Cannabis in the Islamic Middle Ages

Beginning in the 5th century, cannabis comes more and more frequently in the prescriptions of Arab doctors and in the 12th century its influence began to be felt in some Persian mystical orders, in particular the Sufi, who used it in their complicated ritual dances to reach the ecstasy. In the book of the Kings (Shahname) of the great Persian poet Firdusi, who lived between the tenth and eleventh centuries after Christ, we find the story of a caesarean section done under anesthesia induced by the use of alcohol and cicatrised with hemp: “You will chop the grass of simurgh (= hemp) in milk and moss that I will have indicated, after having left everything dry in the shade, you will rub the wound and you will see the sick heal immediately ”

Hemp was called by the Arabs ‘hashish’, which means ‘ dried herb’,  ‘grass’, and it was the hashish that gave the name to the Muslim sect of the Hashashins or Assassins, from which also derives the term ‘killer’, as the orientalist Silvestre de Sacy has shown. “Desperate to annihilate the power of the Caliphate of Baghdad, a young Persian from Tus who claimed to be descended from the Himyarite kings of southern Arabia, founded in the mid-eleventh century the sect of the Assassins, called by its members “new propaganda” . His name was Al Hasan ibn-al Sabbah and, as a young man of Al-Ravy, had received instruction in the Batinite system. After spending a year and a half in Egypt, he returned to Persia as a Fatimite missionary.

“In 1090, the fortress of Alamut, northwest of Qazvin (Iran), was seized, strategically located on the Alborz mountain range at an elevation of 3500 meters. Alamut, whose meaning is probably ‘eagle’s nest’, dominated a difficult and short road between the shores of the Caspian Sea and the Persian highlands: its possession constituted the first historical fact for the sect of the Assassins, equipping it with a stronghold of primary importance. From Alamut, al-Hasan and his disciples made sudden raids by capturing other fortresses, assaulting caravans heading for Mecca.

Based on Ismaili tradition, Hasan developed a form of agnosticism that tended to emancipate the initiates, convincing them of the uselessness of the prophets, encouraging them to dare everything by exposing themselves to death without hesitating to reach the gates of paradise quickly. The organization was divided into four hierarchical orders: under the Grand Master were the Priors, in charge of the command of a region. At the orders of the priors were the Propagandists; in the last place were the fida’is or malahida who carried out any order they were given, bringing the murder to the level of real art.

In the twelfth century, Abbot Arnold of Lübeck reported that al-Hasan bewitched the ‘sacrificed’ by means of drugs, cannabis: “It provokes enthusiasm, ecstasy, exit from the senses, thrill . Wizards then came, and showed to the sleepers fantastic and delightful things; they were given a dagger and it was promised that all the joys enjoyed would have become eternal if they had performed what would have been ordered to them “.

A crucial contribution to the knowledge of the sect is provided by the ‘Million’ by Marco Polo:

“On the Old Man from the Mountain and how he created Heaven and the Assassins”.

“Mulehet is a district where the Old Man from the mountains used to dwell in ancient times. Now we will tell you the thing, according to how Sir Marco heard from more than one man. The Old Man is called in their language Aladin. He had made between two mountains, in a valley, the most beautiful garden that was the most beautiful in the world. Here he had all the fruits and the most beautiful palaces in the world, all painted with gold and all the beasts and birds were brought here: in this place there was everything, water, apples, wine. Here there were damsels and maidens, the most beautiful in the world who could sing, play and dance; The Old Man made them believe that this place was heaven. And that’s why he got it created,  because Mohammed said that whoever went to heaven would have had beautiful women, as many as he wanted, and in this place he would find rivers of milk and apples and wine; and therefore he did it similar to what Mohammed had said. And the Saracens of that district really believed that this was heaven; and it did not enter this garden except he whom he wanted to be assassinated. At the entrance of the garden there was a castle so solid that it feared no man in the world. The Old Man held in his court many twelve-year-old boys whom he believed could become valiant  men. When the Old Man had them put in the garden, in groups of four, ten, twenty, he made them drink opium, and the young boys slept for three days; and he had them brought to the garden and at the right time he made them wake up. When the young boys woke up they were there in the garden and saw all those things, they really believed they were in heaven. And these maidens were always with them to sing and since they had everything they could ever wish for, they did not want to leave that garden. When the Old Man does not want any of those young boys to leave the garden, he has them drink that potion so that they sleep, and has them taken out of the garden into his palace. When they wake up, they are here in this palace, they are very surprised, and they are very sad when they realize that they are out of paradise. They go to the Old Man believing that he is a great prophet and kneel before him. He asks them: “Where are you from?” They answer: “From heaven” and they tell him what they saw inside the garden, and they have a great desire to go back inside. And when the Old man wants to have someone killed he calls the young boy who he deems too be the most vigorous and makes him kill the person he wants to be killed; and they willingly do it, to return to paradise. If the young boy survives they return to their lord; if he is captured he wants to die, believing he is returning to heaven. And the killers do it willingly. And in this way there is no man in front of the Old Man of the mountain; and so I tell you that many kings pay tribute to him because they fear him. It is true that in the year 1262, Alau, lord of the Tartars of the Levant, who knew of all these wickednesses, he wanted to destroy him and so he sent some of his barons into his garden. The castle was besieged for three years before Aladin surrendered and the castle destroyed. The inhabitants of the castle died of hunger after these three years of siege. So the Old Man together with all the inhabitants of the castle was killed.”

