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Reflections on the Dream Traditions of Islam

Kelly Bulkeley, Ph.D.

INTRODUCTION unapproachable, and perhaps not even relevant

to the primary concerns of their research. This
ew Western dream researchers have any
F familiarity with the rich dream traditions of
Islam. The Muslim faith first emerged in sev-
attitude is unfortunate, because there is great
potential here for cross-cultural dialogue, with
the benefit of greatly enhanced knowledge on
enth century B.C.E. Arabia as a profound revi- both sides. The admittedly formidable linguis-
sioning of early Jewish and Christian beliefs and tic and cultural chasm between Islamic and
practices. One theme the Prophet Muhammed Western traditions should not deter people
(pbuh) drew from the scriptures of those two from making the effort to build bridges across
religions was a reverence for dreaming. In the that chasm. The simple fact is that all humans
Qur’an, as in the Jewish Torah and the Christian dream, and thus dreaming itself is a bridging
New Testament, dreams serve as a vital medium phenomenon between the two traditions.
by which God communicates with humans. Muslims have been paying close attention to
Dreams offer divine guidance and comfort, their dreams for nearly 1500 years, and their
warn people of impending danger, and offer insights and observations have many significant
prophetic glimpses of the future. Although the points of contact with the theories developed
three religions drastically differ on many other by Western psychologists over the past 150
topics, they find substantial agreement on this years. The aim of this essay is to highlight those
particular point: dreaming is a valuable source points of contact and show where further con-
of wisdom, understanding, and inspiration. versation between Muslims and Westerners can
Indeed, as I will propose in this brief essay, promote a deeper mutual understanding of the
Islam has historically shown greater interest in origins, functions, and meanings of dreaming.
dreams than either of the other two traditions, I myself am writing from the Western psy-
and has done more to weave dreaming into the chological perspective; I am not a Muslim.
daily lives of its members. From the first revela- However, my scholarly training is in the field of
tory visions of Muhammed to the myriad dream religion and psychology, so I bring to the dis-
practices of present-day Muslims, Islam has cussion some familiarity with Islam as one of
developed and sustained a complex, multi- the world’s major religious traditions. I am not
faceted tradition of active engagement with the a member of any organized religious communi-
dreaming imagination. ty, although I have been influenced from child-
For scholars trained in Western psychology, hood by Jewish and Christian teachings. I
the dream traditions of Islam may appear alien, approach Islam as a respectful but curious out-
sider, eager to learn new things but modest in
From the Graduate Theological Union, Santa Clara University, Berkeley,
California, U.S.A. my expectations of how much can be translated
from one tradition to another.
Address reprint requests to: Kelly Bulkeley, Ph. D., 226 Amherst Avenue
Kensington, CA 94708, USA Finally, I approach Islam as an American
E-mail: writing in the immediate aftermath of the
Accepted December 1, 2001 events of September 11, 2001. The horrific

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K. Bulkeley

eruption of violence, fear, and destruction in were prostrating themselves before me."iii
the past several weeks has been awful to Joseph’s father warns the boy not to tell the
behold, and I know I am not alone in feeling an dream to his older brothers, who jealously har-
urgent desire to find some way of ending the bor murderous intentions toward him (in
bloodshed and creating a better relationship Genesis the dream is interpreted to mean that
between Muslims and Westerners.i In that one day Joseph’s eleven brothers, mother, and
broader historical context, this essay is intend- father will all bow down to him-a prospect that
ed as one small contribution to the cause of cre- enrages his brothers). Joseph’s father prophe-
ative reconciliation between people who have sizes that his youngest son "shall be chosen by
been warring against each other for far too long. your Lord. He will teach you to interpret
visions." The prophecy is borne out later in the
DREAMS IN THE QUR`AN sura when Joseph, unjustly imprisoned in
Egypt, is asked to interpret the dreams of two
Muhammed recorded the Qur’an between fellow prisoners:
the years 610 and 632 C.E. Tradition has it that "One of them said: ‘I dreamt that I was press-
the first revelation of the Qur’an was given to ing grapes.’ And the other said: ‘I dreamt that I
Muhammed by the angel Gabriel in a dream.ii was carrying a loaf upon my head, and that the
The text of the Qur’an contains 114 chapters birds came and ate of it. Tell us the meaning of
(suras) of varying length and content. Unlike these dreams, for we can see you are a man of
Jewish and Christian scriptures, which were learning.’ Joseph replied: ‘I can interpret them
produced by multiple authors from different long before they are fulfilled. This knowledge
historical times and cultural backgrounds, the my lord has given me, for I have left the faith of
Qur’an is the work of a single man, in a single those that disbelieve in Allah and deny the life
lifetime. The text thus bears a strong stamp of to come. I follow the faith of my forefathers,
that man’s personality-Muhammed is the Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.’"
Prophet of Allah, the human medium of God’s Joseph tells the first man his dream means he
ultimate revelation. To learn about Islam is will be released and serve the king wine, while
inevitably to learn about the Prophet the second man’s dream means he will be cruci-
Muhammed. fied, and the birds will peck at his head. When
Several passages of the Qur’an contain dis- these predictions come true, Joseph’s skill as a
cussions of dreams and dreaming, and because dream interpreter comes to the attention of
of the absolute centrality of the Qur’an to Egypt’s king, who has been troubled by two
Muslim faith these passages have become fun- dreams of his own, one in which seven fatted
damental to all later Islamic dream traditions. cows devour seven lean ones, and the other in
What follows are brief synopses of four suras in which seven green ears of corn devour seven
which dreams play a significant role. dry ones. The king asks his royal advisors to tell
12: Joseph. In this chapter Muhammed gives him the meaning of these dreams, but they can-
a condensed version of the story of Joseph (fol- not do so, saying "It is but an idle dream; nor
lowing the essential outline found in the Torah’s can we interpret dreams." Joseph, however, is
Genesis 37-50). While much of the material able to interpret the dreams accurately as antic-
from the Genesis version has been removed, the ipations of the future welfare of the land and its
three major dream episodes in Joseph’s life all people, when seven years of plenty will be fol-
remain, and these episodes combine to make a lowed by seven years of famine. The king is
clear point: dreams, and the ability to interpret pleased with this interpretation, and as a reward
them, are an important sign of God’s favor. makes Joseph his personal servant.
Muhammed starts sura 12 with the young Very much like the Genesis version, the
Joseph telling his father he had a dream in Qur’an portrays Joseph as an exemplary man of
which "eleven stars and the sun and the moon faith and piety, and one clear sign of his close

