Masonry in the Middle East

Jonathan M. Jacobs, 32°

Today the words Islam and Muslim create certain thoughts in the minds of many Americans. We tend to think of Saddam Hussein, the President of Iraq during the recent war, or the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the late spiritual leader of Iran. We tend to think of oil, war, terrorism, and what many of us think of as religious fanaticism.

We rarely think of Brother Masons!

For well over two centuries, there have been lodges in countries with large Islamic populations, and over the last century, if not much longer, Muslims have become Freemasons.

Perhaps one of the best accounts of our early Islamic Brethren is found in Freemasonry in the Holy Land, by Brother Robert Morris. The book gives an excellent account of Brother Morris's 1868–69 visit to Damascus, Beirut, and Jerusalem.

Today Damascus is the capital of Syria, an independent nation, but in 1868 Syria was a province of the Turkish Ottoman Empire. The Ottoman Empire had extended from the lower Danube in Europe to the west coast of the Persian Gulf, in what is now Saudi Arabia and Kuwait. In the northeast it included the Crimea; its western borders reached present-day Algeria. At the Empire's greatest height, in the late 17th century, the Islamic Sultan from his capital of Istanbul sent his army against Vienna, and ruled his vast empire through provincial governors, called Pashas. In 1830 the French had managed to detach Algeria, and by 1868, the Empire was in a period of decline. The Hapsburgs of the Austro-Hungarian Empire were slowly nibbling away at the Empire's northern boundaries. Greece had become independent and the Pasha of Egypt was semi-independent, dealing directly with the French concerning the newly opened Suez Canal. By 1868 the Sultan still ruled, through his Pashas, his declining Empire in the lands east of the Sinai Peninsula, and would continue to do so until the end of World War I. It was against this background that Brother Morris made his fascinating visit.

Brother Morris recounts an attempt to form a Masonic lodge in Damascus in April 1868, under the authority of the Grand Lodge of England. At this meeting, several Brothers were present, including British Consul E.T. Rogers; Nazif Meshaka, the secretary to the American Consul; Abbas Kulli Khan, the Consul of Persia (now called Iran), as well as several Ottoman governmental officials. The other Freemasons that Brother Morris met included Nouriddin Effendi, the Ottoman Governor of Joppa, who, in 1868, was a 19 degree Scottish Rite Mason, and Mohammed Rashid Pasha, Governor of Syria. Brother Morris dedicated his book to Brother Rashid, in thanks for Brother Rashid's help and kindness. One of Brother Rashid's predecessors, Brother Faud Pasha, rose to become the Sultan's Minister of War and later Foreign Minister.

No account of Brother Morris's visit to Damascus would be complete without mention of his visit with His Highness Abd el-Kader-Ulid-Mahiddin, the exiled Amir of Mascara, Algeria. Abd el-Kader had begun his life in 1807, born into a family of "sherifs," descendants of the Prophet Mohammed. He was proclaimed Emir of Mascara, Algeria, when he started his 15-year fight against the French until his surrender in 1847. He was finally defeated and was imprisoned in France until 1852, when he was exiled to the Turkish city of Bursa and then moved to Damascus in 1855. On his entry, Abd el-Kader was greeted by a jubilant population. A man of independent means, he lived in Damascus with his family (he had only one wife) and a thousand-man Algerian body-guard. He established an Islamic school where he and 60 Islamic scholars taught.

The next event in Abd el-Kader's life is as surprising to the modern American as it was heroic. In early 1860 some poorer Muslims began rioting in what is now Lebanon, killing the well-to-do Arab Christian population. On July 6, 1860, the rioting spread to Damascus. Abd el-Kader rode into the mob, not to assist it but to dissuade it; he failed and soon the Christian Quarter of Damascus was in flames.

At great risk to his own life Abd el-Kader and his Algerians entered the burning Christian Quarter and rescued all the Christians that they could. He then escorted them to his own home, which was rapidly filled. He went to the neighbouring homes and persuaded the residents to give the Christians refuge as well. Then the mob approached the area and demanded that he turn the Christians over to them for execution.

Drawing his sword, Abd el-Kader confronted the crowd and told them to disperse, or he and his guard would open fire. (There is some question if his Algerians had enough ammunition to successfully stop the mob.) The rioters withdrew without attacking; Abd el-Kader made provision for the Christians to stay in his care for over a month. His actions saved the lives of over 12,000 Christians, including the French Consul, the representative of the government that had exiled him!

The Western world honoured this act of valour. France awarded him the Grand Cordon of the Legion of Honour; the United States sent him a set of pistols inlaid with gold. In June of 1864, His Highness Abd el-Kader, Emir of Mascara, and Arab Nationalist, Islamic Scholar, and a direct descendant of the Prophet Mohammed, was made a Freemason at the Lodge of the Pyramids, Alexandria, Egypt. Three of his sons also joined the fraternity.

There were a handful of lodges that were formed in Ottoman lands before World War I; the governments of the various Sultans tended to tolerate Freemasonry. Following World War I when Turkey became a republic, there was little change in the Masonic situation. Mustapha Kamel Ataturk, the Republic's founder and first President, while not a Mason, became known as "The protector of the craft." The Grand Lodge, formed in 1909, is recognized by most Grand Lodges in the United States.

