Freemasonry burst onto the world stage early in the 18th century, spreading across the globe with remarkable speed. With Lodges established everywhere from London to India, and from America to the West Indies, Freemasons established the first truly global network by the end of the century.
Although English-speaking Freemasons considered themselves loyal subjects of their respective nations, they also saw themselves as part of a great brotherhood that transcended national borders, class, race, ethnicity, and even religion. This contradiction guaranteed that conflict eventually arose within Freemasonry’s ranks over its role in the world, and who could, and who could not, be made a member.
The first recorded initiation of a Jew into a Masonic Lodge is that of Edward Rose in 1732. Members of non-monotheistic faiths (such as Hinduism) faced more resistance, and the issue was not resolved until the 19th century.
Masonic Lodges were sometimes used, unofficially, by colonial powers (especially Britain and France) as part of diplomatic efforts. Initiating foreign dignitaries and even members of monarchies into Freemasonry helped cement relations between the two negotiating countries.
The Shah of Persia’s ambassador, Askeri-Khan, was initiated into Freemasonry in Paris in November 1808. He was impressed enough to have discussed the possibility of founding a Lodge in Isphahan, Persia (Iran). Two years later, in London, Mirza Abul Hassan Khan, Minister to the Court of Persia, was made a Freemason.
Things could be more difficult abroad, however, and the issue finally came to a head in 1865. Prosonno Coomar Dutt, a Hindu, had petitioned Lodge Courage with Humanity for initiation into the fraternity. In turn, the Master of the Lodge sought permission from the Provincial Grand Master, Hugh David Sandeman, who refused, citing “social considerations.” Around the same time, Said-ud-Dowlah, a Muslim prince, had been initiated into a Lodge of British Freemasons in Kanpur, India. Sandeman had officially refused permission for the initiation to take place, and, on learning about it, suspended two leaders of the Lodge for insubordination.
The exclusion of the two men, on the basis of race and religion, became a heated issue inside Freemasonry in India. Before the end of 1864 the news reached the United Grand Lodge of England, which subsequently decreed that Hindus and Muslims could be admitted into the fraternity to foster “brotherhood between man and man.” And they would also be exposed to “true religion and enlightenment.”
Despite the snobbery, and even revulsion, expressed by some Freemasons, Masonic intellectuals had long been interested in ancient and non-Western religion and its symbolism. During the 18th century, Freemasons developed a vast number of rituals, many of them esoteric or alchemical in nature. A century later, many of these ceased to be performed, or “worked,” and they faded into history. Others were compiled into Rites, some of which competed for prestige, or to be regarded as the most authentic. Notably, one 19th century Masonic Degree interpreted the Christian acronym I.N.R.I. as “India, Nature, Regeneration, Ignorance.” The Freemason had to overcome ignorance, and the “source of knowledge,” according to the Degree, was India.
Late in the same century a new force emerged in the East: anti-colonialism and national independence. There is a certain irony in the fact that two of the early figures in the push for Indian independence from Britain and for the revival of Buddhism in Sri Lanka had also been involved with Freemasonry, at least to some extent. The enigmatic Madame Helena Blavatsky, head of the Theosophical Society, had been granted a charter for a co-Masonic Order by British esoteric Freemason John Yarker. Colonel Henry Steel Olcott, the Theosophical Society’s number two, had also entered Freemasonry as a young man.
We will return to Yarker later, but here it is worth mentioning that Blavatsky and Olcott felt profound respect for the cultures they encountered in Asia, and were at the forefront of the independence movements in India and Sri Lanka. Although largely forgotten today, Olcott helped establish a Buddhist school system in Sri Lanka, and petitioned for greater rights for the country’s Buddhists (who were being culturally ‘cleansed’ so that Christian missionaries could proselytise more effectively). He also wrote a Buddhist catechism and helped design the international Buddhist flag, both of which are still in use.
