Masonry and the Middle East
There is a profound irony to the relationship between Freemasonry and the Middle East. No world
organization owes more to the region in the way of its motifs, its symbols, and its rituals. But no
organization in the course of its presence in the Middle East has encountered more criticism, more
disapproval, and more outright government persecution. (1)
Both because of Muslim injunctions against Masonry and because of the suspicions of Middle Eastern
regimes about its political purposes, the fraternity has had a twilight existence in Arab world. Often the
lodges meet in secret and in fear of their officers being carted off to the police station. A raid on one lodge
in Saudi Arabia is described by a Mason in graphic detail:
Individually and as a group, the four Masons were subjected over and over again to a never-ending
interrogation concerning theft Masonic activities. An officer with the rank of major was in charge and
conducted the lengthy, detailed investigation. And all of the materials seized during the raid on the
Masonic Lodge were gathered and pored over in fine detail. Later on, George Freygang related that the
documentation in possession of the secret police before the infamous raid convinced him that the Saudi
Security had "copies of everything" (George's own words) that had been generated by many of the
Masons, including a number of phone conversations.(2)
Whatever Masonry may be in Europe or North America, it truly is a clandestine organization in much of
the Arab world, notwithstanding its public relations efforts elsewhere to achieve a better image.(3) The
present situation of Freemasonry in countries where the majority of the population are Muslims is
precarious, despite long efforts to establish a Masonic presence:
The first Lodge erected in the Middle East was established by Scotland at Aden in 1850. This appears to
have been followed by a Lodge in Palestine about 1873. However, most Masonic development was
spawned in this century, beginning with English Lodges located in Iraq shortly after the First World War.
Unfortunately, the lot of the Craft in the Middle East has not generally been a happy one. Only in Israel
has Masonry flourished, with that country possessing a regular Grand Lodge.
Outside of Israel very few Lodges remain, with the oldest survivor being a Scottish Lodge in Jordan,
dating from 1925. British-warranted Lodges that formerly existed in Iraq, South Yemen (Aden), and
elsewhere on the Arabian Peninsula have all been extinguished as the result of political pressure. A few
German-warranted Lodges work in Arabia, having been set up in only very recent years. However, their
longer term future must be uncertain. In Iran, which has lately had a regular Grand Lodge, Freemasonry
has been destroyed, almost literally, and this occurrence must rate as one of the greatest tragedies in
Masonic history. In short, in view of the turbulent political and religious situation in the Arab world, it
would appear most unlikely that the Craft will expand in the Middle East in the foreseeable future.(4)
Most Masons would deny that there is any just cause for the animosity or that Masonry conflicts with
religious views.(5) Despite being outlawed in Saudi Arabia, the lodge leaders there like to think that their
presence is benign. Many conservative Muslims would be much less charitable. These differing opinions
depend partly on interpretation of symbolism. What Masons take simply as fraternal ritual is -- to some of
the deeply religious, Muslim or Christian -- a parody of their faith. A Masonic authority comments on the
custom of lodges of displaying a version of the Bible on the lodge altar:
The Bible is not displayed on our altars now and has never been for the reason that Masons are required
to believe its teachings. We know that there is a very large element of the Craft the world over who do
not believe the teachings of the New Testament. We know that many individual Masons do not believe
portions of the Old Testament. Hence, unless we are perpetrating a grim mockery, we do not employ the
bible as a profession that we as a Society accept all its teachings and doctrines...Masonry as an organized
society does not and has never exacted this belief of its members. It can, therefore, have no other place in
our lodges than that of a symbol...It is a symbol of Truth, of Divine Truth, of all Truth, whether drawn
from some book of Revelation or from the Great Book of Nature.(7)
Although such a view may seem perfectly innocuous to a secularist, to others it is the height of
blasphemy. One critic remarks, "that in order to sell phoney Chanel No. 5 on Oxford Street, you would
make it look like the real thing. Freemasonry has chaplains, prayers, ceremony, candles, and all the
`trappings' of religion. Because selling phoney Chanel No. 5 is wrong, so is Freemasonry."(8)
Masonry is prohibited in the Muslim countries of the Middle East partly because there are aspects of
Masonry which, to religious people, verge on mocking their faith. An example of Masonic ritual which
offends some and which shows the gulf between believers and Masons, is the resemblance between the
assassination and exhumation of the candidate in the third or Master-Mason degree and religious accounts
of resurrection. Almost nothing can be said to correct the common interpretation of the third degree that
the Mason is saved by Freemasonry, and not by religion.
