Updated: Jul 11
When it comes to the history of hashish, the facts are as fascinating as the folklore.
Archeological and anthropological evidence proves that the cannabis plant has been used by humanity for thousands of years as a source of food, medicine, and sacrament. But what about the plant’s collected resin, better known as hashish? What follows is our best attempt to sort through the myths and mysteries and piece together an accurate account of hash’s hazy history.
It’s commonly believed that the word hashish derives from the Arabic root word hasis, meaning dried grass or herb. The very first form of hashish was undoubtedly charas—the sticky, resinous residue that accumulates on one's hands when handling cannabis flowers, which is then collected and pressed into a ball or block. Prehistoric Homo erectus and Homo sapiens would have surely encountered this while gathering, harvesting, and processing the plant, and likely would’ve scraped it off and tasted it, discovering its mildly medicinal and mind-altering effects.
The first historical records of hashish date back to the “Golden Age of Islam” in ancient Persia—sometime between the writing of the Koran in 632 and around 900 CE. Unlike alcohol, which was forbidden by the Koran as a khmar (intoxicant), cannabis was originally considered a medicine and therefore not included in the prohibition. The earliest written reference to hashish appears to be in The Book of Poisons—a toxicology/astrology treatise by Iraqi alchemist Ibn Wahshiyya published in the 10th century. In it, Wahshiyya refers to a toxic concoction consisting of cannabis extract and other aromatic herbs, which he claimed was lethal when inhaled.
Another, more famous text from that period in which hashish is mentioned is the fabled 1001 Arabian Nights, which even includes a story entitled “The Tale of the Hashish Eater.”
The earliest Muslim group known to have embraced hashish was the Sufis— a mystical sect of Islam devoted to communion with God through deep introspection that arose sometime during the 8th century. Once referred to as “the hippies of the Arab world,” Sufi monks believed that the elevation of consciousness hashish provided could assist them along the path to enlightenment. For them, eating hashish was, according to one Muslim critic, “an act of worship.”
One Sufi legend even claimed that it was the founder of one of its sects (a group of dervishes into piercings called the Haydariyya), an ascetic monk named Shayk Haydar, who first discovered hashish. According to the story, after ten years of reclusivity in his mountaintop monastery, Haydar ventured into the desert, where he discovered a “sparkling” plant and ate it. He returned to the monastery in a euphoric state, shared the plant’s magical properties with his fellow monks, then swore them to secrecy about it, saying: "God almighty has granted you as a special favour an awareness of the virtues of this leaf, so that your use of it will dissipate the cares that obscure your souls and free your spirits from everything that might hamper them, keep carefully, then the deposit he has confided in you."
After his death in 1221, Haydar was even buried with cannabis leaves and seeds. But despite the evidence confirming Haydar’s love of cannabis in general, there isn’t any actual proof that he made or used hashish. Regardless, both Arabic and Western scholars agree that the Sufis did eventually embrace hashish as a sacrament and helped spread its use throughout the lower and middle-class populations of Iraq, Syria, and Egypt.
Though cannabis resin was referenced in texts since the 9th century, the word hashish itself wasn’t reportedly seen in print until 1123 CE, when it was used in an Egyptian pamphlet accusing a sect of Muslims called the Nazari of being “hashish-eaters.” Not unlike the Sufi, the Nazari were a progressive, somewhat mystical sect from the Ismaili branch of Shia Islam founded in 1090 that emphasized rationality and social tolerance.
The Nazari were based in a mountaintop fortress in northern Iran called Alamut Castle (Alamut meaning "eagle's nest") and were ruled over by the group’s founder, Hassan-i Sabbah—a.k.a. “The Old Man of the Mountain.”
Since he had no army, Sabbah created an elite squadron of ninja-like warrior spies known as the Fidai (from fidayeen, meaning “martyrs”). Rather than engaging them in traditional battles, Sabbah sent the Fidai out to execute espionage missions and covert murders of their enemies. The Fidai were reportedly so devoted to their Imam and their faith that they would gladly sacrifice their lives upon his command. For this reason, many consider the Fidai the precursors of modern-day suicide bombers, or the first jihadi-style terrorists.
According to legend, the way that Sabbah brainwashed these fanatical fighters into such devotion was through the use of a mind-altering concoction that purportedly contained hashish. It’s from this legend that it was believed the Fidai were eventually ascribed their notorious nickname: hashashin (Arabic for “hashish eaters”), from which we derive the modern word “assassin.”
The true etymology of that moniker, however, is far from clear. Some believe the name was actually derived from the word assasyun (from the Arabic root assas, meaning "base" or foundation), meaning "people who are true to the foundation of the faith"—or in other words, fundamentalists. This interpretation would certainly make sense, considering fundamentalists are typically the kind of people most enthusiastic about sacrificing their lives for their religion. Others say it comes from the Persian word hassasin, meaning “herb seller” or “healer,” while still others say it may simply mean “followers of Hassan.”
