In 1910, the English occultist, Freemason, and poet, Aleister Crowley, published a strange and now little-known work called The Scented Garden of Abdullah: The Satirist of Shiraz under the name Abdullah el Haji.
In the work, which imitated Sufi poetry, Crowley claims to have been accepted into “the joyous company of the Sufis,” but that he cannot openly discuss Islamic mysticism, “if only because I am a Freemason.”
He, however, was not the only one to think this.
The explorer Sir Richard Francis Burton – whose translation of Eastern texts influenced Western spirituality – believed that Sufism was “The Eastern parent of Free-Masonry.”
And, later, modern Sufi and author Idries Shahwould make much the same claim.
It is now well known that Freemasonry – a fraternity founded in London in 1717, but with roots going back to medieval Britain – had a significant influence on occultism and alternative spirituality in the West.
To cut a long story short, when the fraternity reached continental Europe during the first half of the 18th century, Freemasons there reinterpreted the initiations and symbols of the fraternity, creating new rituals that drew from alchemy, Rosicrucianism, and various Knightly Orders.
This milieu then fed back into Western occultism, transforming it from a largely solo and scholarly pursuit, to one focused on theatrical group rituals, initiations, and degrees.
Besides Crowley, the founders of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn – of which Irish poet laureate W. B. Yeats was a member – and the founders of the Ordo Templi Orientis, which taught ceremonial and sexual magic, were all active Freemasons, and drew from its rituals and symbolism for their own societies.
(The degree system of the Golden Dawn was in fact adopted from the Societas Rosicruciana – the first research society in the English-speaking world, restricted to Freemasons. This in turn had borrowed the system from the German society of Golden Rosicrucians, which also restricted its membership to Freemasons.)
What is less well-known is the history of connections between Freemasonry and radical Muslim activists over the last century and a half. Connections, it must be added, that have helped shape the modern world today.
Although I had written extensively about Freemasonry before then, I only began to stumble across some of the deeper connections about six years ago, when I began writing The Crescent and The Compass: Islam, Freemasonry, Esotericism and Revolution in the Modern Age, which is the only book to chart this peculiar history.
In the USA, the comic figure of “the Shriner” is a familiar one.
Wearing the red Turkish fez emblazoned with a crescent, Shriners have historically paraded through small US towns, collecting for charity.
The organization, whose full name is the Ancient Arabic Order of the Nobles of the Mystic Shrine, was founded by a few Freemasons in around 1870 in New York.
It is today more about fun and fraternity – in a somewhat depressing “frat boy” sense – than mysticism or spirituality. But some early histories of the “Mystic Shrine” claimed that it was derived from, and was the Western equivalent of, the Bektashi sect of Sufi Islam.
The society proved popular enough to provoke the founding of a rival society, whose members wore black fezes, called the Mystic Order of Veiled Prophets of the Enchanted Realm (AKA the Grotto). The initiation ritual of this society was inspired by Thomas Moore’s poem “Lalla Rookh” and, more specifically, its mention of a veiled prophet in Persia.
There were more serious attempts at drawing Islamic mysticism into the Western spiritual world, however. Crowley’s Scented Garden was one. Another was the Order of Ishmael, founded during the early 1870s in Britain, though allegedly derived from an Arab in Paris.
Only a few years before this, Muslim activists had begun joining the Masonic fraternity. Among them was Abd al-Qadir al-Jazairi (1808-1883), a Sufi leader, Emir of Mascara in northwest Algeria, and resistance leader against the French, who invaded the country in 1830.
Abd al-Qadir had originally believed that Freemasonry was a society of troublemakers, but was later convinced that its membership was interested in spiritual growth.
He affiliated with a French Masonic Lodge for about a year, but left disappointed, feeling that the members were not interested in Islam, which he believed would benefit them.
Others were more politically radical. In 1858, Mirza Malkam Khan founded a secret society in Tehran, based on Freemasonry (which he had joined the preceding year).
Its aim was to promote rationalism and Western thought in the Middle East. The idea, however, was to provide the people of the region with the tools to fight back against colonialism.
Perhaps the most important radical to join, though, was Jamal ad-Din al-Afghani. He became a Freemason in Cairo, and there founded his own national Lodge in the hope of using it to organize against the colonial powers.
As the founder of pan-Islamic politics in the modern age, al-Afghani’s thought has influenced both pan-Islamist and more democratic movements in the Middle East.
These are just a few of the connections between Freemasonry and Islam in the modern era. Contemporary examples emerge fairly regularly. However, during the 1920s Arab Christians introduced Western, anti-Masonic conspiracy theories into the Middle East, influencing both pan-Islamic and secular politics in the region.
These mythologies remained important (being taught as part of the Saudi-Arabian curriculum, for instance).
Hence, today, Islamists often accuse their enemies of being “Freemasons” – a term that has a very specific meaning, referring to alleged saboteurs subverting Islam by introducing aspects of American or Western culture, such as alcohol and pornography.
Just over a week ago, the office of the Director of National Intelligence in the USA released a list of the books owned by former al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden.
Among them was The Secret Teachings of All Ages, a New Age classic covering such subjects as astrology and – you guessed it – Freemasonry, by Western mystic Manly P. Hall. Another of bin Laden’s books was the anti-Masonic Bloodlines of the Illuminati by Fritz Springmeier.
We know that, like many other Salafi, Takfiri Jihadist movements, al-Qaeda is anti-Masonic, since – whether a real event or not – one issue of its online magazine praised the murder of several Freemasons. But the centrality of the anti-Masonic conspiracy theory to such movements is generally overlooked by analysts.
We have a tendency to simplify things. And Freemasonry does not seem an important subject to Western pundits on “Islam” or Islamism, even if it is of importance to al-Qaeda and its ilk.
But the historical connections between Muslims and Freemasonry in the modern era tells us how complicated the picture is. In a sense, it opens up a new world for us.
Islamic politics and spirituality have overlapped with Western politics and spirituality for at least a century and a half. Anti-Freemasonry was introduced into Islamist politics nearly a century ago.
Despite the rhetoric on the issue – which tends to be either heated or shallow – the history of these strange connections tells us that East and West may be struggling, in sometimes very, very different ways, with the same thing. That thing, I would argue, is the role of religion and spirituality in the secular world.
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