Hashshashin - Military Tactics

Military Tactics

"They call him Shaykh-al-Hashishim. He is their Elder, and upon his command all of the men of the mountain come out or go in... they are believers of the word of their elder and everyone everywhere fears them, because they even kill kings."

—Benjamin of Tudela

In pursuit of their religious and political goals, the Ismailis adopted various military strategies popular in the Middle Ages. One such method was that of assassination, the selective elimination of prominent rival figures. The murders of political adversaries were usually carried out in public spaces, creating resounding intimidation for other possible enemies. Throughout history, many groups have resorted to assassination as a means of achieving political ends. In the Ismaili context, these assignments were performed by fida'is (devotees) of the Ismaili mission. They were unique in that civilians were never targeted. The assassinations were against those whose elimination would most greatly reduce aggression against the Ismailis and, in particular, against those who had perpetrated massacres against the community. A single assassination was usually employed in favour of widespread bloodshed resulting from factional combat. Hashashin are also made to be adept in furusiyya, or the Islamic warrior code, where they are trained in combat, disguises, and equestrianism. Codes of conducts are followed, and the hashashin are taught in the art of war, linguistics, and strategies. Hashashins never allowed their women to be at their fortresses during military campaigns, both for protection and secrecy. This is a tradition first made by Hassan were he sent his wife and daughters to Girdkuh when a famine was created during the Seljuk siege of Alamut.

For about two centuries, the hashashin specialized in assassinating their religious and political enemies. These killings were often conducted in full view of the public, often in broad daylight, so as to instill terror and intimidation in their foes. Assassinations were primarily carried out with a dagger, which was sometimes tipped with poison. Due to being immensely outnumbered in enemy territory, the hashashin tended to specialize in covert operations. Hashashins would often assimilate themselves in the towns and regions of their targets and, over time, stealthily insert themselves into strategic positions. They didn't always assassinate their targets, however, preferring at times to try threatening an enemy into submission. This could sometimes be accomplished with a dagger and a threatening note placed on an enemy's pillow. The assassin group was indeed feared enough that these threats were sometimes taken seriously, as in the case when Saladin, the Muslim Sultan of Egypt and Syria, made an alliance with the rebel sect to avoid more assassination attempts. In the heat of battle however, under no circumstances did they commit suicide unless completely necessary, preferring to be killed by their captors.

The first instance of assassination in the effort to establish an Nizari Ismaili state in Persia is widely considered to be the murder of Seljuq vizier, Nizam al-Mulk. Carried out by a man dressed as a Sufi whose identity remains unclear, the vizier's murder in a Seljuq court is distinctive of exactly the type of visibility for which missions of the fida'is have been significantly exaggerated. While the Seljuqs and Crusaders both employed assassination as a military means of disposing of factional enemies, during the Alamut period almost any murder of political significance in the Islamic lands was attributed to the Ismailis. So inflated had this association grown that, in the work of orientalist scholars such as Bernard Lewis, the Ismailis were equated to the politically active fida'is and thus regarded as a radical and heretical sect known as the Assassins.

The military approach of the Nizari Ismaili state was largely a defensive one, with strategically chosen sites that appeared to avoid confrontation wherever possible without the loss of life. But the defining characteristic of the Nizari Ismaili state was that it was scattered geographically throughout Persia and Syria. The Alamut castle therefore was only one of a nexus of strongholds throughout the regions where Ismailis could retreat to safety if necessary. West of Alamut in the Shahrud Valley, the major fortress of Lamasar served as just one example of such a retreat. In the context of their political uprising, the various spaces of Ismaili military presence took on the name dar al-hijra (Arabic: مركز دار الهجرة الاسلامي‎; land of migration, place of refuge). The notion of the dar al-hijra originates from the time of Muhammad, who migrated with his supporters from intense persecution to safe haven in Yathrib (Medina). In this way, the Fatimids found their dar al-hijra in North Africa. From 1101 to 1118, attacks and sieges were made on the fortresses, conducted by combined forces of Seljuk, Berkyaruq, and Sanjar. Although with the cost of lives and the capture and execution of assassin dai Ahmad ibn Hattash, the hashashins managed to hold their ground and repel the attacks until the Mongol invasion. Likewise during the revolt against the Seljuqs, several fortresses served as spaces of refuge for the Ismailis.

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