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COLLECTIONUnpublished articles
TITLEDocument and Narrative Sources for the History of the Battle of Zanjan
AUTHOR 1John Walbridge
TITLE_PARENTOccasional Papers in Shaykhi, Babi and Baha'i Studies
ABSTRACTAnalysis of Muslim and Bahá'í historical texts, including Dawnbreakers.
NOTES See also the author's Bábí Uprising in Zanjan.

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TAGS- Persecution; - Persecution, Other; - Upheavals; Dawn-Breakers (book); Iran (documents); Persecution, Iran; Zanjan, Iran; Zanjan upheaval

Zanjan was by far the largest of the battles between the members of the millenarian Bábí movement and Iranian government troops during the late 1840s and early 1850s, involving perhaps three thousand Bábís and thirty thousand government troops and irregulars.(1) It took place, moreover, on the high road between Tehran and Tabríz, one of the most important roads of the kingdom. The highway, in fact, passed through the Bábí positions, so the affair could scarcely be ignored. There exists a considerable amount of information about the siege. There are seven or eight Bábí and Bahá'í accounts, chapters in the official histories of the time, and references in contemporary documents.

Of the Bábí sources, two stand out. The first is Táríkh-i-Vaqáyi`-i-Zanján by Mírzá Husayn-i-Zanjání, a Bahá'í commissioned by Bahá'u'lláh in about 1880 to write an objective report on the siege using both Bábí and Muslim information.(2) While not a professional historian, he produced a lively account of the siege. Though he does not mention his sources, he clearly relied mainly on the accounts of Bábí survivors. The second is the interpolation in the London manuscript of the New History of the Báb, containing an account of the fighting based on information from a certain Haydar Big, son of Dín-Muhammad, Hujjat's military commander.(3)

The several other Bábí accounts are of varying value. The account of Zanjan in Muhammad "Nabíl-i A`zam" Zarandí's Dawn-Breakers is based on Mírzá Husayn, though he adds some information that he obtained from early Zanjan Bahá'ís in the 1860s.(4) In 1897 Edward Browne published an account of the siege by an Aqa `Abdu'l-Ahad, an Azalí living in Cyprus who had been a child during the siege.(5) Most, though not all, of his information is second-hand, but there is much of value. `Abdu'l-Ahad's brother, Aqa Naqd-`Alí also wrote an account of the siege which was used by Nicolas, but this seems now to be lost. There are also two very late and minor Bahá'í accounts.

The most valuable Muslim account is that in Sipihr's Násikhu't-Taváríkh, the largest of the official histories of the time.(6) This account seems to have been written from military dispatches, for it gives dates and casualty reports. Most of the chronology of the siege rests on this account. I`tidádu's-Saltanih's account in the Bábí chapter of his heresiography is a rewritten (and much improved in style) version of Násikhu't-Taváríkh, though it adds a couple of anecdotes. Rawdatu's-Safá, another court history, is of little use.(7)

Unfortunately, there are few contemporary documents about the siege available. Apart from the dispatches presumably summarized in Násikhu't-Taváríkh, there are some diplomatic dispatches, a deposition written against Hujjat in 1847, and a letter from Hujjat written to the ulama of Zanjan during the siege.

Nevertheless, in most cases the only available sources are the later narratives. Within their various limitations I am inclined to trust them. The biases of the various authors are generally obvious, of course--the Muslims thought the Bábís were power-hungry and deluded heretics and the Bábís thought the government and ulama were corrupt--but there is no real evidence that any of them are deliberately falsifying history. Their limitations are those one might expect. The Muslim sources know little about the motivations and private activities of the Bábís. The Bábís, all of whose records were destroyed, cannot help with chronology.

I will deal with the three classes of sources in turn, describing the value and reliability of the main texts. I will then discuss in more detail Nabíl's account of Zanjan, analyze his use of sources, his purposes and methods in this part of his famous narrative, and thereby, I hope, shed some definite light on his historiographical methods.

The Muslim histories

Násikhu't-Taváríkh ("The Abrogator of Histories") is a massive chronicle of world history written by the nineteenth century court historian Sipihr. It received its title because the author conceived that he had included everything in previous histories, thus rendering them of no more use. Its chief value is for the Qájár period, for which it supplies a detailed year-by-year account of the chief events of the kingdom. Buried amid the accounts of army movements, riots and petty uprisings, and the appointments and firings of officials is a detailed account of the Bábí movement as it was known to the court.

It is obvious that Sipihr's main--perhaps only--source on the battle of Zanjan were official reports and military dispatches. He gives dates of troop movements, casualty lists, and the details of the major assaults. He also had a reasonably accurate report on the background of Hujjat and the causes of the conflict. It is not difficult to discern the nature of the documents underlying Sipihr's account: hysterical appeals for help from the local officials; the military commanders' laconic reports of attacks, positions taken, and officers and men killed; the dispassionate official report investigating the causes of the battle.

