British Bahá'ís and the Western Mystical Tradition

By Lil Abdo

First presented at the Irfan Colloquia Session #28
London School of Economics: London, England
July 14–16, 2000
(see list of papers from #28)

    This paper is taken from a larger work that applies Sperber and Wilson's theory of the principle of relevance to the Bahá'ís in the British Isles prior to 1930. The theory is based in linguistics but goes beyond that discipline to explore the possibility of a unified theory of cognitive science. To this end it is argued that for information to be communicated it must be perceived as relevant. Crucial in determining relevance is the collection of assumptions referred to as a "context." In applying a theory of cognition to the acceptance of a religious ideology, we do not intend to explain why people become Bahá'ís but rather how people become Bahá'ís. In other words, what was it in the Bahá'í teachings that the earliest British adherents found "relevant"? In investigating the Bahá'í Movement between 1899-1930, a number of currents or networks become apparent. The role of networking in the recruitment to religious movements has been considered by a number of commentators; however, we will argue that a network is a context for cognition rather than a group of individuals. In this paper we will examine the network-context of those who approached the Bahá'í teachings from the perspective of Western Mystical Tradition. These individuals were immersed in their understanding of the Celtic religious tradition with a particular emphasis on the myths surrounding the Holy Grail in relation to Glastonbury. The people were linked to numerous magical and mystical orders including The Golden Dawn, the Order of the Table Round, and the Society of the Inner Light, as well as the Bahá'í Movement.

    This grouping is interesting for a number of reasons. First, their ability to enrich certain aspects of the Bahá'í teachings in order to slot them into their preexisting belief systems gives a clear example of the principle of relevance. Conversely, their failure to remain within the Bahá'í sphere indicates a loss of relevance that we will attempt to explain.

    We will also consider the Western Mystical Tradition in the context of Native Manifestations within the Bahá'í hermeneutic and pose t lie question: can the teachings of Bahá'u'lláh be equated with the Holy Grail?

    1. Dan Sperber & Deirdre Wilson, Relevance, Communication & Cognition, Basil Blackwell, Oxford, 1986.

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