Hash Heads


By Philologos

Published May 09, 2003, issue of May 09, 2003.
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Aaron Demsky writes from Ramat Gan, Israel:

Apropos of your [April 11] piece entitled “Thugs and Bandits,” perhaps you might want to discuss the word “assassin,” too.

A fascinating word, indeed, “assassin” — and one that, though its history goes back nearly a thousand years, relates to today’s headlines in some interesting ways.

“Assassin” comes from the Arabic word h.ashish, which gives us our English “hashish” or “hash.” Its original meaning in Arabic, however, is “grass,” so that just like “grass” in contemporary English, it can refer either to the lawn variety or to the narcotic cannabis plant — and it is the latter meaning that gives us “assassin,” from Arabic hashishun, “hash heads.” According to the magisterial Oxford English Dictionary, this word’s earliest occurrence in a European language is in a 13th-century Latin text in which we read about “hostiam Saraceni quam Christiani Assisinos appellant,” that is, “an army of Saracens called Assisinos by the Christians.

The OED further explains that this “army” consisted of “Certain Muslim fanatics in the time of the Crusades, who were sent forth by their sheikh, the ‘Old Man of the Mountain,’ to murder the Christian leaders.” It quotes the 19th-century English historian J. Wolff:

The assassins, who are otherwise called the People of the Man of the Mountain, before they attacked an enemy, would intoxicate themselves with a powder made of hemp-leaves, out of which they prepared an inebriating electuary, called hashish.

This Old Man of the Mountain, or sheikh el-jabl in Arabic, was a 12th-century Muslim warlord whose real name was Rashid ad-Din Sinan. Having carved out an independent redoubt in the mountains of northern Syria, Rashid, a pioneer in the use of carrier pigeons to transmit orders and receive reports, sent his allegedly doped murderers far and wide to kill his enemies not only among the Christian Crusaders, but among his fellow Muslims as well. One of his victims was the anti-Crusader campaigner Nur-ad-Din, the father of the famous Saladin. The loyalty to Rashid of his followers was legendary. The story was told that, when he was visited in his mountain hideaway in 1194 by Henry of Champagne, the Crusader king of Jerusalem, he sought to impress his guest by ordering two of his men to jump to their deaths from the tower of his castle. They obeyed him instantly.

And yet while some may think that the language columnist who tries one-upping the Oxford English Dictionary is jumping off a tower himself, the “Old Man of the Mountain” was not the original assassin at all. The honor goes rather to Hasan Ibn as-Sabah or the “Master of Alamut,” as he was called, who preceded Rashid ad-Din Sinan by a century and commissioned his first hashish-abetted political murder — that of Nizam al-Mulk, the grand vizier of the Seljuk sultan Alp Arslan — in 1092.

To understand where both Hasan and Rashid were coming from, it is necessary to go back even further — all the way to the original Sunni-Shi’ite split in Islam, which began in the late seventh or eighth century, and about which we have been hearing much lately in the context of Iraq and its opposed Sunni and Shi’ite populations. This split took place after the deaths in Iraq of the fourth Muslim caliph Ali, Muhammad’s cousin and son-in-law, and Ali’s son Hussein, both killed by the forces of Mu’awiyah of Damascus, who founded the Umayyad dynasty. Those Muslims who recognized this dynasty and accepted the mainstream doctrines of its theologians were known as followers of the sunnah, an Arabic word meaning “accepted custom” or “usage.” Those who rejected it and swore fealty to the memory of Ali and Hussein became known as members of the shi’ah, “the [dissenting] faction.” (This Arabic word is a close cognate of the Hebrew si’ah, which has the same meaning.)

Unlike the history of Sunni Islam, whose adherents, despite their different schools, have stuck to the same basic beliefs and religious practices, the history of Shi’ite Islam, which recognized no central authority, has been one of extreme sectarianism and even breakaway new religions. Among the major Shi’ite spinoffs have been such groups as the Druze of Syria, Lebanon and Palestine, the Nusayris or Alawites of Syria, and the Bektashis of Turkey and Albania. One of the first of these Shi’ite splinter groups, no longer in existence today, was called the Qarmatians after its founder, an Iraqi peasant named Hamdan Qarmat. Hamdan founded, in the late ninth century, a secret society based on quasi-communistic principles that included the sharing of all property and wives and the resort to violence to spread its doctrines. Some modern historians have called it “the Bolshevism of Islam.”

And it is to the Qarmatians that we can trace the ancestry of the Assassins — or could if we hadn’t run out of space. More follows next week.

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