The strengths and limitations of Sipihr's account are those of his sources. There is no reason to doubt his information on the dates and results of the various attacks on the Bábí position. On the other hand, though Sipihr was not particularly bigoted towards the Bábís, he had virtually no inside information on their activities, beliefs, or motivations. Hujjat, in his view, was an ambitious and unscrupulous clergyman, followed by ignorant people. However, he does not try to conceal the skill and courage of the Bábí defenders or the incompetence and cowardice frequently displayed by the government forces.

Sipihr's account is indispensable: no other available source gives a detailed chronology or detailed information on the army's movements or composition. Most later Muslim accounts of the battle are copied from Sipihr and need not be considered separately.

Rawdatu's-Safá, another nineteenth century court history by Ridá-Qulí Khán Hidáyat, is of much less value than Násikhu't-Taváríkh. It is much less detailed in its account of the fighting and is marred by extreme bigotry. The chronology also seems to be rather garbled. Generally, it can be disregarded.

Contemporary Documents

Not many documents contemporary with the siege are available. Those available at present are a letter written by Hujjat to the besiegers, a deposition written by the Zanjan ulama denouncing Hujjat's religious views and actions, some comments in a book of religious law that one of the Zanjan ulama was writing during the siege, and the dispatches of the European diplomats in Iran.

Of Hujjat's own writings only a single letter is available. It is undated but was clearly written during the siege. It is a defiant document, accusing his enemies of warring against God. It does not, unfortunately, tell us much of historical value.

A sort of mirror-image of Hujjat's letter are the passages in Sayyid-i-Mujtahid's Lisánu's-Sidq. Sayyid-i-Mujtahid--the name by which Aqa Muhammad Zanjání, one of the prominent ulama of Zanjan was known--was a bitter enemy of the Bábís. He was working on this book during the battle, and in three places remarks on the fighting. His remarks tell more about his prejudices than they do about the battle, but they do give us several important dates and details and provide contemporary confirmation of things we know from later sources.

By far the most interesting single contemporary document is a deposition prepared by the Zanjan ulama in 1847. This was prepared about the time the Báb passed through Zanjan, either just before or just after Hujjat's arrest and exile to Tehran. The document consists of a general statement of Hujjat's heresies and innovations. This is followed by eighteen short statements by various clerics, students, and merchants detailing their personal knowledge of Hujjat's religious failings. The document is notable in that it contains no reference at all to Hujjat's being a Bábí: all the statements refer to his earlier Akhbárí views.

The siege of Zanjan was naturally of great interest to the European diplomats in Iran, and their reports of the time contain many references to the battle. Since the diplomats were mostly dependent on Iranian officials for their information, it is not surprising that their accounts relate closely to Sipihr's narrative--both ultimately being based on the dispatches of the commanders on the scene. The dispatches, however, also include several eyewitness accounts by diplomats traveling between Tehran and Tabríz.

It is likely that additional contemporary documentation on the siege exists in Iran. In addition to government documents that may yet exist, three other contemporary sources exist or may exist.

Sayyid Abu'l-Qásim Zanjání, one of Hujjat's bitter rivals among the Zanjan ulama, wrote four or five refutations of the Báb. These books have never been published, but the manuscripts along with a copy of the Qur'án containing notes on the battle are still in the hands of the author's descendants. These would certainly shed invaluable light on the attitude of the ulama toward the Báb and the Bábís and would probably tell us a good deal about the chronology of the development of the Bábí movement in Zanjan.

Hujjat is said to have written at least three books. One--a treatise on determining the beginning and end of the month of Ramadán--was written before his conversion. Two copies of this exist in Tehran. We know from the deposition filed against him that this subject was a matter of dispute between him and the other ulama. He is said to have written a collection of poems and--much more important--a defense of the Báb addressed to the ulama. Unfortunately, it has been more than a century since anyone has seen these last two works.

Finally, one of the Bábí officers kept a daily chronicle of the fighting. This is said to have been sent to Tehran along with the Bábí cannons as part of the booty. Perhaps it still exists in some archive, but given the state of Iran's national archives for the Qajar period, it is impossible to know. If it did survive, it quickly became inaccessible. Neither Sipihr not I`tidádu's-Saltanih had seen it, and they would have been interested.

The Bábí Narratives

The battle of Zanjan, naturally enough, is discussed in every history of their religion written by Bábís or Bahá'ís. In addition, several survivors wrote memoirs of the battle. The major limitation of these sources arises from the totality of the Bábí disaster: virtually every Zanjan Bábí of any consequence died in the fighting or in the executions that followed. Our Bábí sources are thus individuals who were children during the siege. Moreover, none--with the problematic exception of Hájí Mírzá Jání's history--was written until several decades after the siege.

