given this occupational hazard in their line of work, the Assassins – known as the fida’i – were exceptionally loyal to their commander, the Grandmaster or Khudawand, and the orders he issued. And that, perhaps, was the true foundation of the “Assassins’ creed”.
The Assassins’ Faith
The founder of the Order, Hassan bin Sabbah – who receives no mention in the Assassin’s Creed series – was also the founder of a religious sect: Nizari Isma’ilism. Isma’ilism is, of course, a branch of Shi’ite Islam, which was formed after the death of Jafar-as-Sadiq in 765 AD. The Isma’ilis believe that, after Jafar’s death, his eldest (or second, according to some sources) son, Isma’il, and not his younger son, Musa, was the rightful successor to the Imamate. Thus, when Musa succeeded as the Imam in 765 AD, the Isma’ilis broke away to form a separate sect, which went on to become the most powerful of all Shi’ite sects, ruling North Africa for nearly three centuries and encountering a schism of its own midway.
The Nizari-Musta’li schism occurred after the Fatimid caliph-imam Al-Mustansir bi-llah’s death in 1094 AD. As the deceased caliph’s eldest son, Nizar was expected to succeed his father, but circumstances saw to it that his younger brother, Abul Qasim, succeeded instead. Textual sources present conflicting reports for the reason behind this move, with some arguing that Al-Mustansir himself had disapproved of Nizar and his proclivity for alcohol and others claiming that the commander of the caliphate’s forces, Al-Afdal, forcibly placed Abul Qasim at the head of the imamate.
Whatever the reason, Hassan bin Sabbah, a Persian and fresh convert from Twelver Shi’ism, himself, believed the succession of Abul Qasim al-Musta’li to be illegitimate since it broke the rules of Imamate primogeniture. Thus began Hassan’s quest to fight for what he believed was the truth: to break free from Musta’li’s Imamate, he formed his own sect, Nizari Ismai’ilism, known today as the Agha Khani sect.
Bin Sabbah and his Hashshashin assassinated to survive – and with minimum collateral damage
The reason for Hassan bin Sabbah’s decision to assassinate his adversaries is unknown to us today, but given that he was leading a faith commonly abhorred and persecuted in medieval Persia – then ruled by the Seljuks – the decision is not surprising. We might as well ask ourselves why nations fight each other and what leads to war. Bin Sabbah and his Hashshashin assassinated to survive, and with minimum collateral damage at that.
The first target of Bin Sabbah’s Assassins is commonly believed to have been the famous Seljuk vizier, Nizam-al-Mulk Tusi, who was assassinated on 16 October 1092 AD (see: Ata-Malik Juvaini’s Tarikh-i-Jahangusha or History of the World Conqueror). Juvaini, the primary chronicler of the Hashshashin, presents an interesting account of this murder:
“A person called Bu-Tahir, Arrani by name and by origin, was afflicted ‘with loss both of this world and of the next’, and in his misguided striving after bliss in the world to come on the night of Friday the 12th of Ramazan, 485 [16th of October, 1092] he went up to Nizam-al-Mulk’s litter at a stage called Sahna in the region of Nihavand. Nizam-al-Mulk having broken the fast, was being borne in the litter from the Sultan’s audience-place to the tent of his harem. Bu-Tahir who was disguised as a Sufi, stabbed him with a dagger and by that blow Nizam-al-Mulk was martyred.”
Fortunately for us, Juvaini and his contemporary chroniclers did not even attempt to mask their hatred for the Nizari Isma’ilis or we would never have known how hostile the medieval Muslim world was towards the sect. An illustration of Nizam-al-Mulk’s murder also features in a 1653 edition of Rashid-ad-Din Hamadani’s Jami al-Tawarikh: it clearly looks nothing like Ubisoft’s idea of the Hashshashin’s assassinations.
Historians can only wish that historical events really were as exhilarating as Hollywood directors and video game makers allow their imaginations to render. But modern media outlets are not the only ones spreading myths about medieval military orders.
Medieval and Modern Myth
Ubisoft Montreal may have stretched the Assassins’ presence from Syria and Iran, to Rome and Colonial America – giving them more credit than they deserved en route – but it was the medieval Christian chroniclers who set the precedent for this romanticized exaggeration, beating Ubisoft by nearly 800 years.
