Stupid Question ™
Jan. 30, 2003
By John Ruch
Q: Why do the Shriners use Islamic imagery?
—Frank N. Christ
A: The Shriners do like to wear Turkish fezzes and name-drop Muhammad. But what they’re really using is pseudo-Arabic imagery, of which Islam is a part.
The reason is that back in 1872, when the Ancient Arabic Order of Nobles of the Mystic Shrine was founded, all things Middle Eastern seemed wildly exotic and fun.
This was important for a Masonic offshoot that sought to become a self-proclaimed “Playground of the Masons.” Known mostly for driving miniature clown cars in parades and staging circuses (and also for the children’s hospitals it funds), the group still lives up to that reputation.
The Arab kick was so much fun, apparently, that a lesser-known copycat group called the Mystic Order of Veiled Prophets of the Enchanted Realm popped up in 1890. They wear black fezzes, as opposed to the Shrine’s red fezzes.
Arabic imagery also brought an air of vague mysticism well-suited to the Masonic love of appropriating occult symbols. All Masonic groups are essentially non-religious, instead focusing on general self-improvement and socializing. But they are highly ritualistic, and borrow a lot of quasi-religious claptrap—most of it Christian—to juice things up.
Some Shriners who believe their own hype actually think the Arab imagery relates to real-life roots in some ancient Persian crime-watch group. But the seriousness level of the whole thing is better illustrated by the fact, according to some Shrine sources, that the group’s lengthy name was chosen primarily to fill out initials (“AAONMS”) that serve as an anagram for “A Mason.”
Nonetheless, outsiders are sometimes confused by the profusion of Muslim imagery. The Shrine’s logo is a Crusade-era scimitar from which hangs the crescent-and-star symbol of Islam. While local Shrine branches usually have generic “A Thousand and One Arabian Nights”-style names like Oasis Shrine and Pyramid Shrine, there is an Islam Temple and a Mohammed [sic] Shrine.
In our more multicultural world, this has led to confused Muslims contacting the groups, thinking they’re mosques or Muslim organizations. Amazingly, most American Muslim organizations say they have no problem with the way Shriners appropriate the trappings of their religion.
The Shrine’s oaths and rituals also contain references to Islam, which has freaked out a good portion of the fundamentalist Christian fringe and led the Nation of Islam orthodoxy to declare that Shriners are secret “white Muslims.”
Never mind that the ritual references are clearly ignorant of actual Islam and use it as an objectified bit of mysticism. (They vow “on the mysterious legend of the Koran” and “by the sincerity of a Moslem’s [sic] oath.”) There are Southern Baptists out there who accuse the Shriners of doing everything short of packing their clown cars with C-4 and suicide-bombing downtown skyscrapers.
In response to confused Muslims and this lunatic fringe—especially after Sept. 11—some Shrine branches have recently changed their names to get rid of Islamic references. But that does not include the founding chapter: New York City’s Mecca Temple.