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Hasan-i Sabbah

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Hasan-i Sabbah
حسن صباح
Old Man of the Mountain, Hasan-i Sabbah's 19th century engraving
TitleMawla, Sayyidna (Our Master)
Bornc. 1050
Qom, Seljuk Empire
(present-day Qom, Iran)
Died12 June 1124 (aged 73–74)
ReligionShia Islam
DenominationIsmaili Shia
Da'a'im al-Islam
Main interest(s)
OccupationLeader of Nizārī Ismā'īlī state
Founder ofNizari Ismaili state
Senior posting
PredecessorPosition Established
SuccessorKiya Buzurg-Ummid

Hasan-i Sabbah[a] (Persian: حسن صباح, romanizedḤāsān-e Śaḇaḥ; c. 1050 – 12 June 1124), also known as Hasan I of Alamut, was a religious and military leader, founder of the Nizari Ismai'li sect widely known as the Hashshashin or the Order of Assassins, as well as the Nizari Ismaili state, ruling from 1090 to 1124 AD.[2][3][4]

Alongside his role as a formidable leader, Sabbah was an accomplished scholar of mathematics, most notably in geometry, as well as astronomy and philosophy, especially in epistemology.[5][6] He and each of the later Assassin leaders came to be known in the West as the Old Man of the Mountain, a name given to the sect's leader in the writings of Marco Polo that referenced the sect's possession of the commanding mountain fortress of Alamut Castle.[7][8]


Hasan is thought to have written an autobiography, which did not survive but seems to underlie the first part of an anonymous Isma'ili biography entitled Sargozasht-e Seyyednā (Persian: سرگذشت سیدنا). The latter is known only from quotations made by later Persian authors.[9] Hasan also wrote a treatise, in Persian, on the doctrine of ta'līm, called, al-Fusul al-arba'a[10] The text is no longer in existence, but fragments are cited or paraphrased by al-Shahrastānī and several Persian historians.[10]

Early life and conversion[edit]

Qom and Rayy[edit]

Engraving of Hasan-i Sabbah riding a horse

The possibly autobiographical information found in Sargozasht-i Seyyednā is the main source for Hasan's background and early life. According to this, Hasan-i Sabbāh was born in the city of Qom, Persia in the 1050s to a family of Twelver Shia.[9] His father, a Kufan Arab reportedly of Yemenite origins, had left the Sawād of Kufa (located in modern Iraq) to settle in the town of Qom,[11][12] one of the first centres of Arab settlement in Persia and a stronghold of Twelver Shia.[13]

Early in his life, his family moved to Rayy.[9] Rayy was a city that had a history of radical Islamic thought since the 9th century, with Hamdan Qarmaṭ as one of its teachers.

It was in this religious centre that Hasan developed a keen interest in metaphysical matters and adhered to the Twelver code of instruction. During the day[6] he studied at home, and mastered palmistry, languages, philosophy, astronomy and mathematics (especially geometry).[5]

Rayy was also the home of Isma'ili missionaries in the Jibal. At the time, Isma'ilism was a growing movement in Persia and other lands east of Egypt.[14] The Persian Isma'ilis supported the da'wa ("mission") directed by the Fatimid caliphate of Cairo and recognized the authority of the Imam-Caliph al-Mustansir (d. 1094), though Isfahan, rather than Cairo, may have functioned as their principal headquarters.[14] The Ismā'īlī mission worked on three layers: the lowest was the fida'i or foot soldier, followed by the rafīk or comrade, and finally the dā‘ī or missionary. It has been suggested that the popularity of the Ismā'īlī religion in Persia was due to the people's dissatisfaction with the Seljuk rulers, who had recently removed local rulers.[9]

Conversion to Ismailism and training in Cairo[edit]

At the age of 17, Hasan converted and swore allegiance to the Fatimid caliph in Cairo. Hasan's studies did not end with his crossing over. He further studied under two other dā‘iyyayn, and as he proceeded on his path, he was looked upon with eyes of respect.[3]

Hasan's austere and devoted commitment to the da'wa brought him in audience with the chief missionary of the region: 'Abdu l-Malik ibn Attash. Ibn Attash, suitably impressed with the young seventeen-year-old Hasan, made him Deputy Missionary and advised him to go to Cairo to further his studies.[citation needed]

However, Hasan did not initially travel to Cairo. Some historians have postulated that Hasan, following his conversion, was playing host to some members of the Fatimid caliphate, and this was leaked to the anti-Fatimid and anti-Shī‘a vizier Nizam al-Mulk. This prompted his abandoning Rayy and heading to Cairo in 1076.[citation needed]

Hasan took about 2 years to reach Cairo. Along the way he toured many other regions that did not fall in the general direction of Egypt.[citation needed] Isfahan was the first city that he visited. He was hosted by one of the Missionaries of his youth, a man who had taught the youthful Hasan in Rayy. His name was Resi Abufasl and he further instructed Hasan.[citation needed]

From here he went to Arran (current Azerbaijan), hundreds of miles to the north, and from there through Armenia. Here he attracted the ire of priests following a heated discussion, and Hasan was thrown out of the town he was in.

