Zhyldyz Oskonbaeva
(RIEAS Senior Advisor & Eurasian Liaison)

Copyrights: www.rieas.gr

The more followers you have, the stronger is their belief in you. The more believers you have, the greater your chances of getting elected. With both you can rule the nation. The difference between the two is that believers will fight for their cause. This forms the basis for real power (From author).

The influence of religion is such that power, order and government perceive their effects as a stabilizer on society as well as the legitimation of their rule. Depending on the history, the state depends on a society that is moral, consistent and trusting in their institutions.  As decision makers, real power ensures that their decisions will be both supported and followed by society. From the very beginning of society, religious institutions fought for “believers-parishioners.” As a result, politics borrows from religion in that it is a secularization of bureaucratic competencies formally entrusted to an absolute ruler ‘personally’ chosen by a supreme being and counseled by his representative on earth – embodied as the senior religious leader.  Sometimes this symbiotic relationship is equal, sometimes dependent upon the other but always it is both visual and implied.  What both understand is that power is expressed in numbers which is something they both need. 

This analysis is a series of articles consisting of historical and contemporary facts in order to examine this relationship in more detail.  By minimizing editorial comment and without bias to any particular religion, the intent to explore a dimension that remains largely underexplored in modern scholarship.  In other words if intelligence professionals are dedicated patriots above the norm then what effect does religion play in the composition of their national identity and their duties in serving the state?

In recent years this question is noted by the raising of tensions, especially intolerance towards other religions brought into predominately secular states. On the other side, the absolute power of theocratic rulers and whatever prejudices of believers towards others inspires analysis on whether such a common linkage exists at all between religious institutions and states in general. Whether it is mosque, church or temple, religious orders or sects interact with societies, taking part in the daily life of the people they serve.  In other words, the people serving the highest ideals of the state are not the exception but rather a reflection of it.

Like every other phenomena in the social sciences, this too has a history.  The ‘intelligence dispatch’ had appeared first in ancient Egypt, Persia and Greece. The involvement of religious orders, monks and priests in intelligence gathering, dispatch, analysis and storage was essential because in ancient times these were the only people that were literate and astute enough to chronicle events such as battles, diplomatic agreements, change of powers and dynasties. Instead of a purely devotional existence, their access to the royal courts also made them attractive prospects for spycraft.

Until then the only known guidebook regarding intelligence gathering was in a book written some 2500 year ago. The book “The Art of War,” was written by General Sun Tzu and is still cited by military and intelligence professionals today.  Most telling is his knowledge about the types of spies and the methods of recruiting them. Sun Tzu valued intelligence with as much esteem as the army. He wrote, “What enables the wise sovereign and the good general to strike and conquer, and achieve things beyond the reach of ordinary men, is intelligence. Now the foreknowledge cannot be elicited from spirits; it cannot be obtained inductively from experience, nor by any deductive calculations.” He lived around the same time as Confucius – which as an early member of the religious pantheon reflects subtly in Sun Tzu’s work. Such an example is this vague statement: “Without the humanity and justice, you will not be able to use a spy."  This is interpreted to mean that intelligence should be a manifestation of humanity and compassion but the undertaking of espionage however "unjust" or "evil" cannot be undertaken without some kind of inner nobility.  Accordingly Sun Tzu believed that only the "enlightened rulers and wise commanders are able to turn people of high intelligence as their spies, and in this way they will certainly make great things." (1) These insights can argue to some degree that the legendary general was influenced by the “harmony doctrine” attributed to Confucius.

Another early figure was more overtly religious. Joshua of the Bible was a military commander charged with leading the tribes of Israel after their bondage in Egypt. Joshua is mentioned as the son of Nun, of the tribe of Ephraim who serves as their first great military commander. He was also Moses’ security chief, acting as his bodyguard at Sinai and commanding the guard of the tent. One of the known military maneuvers he had undertaken was his conquest of Canaan. (2) In modern terms he was both the military and intelligence chief until he became the leader himself.

The first known “infiltration” to the enemy’s citadel was recorded in the Bible and mentioned in Greek mythology. During the reign of Darius I of Persia, a commander named Zopyrus figured out how to break the long-standing siege of Babylon. He cut off his own nose and ears in order to impress Babylonians by presenting himself as the fleeing victim of a King that mutilated him. By misinforming the Babylonians of his intent to get revenge, he receives full command over the defensive troops. Following the prearranged plan with Darius he even defeats Persian Army at first thus strengthening his position with the guardians of the Gates. (3)  At the end Babylonians will learn too late that they were penetrated and ultimately betrayed.

In addition to the aforementioned deception, there is one ancient story of recruitment. This time the recruitment involved one within the inner circle of Jesus. The bible recalls Jesus as a provocative leader that threatened to undermine the religious authority of the Judaic Sanhedrin serving under the political occupation of the Romans. In this regard Judas Iscariot was paid 30 pieces of silver after identifying Jesus with a kiss. (4) The story ends with his suicide after the condemnation and crucifixion of Jesus.