The most important account of the siege from the Bábí view point was written by one Mírzá Husayn Zanjání, best known as the fellow-prisoner of the Bahá'í martyrs Varqá and Rúhu'lláh in Tehran. In about 1880, thirty years after the battle, Bahá'u'lláh commissioned him to prepare an objective account based on reliable eyewitnesses, whether Bábí or Muslim. He produced a lively, unscholarly account of the battle. Though he made no secret of his sympathies, his work is not marred by the bitter invective that disfigures much early Bábí and Bahá'í historical writing. What is more important, his account is free from anachronistic application of later Bahá'í attitudes towards religious warfare to the Bábís.

The only real Bábí eyewitness account of the siege by one old enough to appreciate what he was seeing is that of Haydar Big, the son of Dín-Muhammad Vazír, Hujjat's military commander. Haydar Big was evidently a teenager during the siege. He seems to have followed his father around and thus been witness to much of the fighting and decision-making. He came through the siege unscathed and was spared the general slaughter that followed only because the Muslim leaders were convinced that Hujjat must have buried treasure somewhere in the town. Some years later he was living in Tehran and told his story to Sayyid Ismá`íl Dhabíh Káshání, who added it to a copy of the New History of the Báb. Browne noticed the interpolation in the London manuscript of the New History, recognized its value, and included in his translation of the New History. Haydar Big's account is distinguished by the quality of the information about the military aspects of the siege on the Bábí side.

In 1890 Browne visited Cyprus. Among the Azalís living there was one Aqa `Abdu'l-Ahad, who had been a child living on the Muslim side of the town during the battle. Browne suggested to Mírzá Yahyá that this man might write an account of the battle. Browne translated and published the resulting history. Though Aqa `Abdu'l-Ahad had only been seven at the time of the battle, he had lived in Zanjan for many years and had heard the stories of the fighting. Though his account has deficiencies, it supplies much information, especially since his brother claimed to have witnessed Hujjat's conversion and to have been the "Bábí child" whose street fight had led to the outbreak of fighting.

Three other memoirs of the battle were written. A passage from a memoir by Aqa Naqd-`Alí, the brother of `Abdu'l-Ahad, is quoted in Nicolas' biography of the Báb. The original memoir has vanished. Two very late memoirs by Bahá'ís who were children during the siege exist in a Tehran Bahá'í archives manuscript. I have seen them in extremely bad photocopies of a not very legible original. They do not seem to be particularly important, however.

Hájí Mírzá Jání, a Bábí of Káshán who had met the Báb and who was killed in the persecutions of 1852, wrote a history of the Bábí religion, the earliest history of the Bábís by a believer. In its original form, this work is lost, but it was the basis of the work Browne published under the title of Nuqtatu'l-Káf, as well as of the New History of the Báb, prepared under the supervision of Mírzá Abu'l-Fadl Gulpáygání in about 1880. The relationships among these three works are a matter of great controversy. However, in this case it does not matter: both Nuqtatu'l-Káf and the New History preserve the same very inadequate account of the battle.

Nabíl's History

Mullá Muhammad Zarandí, known as Nabíl-i-A`zam or Nabíl-i-Zarandí, became a Bábí towards the end of the Báb's life. By 1850 he was in Tehran and was living with Mullá `Abdu'l-Karím Qazvíní, a secretary of the Báb. Both were, in effect, under the protection of Bahá'u'lláh.(8) He followed Bahá'u'lláh to `Iraq and accompanied Him in all His exiles. He traveled extensively and played an important role in converting the Bábí community of Iran to the faith of Bahá'u'lláh. He was also a poet and writer. By the time of Bahá'u'lláh's death, he had compiled a large history of the Bábí and Bahá'í religions based on his own experiences, his extensive acquaintance with many important Bábís and almost every important Bahá'í, and the documents available to him in Akka. It is fairly clear that he intended his history to supplant the relatively unsatisfactory New History. That his project enjoyed the patronage of Bahá'u'lláh is shown by the fact that Bahá'u'lláh read and corrected a portion of the manuscript.

Nabíl committed suicide soon after Bahá'u'lláh's death. His manuscript languished unpublished and apparently unrevised until the time of Shoghi Effendi. Shoghi Effendi published an elegant translation of the Bábí portion of the book, covering the period up to 1852. Within the Bahá'í community, this translation immediately became the authoritative source for the history of the Báb and the Bábís. The association of the work with Bahá'u'lláh and Shoghi Effendi's own enormous prestige within the community won for Nabíl's history a sort of quasi-scriptural status.(9)