He then turned south and traveled through Iraq, reached Damascus in Syria. He left for Egypt from Palestine. Records exist, some in the fragmentary remains of his autobiography, and from another biography written by Rashid-al-Din Hamadani in 1310, to date his arrival in Egypt at 30 August 1078.

It is unclear how long Hasan stayed in Egypt: about 3 years is the usually accepted amount of time. He continued his studies here, and became a full missionary.

Return to Persia[edit]

Whilst he was in Cairo, studying and preaching, he incurred the displeasure of the Chief of the Army, Badr al-Jamalī.[1] This may have been a result of the fact that Hasan supported Nizar, the Ismaili Imam-Caliph al-Mustanṣir's elder son, as the next Imam. Hasan was briefly imprisoned by Badr al-Jamali. The collapse of a minaret of the jail was taken to be an omen in favor of Hasan and he was promptly released and deported.[citation needed] The ship that he was traveling on was wrecked. He was rescued and taken to Syria. Traveling via Aleppo and Baghdad, he terminated his journey at Isfahan in 1081.

Hasan's life now was totally devoted to the mission. Hasan toured extensively throughout Persia. In northern Persia, touching the south shore of the Caspian Sea, are the mountains of Alborz.[citation needed] These mountains were home to a people who had traditionally resisted attempts by both Arabs and Turkish subjugation; this place was also a home of Shia leaning. The news of this Ismā'īlī's activities reached Nizam al-Mulk, who dispatched his soldiers with the orders for Hasan's capture. Hasan evaded them, and went deeper into the mountains.[citation needed]

Capture of Alamut[edit]

The Hashshashin's fortress of Alamut Castle

His search for a base from which to guide his mission ended when in 1088 he found the castle of Alamut in the Rudbar area (modern Qazvin, Iran).[citation needed] It was a fort that stood guard over a valley that was about fifty kilometers long and five kilometers wide.[citation needed] This fortress had been built about the year 865; legend has it that it was built by a king who saw his eagle fly up to and perch upon a rock, a propitious omen, the importance of which this king, Wah Sudan ibn Marzuban, understood. Likening the perching of the eagle to a lesson given by it, he called the fort Aluh Amu(kh)t: the "Eagles' Teaching".[15]

Hasan's takeover of the fort was conducted without any significant bloodshed. To effect this transition Hasan employed a patient and deliberate strategy, one which took the better part of two years to effect. First Hasan sent his Daʻiyyīn and Rafīks to win over the villages in the valley, and their inhabitants. Next, key people amongst this populace were converted, and finally, in 1090, Hasan took over the fort by infiltrating it with his converts.[16] Hasan gave the former owner a draft drawn on the name of a wealthy landlord and told him to obtain the promised money from this man; when the landlord saw the draft with Hasan's signature, he immediately paid the amount to the fort's owner, astonishing him.[citation needed] Another, probably apocryphal version of the takeover states that Hasan offered 3000 gold dinars to the fort's owner for the amount of land that would fit a buffalo's hide. The terms having been agreed upon, Hasan cut the hide into strips and linked them into a large ring around the perimeter of the fort, whose owner was thus undone by his own greed.[citation needed]

While legend holds that after capturing Alamut Hasan thereafter devoted himself so faithfully to study that in the nearly 35 years he was there he never left his quarters, excepting only two times when he went up to the roof,[citation needed] this reported isolation is highly doubtful, given his extensive recruiting and organizational involvement in the growing Ismā'īlī insurrections in Persia and Syria.[17] Nonetheless, Hasan was highly educated and was known for austerity, studying, translating, praying, fasting, and directing the activities of the Daʻwa: the propagation of the Nizarī doctrine was headquartered at Alamut. He knew the Qur'ān by heart, could quote extensively from the texts of most Muslim sects, and apart from philosophy, was well versed in mathematics, astronomy, alchemy, medicine, architecture, and the major scientific disciplines of his time.[citation needed] In a major departure from tradition, Hasan declared Persian to be the language of holy literature for Nizaris, a decision that resulted in all the Nizari Ismā'īlī literature from Persia, Syria, Afghanistan and Central Asia to be transcribed in Persian for several centuries.[15]

Foreign views: Marco Polo and China[edit]

