Richard Burton's Kasidah - A Lay of the Higher Law

Richard Francis Burton (1821 - 1890), Victorian polyglot linguist, translator, explorer, spy, was, in addition to his other achievements, an assiduous scholar of the religions and beliefs of many countries, including the Islamic ones of the middle East.

For his work in the diplomatic (intelligence) service he was accustomed to impersonating characters of diverse religious beliefs. In 1845 he first began to go about as a dervish, and by 1853 he was confident enough of his identity as a muslim to make the pilgrimage to Mecca, on pain of death if he were to be exposed as an infidel.

On his return to England, he wrote his poem, The Kasidah, which remains the only full expression of his own philosophy of life and religion. Perhaps because his views were so radically out of tune with his age, he chose to write this in the persona of "Haji Abdu El Yezdi", and, when he finally published it some 25 years later, in 1880, he chose to hide the fact of his own authorship, and presented himself as merely the translator of an original work by "the Haji" (a haji is a muslim who has made the pilgrimage to mecca) - a literary hoax that succeeded in concealing the true facts for more than ten years.

The first (1880) edition, in two issues, comprised less than 200 copies. The first issue, being undated and without a publisher's name, was circulated privately to friends. Of the second, dated, issue, about 100 copies were sold. Though critics compared it to Fitzgerald's translation of the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam (very much in vogue at the time) and described it as "an exquisite gem of oriental poetry", it was not a commercial success, and had no noticeable impact on the literary culture of the time.1

A kasidah (or qasidah) (literally: couplets) is an Arabic or Persian poetic form. It is a panegyric, written in praise of a person, act, or object. According to the OED, the author must open by alluding to the "forsaken camping grounds", and then "lament, and pray his comrades to halt, while he calls up the memory of the dwellers who had departed [...] the same rhyme has to run through the whole of the verses, no matter how long the poem may be."2

Burton's poem indeed opens in the required way, and periodically he returns to a repeated line: "the tinkling of the camel's bell". In Arab countries, Death, rather than a pale horse, rides a camel3, so this tinkling may be taken as a reminder of mortality; but perhaps also, as a reminder that a journey is underway. The journey in question, as well as an individual one, may be interpreted as the philosophical and evolutionary journey of the vast caravan of humanity, from its forgotten origins to its unknown destination.

The poem is thoroughly anti-dogmatic. Burton uses his extensive scholarship (as evidenced in the notes) to great effect, presenting, and dismantling, an impressive series of possible answers to the eternal riddles of human existence. Though (or perhaps because) his long-suffering wife Isabel was generally horrified by Burton's views on religion, she said that she could not read the poem without tears flooding to her eyes.4

As well as the nine sections of the poem, Burton, in his guise of "translator", provided an opening commentary ("to the reader", reproduced below) and extensive notes on the meaning of the poem, which take on an extra life in the light of the fact that they were written by the actual author. The ironic tone of these, quite available to the modern reader, indeed appears to be considerably "in advance of its time".




Sir Richard Burton, translator


[prepared for E2 from the scanned edition at]


THE Translator has ventured to entitle a "Lay of the Higher Law" the following composition, which aims at being in advance of its time; and he has not feared the danger of collision with such unpleasant forms as the "Higher Culture." The principles which justify the name are as follows:--

The Author asserts that Happiness and Misery are equally divided and distributed in the world.

He makes Self-cultivation, with due regard to others, the sole and sufficient object of human life.

He suggests that the affections, the sympathies, and the "divine gift of Pity" are man's highest enjoyments.

He advocates suspension of judgment, with a proper suspicion of "Facts, the idlest of superstitions."

Finally, although destructive to appearance, he is essentially reconstructive.

For other details concerning the Poem and the Poet, the curious reader is referred to the end of the volume.

F. B.
VIENNA, Nov. 1880.

Book I
Book II
Book III
Book IV
Book V
Book VI
Book VII
Book IX

Note I
Note II

Text from at:


(Incidentally, fans of Philip Jose Farmer's Riverworld series, where Burton appears as a character, will notice that two of the titles in that series are taken from this poem - The Dark Design and The Magic Labyrinth.)

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