Nabíl's history, however, poses considerable problems to the historian. The most serious is that the original Persian text is not available. A Persian edition indeed exists, but it is a Persian translation of an Arabic translation of Shoghi Effendi's English and therefore is useless. Second, any translator, even one as skilled as Shoghi Effendi, must inevitably choose which aspects of the original text to convey in the translation. In a text of any depth inevitably the translator must sacrifice certain aspects of the text to preserve others: literalness for beauty, culturally specific references for comprensibility, and so on. Shoghi Effendi translated for a general audience: the historian must necessarily wonder what nuances had to be sacrificed to make the text readable to an audience without specialized knowledge of Iranian history, customs, and thought. Finally, it is not clear how extensively Shoghi Effendi had to edit Nabíl's text to make it suitable for translation. Did he revise, rearrange, or omit? In how final a form did Nabíl leave his history? Did he omit things that are unimportant for a general audience but important for historian, such as isnáds, the chains of authorities that are the Islamic equivalent of footnotes? Quite often translators of Persian and Arabic texts do so. In the case of the chapter on Zanjan, I have been told by the Research Department of the Bahá'í World Centre that all of the "facts" found in the original text are present in the translation but that quotations from scripture, bits of poetry, theological digressions, and the like were omitted in the translation. These questions overshadow any attempt to use Shoghi Effendi's translation of Nabíl as a historical source.

Nabíl includes an extensive chapter on Zanjan, as might be expected. Now, it happens that Nabíl identifies his sources for this chapter:

For the account I have related of the happenings of Zanjan, I am primarily indebted to Mírzá Muhammad-`Alíy-i-Tabíb-i-Zanjání, to Abá-Basír, and to Sayyid Ashraf, all martyrs of the Faith, with each of whom I was closely acquainted. The rest of my narrative is based upon the manuscript which a certain Mullá Husayn-i-Zanjání wrote and sent to the presence of Bahá'u'lláh . . .(10)

None of the first three individuals is known to have written an account of the battle and none were eyewitnesses of the fighting. This means that we are in a position to examine Nabíl's working methods.

The Sources available to Nabíl

It is apparent that Nabíl's account of the battle of Zanjan was not based in the first instance on Mírzá Husayn's history. From Nabíl's comments about his sources it would be natural to suppose that he had used Mírzá Husayn as the basis of his account and added to it information and anecdotes from the other individuals he mentions. A first reading would seem to support this. The opening of the account, covering the early life of Hujjat, is quoted almost verbatim from Mírzá Husayn, and other passages derived from Mírzá Husayn appear throughout. At several points anecdotes clearly derived from one of his other informants are added to the narration. More careful examination dispels this impression, however. The decisive factor is the order of events. Nabíl differs extensively from Mírzá Husayn in the order in which events appear and contradicts Mírzá Husayn in many points of chronology. Nabíl places Hujjat's conversion before rather than after his first exile to Tehran. He places his second exile to Tehran several weeks earlier than other sources. He (correctly) places the occupation of the fort of `Alí-Mardán Khán immediately after the outbreak of fighting rather than some weeks later and places the dispatch of Sadru'd-Dawlih later. He makes the fall of the fort of `Alí-Mardán Khán simultaneous with the wounding of Hujjat rather than before it. It is obvious that although Mírzá Husayn was Nabíl's most important source for the battle of Zanjan, his information was added to a narrative framework that already existed.

This makes chronological sense. Mírzá Husayn was commissioned to write his history in 1298/1880-81. Nabíl's history was largely complete by about 1887, to judge by dates mentioned in the text. Given that it must have taken at least a year or two for Mírzá Husayn to complete his research, write his little history, and get it to Akka and that Nabíl must have begun his history no later than the early 1880's, it is very likely that the first draft of Nabílís chapter on Zanjan had already been written by the time he saw Mírzá Husayn's history.

Nabíl's narrative framework, however, cannot be traced to another known source. It is certainly not from Násikhu't-Taváríkh or the New History, the other two works available at the time. It is therefore most probable that Nabíl's account of the battle of Zanjan was in origin an original construction from information supplied by Abá-Basír, Sayyid Ashraf, and Mírzá Muhammad-`Alí Tabíb. None of these individuals, however, was in a position to give first-hand information. Sayyid Ashraf was actually born during the battle and Abá-Basír was roughly the same age. Any information they had would have been derived from older survivors—for the most part women--who would have been less informed, given nineteenth-century Iranian conventions about women's behavior, about the more public and military side of the events. Mírzá Muhammad-`Alí Tabíb had been an adult, but he had been in Hamadan during the battle. Nabíl's account is thus third-hand. Assuming that none of his informants had written an account of the battle, it is not likely they would have attempted to verify the order of events. None of the Bábí sources are especially strong on chronology or the order of events--they preserve the most vivid memories of survivors, told to the curious decades later--but Nabíl is likely to be the least trustworthy in this regard.

A second problem concerns how Nabíl's information made its way into his history. Abá-Basír, Sayyid Ashraf, and Mírzá Muhammad-`Alí were all killed in Zanjan in 1867, and Nabíl's information dates from slightly before that time. After that Nabíl traveled extensively, was imprisoned in Egypt, and wandered the countryside of Palestine for a time living in the open. It is not likely that he preserved written notes of his conversations with his Zanjan informants. While he certainly remembered the stories he was told, it does not seem plausible that when he wrote his history twenty years later, he remembered with absolute accuracy such details as the wording of speeches and the order and connection of events.