Abd al-Qadir & Anti-Colonial Politics
Even before Blavatsky reached India, Freemasonry had already been intertwined with anti-colonial politics in the Middle East. Abd al-Qadir al-Jazairi (1808-1883), Sufi, resistance fighter, and Emir of Mascara in northwest Algeria, joined a Masonic Lodge in Egypt in 1864 after striking up a correspondence with a French Lodge. Other important figures to join the Masonic fraternity included the founding father of pan-Islamic anti-colonial politics, Sayyid Jamal ad-Din al-Afghani, the Grand Mufti of Egypt Muhammad ‘Abduh, and Shaykh Abdullah Quilliam, a convert to Islam and advocate for the rights of Muslims under the British Empire. Why would Muslim activists join Freemasonry during this period?
Abd al-Qadir, a descendent (sharif) of the Prophet of Islam, was born into a family of prominence in the Qadiriyya Order of Sufism. His father, the head of the Order, seems to have been keen that his son be well travelled and educated in the faith. During 1826-27, the two men journeyed to Mecca for the hajj, visiting Cairo, Damascus and Baghdad along the way. This afforded Abd al-Qadir the opportunity to meet and discuss with scholars of different Sufi traditions, and to gain a deeper understanding of the esoteric and philosophical traditions within Islam.
This relatively idyllic time was cut short in 1830, with the French invasion of Algeria. Abd al-Qadir’s father initially led the resistance against the colonial power, but when he was too old to continue al-Qadir took over his responsibilities. Despite all efforts, tens of thousands of Algerians were killed, many due to the scorched earth policy of the French who destroyed orchards and crops, causing many to starve.
Abd al-Qadir was forced to sue for peace in 1847. Taken to France and placed under house arrest, he devoted himself to the study of the works of Sufi master Ibn al-Arabi. In 1855 he was given permission to resettle in Damascus. There, with a small Algerian entourage, al-Qadir established a salon for discussing Sufi writings. He also began teaching the Qura’n and Sunnah at the Umayyad mosque. In 1860 anti-Christian riots broke out in the city. Abd al-Qadir sheltered a number of Christians at his home, and used his armed entourage to protect them. Already respected abroad (Paris’s Asiatic Society registered Abd al-Qadir as a Fellow prior to his departure from France), his actions won the Algerian Sufi new accolades. Among those now taking an interest in Abd al-Qadir was Henry IV, a Masonic Lodge under the jurisdiction of the French Grand Orient.
The Lodge wrote to Abd al-Qadir, telling him Freemasons believed both in God and the immortality of the soul, and implored him to affiliate. Before this, the Sufi had thought Freemasons were mischief-makers. After the introduction, al-Qadir corresponded with the Lodge and four years later, in 1864, he visited Alexandria, Egypt, where he was initiated into the Lodge of the Pyramids, which acted on behalf of the French Lodge. The relationship ended the following year, however, when he visited Henry IV in Paris. Al-Qadir was troubled to discover that instead of wanting to learn from Islamic spirituality, the brethren were only interested in convincing the Sufi to act as an ambassador for Grand Orient Freemasonry, which was becoming increasingly secular.
Al-Afghani’s Secret Society
A few years later, founding father of pan-Islamic, anti-colonial politics Sayyid Jamal al-Din al-Afghani would join the Masonic ‘Craft’ in Egypt. Born in Shia-majority Persia, al-Afghani, as his name suggests, presented himself as an Afghan, and, by implication, an adherent of Sunni Islam, the largest branch of the religion. Despite his lifelong pan-Islamic activism, al-Afghani associated with Babis, Christians, Jews, and secularists, including the Reverend Louis Sabunji, publisher of the London-based al-Nahlah (“The Bee”) newspaper. (It may be worth noting that G.I. Gurdjieff claimed the existence of a Sufi Brotherhood called Sarmoung, often translated as “Bee.”) Another of al-Afghani’s collaborators was Muhammad ‘Abduh (1849-1905), who would go on to become the Grand Mufti of Egypt.
Al-Afghani became a Freemason in May 1875, and began attending different Lodges, including three Italian Lodges in Cairo. He seems to have held a favourable impression of the fraternity, believing it a revolutionary influence in the world, and a brotherhood bound by the ideal of liberty. Al-Afghani convinced many of his collaborators to join, but apparently to his surprise and dismay attempts to discuss politics inside the Lodges were brushed aside. When the Prince of Wales – Grand Master for England – visited Cairo and was addressed at one Lodge meeting as “Crown Prince,” Al-Afghani was unimpressed. Inside the Lodge, Brothers were regarded as compatriots and equals, “on the level,” but not the Prince of Wales.
