Skip to main content
Understanding Dreams
Jan 1, 1995

Are dreams merely electro-chemical currents passing through the brain? Is there meaning to be found in what we see while asleep at night? Is waking reality any more “real’ than sleeping reality? Does oneirology, the art of interpreting dreams, have any role in the modern world?

Dreams have fascinated people of all cultures and all ages. The Cuna Indians of South America have such high regard for dreams that they are even discussed at town council meetings. A person who had dreamt about a fish book, for example, would he excused from community labour as he would be considered at high risk of receiving a snake bite.

Dreams have affected the course of history and contributed to many forms of art and literature. Among the world’s most famous paintings is Rousseau’s The Dream. Shelley’s Frankenstein and Stevenson’s Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde were inspired by nightmares, while Charlotte Bronte admitted that her writing block was broken while asleep.

Descartes, at the age of twenty-three, apparently had several dreams in which he saw new perspectives on philosophy and mathematics. The conquest of Spain was carried out by Tariq Ibn Ziyad after being visited by Muhammad, upon him be peace, in a dream.

There have been many approaches to dreams, some are mentioned by Professor Van de Castle of the University of Virginia Medical School in his book Our Dreaming Mind. He says he has been ‘the white-coated scientist attaching EEG electrodes to a subject’s head and face to study his or her sleep and dream patterns’ as well as being ‘a pyjamaclad subject’ for other researchers. He has spent time ‘talking with natives of tropical forests and islands about their dream beliefs, tabulating tens of thousands of scores from written dream reports’.

Ibn Sirin takes a different approach. He was a prominent member of first generation of Muslims and a famed oneirocritic, dream interpreter. He was described by his contemporaries as ‘a traditionalist of good faith, inspiring confidence, great and dignified’. He died in lOOH/78OCE after making a considerable contribution to Islamic scholarship. Whereas Our Dreaming Mind gives an interesting overview of dreams across many cultures. Ibn Sirin ‘s Interpretation of Dreams offers the principles of dream interpretation according to Islam.

Ibn Sirin explains that the one who is able to interpret dreams should possess knowledge of the Book of God, the sayings of Muhammad and a mastery of the Arabic language. ‘He must be a physiognomist one who is able to judge character through facial features, and have a temperament, noble manners and sincerity.’ This is because, according to Islam, the dream is one forty-sixth part of prophethood. This new publication is a translation of a classical text which influenced many Muslim writers including, undoubtedly, Dr Umar Azam, the author of Dreams in Islam.

Dr. Azam, in his book, describes and interprets the dreams of some of his close friends and family. It is far less thorough than Van de Castle’s research and lacks the authority that Ibn Sirin has built up over the centuries but it makes an interesting contribution to the field of dreams, For example, he explains the three types of dream according to Islam.

A good dream is a favour from God indicating His approval of the ‘dreamer’s righteousness’ and ‘should only be told to loved ones.’ The second type of dream is what Azam calls the ‘own’ dream. It is the suggestion of ‘one’s own mind’. They are mainly ‘evil’ and the correct response is to ask for God’s pardon. The third type of dream is inspired by Satan and is the result of God’s anger. The correct response is to blow over the left shoulder three times and seek refuge in God and not tell anyone.

Azam also puts the concept of dreams according to Islam in its Qur’anic context, quoting the passage of the Qur’an which describes the dream of the prophet Joseph.

The foundation for interpreting dreams according to Islam is the Qur’an, the sayings of the Messenger and popular Islamic culture.

When a stone appears in a dream, it is understood to be a symbol of hardness. This is based on the Qur’anic verse, ‘Then your hearts became hard after that-so that they were like stones, or even harder still’ (al-Baqara, 2:74).

A boat symbolizes health, for it says in the Qur’an, ‘So we rescued him and the companions of The Ark’, (al-Naml, 27:15).

lbn Sirin explains that ‘a crow can represent a wicked man and a mouse a wicked woman, in conformity with the hadith of the Prophet, upon him be peace, which specifically mentions a mouse as a small wicked thing’. A long arm is synonymous with generosity according to Arab culture. These principles and many others are expounded in The Interpretation of Dreams. It also lists specific examples about dreams on subjects including dreaming of the angels, prophets, pious people, etc.; trees fruits and vegetables; jewellery, household articles, weapons, parts of the body, animals and a variety of human states.

An example is ‘snow’. He says:

Snow hail and ice can herald punishments and worries, unless the snow is not very thick and located in a place where people are accustomed to seeing it fall, in which case it is synonymous with fertility. To see oneself fetching water in a container and to see the water icing over signifies goods frozen with him, sleeping capital. Hail is never a good augury’.

The final section includes interpretations of dreams in which verses of Qur’an are heard. For example, the chapter al-Fath indicates the reciter is loved by God, whereas the chapter al-Hajj indicates that one will soon perform the pilgrimage or if in a state of illness, indicates that death is approaching.

The interpretation of dreams has a long history. Gudea, a Sumerian king who reigned in the city of Lagash around 2200Bc, had his dreams preserved on two clay cylinders. He sought the help of Gatumdug, supposedly a goddess, to interpret them. The Jews, like their monotheistic brethren believed dreams are gifts from God. Psalm 127 says ‘the Lord giveth unto His beloved in their sleep’. There are 217 references to dreams in the Talmud. The ancient Egyptians also attached great importance to dreams attributing them to their god of dreams, Serapis. They went thorough many procedures including prayers and incantations to inspire the desired dream. Van de Castle vividly describes this historical development of dream theory. In doing so, he mentions Ibn Sirin describing him as ‘a kind of abstract personage, the very incarnation as it were of Arab oneiromancy’. He proceeds to eighteenth-century European romanticism and its evolution into the views of psychologists like Freud, Jung, Hall and Perls.

Like Azam, he offers us his research findings and attempts to draw generalizations. He presents examples which lead him to conclude that ‘dream imagery has the potential to serve as a “mental X-ray,” allowing diagnosis of an impending physical problem before it shows up with full-blown, obvious symptoms in waking life. He suggests that dream imagery, for example, changes during pregnancy and discusses the meaning of repetition.

Azam uses a small sample of what he describes as ‘pious Muslims’ classifying their dreams according to the concept of Dreams in Islam. Van de Castle describes his thirty year search for a clearer understanding of The Dreaming Mind. The translation of The interpretation of Dreams is a great contribution to the concept of interpretation and a definitive statement on interpretation of dreams in Islam. Each, in its own way, helps the reader towards understanding dreams.