After maintaining considerable power in many regions of Syria and Iran for a long time, the Assassins were dislodged from Alamut and other fortresses by the Mongolian ruler Hulagu in 1256; their caliphate declined definitively as a political power following a great battle in 1258 in which Genghis Khan exterminated 12,000 Assassins, and in 1272 the Mameluke sultan Baybars gave them the final blow, destroying them en masse. The survivors fled to Syria, Persia, the Uman,  Zanzibar and especially in India where even today with the name of Ismailis they recognize as their chief the Aga Khan of Bombay, to whom they pay a tribute equal to one tenth of their income.

It seems superfluous to explain why it is socially and politically negative to join sects of this type that unfortunately, even with some changed elements, survive even in today’s world keeping intact the initiatory, hierarchical and pseudo-esoteric character that does not cease to attract a large number of proselytes relying on the desire for light, peace, paradise and escape from the world.

In spite of the disappearance of the caliphate, hashish did not lose the pre-eminent role it had acquired in the Muslim world: it was adopted by the fakirs of Islam who called it hashishat alfokora, “the grass of the fakirs”.

According to Takiy Eddin Makrizy, an Arab historian of the first half of the fifteenth century, Haider, head of all the sheikhs, who had taken up residence in Khorasan, between Nishapur and Ramah went out for a walk in the countryside one day and noticed a softly rocking plant , with a sweet and light motion, like somebody dazed by wine. This plant is called ‘kounab’. The sheikh, after having chewed a few leaves, ordered his disciples to imitate him and keep his discovery secret, and to reveal it only to the fakirs. “The highest God granted you, for a special favour, the knowledge of the virtues of this leaves, so that the use that you make of them will dispel the thoughts that darken your souls and free your spirits of all that can cloud their splendour. Therefore keep carefully the secret that is confided to you; and be faithful in hiding the precious secret.

Makrizy, condemning the cannabis that he sometimes calls kounab, sometimes hashish, sometimes kif, recognizes however that consumption is extremely widespread and that some have not hesitated to qualify it as a ‘holy institution’. He cites the fragment of a poem that glorifies the virtue of the intoxicating plant:

“Leave the wine, take the cup of Haider, this cup that exhales the scent of amber and shines with the radiant green of the emerald … Never the minister of a Christian sacrifice has mixed the liquor in his profane chalice; the wicked who professes a lying religion never drew material here for his sacrilegious offer ”

In 1378 the Emir Sudun Sheikuni of Djoneima issued an edict ordering the pulling out of the teeth to all those who had continued to ingest hashish.

But the habit remains, and in the ‘A Thousand and One Nights’ composed between 1000 and 1600, it is often cited a substance called ‘benji’ which, although not identifiable with certainty as hashish, has however the same effects. The Makhzan-El-Adwiya, a 16th century Muslim medical text, celebrates its medical virtues: “The leaves ground in powder and inhaled purify the brain; the juice of the leaves applied on the head eliminates dandruff and parasites; some drops of the juice introduced into the ears relieve the pain and destroy worms and insects. It is useful for diarrhea and gonorrhea, limits the seminal emission and is diuretic. The powder is recommended for external applications on wounds; compresses of boiled roots and leaves are excellent for inflammations, erysipelas and neuralgic pains “.

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