With the deterioration and final collapse of the Ottoman Empire, Masonry spread across North Africa and the Middle East.

Lodges were formed in Tunisia as early as 1877.

By the early 1950's, Morocco had 16 lodges, eight chartered by the Grand Orient of France, and eight holding charters from the Grand Lodge of France; neither of the French Grand Lodges is now generally recognized by American Grand Lodges as being regular.

Egypt, virtually a British protectorate, established the Egyptian National Grand Lodge in 1876. The Grand Lodge fell into schism in 1922, but again became united by the end of World War II. At the famous battle of El-Alamein, these lodges responded to a government request for aid, delivering food to allied forces at the front. Among the members of this lodge in 1952 were various members of the reigning Egyptian royal family. By 1960 this Grand Lodge was recognized by several American jurisdictions.

Algeria had several lodges by 1950, though all of these were affiliated with the Grand Orient of France,

During Brother Morris's 1869 visit to the Ottoman province of Syria, there was an attempt to form a Masonic lodge in Damascus; that attempt failed. In 1900, Peace Lodge No. 908, was chartered in Lebanon by the Grand Lodge of Scotland. By the end of World War II, over a dozen lodges were formed in what today are Israel, Jordan, Lebanon, and Syria. When Israel was founded in 1948, two lodges removed themselves to Arab lands, one to Amman, Jordan, and the other to Tripoli, Lebanon. There was a Grand Lodge of Syria and Lebanon in 1960, recognized by several American jurisdictions, yet most American Grand Lodges did not recognize it.

Since that era, there have been other Grand Lodges operating but without general recognition. For a good many years the Grand Lodge of New York has had a District Grand Lodge for Syria and Lebanon with ten subordinate lodges of limited activities due to conditions of recent years.

Freemasonry entered the Persian Gulf area with the increase of British influence during the first half of this century. The Grand Lodges of England and Scotland chartered lodges in such places as Kuwait City, Abadan, Tehran, Basra, and Baghdad. Iran formed a Grand Lodge in 1969 and established a Supreme Council in 1970.

Several countries with large Muslim populations bordering the Indian Ocean have active lodges, notably India and Malaysia. India's first lodge was formed in Calcutta, in 1730, during the first years of colonization. There was an unsubstantiated report that the first Muslim to become a Mason, His Highness the Prince of Arcot, was raised in a military lodge in 1788 or 1789, about the same time that Brother Washington became President of the United States. In any event, by the mid-19th century, Indian lodges, under the jurisdiction of the Grand Lodge of England were admitting brethren of the Muslim faith. India is a country of diverse faiths; many Indian lodges have among their membership Hindus, Muslims, Jews, and Christians. India has the distinction of having lodges chartered by four Grand Lodges, England, Ireland, Scotland, and India's own Grand Lodge, the latter being formed in 1961. In the Sultanate of Jahore, in distant Malaysia, the Sultan served as Master of his lodge for two years during the first half of this century.

Traditionally, Freemasonry has been generally allowed in Islamic countries, although subject to criticism by some Islamic groups just as some Christian groups have criticized Freemasonry in the United States, the United Kingdom, and parts of Europe. Unfortunately, over the last 35 years the craft has been suppressed in some Islamic areas. Some countries, especially in the Mideast, have tilted closely toward the Soviet Union, which itself suppressed Masonry. Therefore, it should not be a surprise that lodges in Iraq have been erased. Lebanon's lodges, which are chartered by the Grand Lodge of New York are still operating in spite of the ongoing civil war.

The rise of Islamic fundamentalism in Iran as a part of the revolution there has caused the Grand Lodge and Supreme Council of the Scottish Rite to go into exile in the United States.

Some lodges in the Gulf states have also closed. There are Masons of the Muslim faith who are affiliated with lodges outside the Muslim world.

It can be added that suppression of Freemasonry in some Islamic countries may be traced back to the Suez War in 1956 when Freemasonry was accused by Egypt, and elsewhere, of taking sides. Such a perception on the part of some followers of Islam can be said to exist today.

The Masonic situation in North Africa is unclear. Most lodges in that area have been influenced historically by the Grand Orient of France, which is not recognized in America. For this reason, there is no current listing of lodges. As a result of lack of information, it is unknown whether these lodges continue to work.

The fate of the Grand Lodge of Egypt is also unknown.

On the brighter side, lodges continue in Turkey, India, and in those Islamic lands in the Far East as well.

One of the more interesting aspects of lodges in countries with Muslim populations is the Volume of Sacred Law. In India, for example, with its many religions, the candidate uses the V.S.L. appropriate for his religion. A Muslim would use the Koran, while a Christian candidate would use the Bible. Turkey uses a similar system.

There has been a long tradition of Freemasonry in the Islamic world. It can be hoped that, with recent events in the Middle East, Islam will again be represented in Freemasonry and that Freemasonry will be well represented in the Islamic world. It is also hoped that we will be able to call a future Abd el-Kader "Brother."

The Northern Light, May 1991