I have recently been posting on the astonishingly widespread influence of Freemasonry both in Anglo-American culture, and in Continental Europe. But that global influence went even further, into some regions and contexts that today seem almost incredible.

To illustrate this, I turn to the origins of modern Islamic thought. At the end of the nineteenth century, Islam worldwide was in a parlous condition, as the vast majority of the world’s Muslims fell under the rule of European empires. The largest “Muslim nations” were the British, Dutch and French empires. Muslim thinkers could not agree how to confront the overwhelming challenge of Western Christian modernity. Should Islam imitate the West? Should it revert to its original sources, in a kind of fundamentalist revival?

The key figure in the Islamic revival was Sayyid Jama ̄l ad-D ̄ın, known from his origin as al-Afghani, who is the ultimate source of much modern Islamist thought and activism. From the 1860s through the 1890s, al-Afghani roamed freely across South Asia, the Middle East, North Africa, and even Europe. In American terms, he was a Johnny Appleseed character, wandering the world sowing reformist ideas. He urged Muslims to unite and use the latest technology to resist the Europeans before they reduced the whole Middle East to the subservient condition of India.

I discuss al-Afghani in my book The Great and Holy War, and there is an important account in Pankaj Mishra’s recent work From the Ruins of Empire: The Intellectuals Who Remade Asia.

The influence of al-Afghani’s many disciples and pupils survives today, through men like Egypt’s Muhammad Abduh. Although many were liberal modernizers, they adopted the title of Salafi, claiming that they were returning to the pure principles of the early faith – but not in the simplistic or mechanical way of many modern-day practitioners. Some urgently wanted to revive Islamic dawa (preaching, or missionary efforts), both to convert non-Muslims and to draw weaker Muslims into purer versions of faith.

So al-Afghani is critical to understanding the modern global order. I mention him here because of a surprising connection with my earlier themes. Curiously, he and his followers resembled their Western progressive counterparts in using Freemasonry as a vehicle for spiritual reform, and al-Afghani operated through Egypt’s Masonic lodges. He was even the head of that movement in Egypt. (This Masonic context was explored in a major scholarly study in A. Albert Kudsi-Zadeh, “Afghānī and Freemasonry in Egypt,” Journal of the American Oriental Society, 1972).

The connection requires a bit of explanation. Of itself, there is nothing strange about Muslim involvement in Masonry. Muslims are strict monotheists, and they are very comfortable in a mythological system that harks back to Solomon or Suleiman, their great prophet. They encountered at least two separate traditions of Masonry – the British in India, and the French in Egypt – and they naturally gravitated to these movements dedicated to progress, education, modernity and fellowship.

In the late nineteenth century context, Freemasonry had a special appeal for people living in repressive Muslim regimes like Persia. Government and police frowned on any private clubs and societies that might promote sedition, but Masonic lodges offered safe space for discussion and what we would today call networking. This was particularly important in a world of incipient globalization, in which people and media were beginning to circulate freely. The Suez canal opened in 1869. In any of the great Muslim cities with the slightest pretensions to modernity, a traveler could find news- papers and periodicals published in Calcutta, Cairo, and Constantinople.

What better setting could there have been for a global traveler like al-Afghani? Through a society firmly rooted in Western modernity, he sowed the seeds of anti-Western reaction.

Now, I am almost nervous about raising this issue, as I know Freemasonry already attracts so many bizarre conspiracy theories: so now, do we get to blame Masons for Islamism as well? Obviously, that is not what I am suggesting. I am just underlining my basic point about the remarkably wide stretch of Masonic influence.

Freemasonry looks like a nursery for globalization as well as modernity.




Browse Our Archives

Follow Us!

What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment
  • Good studies from primary sources on Afghani and Freemasonry, are: A. Albert Kudsi-Zadeh, Afghānī and Freemasonry in Egypt, Journal of the American Oriental Society, Vol. 92, No. 1 (1972); Jacob M. Landau, Prolegomena to a Study of Secret Societies in Modern Egypt, Middle Eastern Studies, Vol. 1, No. 2 (1965).

