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Sheffield Lectures on The History of Freemasonry and Fraternalism. Vol.1 - 2008.

Centre for Research into Freemasonry and Fraternalism, University of Sheffield, UK.

Edited by Andreas Önnerfors & Dorothe Sommer

Published by the University of Sheffield, 2009

Softcover - 174 Pages.
Price, £ 20

Available from the publisher:

Centre for Research into Freemasonry and Fraternalism

About the Editors:

Dr. Andreas Önnerfors is Director of the CRFF and Senior Lecturer at the Department of History. His many research projects include European Freemasonry in the eighteenth-century and a study on masonic passports in Great Britain. Currently he teaches an MA course on freemasonry and fraternalism and acts as a supervisor for PhD students

Dorothe Sommer is currently the Research Support Coordinator at the CRFF and PhD student at the University of Sheffield. Her research focuses on Ottoman Freemasonry and the history of the Levant.

During the autumn of 2008 The Centre for Research into Freemasonry and Fraternalism (CRFF) invited a number of speakers to Sheffield for a lecture series on Freemasonry and Fraternalism in the Middle East.

This volume presents five of the papers delivered during the series, which all unite research competence in the field of freemasonry and fraternal organisations with general expertise on different aspects of Middle Eastern history.

The book marks the first edition in the Sheffield Lectures on the History of Freemasonry and Fraternalism, which it is envisaged will be a bi-annual publication. 

The first edition of the Sheffield Lectures represents the first scholarly publication devoted to the topic of freemasonry and fraternalism and the Middle East.

Academic study of freemasonry has mainly focussed on various aspects of predominantly male sociability in a "Western" context. As fascinating as this research is, it is important to recognise the need to broaden our perspectives. It would be easy to brand freemasonry and related forms of organised sociability as "Western" cultural products, that in a different context can only be viewed as imported bodies forced upon non-Western societies. However, some of the findings of this volume suggest that such a view is questionable. 

Educated elites in the Middle East were able to distinguish between different forms of freemasonry and found ways to adapt them to the pre-existing conditions of their own cultures. Thus, the trans-cultural circulation of ritual performance, moral codes, ideology and organisational practice forms an absorbing field for future research.

Significantly, Arab, Turkish and Persian elites of various religious affiliations were able to independently relate to freemasonry which served different purposes depending on the occasion. This runs counter to various un-reflective conspiracy theories that survive in the Middle East, especially that of a Judaeo-masonic plot against the Muslim world that draws on the spurious "Protocols of the Elderly of Zion", which first came to light in Russia at the end of the nineteenth century and subsequently were exploited by the Nazi propaganda machinery. 

Most intriguing is the relationship between processes of modernisation/national self-identification and freemasonry, in which masonic sociability seems to have served as a unifying basis among groups that promoted fundamental changes in their respective societies, whether it be within the AI-Nahda of Arab intellectuals, the Iranian Constitutional Revolution or education in Egypt. 

This link can be observed in a number of global nationalisation processes, from Bulgaria to Brazil or from Italy to Cuba. However, it remains a desideratum to carry out a comparative study between these shifting contexts in order to find a convincing answer to the paradoxical questions of how and why a universal ideology of brotherhood fostered political, cultural or social (and sometimes mutually exclusive) particularisation.

Thierry Zarcone's paper, "French Pre-Masonic Fraternities, Freemasonry and Dervish Orders in the Muslim World" proves how valuable it can be to shift from a strict treatment of freemasonry towards an approach that includes the study of related fraternal organisations. Zarcone examines the identification of pre-masonic and masonic fraternities with Sufi orders (tarikat). In the eyes of many Muslims, the masonic superstructure, with its hierarchy and rituals, is regarded as being similar to the Sufi orders in the Islamic world (which could be one reason why Sufism is not recognised as part of Islam by a majority of Muslims).

Dorothe Sommer's paper outlines "Early Freemasonry in Late Ottoman Syria from the Nineteenth Century Onwards - The First Masonic Lodges in the Beirut Area". Presenting results from her ongoing PhD-project, she looks into how these lodges attracted intelligent and reform-minded men, who used freemasonry in order to maintain harmony in their own society. Sommer argues that the spread of freemasonry in the Ottoman Empire was not instigated by European grand bodies; rather Lebanese masons pragmatically exploited a European concept and used competition between the European powers to suit their own aims.

The paper delivered by Isaac Lubelsky, entitled "The Star in the East: Occultist Perceptions of the Mystical Orient", deals with the image of the mystical Orient (whether it be the Near, Middle, or Far East). Since the Enlightenment the Orient has been a source of attraction and inspiration for avast number of European prophets and occultists. The mystical image derives, first and foremost, from the identification of the East as the sacred region that gave birth to the great monotheistic religions -Judaism, Christianity and Islam. Lubelsky examines the Theosophical Society , the Rosicrucians and Cagliostro as case studies for the exploitation of the "East" in various fraternal organisations.

In her paper titled "Freemasonry and the Constitutional Revolution in Iran: 1905-1911" Mangol Baya assesses the influence of freemasonry in the radical political changes that occurred in Iran in the early years of the twentieth century. As far as possible, given the paucity of reliable evidence, she analyses its contribution to the Constitutional Revolution and addresses the relevant issue of the attractiveness of masonry to the intelligentsia. She reaches the conclusion that Iranian freemasons by no means acted in unison, and that the craft served as one important element in the idealised Westernisation and modernisation of Iranian society.

Finally, Paul Dumont, in his paper entitled "Ottoman Freemasonry and Laicity", investigates the non-confessionality of the state as a concept within Ottoman freemasonry , mainly focussing on the establishments of the Grand Orient de France.
The French term "Laicité" has no proper English equivalent and can only partially be covered by "secularism". However, the disconnection between state and religion was embraced by Ottoman freemasonry. Colonial freemasonry, although disrupted after the foundation of the Republic of Turkey, efficiently contributed to the dissemination of ideas imported from the West.

As a whole the publication of this series of lectures provides the reader with a fascinating insight into the complex and sometimes controversial topic of freemasonry in the Middle East, and clearly demonstrates the need for further research.

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