Friday, June 29, 2012

Two More Views of Islam: Thomas Carlyle and Sir Richard F. Burton

 [  The following was originally posted on MySpace on  March 10, 2007. ]

Several weeks ago, reference was made here to the view of Islam presented in Henry Preserved Smith's fascinating little book The Bible and Islam. Smith, a Presbyterian theologian, wrote more than a century ago, an epoch far removed from the current controversy in the Middle East. For two more views of Islam, I have read again portions of the works of Thomas Carlyle and Sir Richard F. Burton. Carlyle's essay on Mahomet (his transliteration of the name) appeared in his book On Heroes and Hero Worship, published in 1841. Carlyle, in his inimitable style, presents an overview of the life of Mahomet, telling of his belated calling as a prophet when he was 40 years of age, his announcement of his new revelation when he was 50, of his gaining of only fourteen adherents in the three years then following, and of his flight for his life, which was threatened by outraged idolators, when he was 53, in 623 A.D. Carlyle believes that the astounding success which followed this nadir in the fortunes of Mahomet was due more to the decadence of the Christian church in the Middle East than to Mahomet's militancy. Carlyle believes that the initial impetus for Mahomet's creed came from his reaffirmation of a monotheism. In Carlyle's words,

"  Mahomet's Creed we called a kind of Christianity; and really, if we look at the wild rapt earnestness with which it was believed and laid to heart, I should say a better kind than that of those miserable Syrian Sects, with their vain janglings about ---- Homoiousion - and – Homoousion – , the head full of worthless noise, the heart empty and dead! The truth of it is embedded in portentous error and falsehood; but the truth of it makes it be believed, not the falsehood: it succeeded by its truth. A bastard kind of Christianity, but a living kind; with a heart-life in it; not dead, chopping barren logic merely! Out of all that rubbish of Arab idolatries, argumentative theologies, traditions, subtleties, rumors and hypotheses of Greeks and Jews, with their idle wire-drawings, this wild man of the Desert, with his wild sincere heart, earnest as death and life, with his great flashing natural eyesight, had seen into the kernel of the matter. Idolatry is nothing: these Wooden Idols of yours, "ye rub them with oil and wax, and the flies stick on them,"--these are wood, I tell you! They can do nothing for you; they are an impotent blasphemous presence; a horror and abomination, if ye knew them. God alone is; God alone has power; He made us, He can kill us and keep us alive: "--Allah akbar--, God is great." Understand that His will is the best for you; that howsoever sore to flesh and blood, you will find it the wisest, best: you are bound to take it so; in this world and in the next, you have no other thing that you can do.  "
Samuel Clemens found much material for humor in the dispute between the Homoousians and Homoiousians, between those who asserted that Christ was of identical substance with the Father in contrast to those who maintained that Christ was only created from a similar substance. It is a fact, though, that, although the Christian church had won most of the Middle East by the time that Mohamet was born in 570 A.D., it was beset with disputes from the beginning. Even the pastoral epistles in the New Testament confirm this. (Perhaps it can be argued in favor of the authenticity of the New Testament record that no other holy book is so revelatory of the faults and failings of the first followers of a faith. Such candor is unparalleled.)
Sir Richard F. Burton is best known as the translator of the Arabian Nights and for his account of his pilgrimage to Mecca, at risk of his life and disguised as a Moslem. While Burton published an account of his pilgrimage during his life, his essay "El Islam, or the Rank of Muhammadanism among the Religions of the World," written in 1853, was published only in 1898, posthumously, as one of the essays in the book The Jew, the Gypsy and El Islam. Surprisingly, and with no reference to Carlyle, Burton also affirms that Islam won its initial success because it arose against a Middle Eastern church that had become decadent, mired down in disputation, distracted into fruitless anchoritism. He begins almost sarcastically to relate that,
"  When the master-minds had vanished from the scene, their successors in the East introduced other and less defensible changes. Christianity in the East was surrounded by the impurest of influences. Its latitude of belief and absence of ceremonial allowed it to be worked upon by the theurgic incarnations of the Buddhists, the demiurgic theories of the Eastern and Western Gnostics, the Triad of the Brahmans, the Dualism of the Persians, the Pharisaic doctrine of the first Son of the Supreme—Osiris in a new shape—together with the metaphysics of the Ebionites, the Speculatists, and other sects of Grecian or rather of Egyptian origin. From the Straits of Hercules to the coast of Coromandel, it was split up into a legion of heresies and schisms. Syria and Arabia seem to have been the grand central focus. The Church was distracted by the frowardness of her children, and the Religion of Love was dishonoured by malice and hate, persecution and bloodshed.
"  Still the reformed religion throve—and what tenets do not?—under the influence of a moderate persecution. When, however, under the rule of Constantine, the sun of prosperity poured its splendours full upon the favoured faith, an ascetic enthusiasm, gloomy ideas of seclusion, celibacy, and self-immolation, and a censure on wealth and industry pronounced by religious hallucination, in fact the poisonous portions of the Essene School, spread subtilely through the whole body of Christianity. Everywhere in the East these practices require to be suppressed, not to be encouraged. Where the face of Nature is gay and riant, to impressionize mankind gloom and horror in the World of Spirit are contrasted with the glory and the brilliancy of the scenes of sense. This is the stronghold of the Demonolatry and Witchcraft of the Fetissist, the abominable paganisms of the Hindu, the superstitious follies of the Guebre, and the terrible Sabaism of the ancient Mexican. All are perfectly suitable to the genius of the people, to the climate, and to the scenery around them.
"  Thus in Syria and Egypt Christianity became degraded. It sank into a species of idolatry. The acme of absurdity was attained by the Stylites, who conceived that mankind had no nobler end than to live and die upon the capital of a column. Thus nations were weakened. Self-mortification and religious penances soon degenerate a race, especially in hot climates, where a moderate indulgence in the comforts, the luxuries, and the pleasures of life strengthens the body and with it the mind of man. The founders of Christianity had neglected to insist upon daily prayer at stated times, and ceremonial cleanliness, which is next to godliness. They forgot those dietetic directions and prescriptions so necessary in the East, and allowed the use of inebrients, together with impure and unwholesome meats as pork and rabbit's flesh. Man's physique suffered from their improvidence. Thus, whilst Christianity increased in numbers and powers, some once populous and flourishing countries—Egypt for instance—declined, and fell to the lowest depths of degradation. It is the race of man that exalts the faith in proportion to man's moral and material excellence. The faith fails, on the other hand, to raise a degraded race. . . . "About the sixth century of its era the Christian world called loudly for reform. When things were at their worst, Muhammad first appeared upon the stage of life. It is here proposed to touch briefly upon the points wherein due measure of justice has not yet been dealt by philosophic and learned Europe to the merits and value of El Islam. The Western nations were so long taught to look upon the forcible propagandism of Muhammad as a creed personally hostile to them, they were so deeply offended by the intolerant Deism and Monotheism of the scheme, and finally so rancoured by their fierce wars and deadly collisions with the Muslim, that certain false views have long been, and still continue to be, part or rather essence of the subject.  "
Neither Carlyle nor Burton predicts a great future for Islam.  Both believe that it triumphed initially due to the weaknesses of the Christian church.  They note that the adherents to Islam comprised one-fifth of the world's population when they wrote, a fraction which has remained the same until today.  Carlyle's unique style, which makes his work demanding reading, probably accounts for his relative unpopularity today.  Still, On Heroes and Hero Worship is worth reading, at least in part.  All three of the essays in ethnography presented in Burton's The Jew, the Gypsy and El Islam are worthy of being read today and read again.  Links to the full text of both works may be found at the Online Books page (


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