Is there a relationship between Islam and the mystery schools of the ancient world? This sounds like a strange comparison for someone who is only familiar with Freemasonry or for someone only familiar with the teachings of Islam. Yet, a close, open-minded reading of Freemasonic texts combined with a strong background in Islamic teachings and history will reveal a number of similarities between what is called the “Ancient Mysteries” and Islam as we know it.
I became aware of this relationship in my high school years when I read a book entitled, Stolen Legacy: Greek Philosophy is Stolen Egyptian Philosophy, by George G. M. James, originally published in 1954. It stands as one of the pivotal works of African-centered studies of history. The author does not use the word Islam at all throughout the whole book, but he alludes to it in a section entitled, “How the African Continent gave its culture to the Western World,” where he states:
During the Persian, Greek and Roman invasions, large numbers of Egyptians fled not only to the desert and mountain regions, but also to adjacent lands in Africa, Arabia and Asia Minor, where they lived, and secretly developed the teachings which belonged to their mystery system. In the 8th century A.D. the Moors, i.e., natives of Mauritania in North Africa, invaded Spain and took with them, the Egyptian culture which they had preserved. Knowledge in the ancient days was centralized i.e., it belonged to a common parent and system, i.e., the Wisdom Teaching or Mysteries of Egypt, which the Greeks used to call Sophia. (p. 32)
This passage prompted me to study Islam more seriously and to look at it from this historical perspective. Over the years, I would make mental notes of information I came across in the Islamic canon alluding to the idea of the Ancient Mysteries. However, before I can discuss the Islamic sources and my interpretation of them, I must clarify exactly what the Ancient Mysteries are…
What were the Ancient Mysteries?
Also known as the Ancient Mystery Schools, this name is used by Freemasons, esotericists, and privy Afrocentrics to describe the catholic (i.e. universal) religion of the ancient world. More specifically, it refers to the initiatic organization that taught and preserved religious teachings, the physical sciences, legislation, and the liberal arts among other things. James gives a concise description of the Ancient Mystery Schools:
The ancient Egyptians had developed a very complex religious system, called the Mysteries, which was also the first system of salvation. As such, it regarded the human body as a prison house of the soul, which could be liberated from its bodily impediments, through the disciplines of the Arts and Sciences, and advanced from the level of a mortal to that of a God. This was the notion of the summum bonum or greatest good, to which all men must aspire, and it also became the basis of all ethical concepts. The Egyptian Mystery System was also a Secret Order, and membership was gained by initiation and a pledge to secrecy. The teaching was graded and delivered orally to the Neophyte; and under these circumstances of secrecy, the Egyptians developed secret systems of writing and teaching, and forbade their Initiates from writing what they had learnt. (p. 7)
Given my description and James’ statement above you might ask…
How can a universal religion be secret?
First, it should be remembered that these schools were called “mysteries” because the primordial religion of mankind had no name by which it was referred. True adherents to the religion recognized it in others by their moral rectitude, erudition in the arts and sciences, as well as their keen knowledge of the narratives and symbols that were shared between all the religious orders of that time.
Secondly, the notion of mystery and secrecy was used strategically. According to Albert Pike in his book, Morals and Dogma, secrecy was used to excite curiosity and to stir the emotions of those who might witness the passion plays of initiation. Likewise, they saw the spirit of mystery as coming from God Himself, Who reveals Himself to the human heart in a manner that is unspoken (p. 255).
Furthermore, the true interpretations of the symbols, myths, and allegories were maintained by a scholarly/priest class who were not at liberty to share them with people who were not prepared to receive them. This took spiritual purity, which was only gained through the long and painful process of initiation. Only through this process, could other scholars and priests know that an initiate was prepared, strong, and trustworthy enough to uphold the doctrine, teach it accurately, and shield it and himself from corruption.
Exclusivity in the scholarly/priest class maintained the chains of authorities within these schools and thus maintained the purity and accuracy of its doctrines and practices. As James alludes to later in his book, it was the Greeks who learned from the Egyptians who broke this oath and consequently posited incomplete knowledge, which led to inaccuracies and misunderstandings of the original doctrines and practices.
In future posts, I will demonstrate how Islam is tied to the Ancient Mysteries, historically and doctrinally. I will discuss some of the characteristics of the Mysteries, their decline in the ancient world, and their remnants in Arabia prior to Islam. Then I will take a brief look at early Islamic history to ask some important questions that might link the burgeoning Islamic civilization to the Ancient Mysteries as hinted to by James.