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Reflections on the Dream Traditions of Islam

relationship with God is his ability to have and Abraham is stopped in the sacrifice of his son
interpret revelatory dreams. by God’s sudden words, "Abraham, you have
37. The Ranks. Like sura 12, this one also fulfilled your vision." Abraham is true to his
retells a story found in the book of Genesis. dream not by literally enacting it in the physical
Here the main subject is Abraham, whose life is sacrifice of his son; rather, he "fulfills his vision"
recounted in Genesis 12-25. The Qur’anic ver- by a symbolic demonstration of his absolute
sion focuses specifically on God’s command to obedience to God. As I will discuss later, this
Abraham to sacrifice his only son, Isaac (cf. emphasis on the symbolic rather than the liter-
Genesis 22): al will pave the way for later Muslim philo-
"[Abraham said] ‘Grant me a son, Lord, and sophical and theological thinking about what
let him be a righteous man.’ We [Allah] gave kinds of truth can be discerned via the dream-
him news of a gentle son. And when he reached ing imagination.iv
the age when he could work with him his father 8: The Spoils This sura describes two of
said to him: ‘My son, I dreamt that I was sacri- Muhammed’s own dream experiences. He men-
ficing you. Tell me what you think.’ He replied: tions them in the context of telling how in the
‘Father, do as you are bidden. Allah willing, you early years of his mission he struggled to lead
shall find me faithful.’ And when they had both his followers in battle against their opponents-"
surrendered themselves to Allah’s will, and some of the faithful were reluctant. They argued
Abraham had laid down his son prostrate upon with you [Muhammed] about the truth that had
his face, We called out to him, saying: been revealed, as though they were being led to
‘Abraham, you have fulfilled your vision.’ Thus certain death." Muhammed says he prayed to
did We reward the righteous. That was indeed God for help, and God responded as follows:
a bitter test." "You [Muhammed] were overcome by sleep,
Several points are worth noting here. First is a token of His [Allah’s] protection. He sent
the explicit reference to a dream as the means down water from the sky to cleanse you and to
by which Abraham receives this command; the purify you of Satan’s filth, to strengthen your
Genesis version does not emphasize the dream hearts and to steady your footsteps. Allah
provenance as clearly. Second is the unques- revealed His will to the angels, saying: ‘I shall be
tioned assumption by both Abraham and his with you. Give courage to the believers. I shall
son that the dream is a command from Allah. cast terror into the hearts of the infidels. Strike
The dream as Abraham describes it has no spe- off their heads, maim them in every limb!’"
cial markers of divine origin, and yet he and his A little further on, Muhammed describes his
son immediately agree that what Abraham has experience the night before a particular battle,
envisioned is ordained by God and must be when he and his army were encamped across a
done. This leads to the third and theologically valley from a gathering of hostile warriors:
most important point: the dream and their "Allah made them appear to you in a dream
interpretation of it lead Abraham and his son to as a small band. Had He showed them to you as
"surrender themselves to Allah’s will." This a great army, your courage would have failed
humble obedience is the very heart of the you and discord would have triumphed in your
Muslim faith-the absolute trust in God, even to ranks. But this Allah spared you. He knows
the point of sacrificing one’s most cherished your inmost thoughts."
human attachments ("That was indeed a bitter The two dreams reflect the warlike environ-
test"). Muhammed’s retelling of the story of ment in which Muhammed and his followers
Abraham and Isaac in many ways encapsulates first established the Muslim faith. Although
the whole of the Qur’an. A fourth and final Muhammed spent much time alone in desert
point to note here is the interesting twist at the caves praying and meditating, he was also a
end of the story, which differs quite dramatical- charismatic warrior who led his troops through
ly from the Genesis version. In sura 37, several harrowing battles. The dream experi-

