Etymology, the study of the derivation of words, isn’t usually a world-changer. But on May 19, 1809, an etymological lecture delivered at the Institut de France in Paris, based on erroneous assumptions delivered as fact, would have a profound and enormously expensive impact that lasts to this very day.
The talk, by the linguist and orientalist Silvestre de Sacy, was titled “Dynasty of the Hashishyun and the Etymology of Their Name.” Its gist was that the name of a Shi'ite sect known as the Hashishyun (“Assassins”) was derived from its members’ use of hashish, an intoxicant made of marijuana resin.
Founded in 11th-century Persia by Hasan ibn al-Sabah, the Hashishyun sect, from the Ismaili branch of Shi'a Islam, was quite well known in France and throughout Europe. It had gained fame after being mentioned in Marco Polo’s widely read account of his travels, written in about 1300.
According to Marco Polo, Al-Sabah, aka the “Old Man of the Mountain,” would give his followers an “intoxicating potion” to drink that turned them into cruel warriors, and would then dispatch them to dispose of his enemies.
The extensive use of the sect’s members as hit men is a historical fact, but the potion Marco Polo described was apparently a legend. In any case, so well-known was the legend in Europe, that the French form of the sect’s name, assassin, became synonymous with "murderer," and also passed into English as a noun and a verb.
It was apparently the similarity between the word “hashish” and the sect’s name that led de Sacy to conclude that there was an etymological connection between the two.
Reports about widespread use of hashish in the Arab world had reached France a few years before that fateful lecture, when thousands of French soldiers returned from Napoleon’s abortive attempt to conquer the Middle East. Napoleon, still a general, had come ashore in Egypt in 1798, leading a 35,000-strong force. Within two months, he defeated the Mamluk army and established a French protectorate in Egypt.
That brief period of French rule in Egypt – until 1801 – marked the first significant encounter of a European population with the use of cannabinoids as recreational drugs.
In Egypt, the French genuinely tried to establish a state that would integrate the ancient Muslim tradition with the principles of the Republic, a policy that was expressed both in public declarations and in practice. Indeed, in March 1799, the French commander in Egypt and the country’s de facto ruler until the French withdrawal in 1801, Jacques-François Menou, converted to Islam, married a Sunni Muslim woman and changed his name to Abdallah.
It was Menou – not Napoleon, contrary to many books and articles – who in October 1800 issued a decree banning the growing, selling and use of hashish throughout Egypt. The reason: Its use by French soldiers was leading to unbecoming behavior and causing harm to Egypt’s citizens. The decree asserted that “habitual smokers and drinkers of the plant lose their reason and suffer from violent delirium” (translation: Gabriel G. Nahas).
Menou’s decision may also have been influenced by the Sunni elite’s revulsion for the drug and its use by the Shi'ite lower classes. According to three of the four main Sunni schools of religious thought and practice, the use of hashish was like the consumption of wine, and had been banned since the 15th century.
In his lecture, de Sacy mentioned Menou’s prohibition of the use of hashish, nine years earlier, as proof of the danger posed by the plant. Hence, it appears that de Sacy’s conclusion – probably spurred by the phrase “violent delirium” – was that the intoxicating potion of the Old Man of the Mountain was made from hashish. In his talk, he referred specifically to the decree as proof of the dangers of hashish.
A few months later, abstracts of the lecture were published in France’s leading scientific journals – including those of the physicians’ society and the pharmacists’ association – together with a call for the new drug to be studied and for medical uses to be found for it.
“The intoxication induced by hashish hurls the user into an ecstasy similar to what transpires in Orientals from the use of opium,” the Bulletin de Pharmacie stated, adding, “There are even cases in which those who fall victim to its use take part in brutal actions induced by dementia and madness. But cannabis deserves the attention of pharmacists and chemists. Can they not, by means of analysis and various tests, extract from it certain elements from which we can produce medicinal preparations?”
Indeed, physicians and pharmacists in France and elsewhere began to prepare essences from hashish and provide them to patients as treatment for every possible disease and symptom. Naturally, these treatments were ineffective, but modern medicine was in any case still in its infancy, decades before the discovery of viruses and bacteria.
Reports about “successful” treatments using cannabis extracts appeared regularly in medical journals, which doesn’t say much for the testing methods of the time. But in 1859, the enthusiasm for the drug and for medications derived from it suddenly cooled off, and faded quickly. There were various reasons for this reversal of opinion, including revisions of prevailing medical theories.
The cannabinoid medications had turned out to be completely useless when Paris was struck by a cholera epidemic in 1849, notwithstanding earlier reports of their success elsewhere. Also, conservative forces that frowned on recreational drug use would rise with the ascension of Napoleon III as emperor in 1852.
‘Ecstasy and crime’
But possibly the most significant shift had occurred even earlier, with France’s invasion of Algeria, in 1830. Hashish was used very extensively by the Algerians, and the French colonizers tended to blame the drug for the fact that the local inhabitants didn’t welcome them with open arms. In 1845, the Algeria-based French druggist Julien Larue du Barry argued in an article in the Journal de Chimie Medicale that the use of hashish produces homosexual inclinations among the Algerians, as well as high rates of madness, irrational and childish behavior, and a tendency to violent outbursts.
