The political movement that led to Iran’s first constitution in 1906 – which established the country’s first parliament – was underpinned by an intellectual revolution which absorbed and adapted ideas from the European Enlightenment. How these ideas came to influence Iran, given the absence of a print industry in the country, is a question that has long intrigued intellectual historians. One route was membership of the Freemasons. 

In 1835, three Iranian Princes paid a visit to London where they visited and commented on the varied and interesting developments that were taking place in England, including the construction of the Thames Tunnel – an engineering wonder – and a review of the political system which was described in thoroughly whiggish terms. Their fascination with British notions of liberty was writ large throughout the diary they kept of their visit. One entry for 27 July is especially intriguing: 

‘…went to a house in which the Lodge of Friendship of Freemasons was assembled. Here we had the honour to join the Lodge, where all of us too our first degree in this most noble society. Every man who desires to join in, must go himself and see. But I can say this, that it is a most honourable, desirable, and sacred secret. Every person that desires to become a member must be above the age of 22 years. No slave, nor woman is admissible… A person may take the three first degrees of Freemasonry, within a year and half, and a fourth after that period has elapsed. A freemason, after taking his degrees, will have a patent from the head of the society, signed by the noble, declaring him to be such. The head of all the freemasons in the world, is His Royal Highness, the Duke of Sussex, a brother of his Majesty.’ 

They were not the first Iranians to be initiated into the Freemasons – the Iranian ambassadors to France and Britain in 1807 and 1809 had also joined – and they were far from the last. Throughout the nineteenth century Iranian travellers to Europe and Britain, along with broad swathes of the emerging intellectual class, became members of the Freemasons, affiliating themselves in the main to Scottish and English lodges (though in the informality of the period not all ‘lodges’ Iranians established were fully integrated and in some cases copy-cat lodges were established with no formal affiliation).  

The attraction for Iranians were clear: acceptance and access. This was acceptance into an international intellectual brotherhood with access to radical whig ideas that were both progressive and iconoclastic. Almost every political leader in the Constitutional Revolution of 1906 was the member of a single lodge – Iran Awakening – in Tehran.  

For Iranian reformers, the idea that the weakness of their state was a consequence of the country’s political system – and not a result of some innate failure – and that it could be changed with the right ideas, was enormously empowering and attractive. 

Moreover, British enlightenment figures, while critical of superstition, were not as instinctively opposed to religion as some continental Freemasons were, which was another reason Iranians were more comfortable affiliating themselves with the Scottish and English lodges. 

The problem for any historian assessing the role of the eighteenth and nineteenth century Freemasons, along with other societies and sects that agitated for change in this period, is that the reality of politics meant they had to be discreet, if not altogether secret. As such it remains difficult to know the precise membership of Freemasons in Iran. Most members certainly felt that discretion was the better part of valour. This has been reinforced by the paranoia that has shaped much of 20th century Iranian politics (and its associated historiography). This culture has placed freemasonry well beyond the pale of acceptability in the country, with many clerics effectively regarding it as a foreign inspired heresy. Freemasonry consequently lost much of its political efficacy after the 1940s, and viewed with increasing suspicion, it was banned altogether after the 1979 Revolution.

These accusations of heresy are however undermined by the experience of one notable Freemason, the famous political activist and religious thinker known as Jamal al Din al Afghani (1839-97). Afghani, despite his nom-de-plume, was a Shia Muslim raised and educated in Iran. He argued forcefully for a religious revival to throw off the yoke of imperialism and more importantly the overthrow of the reactionary, arbitrary governments that enabled it. He had travelled to British India and was a visitor to the intellectual salons of London and Paris, and vigorously championed the idea of a constitution and the rule of law. In one blistering attack on the Iranian monarch he wrote, ‘A patriarchal government without a written code is tolerable; but neither law nor government, only cruel, rapacious, unscrupulous and sleepless tyranny, that is not tolerable…’ 

Afghani had initially joined a lodge in Egypt, rising at one stage to become its ‘president’, but his political activism proved too much for some of his fellow masons who increasingly argued that masons should refrain from political activism of any sort. Such was Afghani’s irritation with this position that he left his original lodge in disgust to found his own. Afghani’s critical engagement with western ideas impressed his interlocutors.  

He was not afraid to challenge the growing tendency towards race based theories and in one famous response to the French philosopher Ernest Renan, he made clear his opposition to dogma in all its forms, including the religious variety, with the melancholic conclusion that, ‘So long as humanity exists, the struggle will not cease between dogma and free investigation, between religion and philosophy; a desperate struggle in which I fear, the triumph will not be free thought, because the masses dislike reason, and its teachings are only understood by some intelligences of the elite, and because, also, science, however beautiful it is, does not completely satisfy humanity, which thirsts for the ideal and which likes to exist in dark and distant regions that the philosophers and scholars can neither perceive nor explore.’ Through Afghani, we can see how far the radical enlightenment managed to permeate Iran and the wider Middle East in the nineteenth century.