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K. Bulkeley

ences reported in this sura express for the cross-cultural study of dreams. I will
Muhammed’s faith in God’s rousing presence return to this issue at the end of the essay; for
during times of violent struggle. In this way the the moment, I simply want to highlight the fact
two dreams are similar to many passages in the that this sura, one of the most mystically evoca-
Torah and the New Testament, where God tive narratives in the whole Qur’an, is decided-
appears to the faithful in times of danger, vio- ly ambiguous about whether or not
lence, and despair to offer reassurance and Muhammed’s "Night Journey" was a dream.
heavenly comfort (e.g., Genesis 28; Matthew 1,
2; Acts 16, 27). An unusual feature in this sura DREAMS IN THE HADITH
is the frank acknowledgment that God may use
dreams to deceive the faithful for their own Both during and after Muhammed’s death a
good. Muhammed is grateful that Allah knew number of accounts were written of his words
his "inmost thoughts," i.e., his secret fear that and deeds, and these accounts are gathered in
his army would be defeated, and sent a dream the hadith. Among the various sayings of the
that reassured him. The value of the dream is hadith are several detailed discussions of
clearly not in the accuracy of its representation dreams and dreaming. Although secondary in
of physical reality, but rather in its inspiring theological importance to the passages from the
emotional effect on Muhammed-the dream Qur’an, the references to dreaming in the
emboldens him to ignore any "realistic" hadith are extremely significant historically, and
appraisal of his chances and to continue fight- they have added important conceptual and
ing in total confidence of ultimate victory. technical elements to the dream traditions of
17: The Night Journey This sura begins with Islam. In particular, the hadith contain abun-
the following lines: dant references to the practice of dream inter-
"Glory be to Him who made His servants go pretation, and many of the interpretive princi-
by night from the Sacred Temple [of Mecca] to ples enunciated in these passages continue to
the farther temple [the Throne of Allah] whose guide the dream practices of present-day
surroundings we have blessed, that we might Muslims in countries around the world.
show him some of Our signs. He alone hears all The legitimacy of dream interpretation as a
and observes all." religious activity receives strong endorsement
The remainder of the chapter consists of a from the hadith, most directly in the verses that
lengthy revelation to Muhammed regarding the state: “When the companions of the Messenger
creation of the world, resurrection and the of God [Muhammed] saw dreams while he was
afterlife, ritual practice, ethical precepts, warn- still alive they would tell him of their dreams
ings against unbelief, and several other key and he, for his part, would interpret them as
principles of the Muslim faith. The text does God willed.”v Many hadith describe
not specifically say whether Muhammed’s jour- Muhammed’s interpretations of particular
ney occurred in a waking or dreaming state. images and symbols in the dreams of his fol-
The visionary quality of the experience and the lowers, while other verses tell of Muhammed’s
fact that it happened at night support the belief own dreams and his interpretations of them.
that it was a dream, but later Muslim commen- For example, the hadith report several dreams
tators have argued that it was not a dream but Muhammed had of his friend ‘Umar, who later
an actual physical transportation to heaven. became one of his successors. The dreams
Here we run into the difficult methodological express Muhammed’s respect and admiration
problem of trying to distinguish dreams from for the power of ‘Umar’s faith, and this provid-
other types of extraordinary visionary experi- ed ‘Umar with a kind of divine sanction for the
ence. How to tell the difference between day when he assumed religious authority fol-
dreams, visions, hallucinations, out-of-body lowing the death of
experiences, and so forth is a major challenge According to these texts, Muhammed was

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Reflections on the Dream Traditions of Islam