Nabíl's use of Mírzá Husayn's History

Because we do not have access to the Persian text of Nabíl's history and because much of his account is based on or influenced by oral information known only from Nabíl's text, the task of analyzing Nabíl's use of Mírzá Husayn is very complex and difficult. If a particular text diverges from Mírzá Husayn, it may be because Nabíl modified it for literary reasons of his own or because he had other information that he preferred to follow or because the translation obscures the resemblance between Nabíl's text and Mírzá Husayn's. Nevertheless, Nabíl's account of the battle of Zanjan is more than fifty pages long, and it is possible to draw some reasonably reliable conclusions about his purposes and methods.

My method will be to go through Nabíl's text, analyzing the main relationships and divergences between the two histories. I will then draw some general conclusions.

Hujjat's life prior to the battle

The account of Hujjat's childhood and education is taken directly from Mírzá Husayn, with minor differences in detail, the most significant being that Mírzá Husayn states that he lived seven years in Hamadan (where he had relatives) at the request of the people there, whereas Nabíl says that he lived there two and a half years on the advice of his father, who feared the jealousy of the Zanjan ulama against Hujjat. After he returned to Zanjan, Mírzá Husayn states that he instituted a number of reforms of a puritanical character. Nabíl omits specific mention of these (although Shoghi Effendi cites them in a footnote.) Nabíl also omits a debate on the nature of the body of the imám between Hujjat and Sayyid-i-Mujtahid.

Mírzá Husayn states that Hujjat was exiled twice to Tehran: once before and once after his conversion. Nabíl mentions three exiles: one before and two after his conversion. This seems to result from Nabíl's attempt to reconcile Mírzá Husayn's account of Hujjat's conversion and exiles with his own.

Nabíl omits a story Mírzá Husayn tells about how at the time of Hujjat's first return from exile, his followers sacrificed animals in his honor along the road leading to Zanjan and how one of them even attempted to sacrifice his son.

In Mírzá Husayn's account of Hujjat's conversion, the Báb's letter comes to Hujjat unexpectedly and he behaves in a bewildering way before announcing his conversion. Nabíl's account is more dignified. Hujjat is also shown receiving two messengers from the Báb. This seems to be an attempt to reconcile Mírzá Husayn's account of Hujjat's conversion with Nabíl's other information.

Nabíl differs from other Bábí sources in placing Hujjat's arrest in 1847 at the time of the Báb's departure from Kulayn rather than some days later when the Báb reached Zanjan.

Nabíl omits the reference to Hujjat's prohibiting the sale and use of tobacco.

Mírzá Husayn differs in many details from Nabíl in his account of Hujjat's examination in Tehran in 1847. Nabíl, for example, says that Hujjat was examined by Hájí Mírzá Aqasí rather than by the Shah, as Mírzá Husayn would have it. It is not unlikely that Nabíl's account here is based in part on information from Bahá'u'lláh, who was in contact with Hujjat at this time, was a member of the court, and could even have been present.

Nabíl takes his account of Hujjat's return from Mírzá Husayn, but he omits Mírzá Husayn's report that Hujjat prohibited his followers from going to Shaykh Tabarsí and told them that there would be fighting there, leading the Zanjan Bábís to begin gathering arms and training for war.

The account of the street fight and jailbreak that occasioned the fighting, the division of the city, and the beginning of the battle is taken from Mírzá Husayn, though Nabíl gives the impression that the Bábís who broke into the jail did not fight whereas Mírzá Husayn seems to say that they did. Also Nabíl's account of the division of the city is both more rhetorical and less detailed than Mírzá Husayn's. Nabíl omits the detail that some of the wealthy Bábís deserted, fearing for their property, and were recaptured by the other Bábís and put to work carrying dirt for the defenses.

Mírzá Husayn and Nabíl both quote a sermon given by Hujjat soon after the division of the town, but the texts and content are quite different. Mírzá Husayn's sermon warns the Bábís that they will be martyred like those killed for their faith in past dispensations, whereas Nabíl's offers any of his followers who did not wish to be killed the opportunity to leave.

Nabíl correctly places the occupation of the fort of `Alí-Mardán Khán at this point, whereas Mírzá Husayn places it later. Zanjan in those days was longer from east to west than north to south. The Bábís occupied the eastern half of the town. The fort of `Alí-Mardán Khán was a stone fort on the edge of the Bábí quarter and was clearly critical to any extended defense. According to Násikhu't-Taváríkh, the Bábís captured the fort on the second day of fighting. Haydar Big, whose father commanded the attack and who may well have been an eyewitness, gives a splendid account of the storming of this fort. Mírzá Husayn places the seizure of the fort some weeks later, but also states that it was taken by storm. Nabíl says, "Though they found it occupied by its owners, the companions eventually induced them to withdraw, and gave them in exchange the houses in which they themselves had been dwelling."(11)

Mírzá Husayn and Nabíl both give an account of the cowardice of one of the ulama. These would seem to represent the same incident, but the details differ so completely that it is probable that Nabíl heard the story from a different source.

