Are dreams real? If one chooses not to take a stance on this question, the discussion of dreams and visions in Islam runs the risk of becoming a learned, informed, but ultimately unsatisfying account. Carl Jung famously helped a young woman overcome her psychosis by relating to her vision of living on the moon—it was real to her, and he was able to have a productive exchange with her only by treating it as such. In somewhat analogous fashion, the topic of this book ought to be approached as experiences of some other reality on the part of the visionaries and dreamers. It matters little whether we attach to their dreams labels such as ‘symbolic’; what counts is the attitude of those who experience. Elizabeth Sirriyeh provides us with a very satisfying account, tracing the roots of (at least some) Muslim attitudes towards dreams back to the ancient Near East, and carrying on with her research into the cyber era. There exist highly significant commonalities between Muslim dream interpretation and earlier Jewish and Christian traditions; all three traditions draw on a wider pool of ancient Near Eastern dream theory. The earliest writer on the interpretation of dreams, Abū Isḥaq al-Kirmānī (late eighth–early ninth century), whose book is not extant, is said to have received his talent through direct communication with Joseph, interpreter par excellence of the Hebrew bible, as well as by studying writings attributed to Abraham and Daniel. Other sources are also relevant. Ibn Qutayba (d. 889), the earliest author on oneirocriticism whose book survives, recognizes the importance of the interpreter’s familiarity with ḥadīth, folk proverbs, Arabic etymology and current colloquial speech. He should also know human character and facial expression—in other words, he should have good, perhaps intuitive, ability to size up his clients and intuit what else is going on in their lives, and what they may want, and may not want, to hear. Influence is a two-way street. As noted, interpreters were advised to have knowledge of ḥadīth; but dream theory from non-prophetic sources—Islamic and pre-Islamic—also seeped into the prophetic tradition. The great compiler, al-Bukhārī, has a ḥadīth ‘of mixed content’ which includes a remark by the early and seminal author on the interpretation of dreams, Ibn Sīrīn. The latter reports an anonymous saying that there are three sources for dreams: God, Satan, and the soul of the dreamer. This remark has its equivalent in a statement of the church father Tertullian. In al-Bukhārī’s account, the reader can discern between the prophetic accounts and that of Ibn Sīrīn. However, a slew of later compilers elide the reference to Ibn Sīrīn, thus presenting the maxim as Prophetic. Note that al-Bukhārī sets aside a separate section on dreams of women, but only one dream is reported there. Essential features of Muslim tradition were set by the time of Ibn Qutayba (d. 889), to which Greek influences absorbed by Ibn Sīnā (d. 1037) and al-Dīnawarī (d. 895) were then added; by the eleventh century, the key stages were complete, and there has been little variation ever since. Dream interpretation evolved into a tradition to be preserved and handed down, without interference from new ideas. With the advent of printing (significant for the market only in the nineteenth century) the field was dominated by three books, those of the elusive Abū ʿAlī al-Dārī (no later than the thirteenth century), Ibn Shāhīn (d. 1468) and ʿAbd al-Ghanī al-Nābulusī (d. 1731). Al-Dārī’s book is an abridgement of one written by a certain al-Kharkushī (early eleventh century), which in turn is based on the treatise of al-Dīnawarī. However, sources in this chain are not named. Ibn Shāhīn drew upon those two works, and on the massive book of Abū ʿAbd Allāh al-Sālimī (d. ca. 1398). Al-Nabulisī was a prolific author and famous Sufi, whose work is drawing now some attention. His book is ordered alphabetically, something done for the express purpose of making it ‘easy for everyone to have ready access to it’ (p. 97). During the first half millenium of Islam’s existence, roughly an equal number of dream manuals and Qurʾān commentaries were composed. Another indication of how pervasive dreams were in Islamic culture can be drawn from the many references to dreams in a very popular book on zoology, al-Damīrī’s (d. 1405) Ḥayāt al-ḥayawān. The significance of animals that appear in dreams, even the different meanings these animals will take on depending on their colour, are an integral part of al-Damīrī’s presentation. Sirriyeh expands her compass to include stories related to shrines, especially the grave of a holy person, which was known as a mashhad or place of witnessing and visitation. The Middle Eastern landscape soon became thick with these sites, which were particularly popular among Sufis and Shiʿis. A whole literature developed around them, advising visitors of the proper etiquette to be observed and the most propitious times and methods to enjoy the blessing of the saint. Not surprisingly, incubation was also practised at tombs. In common with the Jewish tradition—perhaps also as a result of the story of Joseph’s interpretations—Muslims expected the dream to come true according to the interpretation it received; this put a heavy moral responsibility upon the shoulders of professional interpreters. I may add that it also opened for them an opportunity to induce positive change in their clients. Dreams continue to this day to play an important role in the lives of many Muslims, who will take critical life decisions on the basis of a dream. Emigrants in particular, however, may tend to interpret the dream themselves, rather than seeking out an interpreter. Women dream; but their dreams are mediated in the literature by male voices, who decide on the ‘what’ and ‘how’ of reporting the dreams, often on the basis of how those dreams are of interest to men. This is the theme of the sixth chapter. However, the first dream Sirriyeh discusses there seems to fit—like so many of the others she analyses—into a venerable Middle Eastern tradition; moreover, the roles assigned to gender seem here to be insignificant. The Prophet’s aunt ʿĀtika has a terrifying dream which, as it turns out, foresees the battle of Badr. But the story of her dream, which is relayed for explanation to a male relative, is similar, though with important differences, to the Mesopotamian nightmare of Dumuzi, where the dreamer is male and the interpreter to whom he turns, female. Both dreams and their outcomes resemble what is told of the Midianite in Judges 7. 