sensitive to the practical difficulties encoun- uation of dreams in the Qur’anic verses dis-
tered by many of his followers who were trying cussed above and gives a more definitive shap-
to interpret their own dreams. The first sugges- ing to the beliefs and practices of later
tion Muhammed makes is to tell the dream to Muslims.
someone else: "A dream rests on the feathers of The hadith include two particular dreams of
a bird and will not take effect unless it is relat- Muhammed that are worth mentioning. In the
ed to someone." However, people should be first, the Prophet explains how he interpreted
careful not to reveal too much in public; "tell one of his own dreams:
your dreams only to knowledgeable persons "I saw in a dream that I waved a sword and it
and loved ones," and beware those who will use broke in the middle, and behold, that symbol-
your dreams against you (like Joseph’s brothers ized the casualties the believers suffered on the
did against him). Muhammed gives a colorful Day [of the battle] of Uhud. Then I waved the
warning to those who abuse the practice of sword again, and it became better than it had
dream interpretation: "Whoever claims to have ever been before, and behold, that symbolized
had a dream in which he says he saw something the Conquest [of Mecca] which Allah brought
he did not shall be ordered [in Hell] to tie a about and the gathering of the leaders."x
knot between two barley grains and will not be The broken sword is a striking emblem of
able to do so." To help people increase their military defeat and social humiliation, a vivid
chances of having a good dream, Muhammed imagistic reference that would be likely to res-
offers suggestions about how to approach sleep onate strongly with his battle-tested followers.xi
in a state of ritual purity, with the specific In that context, the suddenly restored and
instruction to try sleeping on the right side.vii improved sword symbolizes the transcendent
Bad dreams come from Satan, and he says peo- power of Muslim faith. What looks impossible
ple should refrain from talking about these can actually be done, what appears lost can be
dreams and instead "offer a prayer" and "seek regained, what seems fractured can be made
refuge with Allah from [the dream’s] evil." whole again-all of this is possible, if people are
The hadith that reads, "Whoever sees me willing to give complete trust in the Almighty.
[the Prophet] in dreams will see me in wake- Here again, a brief dream memorably expresses
fulness [the Hereafter] for Satan cannot take one of the preeminent themes of Islamic belief
my shape" has long been understood to mean and practice.
that a dream in which Muhammed appears as The second dream to note in the hadith is
a character is unquestionably a true dream. recounted by A’isha, the woman Muhammed
Every other kind of dream could be a malevo- married after the death of his first wife Khadija:
lent deception sent by Satan, but a dream of "Allah’s Apostle said to me [A’aisha], ‘You
Muhammed can be accepted with complete were shown to me twice [in my dream] before I
confidence as an authentic revelation because married you. I saw an angel carrying you in a
Satan does not have the power to assume the silken piece of cloth, and I said to him,
shape of God’s Prophet. Perhaps the most oft- "Uncover [her]," and behold, it was you. I said
quoted hadith on the subject of dreams reads, [to myself], "If this is from Allah, then it must
"The good dream is 1/46th of prophecy." While happen." Then you were shown to me, the
commentators have long debated the signifi- angel carrying you in a silken piece of cloth,
cance of this exact numberviii, the general and I said [to him], "Uncover her," and behold,
sense of the passage is clear: dreams are a legit- it was you. I said [to myself], "If this is from
imate source of divine knowledge.ix This basic Allah, then it must happen."’"xii
attitude in the hadith-dreams are not the only After the death of Khadija, we may imagine
source of religious revelation, but nevertheless Muhammed felt some degree of uncertainty
a real and important one available to a wide about whether he should take a new wife, and
spectrum of people-builds on the positive eval- if yes, then whom he should choose. His deci-

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K. Bulkeley

sion would of course have profound implica- company of travelers [Joseph’s brothers], you
tions for both his personal life and the political are surely thieves’ (12:70)."xiii
dynamics of the religious movement he was Ibn Sirin’s reference to specific scriptural
building. These twin dreams provide passages reflects the fact that Muslims are thor-
Muhammed with divine guidance in a poten- oughly steeped from an early age in the text of
tially difficult situation, sanctioning his choice the Qur’an. Memorization of Qur’anic verses
of A’aisha in a manner very much like his has long been a central feature of Muslim edu-
dreams legitimating the status of his successor cation, and Ibn Sirin’s interpretive strategy
‘Umar, mentioned above. The repetitive nature relies heavily on people’s intimate familiarity
of the two dreams emphasizes the clarity of with the language, characters, and themes of
their message, which is that A’aisha has been the Qur’an. Perhaps of most interest to Western
presented to Muhammed as a gift from God. psychological researchers, Ibn Sirin explicitly
Not just in war but in love as well, dreams teaches that a given dream’s meaning cannot be
reveal the will of Allah. determined without reference to the personali-
ty characteristics of the dreamer. There is, in
CLASSICAL TOPOLOGIES other words, no "one size fits all" interpretation
for any particular dream symbol; the meaning
Inspired by these teachings from the Qur’an depends on the personality and life circum-
and the hadith, Muslim philosophers and the- stances of the dreamer.
ologians in subsequent years continued the The same interpretive principle appears in
process of developing new techniques and con- the Oneirocritica of Artemidorus, a second C.E.
ceptual frameworks for the practice of dream writer from the Roman empire. Artemidorus’
interpretation. The most famous of the early work was translated into Arabic in 877, and it
dream interpreters was Ibn Sirin, whose name gave a major stimulus to the further develop-
was reverently attached to dream interpretation ment of Muslim dream theory and practice.
manuals for many centuries after his death in Here is the point where Muslim traditions begin
728 C.E. One of the Ibn Sirin’s key teachings to expand beyond their Christian and Jewish
was to pay close attention to the personal char- counterparts. Indeed, I would argue (without
acteristics of the dreamer. The following anec- having the space to defend my claim fully) that
dote about his interpretive method appears in during its Medieval period Christianity effec-
several texts: tively repudiated dreaming as a legitimate
"Two dreamers came to Ibn Sirin within an source of divine revelation by increasingly
hour of each other and each had dreamed of emphasizing the potential for demonic tempta-
being the caller to prayer (muezzin). The first tion in dreams. Although religiously-oriented
person was told that his dream foretold that he dream traditions continued and in some cases
would perform the Muslim pilgrimage to even flourished at the level of popular Christian
Mecca. The second man, who seemed to be of a practice, the attitude of theologians and church
baser character, was told that he would be officials from Augustine through Aquinas,
accused of a theft. [His] pupils then questioned Luther, Calvin, and on into the present day has
how Ibn Sirin could come up with such radi- been generally hostile to dreams and dream
cally different interpretations for the same interpretation.xiv Judaism did not suffer this
dream. His response was that the character of kind of decline in the religious authority of
each dreamer was evident from his appearance dreams. On the contrary, thinkers like Moses
and demeanor. Therefore, the first one’s dream Maimonides (1135-1204) continued to develop
evoked the Qur’anic verse ‘Proclaim to the peo- creative new ways of conceptualizing the reve-
ple a solemn pilgrimage’ (20:28) since he was latory power of dreams.xv But Judaism never
clearly pious. The second man’s dream evoked achieved anything like the geographic spread of
the verse ‘Then a crier called after them, O Islam (from the Atlantic to the border of China

