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THE SPREAD OF FREEMASONRY IN EGYPT: CONTRIBUTIONS OF JAMALUDDIN AL-AFGHANI AND MUHAMMAD ABDUH MIRZA MALKAM
It is only ‘philosophy that shows man the proper road and makes man understandable to man’, he averred. Yet Afghani was also a devout Muslim and hostile to Western imperialism and railed against the wanton excesses of secular materialism.
Afghani was already an initiate of an Italian lodge, when in May 1875, he was persuaded to join Kawkab al-Sharq (‘Star of the East’) Lodge, No. 1355, by the head of the District Grand Lodge of Egypt, Raphael Borg. The lodge had been founded in 1871 by some native Egyptian members of Bulwer Lodge of Cairo, No. 1068, who wanted to form a lodge that worked in Arabic for non-Europeans. Afghani quickly progressed through its ranks, and two years later, another remarkable figure joined the lodge, most probably at his behest.
In 1877 Afghani’s student and protégé, Sheikh Mohammed Abduh (1849-1905), was initiated in the Star of the East Lodge, who, like his mentor, was also a religious scholar, liberal reformer and Arab nationalist. The two men had met five years earlier in al-Azhar, when Abduh was stirred from his early passion for mysticism and persuaded to campaign for Islamic renaissance and colonial liberation. Like Afghani, Abduh believed Islam should return to its scientific roots. He recalled how the great medieval Islamic scientist and Sufi mystic, Al- Ghazali, considered the study of logic and philosophy as essential for the defense of Islam, and in an article written in the year of his initiation, Abduh advocated the introduction of modern sciences to Al Azhar University. He deplored the blind acceptance of traditional doctrines and argued that as ‘modernity is based on reason, Islam must therefore be shown not to contradict reason, thus we may prove that Islam is compatible with modernity’:
There are two books: one created which is the universe, and one revealed which is the Qur’an and only through reason are we guided by this book to understand that one.
In 1878 Afghani was elected Master of the Star of the East Lodge and through his considerable influence many of Egypt’s nomenclature joined the lodge, which attracted several hundred members. He referred to his followers within Freemasonry as his ‘Sincere brethren and faithful companions’, although his ideas inevitably led him into conflict with other members of the lodge. When he was cautioned that the lodge was not a political platform, he is reported to have responded,
I have seen a lot of odd things in this country [Egypt], but I would never have thought that cowardice would infiltrate the ranks of masonry to such an extent.
For Afghani, Freemasonry was a vehicle for combating ‘the towering edifices of injustice, tyranny, and oppression’, and, it is believed, actually formed the basis of the political group he later founded – the Hizb al Watany al Hurr (‘the Free National Party’), which helped remove Ismail Pasha from the throne. At the time, Egypt was undergoing a financial crisis and the Khedive Ismail was clashing with his British and French creditors over the national debt. The Ottoman sultan responded by deposing him in favour of Mohammed Tawfik (1852-92), Ismail’s eldest son. Tawfiq was a mason and an admirer of Afghani and his teachings, and he also favoured a parliamentary constitution. However, Tawfiq soon distrusted Afghani and had him sent into exile.
In 1881, the Egyptian ruler, Khedive Tawfiq, became Grand Master of the Grand Lodge of Egypt, although he assigned most of his duties to his Minister of Justice, Hussein Fakhry Basha. Yet within months a revolt broke out within the ranks of the Egyptian army, which was quelled by British forces. Tawfik remained ruler although Evelyn Baring (later Lord Cromer) took charge of the country and Mohammed Abduh was exiled for agitating against foreign occupation. Abduh sought sanctuary in the Lebanon, before joining his former teacher Afghani in Paris in 1883. There they collaborated on a semi-religious, semi-political, and anti-British periodical called Urwat al-wuthqa – ‘The Firmest Bond’ – a title taken from the Koran. The paper circulated widely and was smuggled into Egypt, India and much of the Islamic world. Afghani gained a degree of notoriety in Parisian circles as a result of his polemical attacks on the French historian and positivist philosopher, Ernest Renan, and, it is claimed, the couple also cultivated further Masonic contacts at this time. Abduh eventually broke with Afghani, and after briefly visiting England and Tunisia, he settled in Beirut where he taught at an Islamic college; he also translated Afghani’s book The Refutation of the Materialists (Beirut, 1886) into Arabic. In 1888 he was allowed to return to Egypt by Lord Cromer, having rejected his former radicalism, and became a teacher at Al Azhar University. He began to pursue a career in the Judiciary, quickly rising through the legal ranks, and in 1891 became an Appeal Court Judge. In this capacity he reformed a number of laws, established a benevolent society that operated schools for poor children, served on the legislative council, and tried to implement educational reforms. Having earned the trust of Lord Cromer, he was appointed Grand Mufti of Egypt in 1899, although his cooperative attitude towards the British also earned him the enmity of the ruling prince, Abbas Hilmi, and the nationalist leader, Mustafa Kamil.
At the time of Abduh’s death in 1905, Freemasonry spanned all sectors of Egyptian society and included a number of notable figures: three Prime Ministers, a Minister of Public Works, and a number of Junior Ministers. Indeed, the Craft remained popular in Egypt for the next half century or more, and many leading Egyptians embraced the Craft, including the leader of the 1919 revolution, Saad Zaghlul (1859-1927); King Fuad I (1921- 36); and Prince Mohammed Ali. However during the Suez crisis of 1956, the Egyptian President, Gamal Abdel Nasser, turned on the foreign Masonic delegations and sequestered their assets. The Egyptian Grand Lodge also began rejecting Jewish members and became increasingly nationalistic, and as a consequence many Grand Lodges around the world withdrew recognition as they deemed the move contrary to the true spirit of Freemasonry.
Freemasonry staggered on in Egypt for another eight years, until finally, on 4 April 1964, President Nasser ordered the closure of all Masonic lodges. According to the Egyptian magazine Akhir Sa’a this was done because the lodges did not submit themselves to government inspection. However it was also noted that, ‘Zionism has decided to utilise Masonic lodges for practising its activities’, despite the fact that Freemasonry had clearly been held in high esteem by many leading Arab nationalists whose faith in Islam was beyond doubt.