13–14. Though women figured prominently as dream interpreters in the ancient Near East, they seem to be rare in Islamic societies. Several visions experienced by Rābiʿa al-ʿAdawiyya, the famous eighth-century mystic, are recorded; they all fit the well-known typologies of dreams experienced by men. But this is no surprise; one source says, in a token of recognition of Rābiʿa’s accomplishments, that ‘she cannot be called woman’ (p. 127). Her revelations have elevated her to the rank of man. Not so with the wife of al-Ḥakīm al-Tirmidhī (d. early 10th c.), an important early Sufi who recorded some extraordinary dreams of his wife. In some she figures as a conduit for a message to al-Tirmidhī, but in others she appears as a spiritual giant in her own right. Several women provided the greatest Shaykh, Ibn Arabī, with spiritual guidance early in life. In an extraordinary vision of the Resurrection he repaid them by successfully petitioning God to admit them all into paradise, without having to give an account of their deeds. A ḥadīth asserting that Satan cannot take on the Prophet Muḥammad’s form lent credence to visions of him, which are reported with increased frequency in modern times. However, visions of the prophets, especially of Muḥammad, were severely criticized by jurists such as Ibn Taymiyya for undermining the position of the historical Prophet and his legislative authority. Sufi saints, long departed from this world, could continue to give guidance by appearing in dreams. Dreams of this sort could be induced by techniques such as circumambulating a tomb. Muʿīn al-Dīn Chishtī (d. 1236) guided in this way several Mughal emperors; at least, this was a useful image for the rulers, indicating as it does the saintly support they enjoyed. A prayer and accompanying ritual, the istikhāra, are used to induce dreams which will guide the Muslim in taking important decisions. Here too Sufi shaykhs, but also other ‘professionals’, often take part. Understandably, Sirriyeh concentrates upon the major figures in dream interpretation and visionary experience. However, she does not neglect people like Muḥammad al-Zawāwī (d. 1477), whom she places ‘at the lower end of visionary autobiography’ (p. 151). Since there must have been many such characters, trying to determine what their visions meant to them and to their followers (if they had any; al-Zawāwī did not) makes for a more comprehensive treatment of the subject. Towards the end of the book Sirriyeh presents some fascinating research on the integration of modern psychology’s approach to dreams into traditional Muslim interpretation. Freud’s book on dreams is quite well known. Book-shops display it along with traditional works, and claims are advanced that Ibn Sīrīn and others were forerunners of modern approaches. In a field experiment conducted in Morocco, traditional dream-interpreters were asked to comment on a dream analysed by Freud long ago. Freud, of course, saw the dream to represent sexual activity; none of the traditional oneirocrits interpreted it in this way. The male interpreters all viewed the dream in religious terms and saw it as positive; the one female interpreter, however, saw in the dream a husband who was cruel to his wife. One expert refused to interpret, since he correctly surmised that he was not being told a real dream that had been dreamt by his client. Modern reformers, beginning at least with Rashīd Riḍā (d. 1935) have urged against dream interpretations. On the other hand, jihadists have exploited the phenomenon; no less a figure than Osama bin Laden had a reputation for being an expert interpreter. Overall, Sirriyeh detects a small downward trend in the reliance upon dreams and interpretation; the practice remains widespread. I have a few very minor additions and criticisms to make. Two concern visions connected with the Prophet. Sirriyeh misses the obvious connection between the vision of the operation on his lungs experienced by al-Hawarī and the well-known story of the Prophet’s sharḥ al-ṣadr—something that al-Hawarī must have heard about, and now in a dream he undergoes an analogous procedure (pp. 6–8). Concerning the donkey-like animal which features in visions relate to the isrāʾ (see pp. 46–7), I would add that riding on a donkey is one of the signs of the messiah foretold by Jewish prophets (Zechariah 9. 9). As Patricia Crone and Michael Cook demonstrated in their landmark book, Hagarism (1977), some contemporaneous sources view Muḥammad as a Jewish messiah. I understand somewhat differently the principle stated in the Talmud, and repeated by Jewish biblical interpreters, that ‘the dream follows the interpretation’. The interpretation is the message; the interpreter is not charged with ferreting out some hidden secret, but rather with negotiating the dream content against the psychological state of the dreamer. The task is to mobilize the power of the dream in favour of advice that should be given to the dreamer in any case. Sirriyeh observes (pp. 109–10) that the dream book of ‘Achmet’ collects interpretations from different nations, including the Indians; but the Indian consistently advances a Christian viewpoint. This is not unusual, as we find that in Arabic texts ‘Indian’ often stands for easterners, including Christians in the east. Finally, I miss a reference to Shlomo Pines, ‘The Arabic recension of Parva Naturalia and the philosophical doctrine concerning veridical dreams according to al-risāla al-manāmiyya and other sources’ (Israel Oriental Studies, 4 : 104–53). Any discussion of Ibn Sīnā (who is mentioned several times in the book) will still benefit from Pines’ study. This is a well-researched and well-written book which will be useful for scholars but also provide an enjoyable read for a general audience. © The Author (2017). Published by Oxford University Press on behalf of the Oxford Centre for Islamic Studies. All rights reserved. For Permissions, please email: firstname.lastname@example.org
Journal of Islamic Studies – Oxford University Press
Published: Jan 1, 2018
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