Nabíl includes an account of the assault of Sadru'd-Dawlih that is not in Mírzá Husayn and omits Mírzá Husayn's long account of Sayyid `Alí Khán Fírúzkúhí's negotiations with Hujjat and his secret Bábí sympathies.

Nabíl omits many details given by Mírzá Husayn concerning the organization of the defenses, the relations between the Bábís and the townsfolk during the siege, and the Bábís' desperate attempts to make, find, or capture weapons and ammunition.

Nabíl gives a much longer and more melodramatic (and therefore less probable) account of the life and death of Zaynab, the girl who fought in disguise under the name of Rustam-`Alí.

Nabíl's general account of the fighting differs considerably in content and order from Mírzá Husayn's. Though he takes a number of incidents from Mírzá Husayn, he does not follow Mírzá Husayn's order of events. Often he takes an incident in Mírzá Husayn and places it at the point where it best fits his narrative. I will not analyze this in detail but only comment on a few particularly important or revealing passages.

One incident mentioned by every historian of the battle was the death of Farrukh Khán. He was a dashing young cavalry officer who arrived in Zanjan to relieve the disgraced Sadru'd-Dawlih after the battle had been going on for four or five months. He conceived the plan of entering the Bábí quarter at night with a small party and kidnapping Hujjat. The scheme went awry and he and all his men were killed, almost certainly after being taken prisoner. The most likely explanation is that Hujjat and the Bábís were angry that Farrukh Khán and his soldiers were drunk, that the two men who had guided them into the town were Bábí deserters, and that Farrukh Khán himself came from a Bábí family. In any event, the heads of Farrukh Khán and his men were thrown into the army camp the next morning. Their bodies, it is said, were burned. The rumor in the army camp was that Farrukh Khán had been tortured to death and that the Bábís had eaten the bodies. Nabíl says only, "The death of Farrukh Khán. . . aroused the indignation of the Amír-Nizám..."--i.e., Amír-Kabír, the prime minister.

Nabíl states that two hundred marriages were conducted in the fort. Mírzá Husayn states that the number was eleven or twelve. Since Nabíl then follows this with a related anecdote that is not in Mírzá Husayn, it is likely that his information about the number of marriages comes from another source.

Nabíl omits mention of a period when the government troops cut off the fort of `Alí-Mardán Khán for a time from the rest of the Bábí defenses. He moves the information about the mines dug by the government troops to his account of the (somewhat later) capture of the fort and omits an odd incident in which some of the Bábís steal a cow.

Nabíl elaborates Mírzá Husayn's account of the government commander's attempt to deceive the Bábís through a sealed Qur'án. His account of the government treachery comes from the same informant as Mírzá Husayn's, but evidently Nabíl heard the story independently.

Toward the end of the siege, Hujjat warned his followers that the battle would soon be lost and that those who did not escape soon would be martyred. The text of his speech is different in Nabíl and Mírzá Husayn. Nabíl, here and elsewhere, mentions that some Bábís deserted but does not stress it or give details. Mírzá Husayn gives an account of the number and circumstances of the desertions.

Mírzá Husayn places the wounding of Hujjat after the fall of the fort of `Alí-Mardán Khán, whereas Nabíl states that it was the panic caused by Hujjat's being wounded that caused the fall of the fort.

Mírzá Husayn does not mention women being captured at the time of the fall of the fort (several weeks before the final defeat of the Bábís.) Nabíl may well have heard this from one of his informants. On the other hand, Mírzá Husayn tells how, shortly after the death of Hujjat, some of the young Bábís decided that all the young Bábí women should be killed to prevent their falling into the hands of the soldiers. The surviving Bábí chiefs got wind of this and put a stop to it before anything happened, but a number of women heard about it and escaped from the city, only to be captured. In a similar vein, Mírzá Husayn's account of the death of Hujjat's young wife says that she prayed not to fall into the hands of the troops, whereas Nabíl just says that "she was giving vent to her distress."(12)

Nabíl's account of the end of the siege is related to Mírzá Husayn's but differs in many details and omits some anecdotes.

The method and reliability of Nabíl's history

It is now possible to draw some conclusions about Nabíl's methods and purposes in his history.

1. Treatment of variant accounts. It is plain that Nabíl does not necessarily record variant accounts. It is likely that this happened for two reasons.

