Freemasonry, Islam, and Radical Spirituality: A Review of The Crescent And The Compass

Prince Hall Shriners

[Note: The review below is about The Crescent and The Compass by Angel Millar, editor of, and a regular contributor to, People of Shambhala.]

The Crescent and The Compass: Islam, Freemasonry, Esotericism, and Revolution in the Modern Age is a brief but engrossing history of the previously-unexplored relationship between Islam, often of a politically radical stripe after Western colonization, and Freemasonry, showing how the founding fathers of political Islam utilized the teachings of Freemasonry to wage their struggles. However it also exposes a basis for mutual understanding and spiritual growth.

While in many ways esotericism of the Islamic or Freemasonic variety can act as force for subversion, it begs the question of what is being subverted? These forms of spirituality have influenced a wide array of radical movements, political Islam, Black Nationalism, and even the Templar-inspired anti-Islamic violence of the Freemason Anders Behring Breivik, yet they have also rallied people like René Guénon and Prince Charles, who seek a world governed by spiritual values rather than cold rationality and modern materialism, who stress the universal nature of the Divine in all the faiths of the world.

From Sufism to Shriners

Millar begins with a short introduction to the more esoterically inclined variants of Islam, namely Shi’a Islam and Sufism, the former of which sees ‘Ali, Muhammed’s son-in-law and cousin, as the Imam, who leads believers to the inner truth of Islam, batin. The importance of introducing Islamic gnosticism is, besides familiarizing the reader with many, generally little-known, details, it also gives the reader a foundation for understanding Islamic interpretation and, later on, why various authors and activists have seen a similarity between Freemasonry and Islamic esotericism.

One concept shared between Sufism and Freemasonry is that of fraternity, a shared bond of brotherhood between the disciples of a particular school. Like Freemasonry, the Sufi Orders emulated craft guilds in their divisions between Grand Masters, Master Craftsmen, Companions, and Apprentices. Islamic Scholar Sayyed Hossein Nasr stated that the,Islamic guilds “remained closely wed to Sufism and the spiritual practices of the Islamic religion.” One could point out that there is a certain religious meaning to craftsmanship found throughout many of the world’s cultures, which in the West later found expression in Freemasonry.

Prince Hall Shriners
Black Shriners.

Freemasonry arose several centuries after the fall of Constantinople and the subsequent first infusions of “orientalist” thought into Europe. The generally accepted version of its origins comes from the stonemasons guilds of England. The first Freemasonic fraternity was formed in 1717 with a general non-denominational Christian spiritual orientation. In rituals, a Bible was placed on the lodge altar, and like the architecture of churches, the Lodge room was laid out in an east to west plan.

Later on pseudo-Islamic trappings were added to Freemasonry through the Ancient Arabic Order of the Nobles of the Mystic Shrine, founded around 1870, commonly known as the Shriners. Their general focus tends to be charitable and fraternal, however their founding myth claims that the actor William J. Florence was a Bektashi Sufi initate, indeed the shrine’s nomenclature emulates the Arabic translations for the titles of “potentate” and “high priest and prophet.”

Probably Aleister Crowley's lest-known work, The Scented Garden of Abdullah (left) and Aleister Crowley in Masonic regalia (right)
Probably Aleister Crowley’s lest-known work, The Scented Garden of Abdullah (left) and Aleister Crowley in Masonic regalia (right)

As Millar elucidates, more serious interest in Sufism came from the fringes of Freemasonry. Irregular Freemason Aleister Crowley wrote a Sufi inspired book of erotic verse The Scented Garden of Abdullah The Satirist of Shiraz, printed in both Persian and Roman script. Masonic scholar Kenneth MacKenzie organized a Sufi-inspired Order, whose degrees of initiation claimed an Arab origin — the final one being “submission,” the literal translation of the word Islam.

Freemasonry, Islam, and Radical Spirituality

In addition to Westerners taking an interest in the traditions of Islam, the native inhabitants of Western colonies began to take interest in the practices their colonizers imported, including Freemasonry. As Freemasonry liberalized, people saw it as a way transcending divisions of class, race, and culture. No matter where the lodge was, all members were brothers. In addition to high-minded concerns, practical diplomatic issues encouraged non-Europeans involved in or with the various colonial administrations to join. Habibollah Khan, the emir of Afghanistan, became a Freemason, as did Askeri-Khan, ambassador of the Persian Shah to France. However, as in the West, the secret nature of Freemason lodges also attracted radicals and revolutionaries.

