Who are the Shriners? How are they related to Freemasonry, and do they connect Freemasonry to Islam in some way?
While most believe the Shriners, or the Ancient Arabic Order of the Nobles of the Mystic Shrine, to be merely a Masonic club where Masons get together outside the regular Lodge, to have fun, and do some charity work, is there actually a more mysterious history to the organization, beneath the surface level? Today, we’ll learn a few things about the Shriners and their origins, and investigate whether they truly connect Freemasonry to Islam.
As always, this writing does not reflect the official views of Universal Co-Masonry, but is merely the views of one Co-Mason.
One of the things that Shriners are best known for is being an organization in which Freemasons cut loose a bit, engage in socializing, convene and organize for celebrations or pursuit of various hobbies. One does have to be a Master Mason (3°) to become a Shriner, although the Shrine itself does not represent a new or different degree within the Scottish Rite.
Each Shriner Temple, often decorated in middle-Eastern style, draws Masons from a wide area, as they are fewer and further-between than Masonic temples are. Thus, these buildings are places where Masons from the surrounding region convene and are somewhat more like convention centers than a typical Temple. Each contains clubs or units within it, which are related to various hobbies or activities that Masons may take an interest in: ranging from chess clubs to motorcycle groups. Shriners also engage in fundraising activities for charity and organizing lively parades.
Formed in 1872, the Shriners are a self-described “spin-off” from Freemasonry, with an added element of fun and philanthropy. The conventional story of Shriner origins goes that the organization was created by Walter M. Fleming and William J. Florence. This was after Florence, an actor on tour, was initiated by an Arabian diplomat at a party in France by virtue of being a member of the audience of a performance the diplomat had organized. Later, Florence and Fleming combined elements they had learned from Masonry with what Florence had seen from the performance at the party and created the Ancient Arabic Order of the Nobles of the Mystic Shrine. The organization grew from there, eventually becoming what it is today.
Of course, like anything connected to Freemasonry or any other “secret society,” there are Shriner conspiracy theorists, usually of the fundamentalist variety, which believe otherwise. These conspiracists based their arguments on the usual leaps to conclusions and sporadic dot-connecting we are accustomed to seeing from that crowd. They seem to think that the organization is connected to the religion of Islam, tracing back to the first millennium A.D.
While it is true that there is some Islam-related symbolism in Shriner regalia, not least of which some variations of their signature Fez including the word Mecca, there is no firmly established historical evidence tying the Shriners to Islam. Indeed, it would be difficult to adopt an Arabic aesthetic without some elements of Islam cropping up. The Fez itself long predates Shriners, originating in Morocco perhaps as far back as the 900s A.D., and was merely adopted by the Shriners.
However, as we saw in the standard origin narrative, it did begin with the initiation of two Masons into a secret society by an Arabian diplomat. Although this seemed to be a simple party initiation of not much consequence, something like “you’ve seen the play, now I declare you members,” at least from the story handed down to us. However, is that really the case? What was the organization they were initiated into that began this Fraternal spin-off?
I have not been able to find any information on the diplomat or even the name of the organization. However, some Shriner sources do mention that Bro. Florence got his inspiration for the Shriner aesthetic not just from that party in France but also from attending two more ceremonies, presumably of the same organization, in Algiers and Cairo.
I suppose we could speculate without much evidence, but what would be the point? There are no clear and concrete indications of the Shriner’s connection to Islam that I could find only conspiratorial suppositions based primarily on the icons they used and a mysterious question mark as to the organization that originally initiated them – via the Arabian diplomat. Is there more to be found here? Perhaps. But until then, I am not convinced that there is a connection. If anyone has more information on this topic, I would welcome it in the comments.