First, he was interested in producing a continuous narrative rather than recording or weighing contradictory accounts of a single event. It may very well be that Nabíl thought that his versions of such events as the conversion of Hujjat, the order of events during the siege, and the circumstances of the final defeat of the Bábís were preferable to Mírzá Husayn's. However, it is scarcely credible that Nabíl's sources--which like Mírzá Husayn's were the Bahá'ís of Zanjan--were so much better as to make it possible to pass over Mírzá Husayn's variant accounts without comment. It is much more likely that Nabíl chose one account over another for some particular reason and stuck with it, ignoring thereafter contradictory versions.

Second, it seems likely to me that Nabíl used Mírzá Husayn to fill gaps in his own already written narrative--rather than, as we might suppose at first, basing his version on Mírzá Husayn's. If so, then either Nabíl did not get around to fully revising his narrative to take Mírzá Husayn into account or else he simply let his initial narrative structure stand, adding incidents from Mírzá Husayn wherever they seemed to fit best.

2. Deliberate omissions and changes of emphasis. Many of the divergences between Mírzá Husayn and Nabíl are best explained by Nabíl's purposes in his history. It is obvious from even a cursory reading of Nabíl that he has two overriding purposes in his book, in addition to the simple recording of history. First, he wishes to defend Bahá'u'lláh against the Azalís by showing that Bahá'u'lláh played a central role during the time of the Báb and that the words and actions of both the Báb and Bahá'u'lláh indicated the special station of Bahá'u'lláh. Second, he wishes to defend the Bábís against the accusation of being bloodthirsty fanatics and revolutionaries. The first does not play a major role in this chapter, although Nabíl does go out of his way to stress Hujjat's association with Bahá'u'lláh in Tehran. The second is apparent on almost every page of his account of the battle of Zanjan. In doing so he attributes to the Bábís scruples and motivations that properly belong to the Bahá'ís four decades later. Thus, Nabíl passes over such matters as Hujjat's puritanical reforms before his conversion, the fact that shortly after Hujjat's final return to Zanjan the Bábís began preparing arms, the storming of the fort of `Alí-Mardán Khán, the slaughter of Farrukh Khán and his party, and the resolution of the young Bábís to kill their women before they could be taken prisoner. In a similar vein, he avoids detailing anything that could cast doubt on the whole-hearted faith and courage of the Bábís--the number of Bábís who deserted, for example. For the most part, such distortions are matters of emphasis and omission, but occasionally, as in the case of the Bábí's capture of the fort and the death of Farrukh Khán, they are such as to raise serious questions about the integrity of his history.

Finally, there are some incidents--the debate on the nature of the body of the Imam--that may have been omitted by Nabíl (or Shoghi Effendi) simply because they were no longer comprehensible to the intended audience.

3. Speeches and rhetorical devices. Nabíl clearly is willing to rewrite his material, even direct quotations. In no case does Nabíl give a recognizably accurate quotation from one of the speeches quoted in Mírzá Husayn. It is possible that in some cases he had an alternate version available to quote, but it is hardly possible that this was true in all cases. Instead, we must conclude that Nabíl followed the venerable historiographical tradition of having his characters say what they ought to have said under the circumstances.(13) It is only fair, however, to say that Mírzá Husayn follows much the same method, giving his characters many fine speeches which are not likely to have been preserved verbatim.

Likewise, Nabíl elaborates on his accounts of events. This is less of a problem, however, since it usually takes the form of very general description, easily distinguished from dispassionate description of ascertained facts.

Use of Nabíl as a historical source

In view of these facts, we must recognize that Nabíl's history is not primarily a storehouse of historical facts but a historical artifact itself which primarily tells us about the beliefs and concerns of the Bahá'ís of the 1880's. To be sure, it does contain a great deal of historical information. We cannot, however, rely on the unsupported testimony of Nabíl, particularly with regard to matters that were later of relevance in the debates between the Bahá'ís and the Azalís or Muslims.

Other problems are posed by the fact that Nabíl is willing to tacitly follow one account of an event without mentioning others that he knows to exist. We thus need to investigate cautiously before even concluding so much as that Nabíl's account of an event represents what was thought to be true by those around Bahá'u'lláh.

Then there is the fact that the Persian text has never been published and the manuscript is not available for study. It is generally thought that Nabíl did not live to produce a final text of his history. How much editing did Shoghi Effendi have to do to produce a text fit for translation? That pruning was done is now certain.

On the other hand, Nabíl's history cannot simply be dismissed as a late and polemical history. It is a very large book, of which the English text only covers the first half. It is full of information not available elsewhere. Nabíl knew virtually everyone of any prominence in the Bábí and Bahá'í communities from the late 1840s on. His patron and teacher, Mullá `Abdu'l-Karím, was the Báb's secretary. Bahá'u'lláh, with whom Nabíl spent most of his life, was at the center of Bábí activities in Tehran and had access to the court as well. From about 1850 Nabíl himself was eyewitness to most of the important developments in the Bábí and Bahá'í communities.