These hypotheses were not confined solely to the scientific press. French journalists showered their newspapers in the homeland with reports about the danger presented by the Algerians’ consumption of hashish. The correspondent of the newspaper Le Constitutionnel in Algeria reported with concern in 1851 that the use of hashish is “the most serious issue threatening the health of the city [Constantine].” According to his report, “We had to detain and hospitalize 11 Muslims on account of dementia, almost all them young men from good families. They went mad as a result of using hashish.”
It’s not difficult to guess where this reporter and his colleagues got the idea that the consumption of hashish caused Algerians to become deranged. The report went on to say that hashish “is the potion that drove the people of the Old Man of the Mountain to ecstasy and crime and which gave us the word ‘assassin.’”
A key event in connection with the French horror toward hashish was a murder committed in Algiers in 1857. A man named Suleiman bin Muhammad attacked a group of Jews on a Sabbath eve with a club, killing one, in what witnesses described as a fit of madness. In his interrogation, the murderer admitted that he had consumed hashish and alcohol in large quantities before going on the rampage. The case was widely covered in the French and Algerian press, with many of the reports describing bin Muhammad as a latter-day Hashishyun.
Through the 1860s, newspapers and medical journals in France continued to publish reports about Muslims who had perpetrated violent crimes under the influence of hashish. In June 1860, for example, the Journal de Chimie Medicale reported on a man who bit another man in the face in an Algiers mosque, as a result of “hashish madness.”
Following these reports, British physicians in India decided to conduct statistical studies – a fairly new research method at the time – in order to qualify and quantify the phenomenon. A study done at a hospital for the mentally ill in the northern Indian city of Nagpur, in 1864, concluded that of 317 patients, 61 were suffering from insanity induced by inordinate consumption of cannabis.
However, in hindsight, the study was found to have been methodically dubious. Studies at other hospitals in India during the remainder of the 19th century were circular in nature: The use of hashish, which was then very extensive in the country, was presupposed as the cause of patients’ mental illnesses.
The upshot of these studies, nonscientific as they were, together with the Muslim prohibition on the use of hashish, led the regimes in the Ottoman Empire to declare war on the drug.
The struggle was particularly bitter in Egypt, where hashish enjoyed great popularity despite the authorities’ efforts to ban it. In 1891, the chief of the customs service in Egypt, Alfred Caillard, had the original idea of replacing a blanket prohibition on hashish with a tax. “It has been abundantly proved that the vice of haschisch smoking cannot be suppressed by legislation, whereas by a system of licences it may be kept under control to some extant, whilst the revenue to be derived from the import duty and licences might be usefully employed in works for the improvement of public health, or in grants for public education,” Caillard explained.
Egyptian authorities ignored his plea, and continued, unsuccessfully, to battle the use of the drug in the country. After decades of failure, they decided to try diplomacy. In December 1924, at the second Opium Conference in Geneva, where various countries met to coordinate the campaign against opium, heroin and cocaine, the Egyptian delegate Mohamed El Guindy urged that hashish be added to the list of dangerous narcotics. The illegal use of hashish, he stated, is the primary cause of most of the cases of insanity in Egypt. Guindy implored participants at the conference to give this matter their maximum attention, because “I know the mentality of Oriental peoples, and I am afraid that it will be said that the question was not dealt with because it did not affect Europeans.” His exhortations had their intended effect: Hashish was added to the list.
After the conference ended and the representatives returned to their respective countries, laws banning the use of cannabis began to be enacted around the world. For example, the law that prohibits the use of cannabis in Israel to this day was enacted in British Mandate Palestine just a few months after El Guindy gave his speech.
In the United States, which had joined late to the party but has since led the battle against the drug for almost a century, the campaign was spearheaded by Harry Anslinger, the first commissioner of the Treasury’s Federal Bureau of Narcotics. From 1935 until 1937, he and his organization waged a racist campaign of intimidation (he believed that the majority of Americans who used cannabis were people of color) to persuade the public and its elected representatives that cannabis use leads to insanity and violence, and that it should be outlawed.
In April 1937, Anslinger opened his address to the Senate Ways and Means Committee, in an effort to convince it to ban the substance in this way: “In Persia, 1,000 years before Christ, there was a religious and military order founded which was called the Assassins and they derived their name from the drug called hashish which is now known in this country as marijuana. They were noted for their acts of cruelty, and the word ‘assassin’ very aptly describes the drug.”
It worked. Congress soon passed legislation prohibiting the use or possession of marijuana.
Today it’s clear that de Sacy had it wrong all along: The Hashishyun did not use hashish.
Hashish – “grass” or “dry herb” in Arabic – reached the Arab world from India in the 12th century, after the death of the sect’s leader, Al-Sabah. And the sect was called not Hashishyun but Assasyun, a name derived from the Arabic word for "base," assas, and meaning, more or less, “fundamentalists.” Nor does hashish cause violent delirium. Nevertheless, the implications of the folk etymology wrongly proposed by one linguist more than 200 years ago continue to resonate.