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Reflections on the Dream Traditions of Islam

in just its first 100 years), nor did Judaism ever A further elaboration of this three-part typol-
produce the kind of spectacular efflorescence of ogy appears in the monumental Muqaddimah
scientific and philosophical discovery that ("An Introduction to History") written by the
occurred in the Classical Era of Islamic history philosopher Ibn Khaldun (1332-1402). He
(from approximately the ninth to thirteenth explains the different types of dreams in this
centuries C.E.). Tabir, the Muslim science of way:
dream interpretation, emerged in this period as "Real dream vision is an awareness on the
dynamic body of knowledge integrating Islamic part of the rational soul in its spiritual essence,
faith with the classical heritage of the Greeks of glimpses of the forms of events…. This hap-
and Romans.xvi Nothing emerged in Judaism or pens to the soul [by means of] glimpses through
Christianity to rival the breadth and sophistica- the agency of sleep, whereby it gains the knowl-
tion of this tradition, and it is an open question edge of future events that it desires and regains
whether any civilization from India, China, or the perceptions that belong to it. When this
anywhere else ever matched the richness of process is weak and indistinct, the soul applies
classical Islamic dream knowledge. to it allegory and imaginary pictures, in order to
Looking in more detail at the Muslim teach- gain [the desired knowledge]. Such allegory,
ings, the first example to consider comes from then, necessitates interpretation. When, on the
the philosopher Ibn Arabi (1164-1240), who other hand, this process is strong, it can dis-
devised a grand metaphysical system merging pense with allegory. Then, no interpretation is
Islamic theology with Greek philosophy.xvii His necessary, because the process is free from imag-
typology of dreaming establishes the basic inary pictures…. One of the greatest hindrances
framework used throughout later Muslim histo- [to this process] is the external senses. God,
ry. According Ibn Arabi, there are three basic therefore, created man in such a way that the
types of dream. The first is an "ordinary" dream, veil of the senses could be lifted through sleep,
produced by the imagination when it takes which is a natural function of man. When that
experiences from daily life and magnifies them veil is lifted, the soul is ready to learn the things
as in a mirror, reflecting in a disorted symbolic it desires to know in the world of Truth. At
fashion our wishes and desires. The second and times, it catches a glimpse of what it seeks….
much more significant type of dream draws its Clear dream visions are from God. Allegorical
material not from daily life but from the dream visions, which call for interpretation, are
"Universal Soul," a source of knowledge closely from the angels. And ‘confused dreams’ are
associated with the faculty of abstract reason- from Satan, because they are altogether futile, as
ing. "Universal Soul" dreams reveal fundamen- Satan is the source of futility."xviii
tal truths about reality, although like the first Ibn Khaldun refines the philosophical and
type of dream these ones are distorted by the theological foundations of Ibn Arabi’s three-part
imperfect mirror of the human imagination. typology. He emphasizes the idea that in sleep
Interpretation is therefore required to discover people are liberated from their senses, freeing
what the symbolic images mean. The third and their rational souls to gain glimpses of tran-
final type of dream involves a direct revelation scendent truth. This same theme runs through-
of reality, with no distortion or symbolic medi- out Platonic and Neoplatonic thinking about
ation-a clear vision of divine truth. dreams, and it seems likely that Ibn Khaldun
Ibn Arabi’s typology portrays a wider range was familiar with those Graeco-Roman philo-
of dream experience than is usually acknowl- sophical notions and used them to enrich his
edged in Western psychological thinking, own understanding of dreams. The distinctive
which focuses its attention almost exclusively feature in Ibn Khaldun’s theory is that God
on his first category, the "ordinary" dreams of deliberately created sleep as an opportunity for
daily life. This is an important point, and I will humans to "lift the veil of the senses" and gain
return to it in the conclusion. access to divine realities and higher forms of

