Ancient Arabic Nobles of the Mystic Shrine


The Imperial Council of the Ancient Arabic Order of Nobles of the Mystic Shrine, better known as the Shriners, was founded in 1871 in New York City as a “fun” side degree of the Freemasons. It is open to Master Masons of the 32nd degree, or Knights Templar. There were 720,000 members in 1995.

The “Shriners” are the archetypal “fun” auxiliary to a well-established secret society. They are also archetypically American; the Grand Lodge of England has in the past threatened English Masons with expulsion if they join the organization, believing that the Shrine brings Freemasonry into disrepute with childish antics, funny clothes, and ritual some find offensive. On the positive side, however, the Shriners raises a tremendous amount of money for a wide range of worthy causes, especially where children are concerned. The hospitals it funds for crippled and for badly burned children are state-of-the-art facilities and free to those in need. This order has a number of similarities to the much smaller Grottoes.

Like a number of other secret societies, the Shrine was originally little more than a drinking club. In the United States, where teetotalism has always been popular, Masonic lodges are “dry.” The Shrine was set up by a group of 13 Master Masons who had already been meeting for some time at a weekly luncheon club; the leading lights were a medical man, Dr. Walter M. Fleming, and a stage comedian named Billy Florence. The fact that there were 13 founding members commemorates the short-lived “13 craze” of 1870. In the aftermath of the Civil War, the craze was a (mostly Northern) attempt to deny superstition and bad luck. For example, 13 people for lunch or dinner was considered witty, invitations were issued for 13 minutes past the hour, and a number of short-lived games were invented wherein the winner acquired 13 points.

Florence and Fleming restricted membership to those who had attained the 32nd Degree or were (Masonic) Knights Templar. The lodge is known as a Temple, and the officers have such names as Most Illustrious Grand Potentate, Illustrious Grand Chief Rabban, and Illustrious Grand High Priest and Prophet. Ornaments in-dude both a Christian Bible and al-Quran; a foot-square Black Stone or Holy Stone (after the Qaaba in Mecca); a gavel and scimitar; crossed swords; an Altar of Incense; and a bier and coffin. The gaudy clothes and ornaments affected by Shriners are familiar to many, and as early as 1887 some Shriners were wearing fezzes decorated with gold and tiger claws — and valued at $1,000.

The rituals are a loose parody of Islam and are offensive to followers of the religion. Like other Middle Eastern parody rituals, this ritual claims remote antiquity, supposedly dating back to the foundation of the Shriners by the son-in-law of the Prophet Mohammad, the Caliph Ali, in A.D. 644. In the 1890s, controversy raged within the organization as to its historical foundation, and many people argued that it was indeed the legitimate descendant of an Arabic vigilante organization.
Although the Shriners have only one degree, there are some apendant bodies open to only Shriners, like the
Royal Order of Jesters and the Order of Quetzalcoatl.

The Shriners traditionally reveled in various pranks and ritualistic shenanigans, together with a great deal of drinking. This cast the Shrine into such disrepute by the 1910s, that some American Masonic Grand Lodges seriously considered following the course of the Grand Lodge of England and suspending any Mason who became a Shriner. Accordingly, at the 1920 convention, it was proposed that the Shrine organization divert some of its energies into good works — specifically, to financing a children’s hospital that would be open to crippled children tinder 14, of any race or creed, whose parents could not afford to pay for medical care. (Somewhat improbably, die first chairman of the hospital committee was a christian Scientist, who, however, proved to be an excellent choice.)

The emphasis was still on fun rather than charity, and die exploits of Shriners at conventions became legendary. Traffic was stopped, citizens were annoyed, and the peace was disturbed. Yet, because the hooligans were well-to-do citizens, the police routinely turned a blind eye to what was deemed harmless fun. The Shriners’ tenuous image of respectability was reinforced in the 1950s, when the order enthusiastically joined in the near-hysterical denunciations of communism that swept the United States. On October 17, 1958, J. Edgar Hoover wrote an official laudatory letter headed “Shrine Versus Communism”.

The wilder excesses both of anticommunism and Bibulous conventioneering have declined, and the Shrine is now recognized at least as much for its network of children’s hospitals as for its riotous merrymaking. Shrine drill motorcycle units are also a regular feature of many civic parades. And it is undeniable that the organization has had many prominent members, including several U.S. presidents (among them Harding, Roosevelt, and Truman); J. Edgar Hoover; Thomas E. Dewey; Barry Goldwater; Chief Justice Earl Warren; and such noted comedians as Harold Lloyd (a sometime Imperial Potentate) and Red Skelton.

A related organization is the Shrine Directors Association of North America. Founded in 1919 for directors of every Shrine Temple of North America, the order had 188 members in 1995. The Ladies Oriental Shrine of North America is a female auxiliary of the Shriners, with membership open to wives, mothers, daughters, and sisters of Shriners. The organization, which was established in 1914, had 32,000 members in 1995. Other lady auxiliaries are the Ancient Arabic Order of Daughters of Sphinx and the Daughters of Isis.

Between 1988 and 1995 there was a temple in the Netherlands, but it was dissolved, due to a lack on interest. Since the early 2000s there are signs that this temple is again functioning. 

We have published more rituals and other texts on our CD-Rom Freemasonry and Fraternal Organizations.