With the advent of Islam, the level of sophistication increases. The earliest known practice of “political assassination” is found by ensuing the sect of Nizari Ismailis. Following the schism between Sunnis and Shi’as, in 11th-13th centuries this sect had been involved in the assassinations of about 70 different political and religious figures; of which included 8 monarchs. Establishment of this religious order to begin with originates from the confrontations between Shi’a Ismailits and Seljuk Turks in Iran.  Legendary figure Hasan ibn al-Sabbah was referred to as a leader of the order. Established as an order at an enclave called Alamut (from Persian meaning “eagles’ nest”), the ruins of the fortress are still visible in the southern mountainous province of Daylem which is 60 miles from Teheran, Iran.

“Assassins”, calling themselves “fida’ii” carried out individual murders and terrorist acts, dressing as merchants, beggars, dervishes, pilgrims, and squires, amongst others.  The significance is they were said to be able to penetrate anywhere – regardless of palaces in the city or tents and caravans far away.  Like today’s ‘sleeper’ they stayed in the background for years waiting for their opportunity. This included overtly changing their faith for the sake of the mission. Espionage and bribes were common methods to achieve their desired results. The order was largely represented in Iran, Syria and Lebanon. (5)

Although the religious order fell victim to the annals of history, later assassins had followed the main tenets of its ideology when carrying out political assassinations. According to numerous legends, the order of Nizari Ismailits had a dedicated library which was enormous for its time. Some note that when the Seljuks attacked and took over the Temple of Alamut they had burned the library. Other legends note that Tamerlane ruler of Turkistan was an avid reader and learner and hid the books. To this day, archeologists continue to search.
The only known saved chronicles about the Assassins and Alamut castle were said to have been recorded by Marco Polo.  Scholars to this day argue over veracity of Polo’s account.  What is not disputed is the travel diary of a Jesuit known as Matteo Ricci. Created in 1540, the Jesuit order became the pope’s rapid-strike force, a corps of soldiers ready to die for the faith at any time and place.  Matteo Ricci did visit and did record while visiting Alamut all types of assassination that were described in their parchments. So intricate was the details that there were 32 catalogued knots useful for strangulation. 

Both documents were sealed by the Papal order of Paul IV in 1557. This Index Liborum Prohibitorum, protected by Papal Guard demonstrates some of the earliest attempts at classification as well as access.  All this for good reason too.  The next Pontiff, Pius V recovered both documents at the time he established his Holy Alliance or “the entity.” This served as the formal intelligence body while the Sodalitium Pianum (6) became the Vatican’s counterintelligence arm. As mentioned in the introduction, the relationship between church and king was mutually important to maintain the power.  With the religious schism occurring between Protestantism and Catholicism, it was instead the Catholic Church that risked losing power.

This becomes critical in understanding the level of sophistication that intelligence collection would eventually undertake.  Case in point is the succession to the English throne.  The Holy Alliance was concerned with overthrowing the Protestant Elisabeth I and replacing her cousin, the Catholic Mary Queen of Scots.

Out from the Holy Alliance also came the Inquisitorial courts where the flimsiest of accusations subjected noble and pauper alike to torture and execution.  Equally important was the first known global analyses about the Church’s enemies. The Informi Rosso (7) or ‘Red Report’ was a parchment with a red ribbon and papal seal. Any break of the seal would mean execution for the courier.   

As much as these events lead up to the profession of intelligence as we understand it today perhaps the most telling is found back in Elisabeth’s England. As chief of intelligence and counter-espionage Sir Francis Walsingham was not a religious authority but an appointed civil servant. (8) With sovereignty vested in a King or Queen able to claim their own mandate by God, the role of spymaster is also evolving from one of religious duty into the national civil service owing allegiance to the crown.    


 (1)  Philips, T. (1985).   “Roots of Strategy. The 5 Greatest Military Classics of All Time.” Stackpole Books:  Harrisburg, PA.
(2)  Johnson, P. (1988).  “A History of the Jews.” Harper and Row: New York. 
(3) Stewart, Michael. "People, Places & Things: Zopyrus", Greek Mythology: From the Iliad to the fall of the Last Tyrant. Available [online] at URL: http://messagenetcommresearch.com/myths/ppt/Zopyrus_1.html [accessed on March 27, 2012]
 (4)The Book of Matthew, Chapters 26 and 27.
(5) Александр Андреев, Максим Андреев " Восточные ордена: ассасины, вахабиты, басмачи, дервиши" Published 2010, Available [online] at URL:  http://www.litres.ru/aleksandr-andreev/maksim-andreev/vostochnye-ordena-assasiny-vahhabity-basmachi-dervishi/  [accessed March 24. 2012]
(6) Trattini, E. (2008).  “The Entity: Five Centuries of Secret Vatican Espionage.” St. Martins’ Press: New York.
 (7) ibid.
 (8) Fraser, G. (2008).  “The Steel Bonnets: The Story of Anglo-Scottish Border Reivers.” Skyhorse Publishing: New York.


We use cookies

We use cookies on our website. Some of them are essential for the operation of the site, while others help us to improve this site and the user experience (tracking cookies). You can decide for yourself whether you want to allow cookies or not. Please note that if you reject them, you may not be able to use all the functionalities of the site.