‘false dawn’: meanings and origin

The term false dawn denotes a transient light preceding the true dawn by about an hour, a phenomenon common in Eastern countries.

In other words, false dawn denotes the zodiacal light appearing just before sunrise. The term zodiacal light denotes a faint illumination along the ecliptic, visible in the west just after sunset or in the east just before sunrise.

The term false dawn translates Arabic ṣubḥ kāḏib. This was explained in The Kuzzilbash. A Tale of Khorasan (London: Henry Colburn, 1828), a novel by the Scottish artist, travel writer and novelist James Baillie Fraser (1783-1856)—the following is from the account of a Turkoman plundering party:

About three in the morning, we once more got into motion: the moon was setting, and a deep gloom fell around; but the quick eyes of our leaders could detect the first flush of the false dawn* in the East. As we rode along, this appearance vanished; but soon a broader light extended itself gradually from the horizon to the zenith, and objects at a little distance became visible.
* “Subah Kauzib,” the lying, or false dawn, is a phenomenon common in these eastern countries; consisting in a brightness which appears from an hour to half an hour before the true dawn commences. It may be some optical deception, depending upon refraction of the sun’s rays, even when he is considerably below the visible horizon.

Both the Arabic and English terms occur in A Dictionary, Persian, Arabic, and English (London: Printed by J. L. Cox, for Parbury, Allen, & Co.; T. Cadell; [&c.] – 1829), by John Richardson, Charles Wilkins and Francis Johnson:

Arabic: kāzib, A liar. A falsehood. False. subh-i kāzib, The false dawn. kiyās-i kāzib, A false syllogism. nākil-i kāzib, A false reporter.

The earliest occurrence of the term false dawn that I have found is from Mishcát-ul-Maśábìh́: Or a collection of the most authentic traditions, regarding the actions and sayings of Muh́ammed; exhibiting the origin of the manners and customs; the civil, religious and military policy of the Muslemàns. Translated from the original Arabic, by Capt. A. N. Matthews, Bengal Artillery (Calcutta: Printed by T. Hubbard, at the Hindoostanee Press, 1809):

“The Ad́hàn 1 of Billàl 2 does not prevent you from eating; because he calls it at night; and the false dawn of day does not prevent you from eating: but the true day-break forbids you.”

1 The noun adhan denotes the call to prayer intoned or proclaimed by the muezzin from the minaret or roof of a mosque at prescribed times of the day.
2 This seems to refer to Bilal ibn Rabah, one of the most trusted companions of the Islamic prophet Muhammad, considered to have been the first muezzin in history.

These are, in chronological order, other early occurrences of the term false dawn used in its literal sense:

1-: From Rustum Khan; Or, Fourteen Nights’ Entertainment at the Shah Bhag, or Royal Gardens at Ahmedabad (London: Published for the author, by W. Sams, 1831), by Thomas Henry Ottley:

The first hours of my inland journey were spent in contemplating the rich and various scenery in light and shade around me, as successively developed to my view, now partially shadowed, as the moon was veiled by a cloud, and now again bursting forth, mellowed with the moonbeam, and the brightest star-light. What a contrast to the preceding one, when angry winds and darkness reigned undisputed! The false dawn came at length to cheat me, a sight I had seldom, if ever, witnessed before, or perhaps my companions had caused it to pass by unheeded. The approach of morn was momentarily expected, and, ere long, matured from a feebler light into the glorious burst of day.

2-: From Zohrab the Hostage (London: Richard Bentley, 1832), a novel by the British author James Justinian Morier (1782-1849):

“Do tell me,” said Sadek, looking to the east, “tell me, Hashim, whether that be the dawn or the false dawn? If it be the false, we are safe; but if the real, our ears are not worth two ghaz the pair. You know the Shah hunts to-day, and we are ordered to awaken him an hour before the dawn.”

3-: From The String of Pearls (London: Richard Bentley, 1832), by the British novelist and historian George Payne Rainsford James (1799-1860):

[Mount Caucasus:] Commonly called Kaff. Of this vast chain of mountains, very extraordinary ideas have been formed in the East; it is supposed to run completely round the earth, and to be the limits of the habitable world. It is considered also as totally desolate and inhospitable—the abode of demons and spirits. In Persia there appears a kind of glimmering light before the rise of the sun, which they call the false dawn, as daylight does not immediately succeed, but the sky again becomes dark before the real morning. This phenomenon they attribute to the sun at that moment passing a circular hole in Kaff, and again in its progress being obscured by the mountain.

Very early, the term false dawn came to be used figuratively in the sense of a hopeful sign. However, this hopeful sign can prove either illusory or authentic.

The English poet Percy Bysshe Shelley (1792-1822) used false dawn in the sense of a hopeful sign that proves illusory in Laon and Cythna; or, The Revolution of the Golden City: A Vision of the Nineteenth Century. In the Stanza of Spenser 3 (London: Printed for Sherwood, Neely, & Jones; and C. and J. Ollier – 1818):

“We reached the port—alas! from many spirits
The wisdom which had waked that cry, was fled,
Like the brief glory which dark Heaven inherits
From the false dawn, which fades e’er it is spread,
Upon the night’s devouring darkness shed.”

3 This poem, which was republished under the title The Revolt of Islam; A Poem, in Twelve Cantos, is set against the background of a revolt of the inhabitants of Argolis, in Greece, against Ottoman rule.

But, in The Age of the Reformation, published in The Friend. A Religious and Literary Journal (Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, USA) of 27th December 1828, ‘P. Q.’ used false dawn in the sense of a hopeful sign that proves authentic:

To one who cursorily reviews the moral condition of Europe, during the early part of the fourteenth century, it presents a picture of gloom scarcely relieved by a single virtue. […] Whatever hope of reform might have been entertained from the inculcation of a purer system of religion, seemed to have been blasted, when the Albigenses perished beneath the swords of the army of the cross, and the Vaudois were driven from their last holds among the Alps. But the darkness which covered Europe when the light of these ancient churches was extinguished, was the precursor of a more enlightened age, as the deeper gloom which succeeds to the false dawn in the eastern deserts, is hailed as the herald of returning day.

The term false dawn, contrasted with true dawn, denotes a hopeful sign that proves illusory in the following two texts:

1-: The Wishing-Gate, a short story published in Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine (Edinburgh: William Blackwood – London: T. Cadell) of January 1830:

“It is thus with those who have not drunk freely of the waters of life—whose dawn, Lady, of religion in their souls, has been like unto the false dawn, common, as I have heard or read, in Eastern countries, which appears an hour or two before the true dawn comes; but the true dawn does come—and so it will, by God’s grace, to those poor bewildered ones who are feeling out a way for themselves, till He pleases to shew them better, by His ministers, or by any other of His many means. But thy true dawn is already risen, and thy day is begun.”

2-: A letter dated 17th December 1836, published in Letters on Egypt, Edom, and the Holy Land (London: Henry Colburn, 1838), by Alexander Lindsay (1812-1880), Earl of Crawford:

I fear there is no hope for Egypt—at least, at present. There is a gleam in the sky, as if the light of civilization were about to rise, but, like the false dawn in India, it will fade away, and deeper darkness will succeed. Yet the true dawn will come at last, and brighten into perfect day.