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Early Islam and How Their Dreams Matter

Updated July 30, 2022
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Early Islam and How Their Dreams Matter essay

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Hundreds of thousands of years ago, humans survived on being hunter-gatherers, the concept of society did not exist, let alone the idea of belief systems. Now, in the year 2022, there are countless amounts of belief systems. Some conventional such as Christian orthodox and the exhausting number of branches. Others such as Confucianism, which has a significant following, but does not rely on praising on a higher power, instead focuses on the moral and ethical teachings of humans. One particular religion that has caught the attention of the world is Islam. Islam is a monotheistic religion in which there is only one god, Allah, and Muhammad is the messenger. Although it teaches that God is merciful, mighty, and has guided humankind through many prophecies and signs, within the last 30 years, it has gotten a bad reputation due to particular followers interpreting the word of Allah to its extreme. However, rather than discuss previous heinous that gives Muslims a bad reputation, we will talk about the basis of Islam. In particular, to what extent religious texts, beliefs, customs, and rituals impact the content, visualization, and analysis of dreams and what importance do they hold. In this paper, I will explore how dreams were understood in the early days of Islam, specifically from when Islam was created to about 1100 CE by examining the contents of the Qu’ran and how the events of Muhammad set the standard of dreams and how did it impact Muslims who followed Islam. Most importantly, follow up with evidence to support the notion that dreams hold significant values in Muslim society and all because Muhammad told them to do so.

Before looking into how vital dreams are in Muslim culture and society, we must know the origins of the religion. Islam originated from 7th century CE Arabia, which details that followers of Islam are called “Muslims,” they submit to the will of Allah – meaning God in Arabic – who is the sole creator, sustainer, and restorer of the world. The will of Allah is written down in the Qur’an and was first told by Muhammad, who is considered to be the last of prophets that include Abraham, Moses, and Jesus. The religion has strict practices and is not compromising to other Gods as Allah is the sole God. However, Muhammad preached this idea of brotherhood to his early followers and resulted in his word being accepted in Medina. Now, there are over 1.5 billion Muslims who follow the ethos, established during the days of Muhammad, of uniting the spiritual and temporal aspects of life and seeking to balance the relationship between the individual’s relationship with God, and human relationships in a societal setting.

With this fundamental knowledge, it is important to note the influence Muhammad had on his followers. Not only were there caliphates rising a couple of generations after Muhammad, for example, the Umayyads, but also it is noted that, according to him, “[it’s] declared that the good dream was a forty-sixth part of prophethood” (Green, 246). From then on, dreams have been an essential part of a Muslims’ life because the prophet himself endorses it. Moreover, the Qur’an contains multiple episodes of dreams. For example, the most notable episodes of dreaming involve Yusuf (Jesus) and his stories, which is also related to “Ibrahim (Abraham) and the accounts of the Battle of Bahr and the conquest of Makkah (Mecca) in the lifetime of Muhammad” (Green, 289). Through the importance of dreams in the events of Abraham, Jesus, and Muhammad, the legitimacy of the interpretation of dreams is solidified in the Qur’an and has remained an essential part of Muslim religious practice. Another example of the importance of hadiths, sponsored by Muhammad, was how they were used to connect with the divine. He experienced this firsthand by “claiming his revelations came in dreams” (Green, 288). In relation, another hadith involved seeing Muhammad himself in dreams and claiming neither Satan nor his demons can take the form of him (Green, 148). With all this, Muhammad was able to create connections with his followers to prioritize the importance of dreams. This effect is noted when one of his companions, Abd Allah b. Zayd was instructed to initiate one of the most critical aspects of any religion, adhan (prayer), through a dream (Green, 149).

The early days of Islam were essential to establish the idea of dream importance. Long after his death, the effects were starting to show. From the Umayyad period (661-750 CE), famous dream interpreters Sa’id b. al-Musayyab (fl. ca. 700 CE) and Ibn Sirin (d. 728 CE) continued the interest. However, there are no recorded journals of either documented dreams from individuals or theories that the two might have proposed as a result of interpreting dreams.

That did not stop later Muslim dream interpreters to cite the work of Ibn Sirin, who eventually became the most famous dream interpreter after Prophet Jesus (Green, 148). Falsely labeling works that were thought of to be part of Ibn Sirin led to booksellers selling his alleged teaching during the Middle Ages. No matter the legitimacy of Ibn Sirin’s works or any of the other dream interpreters, one thing many scholars can conclude: it is clear that Muslim dream interpreters were with a variety of diagnostic theories to ‘distinguish the plethora dreams caused by physical circumstances (overeating, sickness, sleeping posture) from dreams of psychological importance to and, more rarely, the veridical or revelatory dreams” (Green, 290 ).

