By Angel Millar
There was at least one big surprise among Osama bin Laden’s personal library, declassified a few days ago by the Director of the Office of National Intelligence. Bin Laden, al-Qaeda’s mastermind, had a copy of The Secret Teachings of All Ages by Manly Hall (1928), a classic of New Age, or alternative spiritual thought.
Was bin Laden a closet New Ager? No. Did he agree with the thesis of The Secret Teachings. Again, no.
Writing in Salon magazine, Mitch Horowitz says that he “seriously doubt[s]” that bin Laden had even read the book. That is possible, of course, but I take a different view. Over the last several years, I’ve been researching both historical connections and antagonisms between Western alternative spirituality and Islam for my recently released book The Crescent and The Compass.
Although I was surprised that bin Laden owned a copy of this particular, lengthy, and somewhat romantic book, I was not surprised that he had an interest in its contents. I believe bin Laden had read at least some of The Secret Teachings’ more than forty chapters, and that it was of importance to him.
Before going into the why, I should point out that the subjects of Islam and Freemasonry would have interested bin Laden most in the book. Chapters on the pyramids, astrology, and so on, probably interested bin Laden less, if at all.
Relying heavily on Western sources, and quoting extensively, the chapter on Islam is not particularly strong, however. Hall was more of a mystic than a scholar, and I largely disagree with his theory. For Hall, secret, gnostic wisdom has been preserved and passed on through the religions, various secret societies and fraternities (such as the Freemasons), and esoteric philosophies and practices such as the Hebrew Qabbalah.
Bin Laden may well have welcomed the author’s criticism of the negative “attitude of Christendom toward Islam” in its opening passages. But any believing Muslim would be offended by Hall’s contention that, “The arcana of Islam may […] be demonstrated to have been directly founded upon the ancient pagan Mysteries performed at the Caaba centuries before the birth of the Prophet” and that “many of the ceremonials now embodied in the Islamic Mysteries are survivals of pagan Arabia.” (According to Islam, Muhammad received the Qur’an from the Angel Gabriel, not from pre-existing pagan traditions, which, from a mainstream Islamic perspective, are shirk — the sin of practicing idolatry or polytheism.)
In my view, the chapters about Freemasonry are likewise laborious, focusing on various alleged ancient influences more than on the history of the three-century-old fraternity itself.
But why would bin Laden own such a book?
It is quite possible that the al-Qaeda leader believed it to be an accurate representation of the beliefs of Freemasonry, which Islamists, today, regard as one of the leading foes of Islam. Notably another book on bin Laden’s bookshelf was Bloodlines of the Illuminati by Fritz Springmeier. This book presents Freemasonry as an integral element of the “New World Order” — behind all plots and revolutions, and inspired by Satanism — that al-Qaeda saw itself as fighting. Hence, the Fall 2010 edition of the online al-Qaeda magazine Inspire praised, “an outstanding group consisting of four men [who] created a cell to assassinate Freemasons in Amman, and [who] succeeded in executing a number of them.”
Secondly, it is probable that, although not interested in the Islamic scholarship in itself, bin Laden believed The Secret Teachings accurately represented Masonic or Western perceptions about Islam. In other words, that — like many of the other books bin Laden owned – he believed it gave some insight into the mindset of the enemy.
Ironically perhaps, radical, pan-Islamic politics has not always opposed Freemasonry. During the 19th century, several prominent, influential Muslim activists joined the fraternity, believing, sometimes, that could help in their struggles. These included Abd al-Qadir ibn Muhyi al-Din, leader of the Algerian resistance against the French; Sayyid Jamal ad-Din al-Afghani, founder of anti-colonial politics in the Middle East; and Muhammad Abduh, Grand Mufti and theologian.
By the end of the 1920s, however, European anti-Semitic and anti-Masonic conspiracy theories, introduced to the Middle East by Arab Christians, had become a part of both secular nationalism and pan-Islamism in the region. And it has remained important to Islamist and Jihadist organizations ever since.
What bin Laden’s bookshelf confirms is that, fed partly by Western conspiracy theories, the Islamist worldview is more complex than is generally believed. But the lack of comment about the al-Qaeda leader’s ownership of The Secret Teachings tells us that our understanding of it isn’t going to change any time soon.