Al-Afghani formed his own National Lodge, affiliating it with the Grand Orient of France. One of the most liberal Masonic jurisdictions, the Grand Orient dropped the requirement of belief in God in 1877. (This remains a requirement in “regular” Lodges of the English-speaking world, though men of all different faiths, and agnostics and Deists, are eligible for admission.) A number of al-Afghani’s students, as well as intellectuals, journalists, army officers, and members of the ulema (Islamic scholars) joined up.
The National Lodge created several committees to approach Egypt’s ministries, to agitate for better treatment of Egyptian civil servants and officers (who earned a fraction of the Europeans employed in the same capacity). The political agitation alarmed the authorities, and on 24 August 1879, charged with heading a secret society aimed at ‘corrupting’ religion and the world, al-Afghani was seized by the police and put on a ship bound for India. Remarkably, he was undeterred, and spent subsequent years living in different countries (including France), agitating against the colonial powers. He called for Muslims to unite behind a Caliph, and published his journal al-‘Urwat al-wuthqa’. During the following decade, al-Afghani also inserted himself into the politics of Persia.
Between 1888 and 1889, the Shah of Persia granted a number of concessions to the British. In particular, the tobacco concession that gave the colonial power the right to produce, sell, and export the country’s entire tobacco crop for a period of fifty years. The Shah received a quarter of the tobacco profit, annually, plus a five percent dividend, but the arrangement caused problems for small traders, and even for the ulema, some of whom owned land on which tobacco was grown. Al-Afghani denounced the agreement, and the open hostility from various quarters eventually led the Shah to cancel the concession. Ever the revolutionary, al-Afghani published a pamphlet in 1891 accusing the Shah of selling Persia to the “infidel” and he was once again exiled.
This was not the end of the pan-Islamic activist’s involvement in Persia. Although now resident in Istanbul, al-Afghani controlled a secret society in Tehran. Two of its members were charged with sedition and given each an 18th month sentence. After his release, one of these two men, Mirza Riza Kirmani, visited al-Afghani in Istanbul. Returning to his home country in disguise, Kirmani assassinated the Shah, Nasir al-Din, on 30 April 1896.
This wasn’t the first secret society in Persia. Mirza Malkam Khan, an Armenian associate of al-Afghani’s, and a nominal convert to Islam, founded the Faramushkhana (House of Forgetting) in Tehran in 1858.
Khan had been initiated into the Grand Orient Lodge Sincere Amitie in Paris, in a mass induction of Persian ambassadors a year earlier. The Faramushkhana was modelled on Freemasonry, but it had an explicit political agenda: to marry the political understanding of the West with the religious faith of the East. In order to convince Muslims, it would be claimed that Islam was the originator of modern Western ideas, and this fact had been forgotten over time. Unsurprisingly, the Faramushkhana provoked fierce objections from the religious scholars, though Khan’s aim was, again, to empower Muslims to stand up to the West, not to Westernise Islam.
Interest in pre-Christian and non-Western cultures, religions, Gnosticism, and symbolism proliferated early on in Freemasonry. During the 18th century, as it spread across Europe, Freemasonry incorporated Hermeticism, Rosicrucianism, Egyptology and chivalry, into various rituals. Before the end of the 19th century, the premier British Masonic journal Ars Quatuor Coronatorum had published articles on Hindu “Brahminical Initiation,” the swastika (a Hindu, Buddhist, and pre-Christian European symbol), the Qabala, and “West African Secret Tribal Societies,” among many other articles on similar themes.
Already by this time Islam had left its impression on several societies tied to Freemasonry. The Ancient Arabic Order of the Nobles Mystic of the Shrine (better known as the Shriners or the Shrine) had been founded in New York, as had a rival group called the Mystic Order of the Veiled Prophets of the Enchanted Realm (better known as the Grotto). Both required members to be Freemasons. Both adopted the fez as part of its official dress – in the former case, a red one with an Islamic-inspired crescent and the name of the Shriner temple on it, and in the latter case a black one bearing the image of a turbaned figure.
