Many Baha’is have a copy of The Dawn-Breakers: Nabil’s Narrative of the Early Days of the Baha’i Revelation on their bookshelf. What is this book, and what is its purpose? Why is it important to Baha’is? Who was Nabil? When did he write his narrative, and when was it translated into English? This article provides basic answers to these questions, drawing primarily from Shoghi Effendi’s introduction to the English translation.
What is ‘The Dawn-Breakers’?
The book is a historical account of the early years of the Babi and Baha’i Faith. It was written in the late 1800s by Nabil-i-Azam, a Persian follower of the Bab and Baha’u’llah, and translated by Shoghi Effendi in the early 1930s.
The narrative starts in the late 1700s with the life of Shaykh Ahmad-i-Ahsa’i, who foretold the coming of the Bab. The original Persian-language version concludes in 1892, while the translated version closes with the banishment of Baha’u’llah to Baghdad in 1853. Even though the translation includes only half of the original text, it weighs in at nearly 700 pages, indicating the narrative’s attention to detail. For a useful summary of some key events it recounts, see this article on the Declaration of the Bab.
Shoghi Effendi provides this overview:
The complete work carries the history of the Movement up to the death of Baha’u’llah in 1892.
The first half of this narrative, closing with the expulsion of Baha’u’llah from Persia, is contained in the present [translated] volume. Its importance is evident. It will be read less for the few stirring passages of action which it contains, or even for its many pictures of heroism and unwavering faith, than for the abiding significance of those events of which it gives so unique a record.1
The main features of the narrative (the saintly heroic figure of the Bab, a leader so mild and so serene, yet eager, resolute, and dominant; the devotion of his followers facing oppression with unbroken courage and often with ecstasy; the rage of a jealous priesthood inflaming for its own purpose the passions of a bloodthirsty populace)—these speak a language which all may understand.2
What is the purpose of this book?
In his preface, penned around 1887, Nabil sets out his “intention”3: to provide an accurate and chronological account of what we call the “Heroic Age” of the Baha’i Faith (you can find more information on the ages and epochs of the Baha’i Faith here). Nabil explains,
In certain instances I shall go into some detail, in others I shall content myself with a brief summary of events. I shall place on record a description of the episodes I myself have witnessed, as well as those that have been reported to me by trustworthy and recognised informants, specifying in every case their names and standing…
I render thanks to God for having assisted me in the writing of these preliminary pages, and for having blessed and honoured them with the approval of Baha’u’llah, who has graciously deigned to consider them and who signified…His pleasure and acceptance. I pray that the Almighty may sustain and guide me lest I err and falter in the task I have set myself to accomplish.4
Shoghi Effendi recaps Nabil’s intention:
His purpose is the simple one of rehearsing the beginnings of the Baha’i Revelation and of preserving the remembrance of the deeds of its early champions. He relates a series of incidents, punctiliously quoting his authority for almost every item of information. His work in consequence, if less artistic and philosophic, gains in value as a literal account of what he knew or could from credible witnesses discover about the early history of the Cause.5
Why is ‘The Dawn-Breakers’ important to Baha’is?
Shoghi Effendi explains the value of this historical account:
Any of [the Babi and Baha’i Faiths’] early adherents have long since passed away in the course of nature. The door of contemporary information as to its two great leaders and their heroic disciples is closed for ever. The Chronicle of Nabil as a careful collection of facts made in the interests of truth and completed in the lifetime of Baha’u’llah has now a unique value.6
Indeed, The Dawn-Breakers is widely acknowledged as a crucial source of information on the life of the Bab — we were sure to include it in this list of books about the Bab.
Who was Nabil?
About Muhammad-i-Zarandi (1831–1892), titled Nabil-i-Azam, Shoghi Effendi writes,
The author was thirteen years old when the Bab declared Himself, having been born in the village of Zarand in Persia on the eighteenth day of Safar, 1247 A.H. . He was throughout his life closely associated with the leaders of the Cause. Though he was but a boy at the time, he was preparing to leave for Shaykh Tabarsi and join the party of Mulla Husayn when the news of the treacherous massacre of the Babis frustrated his design. He states in his narrative that he met, in Tihran, Haji Mirza Siyyid Ali, a brother of the Bab’s mother, who had just returned at the time from visiting the Bab in the fortress of Chihriq; and for many years he was a close companion of the Bab’s secretary, Mirza Ahmad.
He entered the presence of Baha’u’llah in Kirmanshah and Tihran before the date of the exile to Iraq, and afterwards was in attendance upon Him in Baghdad and Adrianople as well as in the prison-city of Akka. He was sent more than once on missions to Persia to promote the Cause and to encourage the scattered and persecuted believers, and he was living in Akka when Baha’u’llah passed away in 1892 A.D.7
Unable to bear the agony of separation from Baha’u’llah, Nabil drowned in the sea. You can read Abdu’l-Baha’s eloquent tribute to him in Memorials of the Faithful.
When did Nabil compose his narrative?
Shoghi Effendi writes,
[Nabil’s] chronicle was begun in 1888, when he had the personal assistance of Mirza Musa, the brother of Baha’u’llah. It was finished in about a year and a half, and parts of the manuscript were reviewed and approved, some by Baha’u’llah, and others by Abdu’l-Baha.8
When was the narrative translated into English?
Shoghi Effendi’s English translation or “re-creation” was published in 1932.9 It was one of his first major translations, following the Hidden Words (1929) and the Kitab-i-Iqan (1931). He supplemented the narrative with an introduction, epilogue, appendices, and other contextualizing materials.
Where can you find a copy of ‘The Dawn-Breakers’?
You can read the entirety of The Dawn-Breakers online at the Baha’i Reference Library here.
You may also be able to purchase a copy at a local Baha’i bookstore or from a national Baha’i book distribution service.