Recent religious controversies involving Freemasonry, such as the Southern Baptist Convention's debate
over the issue, show that this is a problem that is not limited to Islam. Aspects of Masonic ritual are
offensive to several religions. These censures come from such differing groups as Lutherans, Baptists,
Mormons, and Eastern Orthodox and are based on theological objections.
Sometimes Masons feel that blame is being laid on the whole fraternity which should be applied only to
some Masonic bodies, such as the allegedly atheistic Grand Orient of France. Of course, attributing to all
of Freemasonry the characteristics of one or two bodies is dangerous. There are as many Masonic groups
as there are Protestant sects. There are considerable differences between countries and continents.
Although the Scottish Rite has been anti-clerical in Latin America and is very different from other
Masonic groups, in the twentieth century, the Scottish Rite in general has been one of the most popular
Masonic degree systems. In many countries, including Great Britain, the United States of America, and
Canada, it is eminently respectable and non- political, or at least non-political in a party sense. That this
has not always been the case is evident from a scathing commentary of more than a century ago:
This Scottish Rite had its origin in the brains and breasts of an apostate Presbyterian, renegade tyrants,
Jews who retained nothing of Judaism but its hatred of Christ, associated with Jesuits, conspiring against
the liberties of Europe, and for the overthrow of the Government of France! And its first home in this
country was the city of Nullification, Secession, and Rebellion; in Charleston, South Carolina, in 1801,
where thirteen Jews and three Protestants: Mitchall, Dalcho and Provost, who had received it from
France, falsely pretended to found it on constitutions given by Frederick the Great. If Satan had picked
the time, the inventors, and home of this Rite he would have doubtless chosen the same.(9)
The suggestion has been made not once, but repeatedly, that Masonry offered a more satisfactory
spiritual experience for some men than orthodox religion and enabled them to be religious while asserting
their masculinity. This, in fact, is a major argument of Professor Mark C. Carnes of Columbia University
in his recent (1989) book, Secret Ritual and Manhood in Victorian America:
The implicit meanings of the symbols suggest that many men were deeply troubled by the gender
bifurcations of Victorian society, which deprived them of a religious experience with which they could
identify and of a family environment in which they could freely express nurturing and paternal emotions.
The Royal Secret, like all the final degrees, dicted the assumption that men were innately impure,
aggressive, and unemotional. By affirming that men possess traits socially defined as female, the symbols
conveyed a message express nowhere else...These ideas and emotions could not be stated publicly. If
men had acknowledged that the orders were an alternative form of religion, of family, and of social
organization, the forces that had crushed Masonry in the 1820s [the Anti-Masonic hysteria in the United
States] might have again besieged the fraternal movement.(10)
Professor Carnes' attractive argument about the lodges offering a sort of bootleg emotionism is suggestive
of the problems which the religious of many faiths have with Masonry. Moreover, despite what he
proposes about the feminine content of the ritual, there is no denying that the lodges in many ways are
resolutely masculine institutions: the oaths, penalties, and dramas which are the core of the degrees are
anything but feminine.(11) Indeed, the exclusion of women could be taken as evidence that those who
joined were as relieved that the feminine side of religion was being left behind as they were that women
were excluded. The ceremonies were full of references to hardship and violence rather than to domesticity
Participation in these rituals helped men reconcile the tensions between their upbringing by their mother
and theft identification with their father's work world, by initiating them, both in actuality and figuratively,
into the adult male environment...Leaving the sanctuary of the home for the asylum of the lodge,
members chose, if only temporarily, the succor of brotherhood over the comfort of female
So, in trying to understand why Masonry has not advanced in the Middle East, one need look no further
than the problem which also has plagued it in other regions -- that it appears to outsiders be a surrogate
religion. There is no putting aside the question of Masonry as a religion, and of the possibility that the
lodge offers religious experiences which men are reluctant to share publicly.