The Grotto’s nomenclature, ritual, and symbolism was based on the poem “The Veiled Prophet of Khorassan” by Thomas Moore (1779-1852). It focuses on al-Mokanna, the Veiled Prophet Hakem ben Haschem, who lived between the 7th and 8th centuries, and blended Islam with the pre-Islamic Persian religion of Zoroastrianism.
The Shrine was created by Dr. Walter M. Fleming, with the assistance of Charles T. McClenachan and some other Freemasons, in or around 1870, and its first temple – Mecca Temple – was established in New York. Although long known for its intentionally clownish parades through small suburban towns, some early histories of the Shrine claim a more esoteric origin: the Bektashi Order of Sufi Islam.
There were more serious attempts to introduce Islamic mysticism to Freemasons and spiritual adventurers in the West. After his failed attempt to scale Kanchenjunga, the world’s third largest mountain, in 1905, Freemason and magus Aleister Crowley (1875-1947) left the Himalayas and headed to Calcutta where he prepared to return to his native England via Persia. Part of Crowley’s preparation was to immerse himself in Sufi literature and to begin writing his “Ghazals of Ishtar,” imitating the style of the Sufis though instead focused on the ancient Babylonian and Assyrian goddess.
The project turned into The Scented Garden of Abdullah The Satirist of Shiraz. Though his least known work, Crowley, never a shrinking violet, claimed it transcended the Bhagavad Gita and the Tao Te Ching. The work had to be published pseudonymously since it included homoerotic and Gnostic content. The English magus chose the name ‘Abdullah al Haji’ who he claimed was active during the 17th century. Despite the ruse, most copies of The Scented Garden were seized and destroyed by customs during import to Britain from Crowley’s printer in Paris.
Notably, Crowley says in the text that he cannot discuss the inner working of Sufism, “if only because I am a Freemason.” The implication is, of course, that the two are in some way connected or at least kindred.
Crowley wasn’t the first English Freemason to see similarity between the Craft and Islam. In 1872, Kenneth MacKenzie founded the Order of Ishmael, on the authority of an Arab in Paris. In theory, at least, Christians (excluding Catholics), Hindus, Zoroastrians, Muslims, and others could be initiated, though the highest of its 36 Degrees was titled “Submission,” the literal translation of Islam (submission to the Will of Allah). John Yarker, a very active and influential figure in the underground esoteric Masonic scene, appears to have been involved in the project – which may have existed more on paper than in practice. Yarker played a role in the ‘fringe’ Masonic life of William Henry Quilliam (1856-1932), better known as Shaykh Abdullah Quilliam.
Shaykh Abdullah Quilliam & Freemasonry
Quilliam converted to Islam as a young man, and went on to become an influential figure in Muslim political life in Britain. Believing in the creation of an international Muslim brotherhood, Quilliam agitated for the rights of Muslims under the British Empire, and attempted to expel prejudice against Islam – which had a bad image in Britain during his lifetime. Besides this, the shaykh founded the first mosque in Britain, as well as an Islamic education centre and publishing house to disseminate literature on Islam.
His activities won him the attention of the Ottoman Empire, which appointed him Shaykh ul-Islam for the British Isles, and funded some of his work. At the same time, Quilliam was active in both regular Freemasonry and the ‘fringe’ Masonic societies of the Sat Bhai (which was influenced by Hindu mysticism) and the Swedenborgian Rite. More significantly, Quilliam was undoubtedly the founder of the Ancient Order of Zuzimites, which adopted the structure of the Masonic Craft Ritual and the symbolism of pharaonic Egypt.
Quilliam seems to have understood that Freemasonry was more sympathetic to Islam than mainstream society in the English-speaking world. Indeed, some important Masonic journals, which he wrote for, noted his Islamic credentials. It is highly likely that, like Abd al-Qadir and many other Muslims who joined Masonic Lodges, he saw the fraternity as offering the possibility of a transcending of religious and ethnic boundaries – and as a Muslim in a Christian country he would have been all too aware. Perhaps, like Crowley, he saw some manifestations of Islam and Freemasonry as compatible.
Whatever the case, it is extremely significant that some of the more important and radical Muslim activists sought initiation into Freemasonry during the 19th century, and that some Freemasons and societies linked to Freemasonry were, in turn, influenced by Islam. These historical episodes may have been almost entirely forgotten, but whether we like it or not, these influential individuals and groups helped shape the world we live in today.
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