One of the most notable Islamic figures initiated into Freemasonry, as Millar notes, was the Persian born Sayyid Jamal ad-Din al-Afghani. While he had a reputation as a freethinker, associating with teachers of many faiths, he wanted to see progress in Islamic society in order to throw off the rule of the colonial powers. Another voice for Islamic rights under colonialism and pan-Islamic thought was the founder of England’s first mosque, William Henry Quilliam, an English convert also deeply involved with various esoteric societies. As Millar demonstrates, besides being a regular Freemason, Quilliam was involved in the mystically-inclined fringe groups influenced by the Craft. He was initiated into a group called the “Masonic Royal Oriental Order of the Sat Bhai,” a Hindu influenced group allegedly founded by the Freemason Captain James Henry Lawrence Archer, and connected to John Yarker, who headed the Swedenborgian Rite of Phremasonry, influenced by Emmanuel Swedenborg’s esoteric interpretations of the Bible. Millar also demonstrates that Quilliam was created his own fringe Masonic Order, which, though little-known today, may have helped Islam to be accepted by the underground spiritual scenes of Britain and Australia.

Sayyid Jamal ad-Din al-Afghani (left) and Rene Guenon (right).
Sayyid Jamal ad-Din al-Afghani (left) and Rene Guenon (right).

In France, René Guénon — who would later convert to Islam — founded the school of spiritual “Traditionalism.” Millar succinctly captures the essence of this school, “Tradition refers to the authentic revelations of Deity and way of life that was in accord with Divinity, cosmic laws, and so on, that preceded contemporary religions. According to the Traditionalist doctrine, knowledge (gnosis) of Divinity is acquired through stages of esoteric learning, which is, necessarily then, structured hierarchically, as is the case in initiatic organizations, whether Sufism, Hindu Tantra, Freemasonry, etc.”

Guénon was initiated into Freemasonry. However he soon soured on what he saw as their spiritual deficiencies, believing that it was an active force of subversion against legitimate religion, eventually writing for French anti-Masonic publications. Then, wearying of the French Catholic anti-Masonic circles, and developing an increasing interest in Islam via the writings Clarin de Rive on North African secret societies, he moved to Cairo and adopted Sufism, becoming an initiate of the Shadhilites. Guénon, in contrast to other Egyptian Muslims, believed that involvement in politics was antithetical to a spiritual life.

“Traditionalism”

His philosophy was universalist, stressing a unity of Tradition, and he maintained an interest in Hinduism as well. Indeed he found parallels to Islamic doctrine in the various world religions, stating that while the exoteric forms may vary, the esoteric meaning is the same.

Guénon’s Traditionalism inspired several notable disciples, including Titus Burckhardt, Frithjof Schuon, and Charles, Prince of Wales. Burckhardt, of German-Swiss ancestry, converted to Islam after studying in Morocco. After his conversion he wrote prolifically on Islamic thought for a Western audience. Frithjof Schuon, another Swiss convert, was initially drawn to Hinduism however a mystical experience drew him to Sufism. He wrote Guénon, hoping to get his advice on t he selection of a proper shaykh to begin studies with, however he was introduced to Shaykh Ahmad al-Alawi by sailors, and he took up residence in his mosque, yet his contact with al-Alawi was limited by the latter’s ill health. He was inspired a certain ecumenism in the Shaykh’s teachings, who impressed the French authorities with is emphasis of the similarities between Islam and Christianity.

Traditionalists Frithjof Schuon and Rene Guenon.
Rene Guenon and Frithjof Schuon (left) and Schuon (right).

He was initiated into the Alawiyya Sufi Order, taking the name ‘Isa, meaning Jesus. He departed for Europe, with a certificate of authorization to spread Islam. While Schuon took this to mean that he had the right to start a branch of the Alawiyya Order, technically it only allowed him to act as a witness to conversion to Islam. He eventually broke with the Algerian branch of Alawiyya, and he failed to enforce standard Islamic discipline among his disciple’s, allowing them to drink alcohol and such. As he continued his order became progressively un-Islamic, to the displeasure of Guénon, eventually advocating a universalist esotericism. He finally moved to the United States, to become closer to the practitioners of Native American religions, which he regarded as primordial faith.

Perhaps the most famous disciple of Guénon is Charles, Prince of Wales. In 2010 he published a  book called Harmony: A New Way of Looking at Our World. This work held that the problems of the modern world resulted from our ignorance of sacred principles, embodied in religious art and architecture, such as cathedrals and mosques, in many ways echoing many of the criticisms made in Guénon’s The Crisis of the Modern World. His sympathy for Islam alarmed many nationalistic and neoconservative commentators at the time.

Like Guénon, Charles sees Islam as something closer to the primordial divine that has been lost by Western rationalism, industrialism, and progress.  As Millar observes in The Crescent and The Compass, he has stated that the “oneness and trusteeship of the vital sacramental and spiritual character of the world about us is surely something important we can re-learn from Islam.”