Nevertheless, Masonry has attempted to grow in the Arab world. During the last half of the nineteenth
century, Freemasonry was significant in the Middle East, particularly in the Ottoman Empire.(13)
Moreover, Arab tradition was embraced in the search for ritualistic legitimacy: one Masonic authority
asserted that the koreish or guardians of the sacred kaa(c)ba in Mecca were members!(14) The
implication was that such a responsible task was better entrusted to Masons than to Muslims, although the
logic seems fantastic. Understandably such extraordinary claims did not earn Masonry good will among
Muslim faithful. This helps to explain, though it does not excuse, the treatment the Masons have received
from some Middle Eastern regimes:
As at 1978, the Grand Lodge of Iran possessed forty three Lodges, and 1,035 members. This year was
the last time that the Craft in Iran was heard of in the outside Masonic world. The Islamic Revolution in
Iran saw Freemasonry swept away rapidly, and it would appear that a number of Masons suffered
execution at its hands. Whether these deaths were occasioned for political or anti-Masonic reasons will
probably never be known, and the fate of many Iranian Masons may equally remain a mystery. One thing
is certain, the Craft in Iran is destroyed. (15)
Ultimately the story of Masonry in the Middle East is a sad one and the influence the order had with the
Arabs is problematical. One Victorian- era Mason waylaid in the desert was spared by a bedouin about to
cut off his finger to acquire his Masonic ring. Asked if he had given the great high-sign, he recounted: "I
did not. The fellow may have been a Mason -- there are lodges in Damascus, Aleppo and Baghdad - - but
he was no brother of mine, for though he left me my ring, he took my watch, my money, my letter of
credit and my baggage."(16) Considering the way in which Masonry used Islamic motifs in a secular way,
the aggrieved traveler was probably lucky to escape with his life.
Notes (1.) The Saudi Gazette in January 1995 carried an anonymous article under the title "The Curse of
Freemasonry" from which the following is excerpted: "Not enough has been written about Freemasonry.
But one such book is Freemasonry, by Muhammad Safwat al-Saqqa Amini and Sa(c)di Abu Habib. In
this book is contained the decision of the Islamic Jurisprudence College, which we reproduce hereunder.
The College of Islamic Jurisprudence, in its session convened at Makkah on 15th July 1978, examined the
issue of Freemasonry, of those affiliated with it and the legal Islamic judgment on it, after adequate study
of this dangerous organization, and the body of literature on it, inclusive of the College's own published
documents, books, and newspaper and journal articles...It has become evident to the College of Islamic
Jurisprudence the strong relation of Freemasonry to world Zionist Jewry. Thus it has been able to
dominate many officials in the Arab countries concerning the question of Palestine, and to interfere in the
Palestine question on behalf of the Jews and world Zionism. Therefore, and for the detailed data on
Freemasonry's activity, its considerable danger, its wicked dressing and its cunning aims, the College of
Islamic Jurisprudence considers Freemasonry one of the most dangerously destructive organizations to
Islam and to Muslims Whoever would associate himself with it while in knowledge of its true nature and
aims, would be a non believer in Islam and uncounted among its adherents."
(2.) James C. Krohn, "The Raid on Red Sea Lodge #919," unpub. manuscript, c. October 1987, 6.
(3.) E.g. Masonry in Saudi Arabia in supervised by the American Canadian Grand Lodge: "To support the
Masons who were members of forces occupying Germany after WWII, two Grand Lodges developed.
One, in the British Occupation Zone, became the Grand Lodge of British Freemasons. The other, in the
American-Canadian Occupation Zones, became the American Canadian Grand Lodge (ACGL). When the
German Lodges returned to light, three German Grand Lodges emerged. In time, all of the above joined
together (as separate Grand Lodges) to form the United Grand Lodges of Germany. Although a
considerable portion of the Brothers of the ACGL are still military, due to the American forces stationed
in Germany, the percentage of non-military membership has increased over time. The ACGL's District 9
is in Saudi Arabia; the membership consists of non-military expats." E-mail: Date: Fri., 14 Dec 1996
00:04:12- 0500. From: "Gus J. Elhert" To: Paul Rich
(4.) Lee Little, "Freemasonry in the Middle East," unpub. paper, American Canadian Grand Lodge
District 9 Workshop, 9 October 1991, 1.
