The Ishmaelites, or Assassins, constituted a sect or confraternity, which was founded by Hassan Sabah, about the year 1090, in Persia. The name is derived, it is supposed, from their immoderate use of the plant haschish, or henbane, which produced a delirious frenzy. The title given to the chief of the Order was Scheikh-el-Jebel, which has been translated the Old Man of the Mountain, but which Higgins has shown in his Anacalypsis (i, 700) to mean literally The Sage of the Cabala or Traditions. Von Hammer has written a History of the Assassins, but his opposition to secret societies has led him to speak with so much prejudice that, although his historical statements are interesting, his philosophical deductions have to be taken with many grains of allowance.
Godfrey Higgins has probably erred on the other side, and by a too ready adherence to a preconceived theory has, in his Annacalypsis, confounded them with the Templars, whom he considers as the precursors of the Freemasons. In this, as in most things, the middle course appears to be the most truthful.
The Assassins were a secret society, that is to say, they had a secret esoteric doctrine, which was imparted only to the initiated. Hammer says that they had a graduated series of initiations, the names of which he gives as Apprentices, Fellows, and Masters ; they had, too, an oath of passive obedience, and resembled, he asserts, in many respects, the secret societies that subsequently existed in Europe. They were governed by a Grand Master and Priors, and had regulations and a special religious code, in all of which Von Hammer finds a close resemblance to the Templars, the Hospitalers, and the Teutonic Knights. Between the Assassins and the Templars history records that there were several amicable transactions not at all consistent with the religious vows of the latter and the supposed religious faith of the former, and striking coincidences of feeling, of which Higgins has not been slow to avail himself in his attempt to prove the close connection, if not absolute identity, of the two Orders.
It is most probable, as Sir John Malcolm contends, that they were a race of Sofis, the teachers of the secret doctrine of Mohammed.
Von Hammer admits that they produced a great number of treatises on mathematics and jurisprudence ; and, forgetting for a time his bigotry and his prejudice, he attributes to Hassan, their founder, a profound knowledge of philosophy and mathematical and metaphysical sciences, and an enlightened spirit, under whose influence the civilization of Persia attained a high degree ; so that during his reign of forty-six years the Persian literature attained a point of excellence beyond that of Alexandria under the Ptolemies, and of France under Francis I.
The old belief that they were a confederacy of murderers-whence we have taken our English word assassins---must now be abandoned as a figment of the credulity of past centuries, and we must be content to look upon them as a secret society of philosophers, whose political relations, however merged them into a dynasty. If we interpret Freemasonry as a generic term, signifying a philosophic sect which teaches truth by a mystical initiation and secret symbols, then Higgins was not very far in error in calling them the Freemasons of the East.
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