Anti-Freemasonry

While the Traditionalist School has, perhaps, emphasized as Islam as a key to universal understanding of the sacred in the West, Guénon was critical of Western modernity. While Millar deals with Islamic spirituality (especially of a more gnostic type), he does not shy away from the more troubled areas of the meeting of religion, spirituality, Freemasonry, and politics. As such, The Crescent and The Compass is not only the first book to uncover the many significant connections between Freemasonry and Islam, and Eastern and Western radical thought and spirituality, during the last two centuries, it is probably the only book to examine contemporary Islamist anti-Freemasonry.

Contemporary Islamists, Millar demonstrates, associate “Freemasonry” with Western corruption. For the most part, the anti-Masonic rhetoric of these fundamentalists is cribbed from the European anti-Masonic tradition going back to the French and American Revolutions, where Freemasons played a role in subverting the monarchies in those conflicts. Yet, besides producing a wealth of propaganda, in March of 2004, Jihadists attacked a Turkish Freemason’s Lodge, killing a waiter and injuring six.

Black Nationalism

Following the American revolution, there emerged a convergence between Freemasonry and racial politics that would eventually influence the direction of Black Nationalist Islam in America. In 1792, Prince Hall, the founder of Black Freemasonry spoke in favor of racial equality in a Freemasonic context, emphasizing African figures in the mythology of the Craft and appealing to its professed ideal of brotherhood. A truly radical message at a time where slavery was integral to the economy and barely beginning to be opposed in the northern states of the country.

Hall had been initiated into Freemasonry in 1775 as part of the traveling lodge attached to an Irish regiment in the British Army along with 14 other blacks, when the regiment left they were granted their own charter to form a Lodge. Eventually other Black lodges would arise, inspired by Hall, giving rise to what is now called Prince Hall Freemasonry. Prince Hall Freemasonry would influence the Black community greatly over the years, attracting its elites and opposing racial discrimination.

Some Black Freemasons such as John Edward Bruce and Arthur Alfonso Schomburg influenced Marcus Garvey’s The Universal Negro Improvement Association and African Communities’ League (UNIA-ACL), founded in 1914, with an American branch based in New York City emerging in 1917. UNIA-ACL advocated from Black self-improvement and self-sufficiency, much like the charters of the Prince Hall Lodges. The uniforms of the UNIA-ACL resembled ones worn by American Knights Templar Freemasonic order, and the titles of the officers were influenced by the nomenclature of Prince Hall Freemasonry as well.

Nobl Drew Ali
Moorish Science gathering. Noble Drew Ali stands in the foreground.

Another Freemasonry-influenced Black nationalist thinker was Noble Drew Ali, who formulated the doctrine of “Moorish Science,” a mixture of Islamic, Freemasonic, Rosicrucian, and anti-colonial schools of thought. Noble Drew Ali, who was probably born as Timothy Drew in 1866, moved from the Southern United States to Newark, New Jersey and founded the Canaanite Temple of Moorish Science, which eventually spread throughout the country, garnering perhaps as many as 30,000 members. From the Shriners, Noble Drew Ali derived some of Moorish Science’s terminology, such as calling members “Noble” and referring to the “temple.” The aim of Moorish Science was to uplift the Blacks in America and throughout the world.

This unique syncretic religion influenced the founder of the Nation of Islam, W. D. Fard Muhammad. W. D. Fard Muhammad’s origins are quite mysterious and Millar suggests Pakistan, home of the esoteric Islamic Ahmadiyya sect, or Syria, where the Druze minority practices a religion influenced by Islam, Christianity, Judaism, and Hellenistic philosophy, as possible birthplaces, due to the similarity between his doctrines and the doctrines of those faiths.

Prince Hall (left) and a Shriner fez (right)
Prince Hall (left) and a Shriner fez (right)

In addition, Muhammad incorporated Theosophy into his religion and developed a racial doctrine of Black superiority. In Detroit in the 1930s, Muhammad began telling Blacks that their original religion was Islam and that slavery had stripped them of their true heritage. Among the followers he attracted were Freemasons and sensing the connection between the esoteric symbolism of Freemasonry and Islam, the Nation of Islam actively drew more members from the Freemason community. Among the Freemasons who joined the Nation of Islam was Elijah Muhammad, who mentored prominent civil right’s activist Malcolm X.

Conclusion

From Millar’s overview of Freemasonry and Islam, we can see how the former has acted as a force for change, whether we deem that change good or bad. The American Civil Rights struggle, anti-colonialism, Islamic theocracy, Traditionalism, and the anti-Islamist ideology of terrorist Anders Behring Breivik have, in some way, been shaped by the Masonic “Craft.” It has inspired both violent revolution and calls for universal brotherhood in the Divine.

In conclusion, we can gain both spiritual inspiration and stark lessons in history, from The Crescent and The Compass (available fro from Amazon.com here)

double-headed-eagle-shieldAnthony Harberton is a blogger and thinker interested in spirituality and global politics.

 

1 Comment

  1. Jeanne rossow says: Reply

    Truly fascinating and informative. Much to revisit, study, and reflect on…history not told traditionally.

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