Hasan-i Sabbah as depicted in Livre des merveilles

The leaders of Nizari Isma'ilis in Persia, were designated by Marco Polo using a Syrian equivalent term known in Europe at that time,[18] as Elder or Old Man of the Mountain. Polo's travelogue (ca. 1300) describes the Old Man of the Mountain as a charlatan who devised plots to convert young men to his sect. At the court of the Old Man of the Mountain "they were educated in various languages and customs, courtly etiquette, and trained in martial and other skills".[7] At Alamut they had "impressive libraries whose collections included books on various religious traditions, philosophical and scientific texts, and scientific equipment".[19]

Xishiji (Chinese: 西使記), a Chinese manuscript completed in 1263, relates a story similar to that of Polo. The sect leaders "ordered to send assassins to hide in those kingdoms which did not surrender. They stabbed their lords, and women as well, and they died".[20]

Nizari doctrine[edit]

Historians and scholars identify Hasan-i Sabbah as the founder of the Nizari Assassins and their doctrine. It developed during the struggle for succession of Nizar to the Fatimid throne in Cairo that eventually laid the foundation of the Nizari Isma'ilism Shia Islam. Since then, as a basic element of conservative nature, the Ismaili Imamate includes a hidden imam, in addition to the visible (or hazar, meaning apparent)[21] imam of the time, acting as such in a community. An important task of the latter is the proliferation of the doctrine, and of the undisclosed imam's spiritual guidance, in learning centers having instructors proficient in teaching techniques.

Devotion of the "true believers" having "absolute faith"[22] in the beliefs is another element originating from the times of Sabbah in Northern Iran,[23] who reportedly "was so devout that he even had one of his sons executed after he was accused of drunkenness."[24]

A Nizari assassin is identified as fida'i or devotee, "who offers his life for others or in the service of a particular cause."[25]

Personal life[edit]

Hasan is known for his ascetic and austere religious lifestyle. At his modest living quarters in the Alamut Castle, he spent most of his time reading, writing, and administration. During his 45 years of residence in Alamut, he apparently left his quarters only twice to ascend the rooftop.[26]

Hasan-i Sabbah probably had one wife, two daughters, and two sons.[27][26] Hasan's wife and daughters were sent to Gerdkuh as a safe place during Shirgir's campaign against Alamut; they never returned. They lived on spinning.[26] He had both his sons executed, Muhammad for khamr and Ustad Husayn for his suspected role in the murder of da'i Husayn Qa'ini.[26]

Hassan was highly revered by the Nizari community, whose members called him Sayyidna ("Our Master") and regularly visited his mausoleum in Rudbar before it was demolished by the Mongols.[26]

In popular culture[edit]

See also[edit]



