On Top of Old Smoky: Concerning the Mysteries of Our Sacred Fez
by Mustafa al-Laylah Bey
Loose, received and borrowed is the tradition of the fez in the world of Moorish Orthodoxy. Filled with accretions and heresy like a magician’s top hat brimming with silks and flora and fauna; it’s a wonder that it remains on our heads at all. But remain it does – an anchor, a Mooring.
I think it can be safely said that the MOC initially inherited its love and tradition for the noble fez through the spiritual current established by the Moorish Science Temple and from its founder, the Prophet, Noble Drew Ali. But added to that foundation is the mortar of nostalgia and (to a certain degree) kitsch. Nostalgia of a fanciful and luxuriant Orient, certainly, but also of a time during the middle of the last century when the ideals of fraternity proved to be the balsam for those weary-wounded witnesses of the horrors of global combat. While the kitschiness of the fez arises from the sometimes playful, sometimes insulting way in which both of these fantasies have been exploited by the imagination of the modern populaces of America and Europe.
In the MOC, much to the chagrin of our other Moorish cousins, the fez appears to be part-time party attire, part-time affectation and often little else. But as with so much in Moorish Orthodoxy what appears at first to be a lark or vehicle for buffoonery is itself a disguise for something much deeper. Before you know it the Thugee entertainer swings his coin-laden rumal around an unsuspecting throat.
What does the sacred fez signify? This question can really only be answered individually in the hearts and minds of its wearer. I can tell you though what I think it means, and that may assist you in in your understanding. It is in that spirit that I begin.
At its most basic the fez is a symbol of nobility. Nobility may be described using a variety of metrics. As a measure of class, refinement, worth, learning, renown, &c., but these are the symptoms, not the thing itself. Nobility is a matter of bearing and poise, an exalted inner state communicated outwardly – A thought of ALLAH made flesh!
The name itself comes from that illustrious city so well known for its association with civilization and profound learning – the noble city of Fez. Thinkers like Ibn Khaldun, Maimonides, even the mythic Christian Rosencreutz all have links in this former capital founded by a member of the Prophet’s family. It’s a city of magic and alchemy that is able to communicate a sense of the mysterious, occult and hidden while also historically encouraging the democratic exchange of information. Certainly the poetic image of this city conveys a nobility all of its own.
When the Ottomans began adopting the fez it took on another aspect of nobility – that of military prowess and patriotism. This particular aspect of nobility extended from Turkey to Asia and Europe where fezzes have been used as part of the formal dress uniforms for a variety of military groups.
Within the context of the North American continent the fez was a symbol of nobility in fraternal groups like the Ancient Arabic Order of the Nobles of the Mystic Shrine (the “Shriners”). The Moorish Science Temple also may have derived their implementation of the fez from its use by the “Black Shriners” of the Ancient Egyptian Arabic Order Nobles of the Mystic Shrine. Here too, it is a symbol of Nobility. Within the Shriner tradition it is asked of the candidate “Are you a Noble of the Mystic Shrine?” To which one answers, “I am so accepted by all men of noble birth.”
By the latter half of the twentienth century the fez became synonymous with a different example of nobility, that bestowed by the cult of the individual in the post-modern age. Beatniks, hippies, swinging bachelors, each took their turns donning the sacred hat. The exotica of an imaginary Arabic landscape eventually made way for an ironic yet retro-chic piece of clothing. Additionally, somewhere during this period the fez’s association with smoking took hold in the imagination. Tobacco or hash or both, in hookahs and narghiles, pipes – you name it – the fez was the essential head wear for the Head. Yet even here the sense of nobility is present in the exalted state of consciousness experienced as well as the languor and repose inherent in the experience.
To us each and all of these examples provide ideals which we Moors find important and therefore exhibit. We regard the sacred and esoteric Science as being one of the greatest examples of nobility this planet can endure. While many of us abhor the violence that seems inherent in the very idea of nationalism, we still believe in the nobility that is afforded to a Brother or Sister who is willing to fight for individual liberties and freedom. Since the most sublime example of this “militancy” is the Greater Jihad of the inner battle with one’s Lower and Higher Selves, we also seek expression of this nobility as individual “Pretenders to the Throne of an Imaginal Egypt.” And it is towards that end that the MOC utilizes all techniques of consciousness training, but finds particular respite and fondness for the “Leaf of Heroes” that conquers the three worlds.
For me the fez also signifies the Divine Presence which the ancients have associated with the subtle centers at the third eye and at the crown of the the head. In Indonesia the fez is known as the peci and in the Sumerah school of Kebatinan it rests upon the area of the head known as the “House of Prosperity” (bait al makmur) or the “Realm of the Sacred Teacher” (guruloka). It is here that the seed of discrimination (pelah) meets the egg of awareness (peka) to conceive the surrender (sumerah) of personalized consciousness (kesadaran).
The fez, then, is a womb preparing the way for this second birth, a baptism of Gnosis. This baptism occurs at the font where pelah and peka are applied to the noble virtues of our Science: Love, Truth, Peace, Freedom, Justice. Beauty.
The tassel which we wear represents the lines of knowledge which nourishes the Moor in this effort. However it also represents the seeds of the Science transmitted to the world from the Moor. The nexus of this coming to and pouring forth is the navel (or Omphalos!)of the fez.
Additionally, our sacred cap requires no brim, for we need no shielding from the rays of Allah’s noblest image, the Sun. In the same way we bask in the radiance of the knowledge of that interior Sun that nourishes and sustains us on more subtle, but in no way less vital, levels.
In these and so many other ways our badge of nobility marks us as travelers to the Eastern hinterlands of the Imagination. Where, like Prospero we are armed only with our “Rich garments, linens, stuffs and necessaries” and “volumes that
(we) prize above (our) dukedom.” Upon our brow is our tasseled psycholabe conning the barzakh for relevance, signs, portents.
Slamet, Slamet, Slamet