July 15, 2012

Nabil-i-A'zam -- An Apostle of Baha'u'llah and the author of Dawn-Breakers

Muhammad-i-Zarandi, surnamed Nabil-i-A'zam

Amatu’l-Bahá Rúhíyyih Khánum describes The Dawn -Breakers, Nabíl’s chronicle, as ‘a classic among epic narratives in the English tongue’ (PP 215). The author was Muhammad Zarandí, who wrote his narrative in Persian. Bahá’u’lláh gave him the title of ‘Nabíl-i-A‘zam’, which means ‘the most great Nabíl’. Nabíl, in both Persian and Arabic, means ‘noble’, or ‘excellent’, and according to the Abjad reckoning, the two words Muhammad and Nabíl have equivalent numerical values. Zarand is a town in one of the outlying districts of Tehran. Nabíl was on a visit in a nearby locality in Rubat-Karim when he heard for the first time that a merchant in Shiraz had declared Himself as the Promised One of Islam. He soon pursued his interest in the new Faith by contacting those who were among the most prominent believers of the Báb, and became a Bábí around the year 1847. During that period he met Bahá’u’lláh twice, once in Kirmánsháh, and once in Tehran.

After the Báb’s martyrdom, Nabíl specially undertook a visit to Baghdád, and it was there that he caught a glimpse of the true station of Bahá’u’lláh. He decided to devote the rest of his life to serving and promoting the interests of the Bahá’í Faith. He was also a poet, and endowed with a powerful pen as well as a retentive memory. He composed many poems in praise of Bahá’u’lláh. Shoghi Effendi called him the ‘Poet-Laureate’ of the Blessed Beauty (GPB 130). When Shoghi Effendi was drawing up a list of outstanding believers to be named as ‘Apostles of Bahá’u’lláh’, he included Nabíl. 

Nabíl travelled a great deal, and many of his journeys were undertaken at the behest of Bahá’u’lláh. During his extensive travels he met eminent Bábís and Bahá’ís and made copious notes of what he had heard from them regarding significant episodes in the history of the Faith. He later met the faithful brother of Bahá’u’lláh, Mírzá Músá, who provided him with important details related to Bábí and Bahá’í history. His close friends often encouraged him to write his memoirs, but he refused to do so. He finally agreed that he would proceed with such a project only if Bahá’u’lláh would give His permission. The matter was presented to Bahá’u’lláh through His amanuensis, and the suggestion was highly approved by the BlessedBeauty. In two Tablets addressed to Nabíl, Bahá’u’lláh gave him clear instructions about the narrative he was to set in writing. He was advised neither to overstate nor understate, neither to expand the description of events nor reduce their importance (Athar,Vol. 4, 184–5; 193–4). According to one of the Persian scholars, he was also told, possibly orally, that he should be strictly factual and his narrative should be free from doubtful reports and assumptions (NZ 54). 

Nabíl started writing his history in the year 1887–8 and it took him a year and a half to complete (NZ 57). In the preface to The Dawn-Breakers, Nabíl states that what he has recorded is ‘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’ (DB lxiii). According to a statement made by the Research Department at the World Centre, the following process for submission of his work to Bahá’u’lláh is described: ‘Nabíl composed the draft pages of his history without any extensive re-editing or corrections and submitted them in quires to Mírzá Áqá Ján. Upon their return to Nabíl, ten months after the submission of the final quire, with corrections to be made (how these corrections were indicated is not explained), Nabíl made the requested corrections to the text of the draft manuscript as well as adding an appendix containing further material from the Baghdad period which had been omitted’ (RD 9/11/05).

As stated by the Research Department, corrections had to be made to his original draft. What was available to the beloved Guardian was only the original uncorrected draft. In God Passes By, Shoghi Effendi points out that Muhammad-‘Alí and his family ‘carried off, by a ruse, the two satchels containing [Bahá’u’lláh’s] most precious documents’ (GPB 249) immediately after the ascension of Bahá’u’lláh. Among the stolen documents, according to a Tablet revealed by ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, was the text of the corrected version of Nabíl’s narrative. If this revised version is ever found and acquired by the World Centre, then, obviously, experts will have to look at the document to see if anything has been changed or any word corrupted or interpolated, or anything of that nature. In such an event, the House of Justice may decide what needs to be done. We cannot be sure that the revised version will ever be recovered.

It must be remembered that, apart from A Traveller’s Narrative, the friends did not have in their possession a detailed account of the heroic exploits that characterized the lives of the early believers of the Báb’s Dispensation. In a cable dated 1 November 1931 to the National Assembly of the United States and Canada, Shoghi Effendi describes the contents of Nabíl’s work as a ‘varied rich and authentic material [which] constitutes most effective weapon to meet challenge of a critical hour (RD 9/11/05). In view of the need to make this material available to the friends, and as the final corrected text was not in his hands, he set himself the task of editing the original draft in the spirit of the instructions given by Bahá’u’lláh to Nabíl. This is why, in the final published work, the Guardian clearly states that the book was translated from the original Persian and edited by Shoghi Effendi’.

In explaining what he had to accomplish, Shoghi Effendi, in a letter dated 15 November 1932, wrote to the friends in Iran the following: ‘Before translating the Narrative, the text had to be edited and corrected, and this task was undertaken by me personally. Exaggerations and overstatements were eliminated. The text as it stands will serve as a standard when future histories of the Faith will be written.’ Furthermore, the original document was a continuous and uninterrupted narrative, and Shoghi Effendi, in order to make it more readable for Western audiences, found it necessary to break the text down into chapters and subheadings (RD 9/11/05). When sending his manuscript to the National Spiritual Assembly of the United States and Canada, his secretary wrote on his behalf: ‘the translation of Nabíl’s Narrative and the reading of the books(quoted in the footnotes) and arrangement of the notes have taken a great deal of time and have entailed a considerable amount of labour and effort. The work he is sending you is the result of eight months of continuous labour and he hopes that the efforts exerted will prove of service to the Cause in this critical time’. (RD 9/11/05) (‘Ali Nakhjavani, from a talk on ‘Shoghi Effendi: The Range and Power of His Pen’, Acuto, Italy, February, 2006)