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K. Bulkeley

knowing. Dreaming appears in this light as one widespread phenomenon. Hoffman argues that
of God’s gifts to humankind, a "natural" means the experience of such dreams does not indicate
of spiritual insight potentially available to all a pre-modern or naively superstitious mentali-
people. ty; on the contrary, the people she describes are
The foregoing is only the briefest of surveys well-educated, technologically proficient, and
of the vast wealth of Islamic dream teachings psychologically healthy. Although many
from the classical era. A modestly sized scholar- Westerners assume modern civilization and
ly literature exists in English that discusses this religious faith are mutually antithetical, the
materialxix, but much more work needs to be Egyptians Hoffman studies are living proof that
done by researchers from both Muslim and this is not universally true. She says the
non-Muslim backgrounds. For example, it Egyptian Muslims "believe that the ability to
would be interesting to know more about how receive visions through dreams and in the wak-
Islamic theologians understood the sexual ing state is a faculty that is latent in human
dimensions of dreaming, a topic which has long beings, whose attachment to material things
troubled Christian thinking about dreams. It clouds their receptivity to impulses from the
would also be useful to learn more about how spiritual realm. "xxi This is a remarkable indica-
dreams have served in Muslim caregiving prac- tion that the fourteenth-century ideas of Ibn
tices as means of diagnosis and treatment for Khaldun are alive and well in the minds of
people suffering from physical and/or emotion- twentieth-century Egyptian as they regard their
al distress. And, further information about the dream experiences.
influence of dreams on political, legal, and mil- Many of the people described by Hoffman
itary decision-making would offer excellent have been deeply influenced by the Sufi mysti-
comparative material for the study of the prob- cal tradition of Islamxxii, and this is most evi-
lem-solving function of dreaming. My suspi- dent in their use of dreams as a means of seek-
cion is that a vast amount of information on ing religious instruction:
these and other questions does exist, but it has "In the course of my research I collected
not yet received much attention from main- many stories in which dreams played a major
stream Western dream researchers. role in guiding people to a particular spiritual
guide. In two very similar cases, middle-class,
DREAMS IN CONTEMPORARY ISLAM college-educated women-whose families had
no connections with Sufism and who claimed
Turning to the beliefs and practices of today’s no previous knowledge of the major Sufi saints-
Muslims, who number over a billion people liv- were afflicted by physical and psychological ill-
ing in countries all over the globe, the main nesses that medical doctors seemed unable to
point to note is the strong historical continuity cure, when suddenly they were visited in their
of the dream traditions discussed so far. The dreams by great Sufi saints, both deceased and
basic ideas about dreaming found in the Qur’an living. They found themselves propelled by
and the hadith are still a living influence in the these dreams to seek the solace of the shrines of
contemporary Muslim world, and it appears the great deceased saints and to seek blessing
that the people of several Muslim countries guidance and healing from specific living spiri-
hold dreaming in a much higher regard than is tual guides. Both of them found the guides they
generally true anywhere in North America or had seen in their visions, and one of them
Western Europe. One detailed piece of research claimed that her dream had shown her the
will have to suffice as evidence for this admit- route and physical layout of the house of he
tedly broad claimxx. Valerie J. Hoffman’s work woman who was to be her main spiritual
on the role of visions in contemporary Egypt guide."xxiii
indicates that for present-day Muslims reli- The material gathered by Hoffman offers
giously revelatory dreams are a surprisingly striking evidence that dreams continue to play

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Reflections on the Dream Traditions of Islam

