A friend recently told me that he idealizes Richard Burton which piqued my curiosity and I discovered spiritual emigre who traveled to far-off lands in his quest for Gnosis.
He was a seeker of the Truth.
Sir Richard Burton, a contemporary of Madame Blavatsky, was a British explorer and spy master who fell in love with Islam and with Moorish culture. He memorized huge portions of the Quran and was so expert in abstruse points of Islamic theology that he could pass as a Muslim scholar.
Remembered today for his incredible exploits and magnificent translations of the Arabian Nights and the Kama Sutra, Burton was also the first European to perform the pilgrimage to Mecca as a convert to Islam.
His fellow British officers called him the “White Nigger” and “that Devil Burton,” because of what they considered his ‘odd beliefs’ and ‘strange practices’.
The spiritual quest was central to Richard Burton’s life. His biographer Edward Rice tells us:
Burton’s adult life was passed in a ceaseless quest for the kind of secret knowledge he labeled broadly as “Gnosis,” by which he hoped to uncover the very source of existence and the meaning of his role on earth.
This search led him to investigate the Kabbalah, alchemy, Roman Catholicism, a Hindu snake caste of the most archaic type, and the erotic Way called Tantra, after which he looked into Sikhism and passed through several forms of Islam before settling on Sufism, a mystical discipline that defies simple labels.
He remained a more or less faithful practitioner of Sufi teachings the rest of his life, seeking the mystical heights denied all but the elect, what certain Muslims define as Insan-i Kamil, the Perfect Man, who has attained the most profound spiritual goals.
For Burton, Sufism was the most pure form of Gnosis, the secret knowledge passed down from the ancients, the Zoroastrians, the Hindu yogis, the Platonists, and the Essenes, the followers of the Secret Path having continued “up to the present time, under diverse mystical appellations, with tenets modified by the ages in which they live. They formed from the ‘archetypes’ of existence, a regular system of spiritual creation anterior to the material.”
Early in his military career, Richard Burton learned to keep certain opinions and interests to himself and became a master of the Shia Muslim practice known as taqiya – dissimulation or concealment – in which one’s private religious practices are kept hidden.
This practice can be traced back to the Prophet Muhammad and even further to the Gnostic communities of the early centuries of the Christian era.
Many of Burton’s biographers ignore or play down his spiritual pursuits, principally the several years he spent among the Ismailis and his initiation into the Qadiri order, a Sufi brotherhood.
Burton was the first European to publish accurate material about Sufism based on an insider’s training and direct experience, gained under the guidance of Sufi Masters in India and the Middle East.
The merit of Tasawwuf [Sufism], is its beau ideal of goodness as connected with beauty, and universal charity and love as flowing from the source of all goodness…. The Koranic ideal of the human soul or spirit, for instance, is similar to [the Christian]; but the Sufi, deducing the doctrine of the soul’s immortality from its immateriality… and convinced by reason that nothing can be at once self-existent, immaterial, and unbounded by time except the Deity, concludes that the spirit of man is nothing but the breath, the particle of the Divine soul lent to mankind, the noblest of God’s works.
In the last two decades of his life, Burton found other esoteric subjects to investigate: Theosophy, Spiritualism, Hermeticism, and Extrasensory Perception (Burton was the first to use the term “ESP”).
Despite his private studies, Islam (what he called “the Saving Faith”) dominated his writings.
In his essay “El Islam” Burton explained why he embraced Islam and Sufism:
“The world is the Muslim’s prison, the tomb his stronghold and Paradise his journey’s end.”… To the Muslim, time is but a point in illimitable eternity, life is but a step from the womb to the tomb…. He has no great secret to learn. The Valley of Death has no shadow for him; no darkness of uncertainty and doubt horrifies his fancy…. As in Christianity as in El Islam, eye hath not seen, nor hath ear heard, nor hath fancy conceived the spiritual joys of those who in mundane life have qualified themselves for heavenly futurity."
As for the Sufi Path, Burton says:
The whole practice of the Sufi consists of seeking the Divinity, not as the “popular prudential and mercenary devotee,” but from fervency of love to God and man. He “proclaims the invisible truth above visible comfort”; his entire resignation can face the horrors of eternal death inflicted by divine Will; “he has something higher even than everlasting gain.”
Burton’s spiritual quest often bewildered his family, friends, critics, and admirers who only saw him as an adventurer.
Indeed, his religious pursuits can only be understood in the light of his life-long commitment to Gnosis.
He wanted Gnosis, the secret knowledge that unlocked the mysteries of the universe, and if it came in his teenage investigations of the Kabbalah or a Bombay cage or a Catholic chapel in primitive Baroda or the Arabian desert, it did not matter.
He was a true seeker!