    On his esoteric influence, see K. Paul Johnson, The Masters Revealed: Madame Blavatsky and the Myth of the Great White Lodge, SUNY Press, 1994, who speculates that Afghani may have been one of Blavatsky’s elusive “Masters.”

  • Patrick Bowen

    Some shameless self-promotion for those interested in ties between Muslim masons and African American Islam:

  • philipjenkins


  • philipjenkins

    I did actually cite the Kudsi-Zadeh in my text. Interesting about the Blavatsky link!

  • jimbo

    Any blaming for Islamism that stops short of Muhammad is well off target. The Islamists today are only doing what Muhammad did and taught.

  • Oops. Sorry about that. Don’t know how I missed the citation. Johnson’s evidence for a link with Blavatsky is circumstantial but it is an intriguing theory, one which seems to have convinced Joscelyn Godwin.

  • Suleiman declaring that his “Mecca Medina Temple” worked 96 degrees is an obvious reference to the Rite of Memphis-Misraim. Have you looked into this angle?

  • Patrick Bowen

    Yes I have. I have a new article out on suleiman (in the journal of theta alpha kappa) that discusses this topic a little. However I wrote this new article back in 2012 and since that time ive uncovered A TON of new info that directly connects esoteric masons with theosophists, international muslims, and white and black muslim converts between 1870 and 1930. In fact, for the past year ive worked closely with K Paul Johnson on this, as well as other leading scholars of western esotericism.

    Most of these findings will be in a book chapter in an edited volume that will include contributions from Johnson, John Patrick Deveney, and other well known names. It will hopefully be out by the end of the year. The full discussion will be in my forthcoming book ” A History of Conversion to Islam in the US”, for which volumes 1 and 2 will come out in 2015 hopefully

  • philipjenkins

    This is really good to know. FYI, the new TLS has a major piece by Eamonn Gearon on Islam in the US, under the title “MAIN STREET AMREEKA.” That reviews three new books on the topic.

    Incidentally, I stressed that Masonic/Black Islam link in my MYSTICS AND MESSIAHS book back in 2000, but I’m sure you have lots more to add.

    I hope you don’t mind me adding this, but Patrick Bowen has many other interesting pieces available at

  • philipjenkins

    I find it plausible.

  • Patrick Bowen

    Thank you for these suggestions and for the promotion! Ill check these out this week

  • Ray

    What a stupid comment.

  • jimbo

    Hi Ray, let me break it down for you. Jenkins asked, tongue in cheek I believe, “do we get to blame Masons for Islamism as well?” I wanted to point out that many people blame many others for “Islamism” and that the real root of today’s Islamism is Muhammad. Muhammad’s life, actions and teachings are what the Islamists wish to implement today. This is an important theme to me. Blaming Qutb, the Masons, Ibn Tammiyah, etc. fails to identify the root. I’m not criticizing Jenkins or trying to derail his thread.

  • As noted above, al-Afghani and several important Muslim activists were Freemasons, at least for a period.

    In Britain, you have Shaykh Quilliam, a prominent Muslim activist and founder of the first mosque in Britain. And in the US you have several figures involved with Black nationalism, that drew on Freemasonry (especially the Shriners) and Islam.

    Regarding Islamism, and your question, “do we get to blame Masons for Islamism as well?” Yes… and no. Yes, because Freemasonry was used by Muslim radicals of the 19th century — including one Persian secret society which was modeled on the fraterntiy, and which aimed to introduce Western ideas to the country. And no, because Islamism did not draw any ideology from Freemasonry.

    However, today, Islamism is specifically anti-Masonic, though, in this regard, it has been significantly influenced by the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, an anti-Semitic forgery produced by the Russian secret police at the end of the 19th century (which claimed Zionists were trying to take over the world, and using Freemasons to that end).

    The Protocols was translated by Arabic Christians during the 1920s, and entered the politics of both religious militias and secular nationalist parties, such as the Syrian Social National Party.