an important part in the religious lives of pres- a physical transportation to heaven. I suggest
ent-day, "modernized" Muslims. Today as 1500 the ambiguity of the Qur’anic text reflects the
years ago, dreams provide Muslims with direct possibility that Muhammed experienced a type
experiential confirmation their faith, connect- of "big dream"-an experience that began in the
ing them with divine powers and realities and physical state of sleep and ordinary dreaming
reassuring them of the living presence of God in but then soared away into the transcendent
their lives. Hoffman’s concluding suggestion realm of revelation, inspiration, and divine
that "Egyptians may well be defining moderni- presence. Seen in this light, the dream typolo-
ty in a manner that embraces experiences gies of Ibn Arabi, Ibn Khaldun, and many other
unrecognized by Western rationalism"xxiv is a classical Muslim thinkers offer valuable obser-
thought-provoking challenge to Western vations about various types of extraordinary
researchers who may not fully appreciate the dream experience. Western researchers who
powerful influence of religious faith, devotional aspire to a truly comprehensive understanding
practice, and cultural history on people’s dream of the dreaming imagination could benefit
experiences. greatly from a careful study of these texts.
2. Dreams and the Body. Although classical
CONCLUSION Muslim typologies recognize the transcendent
dimensions of dreaming, they also provide
What, then, are the most promising areas for detailed analyses of the bodily basis of dream-
Westerners and Muslims to develop further ing experience, with a special focus on several
their mutual interest in dreams and dreaming? different emotions (anger, fear, lust) that influ-
What are the best prospects for future investi- ence the formation of different kinds of dreams.
gation and dialogue? I have four suggestions, Most Western researchers are on familiar
which certainly do not exhaust all possibilities ground here, and their findings about rapid eye
but merely reflect some of my own research moment (REM) sleep and the neuropsychology
interests. of dreaming should find a ready conceptual
1. Dream Patterns: C. G. Jung first was the space in the Islamic tradition. For example, the
first in the Western psychological tradition to common Muslim belief that dreams appearing
investigate in real detail the question of whether just before waking are more truthful than
certain dreams have fundamentally different dreams from earlier in the nightxxvi could be
psychological structures from other types of correlated with the Western research finding
dreams. Jung’s notion of "big dreams" has long that in most cases the longest REM period of the
been ignored by psychological researchers who night (when the dreaming imagination seems to
focus exclusively on dream data produced in be especially active) comes during the last hour
sleep laboratories. But in recent years, extraor- or two of the sleep cycle, right before waking.
dinary dreams of unusual cognitive form, aes- 3. Gender. The work of several Western
thetic vitality, and emotional intensity have scholars has focused on the significance of gen-
been the subject of greater theoretical and der in dream beliefs, practices, and experiences.
empirical investigation.xxv One common fea- According to the content analysis work of
ture of these intense, highly memorable dreams Calvin Hall, Robert Van de Castle, and G.
is that when people describe them they often William Domhoff, men and women dream dif-
report a strong feeling that "it wasn’t like a nor- ferently, and one of the major differences
mal dream"; in many cases people say they’re regards the rate in which the other gender
not even sure it was a dream, although they appears in their dreams: women’s dreams have
can’t offer a better name for it. This is reminis- an equal percentage of male and female charac-
cent of our earlier discussion of Muhammed’s ters, while men’s dreams have twice as many
"Night Journey" and the traditional Islamic male characters as females.xxvii This finding is
debate about whether or not it was a dream or based largely, though not exclusively, on

12 Sleep and Hypnosis, 4:1, 2002

K. Bulkeley

Western populations, and it would be fascinat- each other about what their dreams mean in
ing to know if the same pattern exists in various relation to the current outbreak of warfare. I
Muslim communities, where gender boundaries would be very, very interested in learning about
tend to be at least as sharply drawn and force- those conversations. I know, based on my own
fully defended as in Western society. A key research, that many people in the United States
question raised by the content analysis research are experiencing profoundly troubling dreams
is whether gender differences in dream content related to September 11, dreams filled with
reflect genetically-determined psychophysio- planes crashing, bombs exploding, buildings
logical differences between men and women, or crumbling, and terrorists attacking children
the socializing influences of education, cultural and family members. These dreams reflect the
expectation, and gender stereotyping, or some deep emotional impact of the events of
combination of the two.xxviii The best way to September 11 on the American psyche, and in
address this question is to investigate the dream future work I hope to investigate these dreams
lives of people from many different cultures, as expressions of an extraordinary psychologi-
and here again the Islamic tradition offers an cal effort to make meaning in a time of social
abundant source of comparative material. trauma, anger, and confusion. As I contemplate
4. What are contemporary Muslims dream- that project, I wonder-do Muslim dream expe-
ing right now? The Qur’an and hadith are clear riences contain any of these same themes, or do
about the special value of dreaming in times of they express a totally different complex of per-
military conflict, and I strongly suspect that ceptions, feelings, beliefs, and desires? Are
many present-day Muslims are dreaming about Muslims dreaming of Westerners as much as
the events of September 11 and talking with Westerners are dreaming of Muslims?

i. In a short essay like this, I hope I will be forgiven this general- viii. One common explanation is that the number 1/46th involves
ized, oppositional use of the terms "Muslim" and "Westerner." a doubling of the number of years (23) between the beginning
I do not mean to suggest anyone forget the facts that millions of of Muhammed’s revelation and his death.
Muslims live in Western countries, that millions of Muslims and
millions of Westerners feel no special enmity toward each other ix. All quotes in this paragraph are from Hermansen, "Dreams
and would be happy to live in mutual peace, and that millions and Dreaming in Islam," pp. 75-76.
of people in both Islamic and Western countries oppose the mil-
itary policies and actions of their political leaders. x. Ibid., p. 75.

