Arch Stanton Guest Post: Episode 27 in Today I Learned – Hassan-i Sabbah


Do you want to hear an extremely metal etymological story? I bet you do! You just read a series of words I am very comfortable have never been uttered before in the history of the world, and the subsequent story is suitable to its remarkable grandstanding. But first – a history lesson (what great story doesn’t involve a detailed backstory of historical minutiae?)!

The early Muslim religion suffered a divisive split shortly after founder Mohammed’s death in 632. Since Mohammed was born with no children, his followers differed on who was to be his successor in continuing the caliphate – one group followed his trusted aide and first follower, Abu Bakr, while others thought his cousin/son-in-law, Ali. Seventh century Saudi Arabia was basically Alabama apparently. The former are known today as Sunnis, and the latter Shiites. This is also the basis of a huge amount of turmoil in the Middle East of the modern era, but we’re going in a different direction. Followers of Ali took issue with some butthole further down his line of descendants, and demanded a split from this progeny of Ali. When the Shia masses decided to know disown this particular butthole, the upset group separated and called themselves Ismailis.

So for a few centuries there were a few competing ideologies of Islam. The Ismailis managed to conquer large swaths of north Africa but their expansion hit a wall, so they took a creative turn by sending undercover spies into rival territory to build a grass roots campaign of Ismaili Islam. The results of this campaign are lost to annals of time, because the Sunnis (the first group) decided this type of insubordination would not be tolerated. We’re still pre-Middle Ages, so people tolerated differences in religious beliefs like you tolerate ants in your apartment – they all gotta fucking die.

The Sunnis managed to hammer the Ismailis across north Africa. Hooray, insurrection squashed! But like Iraq and Afghanistan in our modern time, declaring victory doesn’t exactly translate to actual victory – the Sunnis now needed to ferret out all of these undercover spies. Sunnis proceeded to investigate, capture, “interrogate and reform” anyone they believed to be Ismaili, and the Ismailis, being low in number and geographically diverse, couldn’t do much but pout about it. Enter Hassan-i Sabbah (this is the point where you should start play “Raining Blood” by Slayer, because it’s about to get so fucking awesome).

Hassan proceeded to capture one (1) castle near the Caspian Sea. In case your knowledge of Middle Eastern geography is rusty, the Caspian Sea is a long ways away from north Africa, and what was then Persia, and really, just about everything. Hassan captured one castle in the most remote region (if you want specifics, it was the Alamut region, which translates into “Eagle Peak” or “Death Mountain” – you already know which translation I prefer), in the remotest mountain range in the most inconvenient mountain and castle. You see, at so far away, he was basically impossible to attack, so he proceeded to start talking MAD SHIT to the Sunnis hassling his bros. Hassan issued a decree that anyone responsible for persecuting Ismailis, would suffer his wrath. He would respond not with full-scale military responses or reclaiming of territory, but instead they would murder the singular person responsible for the order. As if that wasn’t rad enough, he stated it would be done with a golden dagger so there would be no confusion as to who was responsible. Holy SHIT that is awesome.

Sunni leaders dismissed this as total bullshit, but before long, people were being murdered around the caliphate with golden daggers left at the scene. Lest you think it was one or two people, there were DOZENS of high-profile public executions carried out by loyal subordinates devoted to the cause of Hassan and the Ismailis. Some notable victims were the literal Sunni Caliphate (the highest functioning member of their religion) and the King of Jerusalem, even Saladin (the most notable Muslim leader during the Crusades/the Arabian leader in Civ 6) – escaped by the skin of his teeth from Ismaili ninjas. These murderers were especially dangerous because they would 1. be completely fine with being a sleeper cell for years before striking – allegedly one murderer spent years as a stable hand before seizing an opportunity to murder his target – and 2. their belief that being killed after completing their task/execution was considered an honor – these guys were not worried about escaping or torture, they were there to murder, full stop. After being killed, virgins in heaven, yo! Let the orgy commence!

How do you hire bodyguards knowing any one of them could be responsible for your murder years down the line? The short answer is you don’t. People ceased from issuing decrees against Ismailis, or lived the rest of their lives in fear of their impending demise. Again, so goddamn badass. How could anyone pursue a goal with such a level of devotion? The theory by the pants-shitting persecutors was these guys had to be smoking tons of cannibus. My experience with weed is anything but singular devotion to a distant goal, but let’s continue. In this part of the world and era, pot was called “hashish” and they were known as “the hashish guys.” If a group of people were dedicated to my death, I would perhaps come up with a more dangerous nickname but whatever – “hashish guys” stuck. In Arabic, the colloquial term was “hashshahin.”

This process went on until deep into the Crusades, at which time European Crusaders learned of these fanatically-devoted lunatics who would murder anyone their leader asked. Seeing the value in outsourcing the death of your rivals, the European Crusaders sought to employ these homicidal badasses which, Hassan’s descendants (he’s been dead for a while at this point) were more than willing to undertake since they had ruthlessly slaughtered all their enemies by this time. Being European, they proceeded to misinterpret the colloquial term “hashshahin” into “assassin”, and that’s the extremely metal explanation of how this term entered the English language.

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