Yes the Assassins were Shia Ismailites not the main Shia Ithnasharis (12'ers). They have been greatly demonized by both Western and Sunni historians, who preferred to show the Assassins in the worst possible light. The term "hashishin", which the word Assassin derives from, was not used by members of the sect themselves but was a nickname applied by their enemies; even so, it was not in common use. The normal name was Ismailis or Naziris.
Legendary stories written by westerners such as Marco Polo, Crusaders, amateur historians like Von Hammer (from the 19th century) persisted in the West until quite recently, they described them as a devilish sect who would drug themselves by means of hashish inorder to perform political murder:
* Marco Polo visited the site of their castle(Alamut) in Iran after its destruction by the Mongols, and he wrote an imaginative account about them repeating the legend of how the future "assassins" were supposedly prepared for their missions by being drugged with hashish, brought into a secret pleasure garden, and told they had visited Paradise, to which they would return if they were killed in action.
* The most famous account was of the Syrian Assassins during the era of the Crusades; it written by the contemporary historian, William of Tyre, and unlike Marco Polo his writing revealed a fair amount of understanding. He described that Assassins fought against Saladdin, whom they attempted more than once to murder, yet at the same time took part in the Moslem struggle against the Franks/Crusaders after the fall of Jerusalem. The Crusaders were terrorized by the Shia Ismailites, especially because they murdered top Frankish leaders like Conrad of Montferrat (1192), who was murdered by "Assassins" disguised as monks. He wrote that the Crusaders were more fearful of them than any other Muslims, and were severly demoralised by the attacks of the Assassins, to whom they ascribed devilish cunning, a mastery of disguise, and a knowledge of various Frankish languages.
* In the nineteenth century a Viennese amateur historian called Von Hammer Purgstall wrote a book about the Assassins in which he ascribed to them, if not quite every conceivable form of infamy. His motive in writing seems to have been as much to emphasize the wickedness of all secret societies as to make a historical study of the Assassins, and his book has little historical value; nevertheless, it remained the standard reference work on the sect as late as the 1930s, when Freya Stark went to Alamut.
This post has been edited by Amal on May 18 2004, 08:54 AM
Modern Russian and American scholars such as W. Ivanow and Hodgson, who have made extensive studies on the sect, believe that there is no real evidence that the Assassins used hashish at all, at least for this purpose. (It is possible that they used it as a psychedelic agent for religious reasons, but that is another matter.) They argue that such a state of mind hardly seems compatible with the legendary accomplishments of the assassins - their superlative cunning, patience, knowledge of languages, and so forth - and in any case our modern experience of terrorism does not suggest that its perpetrators require any narcotic stronger than fanaticism itself. Besides, if the claims of modern users of hashish are to be believed, the effects of the drug tend more towards pacificism than murderousness.
Source: Assassins of Alamut by Anthony Campbell