The diagnostic theories Muslim dream interpreters, to some extent, is not entirely Islamic. There was some outside influence. To start, the earliest time Muslims incorporated another culture’s dream analysis was the Babylonians. The Babylonians were using dreams to predict future events. With these dreams, they were able to prescribe omens and written record of these dates back to 1800 BCE. The general recipe for how dreams were viewed was “If x happens, then y will happen,” although y is not necessarily the direct result of x. In the case of a dream, this would read: “If a man in his dream sees or does x, then y” (Sirriyeh, 222). The same pattern occurs quite often in Ibn Qutayba’s Ibara and frequently in other Arabic dream-books. Another outside influence was the Assyrians. In general, they interpreted dreams in a group. For example, if a person were to make furniture, then a series of interpretations would come out of it. The same thing would occur if the symbols involved food, going to places, shape-shifting, etc. In contrast, Muslims would interpret these symbols similarly, but in their dream interpreting manuals, would group different objects into different subsections.

The differences between the Assyrians and the Muslims are evident in many dreams. For example, when it comes to eating dogs or animals that are usually not consumed, the Assyrians interpret it as someone who is rebelling against a higher order and their willingness to achieve that goal is evident by staking strange and abnormal methods to reach it. In contrast, Al-Dari and al-Nabulusi believe that when eating a strange animal, it represents the idea that the dreamer will conquer an enemy and inherit his wealth. The violent image of eating a dog remains. However, to conform to the standards Muhammad set in the Qur’an, “the interpretation meets the ethical considerations of Muslims, which includes the idea of adequately sacrificing an animal” (Sirriyeh, 223).

We see this again with the dream of an individual working as a carpenter. The Assyrians think that one delicately cutting the wood would mean the dreamer will eventually decrease his wealth. Opposed to that, Muslim interpreters thought that carving wood would predict a man trying to correct the unholy within the religion itself. The dreamer is trying to “right the wrongs” by removing corruption and can be seen as a leader (Sirriyeh, 225). Once again, dream interpreters modify the original meanings of symbols from the Assyrians and Babylonians to the confines of the Islam ethical concepts, defined by Muhammad himself. One surprising thing to notice is the reaction to sexual symbols.

A noteworthy instance of this is how one urinating represents semen and eventually offspring. This idea was prevalent throughout the Middle East and it just so happens that Islamic dream analysts just absorbed that idea into their dream manuals. An application of this is when Ibn Sa’d connected the dots of an individual’s dream to that of the Umayyad caliph ‘Abd al-Malik urinating four times at Medina. The prediction was the caliph to have four sons, and all of them would eventually become caliphs themselves (Srriyeh, 226). In general, one is rewarded with scandalous and taboo-breaking dreams, much to the surprise that the ethos related to these interpretations are non-Islamic.

Noted earlier that Islam is non conforming to the idea of multiple Gods. An example is the lack of detail and butchering of the original dream interpretation journal written by Artemidorus. Nestorian Christian physician Hunayn b. Ishaq, after being saved by having a dream for Jesus to tell Umayyad caliph al-Mutaakkil to pardon him from execution, had a hard time to translate the Greek dream symbols because of the author, Artemidorus. An influence as to why Muslims needed to incorporate the teachings of the Greeks results from the dream of caliph al-Ma’mun had which involved Aristotle appearing in his dream and telling the caliph that the principles of good that the Greeks preached must be included in the dream manuals (Green, 150). The problem was Aristotle, like Artemidorus, came from a polytheistic culture, which Hunayn did not believe in. As a result, Hunayn had to change many the names of the Gods listed by saying “Allah” or “Allah and his angels.” It got to the point where the interpretation involved humans (Serriyeh, 228). With multiple Greek gods, heroes, stories, and even humans not having any Arabic equivalent, many dream analysts got the “butchered” version of Artemidorus’s dream symbol manual, as Hunayn simplified it to the point that the symbols were relevant to the ethics of Islam. More importantly, he had to omit the religious references of the Greek gods. It is apparent that not only does Hunayn think that the extra material involving “superstitions” is unnecessary to the interpretation of dreams.

From this essay, it is evident that the Muslims from the early years of the religion placed great importance to the word of Muhammad. From him stating that dreams are essential to fulfilling the prophecy, to legitimizing the concepts of dreams in the Qur’an, in addition to gathering symbols from different cultures and modifying them significantly to fit their ethos, Muhammad had a significant influence on how to interpret a dream, and what importance they held. The effects were seen long after he was gone with dream interpreters creating manuals fitting to his word. The ultimate goal for Muslims, when it comes to dreams, was the quest of self-knowledge; whether it be from an individual’s relationship with Allah, or figuring out the relationship with society.

Works Cited

  1. Green, Nile. “A Brief World History of Muslim Dreams.” Islamic Studies, vol. 54, no. 3/4, 2015, pp. 143–167. JSTOR, JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/26393675.
  2. Green, Nile. ‘The Religious and Cultural Roles of Dreams and Visions in Islam.’Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society, vol. 13, no. 3, 2003, pp. 287-313. ProQuest, http://unr.idm.oclc.org/login?url=https://search-proquest-com.unr.idm.oclc.org/docview/218978971?accountid=452.
  3. Elizabeth Sirriyeh; Arab Stars, Assyrian Dogs and Greek ‘Angels’: How Islamic is Muslim Dream Interpretation?, Journal of Islamic Studies, Volume 22, Issue 2, 1 May 2011, Pages 215–233, https://doi-org.unr.idm.oclc.org/10.1093/jis/etr027
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