The Highly Civilized Man
He clearly found Islam's ethical doctrines and codes of conduct more edifying and socially purposeful than any of its rivals', though there is little evidence that he personally abided by them. He also felt a genuine affinity for the sentiments expressed in Sufi poetry and practice, though this association raises questions of its own about the depth of his commitment to Islam. The British Orientalists who originally encountered Sufism in India in the late eighteenth century—and, indeed, coined the term—believed that it had 'no intrinsic relation with the faith of Islam,' viewing it instead as an Eastern form of freethinking. Burton saw it in a similar light, adopting a Sufi perspective, persona, and poetic style for his own freethinking manifesto, The Kasidah (1880).
What this suggests is that Burton's feelings toward Islam must be framed in the context of his attitudes toward Christianity. He was drawn to Islam because it gave him a vantage point from which to point out the limitations of his own European Christian heritage, not because it possessed in his mind any unqualified truths or virtues. He was most fervent in his advocacy of Islamic beliefs and Muslim practices during the decade—the late 1850s to the late 1860s—when he was most actively engaged in a polemical campaign against the universalist claims of evangelical Christianity. His dismay at what he regarded as the destructive effects of Christian missionary activity among the West African peoples with whom he came in contact during his years as British consul in Fernando Po (1861-1864) made him especially outspoken in his praise of Islam. Not only did he argue in his books on the region that Islam was better suited to the needs of Africans than Christianity but he also referred to himself as a Muslim in private communications and conversations. In letters from West Africa to his friend Monckton Milnes, he wrote that he was taking '"sweet counsel" together' with his 'Moslem brethren' and wishing 'for a little of the "Higher Law" (viz that of Mohammed).' Soon after his return from West Africa to England, he spent a weekend at the country home of Lord John Russell, where his hostess reported in her diary that he 'calls himself openly a Musselman.' His host, however, qualified Burton's provocative affirmation of faith, noting that he 'believes in no particular religion, though calling himself a Musselman.' This gets us closer to what Islam meant for Burton—not an expression of faith in its own right, but a means of challenging the unquestioning faith of his countrymen.
Burton exhibited an intellectual curiosity in religions of all sorts, but this curiosity never carried over into the unquestioning commitment of the devout believer. While in India he was intrigued not only by Islam, but by Roman Catholicism, choosing its services over those of the Anglican chapel while he was stationed in Baroda, and by Hinduism, claiming that his intensive study of the faith had been rewarded by the privilege of wearing 'the Janeo (Brahminical thread).' He gave a sympathetic hearing to the doctrines of Mormonism during his visit to Salt Lake City, concluding that Mormon theocracy was 'the perfection of government.' He even had something good to say about what he termed the 'fetish' beliefs of West Africans, which avoided the objectionable 'anthropomorphism' that afflicted Christianity. 'The Negro Deity if disassociated from physical objects, would almost represent the idea of the philosopher,' by which he meant 'a pure theism.' Late in life he became interested in the claims of Spiritualism, finding in its eclectic 'mix of rationalism, experimentation, and anti-Christian secularism' a perspective much to his liking.