(5.) "At the very highest level the Catholic church has declared itself the implacable enemy of
Freemasonry. Its official position is still the one enunciated by Cardinal Ratzinger in 1983: Catholics who
join Masonry `are in a state of grave sin'." Wallace McLeod, Review of Jason Berry's Lead Us Not Into
Temptation: Catholic Priests and Sexual Abuse of Children, The Royal Arch Mason Magazine, Vol. 17
No.12, Winter 1993, 374-75.
(6.) Languages and dogmas are not, and do not have to be, barriers to brotherhood. Sad to say, the
narrow sectarianism and pious orthodoxy of religion have been many times in the forefront of those who
would discredit Freemasonry. The voices of fundamentalist clergymen, narrow- minded bigots, and ill-or
mis-informed zealots have been raised in violent opposition to Freemasonry, but many of the same voices
have been silent in the presence of tyrants and the oppressors of the poor, as we had occasion to witness
only a few short years ago during the Gulf War. Our Craft Lodges have operated peacefully for many
years alongside our neighbors here in Saudi Arabia and as long as our endure in this part of the world."
Address by Gus J. Elhert. The fore going was presented during a St. John's Day Celebration hosted by
Arabian Lodge #882 in Saudi Arabia in December 1994. Text supplied by a member of the lodge.
(7.) Oliver D. Street, "Freemasonry in Foreign Lands," Silas H. Shepherd, et al, eds., Little Masonic
Library, Book I, Macoy Publishing & Masonic Supply Co., Richmond (Virginia), 1977 , 129.
(8.) John Lawrence, Freemasonry -- a religion?, Qtd. Christopher Haffner, Workman Unashamed: The
Testimony of a Christian Freemason, Lewis Masonic, London, 1989, 7.
(9.) J. Blanchard, Scotch Rite Masonry Illustrated, Vol. I, Charles T. Powner, Chicago, reptd. 1979, 29.
(10.) Mark C. Carnes, Secret Ritual and Manhood in Victorian America, Yale University Press, New
Haven and London, 1989, 149-150.
(11.) In actual fact, and most spectacularly in the eighteenth century, if one goes by engravings,
Continental opposed to British lodges had women members from time to time. What we find is that the
acceptance of women into the fraternity required a particular set of circumstances which had less to do
with the social rank of either the men or the women than it did with the economic situation of the women
themselves, as well as with their willingness to embrace the masonic vision of enlightened culture In
addition, the evidence strongly suggests that the lodges for men and women laid emphasis on only certain
aspects of masonic idealism, upon virtue in the polity, as distract from its governance. The absence of
language of government within the proceedings of the women's lodges only reinforces the point that first
and foremost the male lodges were schools of government. Margaret C. Jacob, Living the Enlightenment:
Freemasonry and Politics in Eighteenth-Century Europe, Oxford University Press, 1991, 124.
(12.) Jeffrey A. Charles, Service Clubs in American Society: Rotary, Kiwanis, and, Lions, University of
Illinois Press, Urbana and Chicago, 1993, 15.
(13.) See Jacques Berque, Egypt: Imperialism and Revolution, Faber & Faber, 1972, 215, 255. Also
Alexander Scholah, Egypt for the Egyptians! The Socio-political Crisis in Egypt, 1878-1882, Ithaca.
Press, 1981, 106-07, 326. Scholah identifies the British Vice Consul in Cairo in 1879, Rafael Borg, as
active in Masonic activities. Ibid.
(14.) John Yarker, "Arab Masonry," AQC, Vol. 19, 1906, 243. See also Haskett Smith," The Druses of
Syria and Their Relation to Freemasonry, " AQC, Vol. IV, 1891, 7-19. A compulsive need to have the
Arabs endorse the antiquity of freemasonry runs through such articles.
(15.) Little, 4.
(16) E. Alexander Powell, The Last Home of Mystery, John Long, 1929, 302.
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