What’s more, even if the nickname did originate from the term “hashish-eaters,” that still doesn’t verify the veracity of the legend. At that time, calling someone a “hashish eater” had a broader connotation beyond its literal meaning: it was a derogatory term used to denote undesirable, low-class people in general. Therefore, it’s entirely possible that the name was only ascribed to them by other Muslim groups as a way to express contempt for them rather than being based on actual evidence of their hash use. Because in reality, no actual evidence was ever discovered or documented showing that the Fidai made or consumed hashish. Nevertheless, the false legend stuck—thanks almost entirely to the teachings of two men, the first of which was famed Italian explorer Marco Polo.
It was through his wildly popular book The Travels of Marco Polo, published around 1300, that Polo introduced the Western world to the legend of the Hashashin. In it, Polo recounts second-hand the unverified tales he’d heard of the Old Man of the Mountain and his indoctrination methods:
“He had caused a certain valley between two mountains to be enclosed, and had turned it into a garden, the largest and most beautiful that ever was seen, filled with every variety of fruit. In it were erected pavilions and palaces the most elegant that can be imagined, all covered with gilding and exquisite painting. And there were runnels too, flowing freely with wine and milk and honey and water; and numbers of ladies and of the most beautiful damsels in the world, who could play on all manner of instruments, and sung most sweetly, and danced in a manner that it was charming to behold. For the Old Man desired to make his people believe that this was actually Paradise. So he had fashioned it after the description that Mahommet gave of his Paradise, to wit, that it should be a beautiful garden running with conduits of wine and milk and honey and water, and full of lovely women for the delectation of all its inmates. And sure enough the Saracens of those parts believed that it was Paradise!”
“Now no man was allowed to enter the Garden save those whom he intended to be his ASHISHIN. There was a Fortress at the entrance to the Garden, strong enough to resist all the world, and there was no other way to get in. He kept at his Court a number of the youths of the country, from 12 to 20 years of age, such as had a taste for soldiering, and to these he used to tell tales about Paradise, just as Mahommet had been wont to do, and they believed in him just as the Saracens believe in Mahommet. Then he would introduce them into his garden, some four, or six, or ten at a time, having first made them drink a certain potion which cast them into a deep sleep, and then causing them to be lifted and carried in. So when they awoke, they found themselves in the Garden.”
“And when he wanted one of his Ashishin to send on any mission, he would cause that potion whereof I spoke to be given to one of the youths in the garden, and then had him carried into his Palace. So when the young man awoke, he found himself in the Castle, and no longer in that Paradise; whereat he was not over well pleased. He was then conducted to the Old Man's presence, and bowed before him with great veneration as believing himself to be in the presence of a true Prophet. The Prince would then ask whence he came, and he would reply that he came from Paradise! and that it was exactly such as Mahommet had described it in the Law. This of course gave the others who stood by, and who had not been admitted, the greatest desire to enter therein.”
Though many at the time believed the “intoxicating potion” Sabbah used to convert his followers into bloodthirsty killers to be a form of hashish wine, Polo never explicitly mentions hashish in the book. It wasn’t until five centuries later that the false association between the Fidai and hashish would be presented to the world as “fact,” thanks to the second man responsible for perpetuating the legend—a French linguist and “Orientalist” named Antoine-Isaac Silvestre de Sacy (more on him later).
Regardless of the nickname’s true origin, one thing is not disputed: the Hashashin were feared and reviled, and it seems likely their enemies fabricated these fictions as a way to either discredit them or explain away their victories.
Sabbah died in 1124, but his Order of Assassins continued to terrorize Christian Crusaders, Sunni caliphs, and various other enemies across the Middle East for another century before ultimately being brought down by the infamous conqueror Genghis Khan, whose armies invaded Alamut and decimated the cult in 1256.
Though the Mongols may have killed off the Hashashin, however, they did nothing to kill the appeal of hashish; in fact, some Arab historians credit the Mongol invasions for it’s spread during the 13th century. As the Mongols invaded Muslim territories and drove refugees (many of whom were Sufis) westward into Iraq, Syria, and Egypt, they brought cannabis and hashish with them.
The first record of hashish use in Egypt comes to us from a Spanish-born Muslim botanist by the name of Ibn al-Bayṭar al-Malaqi, who in 1227 observed Egyptian Sufis (known as fakirs) rolling charas into small balls and swallowing them in the nation’s capital of Cairo. There was a park there known as the Gardens of Kafur where the Sufi and other poor hash-heads would congregate, grow their cannabis, and make and consume hashish—that is, until 1266 when King al-Zahir Babar decreed hashish to be illegal in the city, destroyed the gardens and threatened anyone caught with it with prison and “de-teething.”