Skeptical Sir Richard

Sir Richard Francis Burton (1821-90)

Sir Richard Francis Burton (1821-90)

Yesterday I finished reading the first volume of Sir Richard Burton’s 1855 Personal Narrative of a Pilgrimage to Al-Madinah and Meccah (in the public domain). Here Burton recounts his travels in the summer of 1853, when he disguised himself as a wandering Persian physician and performed the Muslim pilgrimage. At the time, if a non-Muslim was caught doing this, he would be lucky if he only ended up forcefully circumcised.

Burton is an amazing writer, with a keen eye for detail and fine cynical sense of humour. He comes across as a man without any religion who is nevertheless interested in other people’s religion. This lovely passage from ch. 20 of the 1893 Memorial Edition encapsulates his skeptical attitude.
(The bits about Spiritualism are late insertions by Burton.)

[In Hamzah’s Mosque outside Al-Madinah] It is believed that the souls of martyrs, leaving the habitations of their senseless clay, are fond of sitting together in spiritual converse, and profane eye must not fall upon the scene. What grand pictures these imaginative Arabs see! Conceive the majestic figures of the saints — for the soul with Mohammedans is like the old European spirit, a something immaterial in the shape of the body — with long grey beards, earnest faces, and solemn eyes, reposing beneath the palms, and discussing events now buried in the gloom of a thousand years.

I would fain be hard upon this superstition, but shame prevents. When in Nottingham, eggs may not be carried out after sunset; when Ireland hears Banshees, or apparitional old women, with streaming hair, and dressed in blue mantles; when Scotland sees a shroud about a person, showing his approaching death; when France has her loup-garous, revenants, and poules du Vendredi Saint (i.e. hens hatched on Good Friday supposed to change color every year): as long as the Holy Coat cures devotees at Trèves, Madonnas wink at Rimini, San Januario melts at Naples, and Addolorate and Estatiche make converts to hysteria at Rome — whilst the Virgin manifests herself to children on the Alps, whilst Germany sends forth Psychography, whilst Europe, the civilised, the enlightened, the sceptical, dotes over clairvoyance and table-turning, and whilst even hard-headed America believes in “mediums,” in “snail-telegraphs,” and “spirit-rappings,” [* In fairness I must confess to believing in the reality of these phenomena, but not in their “spiritual” origin.] — I must hold the men of Al-Madinah to be as wise, and their superstition to be as respectable as that of others.

An energetic man after my taste, and a writer I shall return to.

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4 thoughts on “Skeptical Sir Richard

  1. I can’t help but notice this: if the inventors of the snail telegraph had been successful, by today we’d be calling email “snail mail.”

    And yeah it took guts for Burton to go after one’s closer-to-home European silly nonsense along with the further-away stuff.

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  2. Some of the Victorian people were remarkably modern in their world-view. The enlightenment ideas had by then penetrated society and the industrial revolution speeded up the process. Crimes of violence were now judged harder than crimes of property, and theft was in itself no longer a capital crime. The change in thinking is more subtle than maps of railroad construction, and it is hard to measure it objectively.
    — — — — — —
    (OT) Parenting, by the Borg http://freethoughtblogs.com/kittywhumpus/2016/04/06/parenting-by-the-borg/

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