restricted access 3. “Oriental Hieroglyphics Understood Only by the Priesthood and a Chosen Few”: The Islamic Orientalism of White and Black Masons and Shriners
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3 “Oriental Hieroglyphics Understood Only by the Priesthood and a Chosen Few” The Islamic Orientalism of White and Black Masons and Shriners Jacob S. Dorman BlacknationalistandfreemasonMartinR.DelanyreportedtoameetingofAfrican American freemasons in 1853 that before the construction of King Solomon ’s Temple, Masonry was originally taught through “Egyptian, Ethiopian, Assyrian, and other oriental hieroglyphics understood only by the priesthood and a choosen [sic] few” (Delany 1853: 19). Delany’s comments are one exampleofthemanywaysinwhichnineteenth -centuryBlackAmericanssought torecoverhidden knowledgeoftheirpastbydelvingintoFreemasonryaswell as Hebrew, Ethiopian, Egyptian, and Islamic histories, conceptualized under the broad banner of “the Orient.” The Orientalist Mythology of Shriners No secret society was more deeply immersed in Orientalist mythology and legends than a uniquely American order known as the Shriners, or the Ancient Arabic Order of the Nobles of the Mystic Shrine for North America. Openonlytothosewhohadachievedthehighestlevelsinoneofthebranches of Masonry, the Shriners called themselves the “playground of Freemasonry” and sought to embody a spirit of Oriental decadence and frivolity, balanced by charitable works. Well-known New York thespian William J. “Billy” Florence and a prominent Masonic and “devoted Arabic” scholar, Dr. Walter M. Fleming, founded the Shriners in 1872 (Ross 1906: 1–2; Walkes 1993). The order took off in 1878 when the founders hired Albert Rawson, an Orientalist “expert” who determined to “decorate it with all the mysticism of the Orient,” and “a certain degree of mystery” (Melish 1921: 12; Nance 2009:· 49 · 50 · Jacob S. Dorman 158). Perhaps searching for ways to make fun of the increasing feminization ofAmericanpubliccultureaftertheCivilWar,Shrinersmockedthesolemnity of the Western Orientalist quest for authenticity in the East and the absurdities of fraternal regalia and hullabaloo. At a time when women were making their voices heard in religious movements, reform movements, suffrage campaigns , and the appreciation of all things “Oriental,” from consumer goods to loose-fitting “harem” pants to religious ideals, the Shriners’ rude masculine games embraced the East satirically (Carnes 1989; Clawson 1989; Douglas 1998 [1977]; Nance 2003, 2009). The Shriners created a blatantly fraudulent legend linking their secret order back to the nephew and son-in-law of the Prophet Mohammed and the city of Mecca in 644. In the twentieth century the silly miniature bicycles that fez-wearing Shriners rode in their parades invited their audiences to release their Westernized workaday woes and enjoy a carefree, absurd Orientalist spectacle (International Shrine Clown Association 1989: 59). Intent on having a good time, supporting charitable projects, and enjoying the fleshpots of Egypt as literally as possible, the Shriners seldom took their own legends very seriously. Even their own historians speak of the “fancies” and other liberties taken with their origin stories: “The placing of the origin ofthisOrderatMeccaisafancyoftheimaginationwhichhistoriansingeneral havealicensetoclaimuseof,”oneShrinerhistorianwrotein1906,referringto the rites of the order as a “compilation of facts and fancies which sub­sequently were handed out to a waiting and anxious constituency” (Ross 1906: 1). The Shriners’ fancies had a distinctly Orientalist flavor, describing Muslim lands with exotica and erotica, as in the following passage: Looking backward toward the home of the Order, we find the Brotherhood in Egypt flourishing and fruitful in good works, as beautiful as are the queenly palms which wave their feathery arms in the soft airs that crinkle the surface of the lordly Nile into rippling lines of loveliest corrugations , or cast their cooling shadows upon the star-eyed daughters of Egypt. (Ross 1906, 47) This kind of Orientalist fantasy was so overwrought that it did not disguise its air of winking and slightly salacious irreverence, which matched the air of droll irony that became part of American masculine culture in the wake of the horror of the Civil War (Carnes 1989; Nance 2003, 2009). As American cities grew with new migrants and immigrants, men responded to the increased anonymity of the city by forming new fraternal organizations. These all-male organizations often mixed secret passcodes and costumes with all-male din- The Islamic Orientalism of White and Black Masons and Shriners · 51 ners and titillating after-dinner entertainment. At a time when progressive reformist women were advocating for the right to vote and expressing feminism through religious movements that elevated the “mystical” East against the “materialistic” West, the Shriners’ frivolity attracted the most prominent men in America and made sport of reformers, progressivism, and even other all-male fraternal organizations. The order’s costumes also embodied Western Orientalist ideas of the East. The Nobles wore rich costumes “of Eastern character,” made of silk and brocaded velvet “of oriental intensity of color,” topped with a fez. According to the Shriners, the wearing of the fez...


Subject Headings

  • Islam -- North America.
  • Islam -- South America.
  • Muslims -- North America.
  • Muslims -- South America.
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