Fedayeen is a term that has been used to describe several Muslim groups at different times in history. The group that first called themselves fidayeen (from the Arabic fidā'ī, meaning "one who is ready to sacrifice his life for the cause") were a group operating variously on the Afghanistan silk road and then in Iran and Syria from the 8th to the 13th centuries. The exact foundation date of the sect is usually taken to be 1090 when Hasan-i Sabbah captured a mountain stronghold at Alamut, about one hundred miles from present-day Tehran. The origin of our word assassin is sometimes thought to come from the term ascribed to this group by their enemies, Hashīshiyya, which means "hashish-taker".
The reason for this appellation lay in legend surrounding the recruiting methods of the fidayeen. Faced with the task of convincing young Muslims to die for their cause (which we'll get to in a minute), the fidayeen reportedly resorted to a sneaky tactic. They would kidnap caravan guards and drug them, then take them back to Alamut, which was famed for its lovely gardens. Plied with hashish1, which is forbidden in Islam, the young men would be placed in the lovely gardens with plenty of food and compliant virgins. The young men were subsequently convinced they were in Paradise and told they could return there if they did the bidding of Sabbah.
His bidding was targeted assassination. The fidayeen were committed to the destruction of the Abbasid Caliphate following the move of the caliphate to Cairo. The new caliphate was widely considered to be effete and too liberal by its enemies, who accused it of betraying the way of the Prophet. The fidayeen spurned the use of any weapon but the dagger in their assassinations, seeking death shortly afterwards so they could go straight to Paradise. Unlike the modern suicide bomber, at no point did the fidayeen kill themselves.2 However, the ancient fidayeen were the start of the systemisation and the ideology of a certain type of killing.
Islamic theology pronounces variously on the duty of obedience to the Islamic ruler. Absolute obedience is usually called for, as befits the successor of the Prophet, but the ruler is not higher than the law of God. Should he order something contrary to God's law, then disobedience becomes paramount. The Asassins were acting against their own Muslim rulers for what they saw as apostasy, which is the rejection of what one has voluntarily consented to, in this case the Islamic faith. This is a capital offence under the law of Islam, although the classical jurists would have considered a trial a prerequisite: the fidayeen did not. Much of the anger of the Wahhabi sect and other reformist Islamic sects was directed against their own Muslim rulers, not the outside World: although today hatred of the West or "Westernising" rulers is part of the doctrine.
The first fidayeen were successful in assassinating several high-placed figures. They were not well-known by the Christians, although they also killed the King of Jerusalem Conrad of Montferrat in 1192. Eventually the sect was destroyed by Mongol warlord Hulagu Khan, but the ideology lived on.
The term fidayeen re-emerged briefly in the nineteenth century, used by a group who planned to assassinate the Sultan. The plot was discovered and the conspirators executed. It was next in use for a protracted period in Iran between 1943 and 1955 by a political-religious terrorist group which again carried out targetted assassinations against politicians, again avoiding collateral damage. The group was eventually suppressed in 1955 after trying to assassinate the Iranian Prime Minister. The term was next resurrected by the militant wing of the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO), and remains in use to this day.
The first use of the term fedayeen in the Palestinian context were groups that used to conduct cross-border raids into Israel in the 1940s and 1950s from bases in Egypt, Lebanon and Jordan. These groups were often based in refugee camps and many had fled Israel during the 1947 - 48 War of Independence that Israel fought against its neighbours. Israel has frequently accused neighbouring Arab governments of complicity, and active encouragement, of the actions of these groups. Although they massacred civilians from an early time, a significant 'innovation' was made in the 1980s with the appearance of the religiously-inspired suicide bomber.
Unlike the old fidayeen, the new suicide bomber dies by his own hand. This was not always the case, and this approach was pioneered by Hamas and Hezbollah in the 1980s and 1990s. The early PLO nationalists carried out their operations from a safe distance, and did not profess religious motives. The rise of the suicide bomber is a phenomenom without precedent in Islamic history, and can in no way be construed to represent a continuation of earlier trends beyond a symbolic similarity. The classification by Osama bin Laden of all Americans as "Crusaders" and therefore legitimate targets is similarly without precedent.
Saddam Hussein, who liked to portray himself as the spiritual legatee of Saladin, also created an organisation called the Fedayeen Saddam which are now tasked with driving the coalition from Iraq. The organisation was created in 1995 and was the regime's "enforcers" and responsible for some of its most brutal crimes. Although it was probably named to capitalise on the symbol of the Palestinian resistance, it represents the further adulteration of the word: especially in the post-war phase, where - as with the Palestinian terrorists and al-Qaeda - men calling themselves fedayeen have been responsible for the slaughter of innocents for its own sake in suicide attacks.
Marco Polo was the first Westerner to travel down the silk road all the way to China
and claimed to have visited the fortress of Alamut in 1273
. This claim is problematic because the stronghold was supposed to have been destroyed by the Mongols
in 1256. Polo's rendition of the recruitment techniques should rather be taken as a statement of the legend surrounding the Assassins rather than their actual actions. Anyway, the drug he describes sounds more like alcohol than hashish: although this too was forbidden by Islam
. It is hence most likely our word for assassin means "follower of Hassan".
2Suicide bombers are in fact taking quite a gamble on a theological discussion. The Judeo-Christian term martyr usually refers to one who dies rather than renounce his faith, but the Arabic word (shahīd) has a different meaning. It means one who has died in jihad, and the reward is eternal bliss in Paradise. However, the reward for suicide is eternal damnation which takes the form of endless repetition of the act which killed onself, according to the classical jurists. Recent "fundamentalist" jurists may claim differently, but they are by no means considered to be unanimously correct.