Future research on Nabíl's history

It is obvious then that a great deal of research needs to be done before Nabíl can be used with full confidence. The main tasks that need to be done are the following:

1. It is imperative that a proper scholarly edition be published of the Persian text of Nabíl's history. Until this is done, we cannot really even say what Nabíl says, much less make a sound judgment about its reliability. Even without the other problems posed by Nabíl's text, the absence of a Persian edition goes far towards making Nabíl's history useless for scholarly research.

2. The question of Nabíl's sources needs to be studied in detail. In particular, some at least of Nabíl's papers exist in the Bahá'í World Center Archives. These, in addition to other sources known to have been used by or accessible to Nabíl, need to be studied carefully.

3. The source material of Bábí and early Bahá'í history needs to be studied, published, and translated. This includes such material as the narratives of Shaykh Tabarsí, the various Bahá'í histories of Iranian towns, the surviving letters of early believers, and the unpublished volumes of Fádil-i-Mázandarání's Zuhúru'l-Haqq, the largest history ever written of the Bábí and Bahá'í religions.


(1) On the battle itself, see my "The Bábí Uprising in Zanjan: Causes and Issues," Iranian Studies 29/3-4 (Fall/Winter 1996), pp. 339-62; for the Babi movement see Abbas Amanat, Resurrection and Renewal: The Making of the Babi Movement in Iran, 1844-1850 (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1989).

(2) This MS is held at the Bahá'í International Archives in Haifa, Israel, and the author has in his possession a photocopy kindly provided by the Research Department of the Bahá'í World Centre.

(3) Mirza Husayn Hamadani, "Tarikh-i Jadid." London. British Library. Oriental and India Office Collections. Or. 2942. Ahang Rabbani suggested that the London manuscript is not, strictly speaking, the New History, but rather a related work or redaction, Táríkh-i-Badí`-i-Bayání, by Muhammad Nabíl-i Akbar Qá'iní. For a translation of the New History see Mirza Husayn Hamadani, The New History of Mirza `Ali Muhammad the Bab, trans. Edward G. Browne (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1893).

(4) Nabíl-i A`zam Zarandí, The Dawn-breakers; Nabíl's narrative of the early days of the Bahá'í revelation, trans. Shoghi Effendi Rabbani (New York, Bahá'í Pub. Committee, 1932).

(5) Edward G. Browne, "Personal Reminiscences of the Babi Insurrection at Zanjan in 1850," Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society, vol. 29 (1897):761-827. Based on `Abdu'l-Ahad Zanjani, autograph account of Zanjan upheaval, Persian MS, Browne Collection, Cambridge University Library, F. 25 (9), section 6.

(6) Muhammad Taqí Lisánu'l-Mulk Sipihr, Násikh al-taváríkh, dawrah-’i kámil-i táríkh-i Qájáriyah, 3 vols. in one (Tehran:, 1958).

(7) `Alí Qulí Mírzá I`tidád al-Saltanih, Fitnah-i Báb, ed. and annotated by `Abdu'l-Husayn Navá'í. 3rd Printing (Tehran: Intisharat-i Babak, 1362 s./1983); Rida Quli Khan Hidayat, Rawdat as-Safá-yi Násirí, vols. 9-10 (Qum: Hikmat, 1339).

(8). For Qazvini see John Walbridge, "Mulla `Abdu'l-Karim Qazvini (Mirza Ahmad Katib)." Research Notes in Shaykhi, Babi and Bahá'í Studies Vol. 1, no. 9 (October, 1997); and Juan R. I. Cole, "A Letter from `Abdu'l-Karim Qazvini to Sayyid Javad Karbala'i concerning Bahá'u'lláh in Iraq, dated August, 1851: Text, Translation, Commentary." Translations of Shaykhi, Babi and Bahá'í Texts vol. 1, no. 8 (October, 1997).

(9) That this is so may be seen from the experience of Fádil-i-Mázandarání, one of the two greatest Iranian Bahá'í scholars of the mid-twentieth century. In 1944 he published one of the Bábí volumes of his massive history Zuhúru'l-Haqq. Soon after, at the insistence of the Bahá'í authorities in Iran, a pamphlet was prepared over his signature in which he repudiated certain points in his history that differed in detail from Nabíl.

(10) He was shown the principal sites of the fighting by survivors and thus had a clear notion of the topography of the battle.

(11) Zarandi, Dawn-breakers, p. 545.

(12) Zarandi, Dawn-breakers, p. 572.

(13) A fine example comes in the previous chapter, on the martyrdom of the Báb. There, the prime minister, the great Amír-Kabír, justifying his order to put the Báb to death, says, "Was not the Imám Husayn, in view of the paramount necessity for safeguarding the unity of the State, executed by those same persons who had seen him more than once receive marks of exceptional affection from Muhammad, his Grandfather? Did they not in such circumstances refuse to consider the rights which his lineage had conferred upon him? Nothing short of the remedy I advocate can uproot this evil and bring us the peace for which we long."

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