The drugged assassin was left in a makeshift paradise among beautiful women to create the illusion of the Garden of Eden
Marco Polo – whose father, Niccolo Polo, features in Assassin’s Creed: Revelations, albeit in an entirely different context – set the rumour mill running when he alleged in his memoirs that the Hashshashin’s Grandmaster trained his assassins by taking them to a paradise-like garden and giving them a potion believed to be hashish. The Grandmaster would then leave the drugged assassin in this makeshift paradise in the company of beautiful women in order to create the illusion of the Garden of Eden. He would then extract the assassin from this dreamlike state and send him on his mission, at the end of which the latter was bound to achieve death – and accordingly the paradise he had just glimpsed (see: Marco Polo, The Travels of Marco Polo).
This story gained enormous currency in medieval Europe, so much so that the Europeans continued to believe it as the truth until recently. Nineteenth-century Austrian writer Joseph Hammer-Purgstall in The History of the Assassins recycles Marco Polo’s account and that of the fifteenth-century Turkish historian Mir-Khvand (anglicised as Mirkhond) to create a history of the Order with little authentic information.
And as Ubisoft continues to claim that its video game is “historically accurate” (see: http://assassinscreed.ubi.com/en-gb/games/assassins-creed.aspx) – even if they say it for the sake of “atmosphere” – we realize that times really haven’t changed much.
Natasha Shahid has written a very nice article on the historical period of Alamut. Though, the doubts which she has raised has been responded by the modern researchers. Until the middle of the 20th C.E. the ismailis were studied and judged almost exclusively on the basis of evidence collected of fabricated by their enemies. As a result, a variety of myths and legends circulated widely, both in Muslim societies and in the West, regarding the teachings and practices of Ismaili. Faith. In 20th C.E. Modern Scholarships like W.Ivanow, Dr.Farhad Daftary, Paul-e-Walker, Verena Klemm, Arzina Lalani, Mohammad Arkun, Heinz Halm they make a powerful contribution to our understanding of an Islamic community.
Especially the work of Dr. Farhad Daftary and Peter Willey address the medieval times which help us understand the period in better perspectives.
Historically, After the Ismail the eldest son of Jaffer. Ismailis continued their missionery activities in secretly run movement to escape persecution at the hands of their numerous enemies. Therefore, Ismailies of this period has not recorded the history. Later, when Ismailis suceeded to establish their own states twice in the history they started recording their history. Nizari state of Alamut is the second one which was conquered by Mongols in 1256 and they destroyed the entire libraries and work of Ismailis. Then the scholars like Juwani and Marco Polo wrote their chronociles. Let me clear here that Marco polo came around 1275 in Iran when in early renaissance age they were looking for the new routes for Europeans to reached East areas for the trade purpose because after the lost of Constantinople (Istanbul) they were unable to trade with East areas. Therefore, from there he in his treatise label the word hashassin to Ismailis which later turned into Assasin.
Secondly, the concept of this Fidai is also misinterpretated in many ways. It is usual in any kingdom or military the soldiers will fight for gaining the objectives of the ruler. Hassan sabah thought in that process many innocent people die therefore he created this army who were loyal to him but they were working hiddenly in the courts of their opponents who carried out targeted missions in thier courts and normally lost their own lives in the process. It is also important to note here in 12th C.E. almost any assaination committed in the central Islamic lands was readily attributed to he Nizaris.
There are many things to say about such a deep topic. Therefore above I suggested few writers work to read in this regard. To conclude, I must say Natasha has written a very nice article. The respected companies like Ubisoft must avoid picking this kind of topics or they should research properly before concluding and generalize their views.
This is in relation to Natasha Shahid’s article “Virtually History” published in your latest issue (April 3-9, 2015).
Although the article is well written and the writer has done some research, I would just like to recommend a book which may help her in learning further about the legend of the assassins and the latest facts that have come to light. The book is: ‘The Assassin Legend: Myth of the Ismailis’ written by Farhad Daftary (who is a well respected scholar of Islamic History), published by I. B. Tauris & Co, London and New York, First published in 1994 (paperback in 1995).