  1. ^ a b Daftary 2007, p. 313.
  2. ^ Frischauer, Willi (1970). "Chapter II". The Aga Khans. The Bodley Head. p. 40. ISBN 0-370-01304-2.
  3. ^ a b Lewis, Bernard (1967), The Assassins: a Radical Sect of Islam, pp 38-65, Oxford University Press
  4. ^ Chisholm, Hugh (1911). "Ḥasan-e Ṣabbāḥ". Encyclopædia Britannica (11th ed.). Cambridge University Press.
  5. ^ a b E. G. Brown Literary History of Persia, Vol. 1, p. 201.
  6. ^ a b Nizam al-Mulk Tusi, pg. 420, foot note No. 3
  7. ^ a b Wasserman, James (8 August 2017). "A Note to the Reader on the Historical Context". Templar Heresy: A Story of Gnostic Illumination. Destiny Books. ISBN 978-1-62055-658-0.
  8. ^ Daftary, Farhad (2012). Historical Dictionary of the Ismailis. Scarecrow Press. pp. 15, 69. ISBN 9780810861640. Retrieved 23 September 2020.
  9. ^ a b c d Daftary, Farhad (2011). The Ismā'īlīs: their history and doctrines (2 ed.). Cambridge New York, NY: Cambridge Univ. Press. p. 311. ISBN 9780521850841.
  10. ^ a b Farhad Daftary, Ismaili Literature: A Bibliography of Sources and Studies, (I.B.Tauris, 2004), 115.
  11. ^ Lewis, Bernard (November 2002). "3. The New Preaching". The Assassins. Basic Books. p. 38. ISBN 978-0-465-00498-0. Hasan-i Sabbah was born in the city of Qumm, one of the first centres of Arab settlement in Persia and a stronghold of Twelver Shi`ism., His father, a Twelver Shiite, had come from Kufa in Iraq, and was said to be of Yemeni origin - more fancifully, a descendant of the ancient Himyaritic kings of Southern Arabia.
  12. ^ Daftary 2007, p. 313: His father, 'Ali b. Muhammad b. Ja'far b. al-Husayn b. Muhammad b. al-Sabbah al-Himyari, a Kufan Arab claiming Yamani origins, had migrated from the Sawad of Kufa to the traditionally Shi'i town of Qumm in Persia.
  13. ^ Lewis, Bernard (1967). The Assassins: A Radical Sect in Islam. Oxford University Press.
  14. ^ a b Daftary, Farhad, The Isma'ilis, pp. 310–11.
  15. ^ a b Daftary 2007, p. 316.
  16. ^ Daftary 2007, p. 317.
  17. ^ Daftary 2007, pp. 318–324.
  18. ^ Aziz, Abualy A. "A Brief History of Ismailism. Preface". amaana.org. Retrieved 8 January 2018.
  19. ^ "Episode Synopses". The Ismaili. Islamic Publications Limited. 24 July 2008. Retrieved 5 February 2018.
  20. ^ "The Mountain without the Old Man: Xishiji on Ismailis. PROCEEDINGS OF THE 2ND INTERNATIONAL ISMAILI STUDIES CONFERENCE" (PDF). Carleton University, Canada. March 2017. Retrieved 8 January 2018.
  21. ^ Mumtaz, Ali Tajddin. "Hazar Imam". Ismaili Electronic Library and Database. Retrieved 9 March 2018.
  22. ^ Webel, Charles P. (2004). "Depicting the Indescribable: A Brief History of Terrorism". Terror, Terrorism, and the Human Condition. Palgrave MacMillan. p. 25. ISBN 1-4039-6161-1.
  23. ^ DTIC, US Army (2005). "Terror in Antiquity: First to Fourteenth Century A.D.". A Military Guide to Terrorism in the Twenty-First Century. U.S. Army DCSINT Handbook No. 1 (Version 3.0). Defense Technical Information Center.
  24. ^ Crenshaw, Martha; Pimlott, John (1997). "The Assassins: a terror cult". International Encyclopedia of Terrorism. Fitzroy Dearborn. ISBN 1-57958-022-X.
  25. ^ "Fedāʾī". Encyclopædia Iranica. Retrieved 8 January 2018.
  26. ^ a b c d e Daftary 2007, pp. 343–344
  27. ^ نسب, مسعود مطهری; سپاهی, مجتبی. "کاربرد رویکرد شناسی در مطالعات تمدن اسلامی". فصلنامه تاریخ فرهنگ و تمدن اسلامی (in Persian). 9 (30): 7–34. ISSN 2252-0538.
  28. ^ Bouthoul, Betty (1936). Le grand maître des assassins. Armand Colin. ASIN B07KW9FGLS.
  29. ^ Bassas, Carlos (29 December 2016). "Assassin's Creed". Diario de Navarra (in Spanish). Retrieved 5 February 2018.
  30. ^ Rad, Chloi (27 December 2017). "11 videojuegos que no sabías que están basados en libros". IGN (in Spanish). Retrieved 5 February 2018.
  31. ^ Partridge, Christopher (June 2018). High Culture: Drugs, Mysticism, and the Pursuit of Transcendence in the Modern World. Oxford University Press. p. 102. ISBN 978-0-19-045913-0.
  32. ^ "The Brain Surgeons – Malpractise". Discogs. Retrieved 7 June 2024.
  33. ^ Miles, Barry (2000). The Beat Hotel. New York: Grove Press. p. 204. ISBN 0-8021-3817-9.
  34. ^ Harris, Oliver (2023). Two Assassins: William Burroughs / Hassan Sabbah. Moloko. ISBN 978-3-910431-10-2.
  35. ^ "TAM KADRO! Uyanış Büyük Selçuklu dizisi oyuncuları ve karakterleri açıklandı! İşte Uyanış Büyük Selçuklu oyuncu kadrosu!". CNN TÜRK (in Turkish).
  36. ^ "يجسده كريم عبد العزيز.. من هو حسن الصباح مؤسس طائفة الحشاشين؟". اليوم السابع (in Arabic). 26 April 2023. Retrieved 6 March 2024.
  1. ^ Full name: Hasan ibn Muhammad ibn Ja'far ibn Husayn ibn Muhammad ibn al-Sabbah[1] (Arabic: حسن الصباح أو الحسن بن علي بن محمد بن الصباح الحميري)


Further reading[edit]

Secondary sources[edit]

Primary sources[edit]

  • Hasan-i Sabbah, al-Fuṣūl al-arba'a ("The Four Chapters"), tr. Marshall G.S. Hodgson, in Ismaili Literature Anthology. A Shi'i Vision of Islam, ed. Hermann Landolt, Samira Sheikh and Kutub Kassam. London, 2008. pp. 149–52. Persian treatise on the doctrine of ta'līm. The text is no longer extant, but fragments are cited or paraphrased by al-Shahrastānī and several Persian historians.
  • Sarguzasht-e Sayyidnā

External links[edit]