Thursday, January 05, 2006

Assassin - Another Word for "The Base"

© 2005

The etymology of the word ‘assassin’ is still hotly debated amongst historians. Early travelers and chroniclers such as Marco Polo (“Now no man was allowed to enter the Garden save those whom he intended to be his ASHISHIN”) attribute the word which emerged into Latin and later most European-based lexicons as derived from the Arabic word for “hashish’, an herb-based drug (hemp) which came to the Middle East through India, and those who use the drug as ‘hashasheen’. As Latin does not have a sound for “sh”, it became ‘s’ and thus ‘assassin’. This theory is supported by one of the earliest European writers on the Assassins, Sylvestre de Sacy in his 1809 memoir to the Institut de France (also found in the annex to Joseph von Hammer-Purgstall’s The History of the Assassins - 1835).

However, "[m]any scholars have argued, and demonstrated convincingly, that the attribution of the epithet 'hashish eaters' or 'hashish takers' is a misnomer derived from enemies the Isma'ilis and was never used by Moslem chroniclers or sources. It was therefore used in a pejorative sense of 'enemies' or 'disreputable people'. This sense of the term survived into modern times with the common Egyptian usage of the term Hashasheen in the 1930s to mean simply 'noisy or riotous'. It is unlikely that the austere Hasan-i Sabbah indulged personally in drug taking… There is no mention of that drug [hashish] in connection with the Persian Assassins - especially in the library of Alamut ('the secret archives')." (Edward Burman, The Assassins - Holy Killers of Islam). This theory is further debunked by Bernard Lewis when he observed that the word ‘hashish’ (originally in Arabic meant to refer only to dry herbs) only in more modern times was used to refer to the drug, and only in Syria (and later in Egypt). A great majority of historians argue that the attribution of hashish-users in reference to the Nizari Isma’ilis, even if directed towards them, probably was only used by their critics such as Sunni contemporary chroniclers and was only used with respect to the Nizaris of Syria, and not Persia.

Other theories of the etymology put forth the argument that the word derives from the name of the founder of the sect, Hassan Sabbah, and that those who followed him were referred to as a’Hassan, or followers of Hassan, and that with time the word became ‘assassin’.

Still another theory postulates that the word derives from the Arabic word “hassas” which applies to ‘quiet intruder’ or ‘night thief’.

A final, and most likely, theory is that the word derives from the Arabic word for foundation or basis, ‘assass’, which is very interesting in light of the name of the modern terrorist group, Al Qa'eda, which is the Arabic word for ‘base’. “According to texts that have come down to us from Alamut, Hassan liked to call his disciples Assassiyun, meaning people who are faithful to the Assass, the "foundation" of the faith. This is the word, misunderstood by foreign travelers, that seemed similar to "hashish."” (Amin Maalouf in Samarkand)



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4:44 PM  

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