ii. Marcia Hermansen, "Dreams and Dreaming in Islam," in xi. Many Western researchers, schooled in the interpretive meth-
Dreams: A Reader in the Religious, Cultural, and ods of Sigmund Freud, will suspect a symbolic expression of
Psychological Dimensions of Dreaming (edited by Kelly castration anxiety in this image.
Bulkeley) (New York: Palgrave, 2001), p.74
xii. Ibid., p. 74.
iii. All quotes from the Qur’an are from the translation of N.J.
Dawood (New York: Penguin Books, 1956). xiii. Ibid., p. 78.

iv. For example, see Henri Corbin, "The Visionary Dream in xiv. See Morton Kelsey, God, Dreams, and Revelation
Islamic Spirituality," in The Dream and Human Societies (Minneapolis: St. Augsburg Press, 1991).
(edited by G. E. Von Grunebaum and Roger Callois) (Berkeley:
University of California Press, 1966). xv. See Alan Brill, "The Phenomenology of True Dreams in
Maimonides," Dreaming (2000) vol. 10, no. 1: 43-54.
v. Hermansen, "Dreams and Dreaming in Islam," p. 75.
xvi. Nathaniel Bland, "On the Muhammedan Science of Tabir, or
vi. Ibid., p. 75. Interpretation of Dreams," The Journal of the Royal Asiatic
Society of Great Britain and Ireland (1856), vol. 16, pp. 118-
vii. The Muslim practice of religiously-oriented dream incubation, 171.
istikhara, is itself a topic worthy of greater investigation. See,
for example, J. Spencer Trimmingham, Islam in West Africa xvii. Rom Landau, "The Philosophy of Ibn Arabi," The Muslim
(Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1959). World (1957), vol. 47, pp. 46-61.

Sleep and Hypnosis, 4:1, 2002 13

Reflections on the Dream Traditions of Islam

xviii. Ibn Khaldun, The Muqaddimah (translated by Franz xxi. Valerie J. Hoffman, "The Role of Visions in Contemporary
Rosenthal) (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1967), pp. Egyptian Religious Life," Religion (1997) vol. 27, no. 1, p. 53.
80-81, 83.
xxii. For further information about Sufism and dreams, see
xix. For example, various essays in Von Grunebaum and Callois, Jonathan G. Katz, "An Egyptian Sufi Interprets His Dreams:
The Dream and Human Society, op. cit.; Hermansen, "Dreams ‘Abd al-Wahhab al-Sha’rani 1493-1565," and Marcia
and Dreaming in Islam, op. cit.; John Lamoreaux, "Dream Hermansen, "Visions as ‘Good to Think’: A Cognitive
Interpretation in the Early Medieval Near East," Ph.D. diss., Approach to Visionary Experience in Islamic Sufi Thought,"
Duke University, 1999; Leah Kinberg, Ibn Abi al-Dunya both in Religion (1997) vol. 27, no. 1, the special section devot-
Morality in the Guise of Dreams (Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1994); ed to "The Study of Dreams and Visions in Islam."
Sara Sviri, "Dreaming Analyzed and Recorded: Dreams in the
World of Medieval Islam," in Dream Cultures: Explorations in xxiii. Ibid., p. 48.
the Comparative History of Dreaming (edited by David
Shulman and Guy G. Stroumsa) (New York: Oxford University xxiv. Ibid., p. 60.
Press, 1999).
xxv. Harry Hunt, The Multiplicity of Dreams (New Haven: Yale
xx. Other good sources on the role of dreams in contemporary University Press, 1989); Kelly Bulkeley, Transforming Dreams
Muslim practice are Katherine P. Ewing, "The Dream of (New York: John Wiley & Sons, 2000); Roger Knudson,
Spiritual Initiation and the Organization of Self Representations "Significant Dreams: Bizarre or Beautiful?" Dreaming (2001)
among Pakistani Sufis," American Ethnologist (1989) vol. 16, vol. 11, no. 4, pp. 167-178.
pp. 56-74; Benjamin Kilborne, "Moroccan Dream
Interpretation and Culturally Constituted Defense xxvi. Nathaniel Bland, "On the Muhammedan Science of Tabir," p.
Mechanisms," Ethos (1981) vol. 9, no. 4, pp. 294-312; 129.
Hermansen, "Dreams and Dreaming in Islam"; Micheline
Centlivres, Pierre Centlivres, and Mark Slobin, "A Muslim xxvii. G. William Domhoff, Finding Meaning in Dreams (New York:
Shaman of Afghan Turkestan," Ethnology (1971) vol. 10, pp. Plenum, 1996), p. 56.
160-173; M. C. Jedrej and Rosalind Shaw (editors), Dreaming,
Religion, and Society in Africa (Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1993). xxviii. On this subject, see Carol Schreier Rupprecht, "Sex, Gender,
and Dreams: From Polarity to Plurality" in Kelly Bulkeley
(editor) Among All These Dreamers (Albany: State University
of New York Press, 1996).

14 Sleep and Hypnosis, 4:1, 2002