The Assassins: A Radical Sect in Islam by Bernard Lewis

If you ever played the game Assassin’s Creed and its many incarnations or the first Broken Sword game, you will be made aware of the Order of Assassins. They were part of the Ismaili sect of Shia Islam which would come into conflict with Sunni Islam ever since there was an argument on succession of who was to lead the Islamic religion. This book by Bernard Lewis goes on to tell about their history and formation.

The Assassins were a group of people who would be responsible for giving us the name ‘assassin’ although there was more to them than that. Bernard Lewis writes about their history and legacy and how they may have influenced modern Islam. Bernard Lewis is of course writing from an American perspective about a world he is not a part of and is seeing from afar. The Assassins were famous around the time of the First Crusade where they would assassinate targeted victims. This was due to the fact that they did not have the numbers to perform open pitched battles with their rivals and more than likely did have anywhere near the budget for such a type of warfare. Even though they have been associated with rivalling the likes of the Templars during the First Crusade, they actually had more conflict with other Islamic organisations before finally being taken down by the Mongol Horde (although it is said that some survived for much longer).

If anything the book reminds us that not everything during the Crusades were as simple as they first seemed. Even though the European forces had their own conflicts and rivalries, so did the Muslim forces. The Sunnis under Saladin for example and the Shias with Assassins around places like Alamut and Masyaf. The Assassins themselves are presented as a fascinating group. We get to read what their contemporaries thought of them. Despite everything that may have been said about them it always appears that they did what they thought they had to do to survive under the circumstances. They never committed mass atrocities but went straight for their intended targets. If they could not do that they would at least make their presence known as was the case with Saladin who without killing him gave him a clear message to stay away. Lewis writes about the myths legends and truths about the Assassins and is a fascinating read especially about a group of people I personally would never have given too much thought about outside of computer games. This book at the least makes you understand why such groups are as they are and what they need to do to have an influence in their own worlds.

[A WEIDENFELD & NICOLSON EBOOK, EBOOK EDITION 2010, FIRST PUBLISHED 1967]