The Assassins: Holy Killers Of Islam, was published in 1987 by Crucible. It was translated into Italian as Gli Assassini (Florence: Nardini, 1988) and into Spanish as Los Asesinos: La secta de los Guerreros santos del Islam (Barcelona: Martínes Roca, 1988).
The Assassins have had a bad press. Since the thirteenth century their name has been associated with an act which appears to us today abominable, but which was not then considered so in its specific, almost strategic, use for political motives. Far bloodier stories and societies exist in the chronicles of western history, while even in the Muslim world there has never been a dearth of assassinations for avowedly political reasons. Yet the modern term 'assassin' derives its origin from this sect. The reason is that the reputation of the Assassins stems from hostile sources which provided biased and sinister accounts, crusaders who viewed their suicidal courage with awe and Muslims who considered them as heretics. The innate secretiveness of the Isma'ilis of whom the Assassins, or Nizari Isma'ilis, were a branch, has made it almost impossible to gain reliable information about them until very recently. It is only with the twentieth century that scholars have begun to piece together a reliable history of the Isma'ilis. Hasan-i Sabbah, founder of the Assassins in Persia, is usually portrayed as a ruthless, tyrannic leader of a band of murderers who lived in the impregnable valleys of the mountains of Persia. While such an account may be based on fact, it must not be forgotten that Hasan was a theologian and philosopher of extreme subtlety. The revolutionary Islam which underpinned his political activities derived from careful philosophical reasoning, and his thought and powers of argument were recognised and admired even by Hasan's enemies in Persia. Perhaps it was from this that the initial fear stemmed?
Throughout the history of both Christianity and Islam there have been heretical sects, but few survive longer than their leaders and immediate disciples, and most are eventually worn down by the omnivorous longevity of the central 'Churches'. Isma'ilism first appeared during the ninth century AD, became widely known through the Ismaili Fatimid dynasty of Cairo (909-1171), and achieved notoriety with the Assassins. But it survived the downfall of Cairo and that of Alamut, and resurfaced in the public eye in the mid-nineteenth century in India, although pockets had survived in both Persia and Syria.
Today, the sect is represented by that extraordinary religious leader, the Aga Khan, whose immediate ancestors were quite as unusual in their own way as Hasan-i Sabbah - from whose successor as Grand Master he claims direct descent. A sect of such long and curious history deserves to be known for more than acts of assassination, and it is in terms of their longevity as a sect and their importance as part of the 'history of ideas' within Islam that this study was written. In 1978, I had the good fortune to be able to visit the castle of Alamut, the fortress retreat of Hasan-i Sabbah, where it all began.
Even then access to the castle of Alamut, which became legendary after the supposed 1273 visit of Marco Polo and his description of the 'Old Man of the Mountains' and the ‘Ashishin', was difficult. Alamut, the 'Eagle's Nest', stands in the Alborz Mountains north-west of Tehran and north-east of the city of Qazvin. Today, the use of good dirt tracks and motorised vehicles has rendered the journey relatively fast: until the beginning of this century the trip from Qazvin to Alamut - by far the easiest route to the fortress - took at least three days. From the turn about two kilometres before the roundabout at the eastern end of Qazvin on the modern Tehran to Tabriz road, to the point at which even today cars must be exchanged for mules, is ninety-six kilometres of rough, rock-strewn track which the presence of brigands still renders dangerous, and which requires about three hours driving. The last part is a steep climb on foot, and the entry to castle involves scrambling over loose scree.
But a short time within the strangely evocative fortress area is in itself sufficient to explain much of the fantasy associated with the legend of Hasan-i Sabbah. Massive walls constituting the remaining shell suddenly come to an end where the mountainside has slipped away. The area inside is more a fortified village than a castle, with the remains of living quarters, mosques, work-rooms, underground rooms and water cisterns and irrigation channels cut through solid rock. The very inaccessibility of the site renders plausible the fact that the original castle was probably built about AD 860-1 by religious refugees from the Abbasid caliphs.
From this extraordinary fortress, Hasan-i Sabbah ruled the castles of the Assassins for thirty-four years. With unique intensity and rigour he developed his Order into a body of men whose operations at some time struck fear into the hearts of men from Karakorum in Mongolia to Marseilles in France. In the whole period of residence at Alamut, Hasan is said to have left his house twice, both times onto the roof. It was at Alamut that the idea of using the Isma'ili faithful for political assassinations seems to have originated, and Alamut always remained the point of reference in the two-hundred years in which the Assassins appear in history.