Brendan McNamara, who teaches religion at University College Cork, Ireland, has published an excellent new book on the expansion of the Bahá’í faith into western Europe. In the late nineteenth century, religious scholars and clergy in Britain became aware of a movement of reform in Persia that they framed as a revitalisation project within Islam, and which attracted converts including the former Oriel Professor for the Interpretation of Scripture at the University of Oxford. As the teachings of the Bahá’í faith came into better focus, in the early twentieth century, they attracted the attention of an extremely diverse group of spiritualists, Celticists, and liberal protestants, who, for various reasons, saw in the life and work of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá an opportunity to advance the brotherhood of humanity and its religious possibilities.
In The Reception of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá in Britain: East Comes West (Brill, 2020), McNamara describes the sometimes adulatory, sometimes rather colonial, appreciation of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá during his two visits to Britain in the early 1910s. But McNamara also suggests reasons why this extraordinary wave of interest in the Bahá’í faith was not sustained – not least because the crisis to all religions that was represented by the First World War.
Crawford Gribben is a professor of history at Queen’s University Belfast.