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Interpreting Dreams
Jan 1, 2000


Before giving information on dream interpretation, it is necessary to expound on the issues of sleep and dreams, because without knowing the essence of dreaming, no appropriate interpretation is possible.

What is dreaming? What constitutes its core? Is it the peculiar images seen during sleep, which is said to be like a temporary death? Why and how we dream is an unsolved mystery. Since the creation of humanity, philosophers and scholars have tried to explain dreaming, but none of them have demystified it completely. And so the subject continues to attract people's interest.

Some basics of dreaming are the following. A dream is a vast metaphysical world that is also related to the Hereafter. Feeling this relationship is possible if people undertake the necessary emotional cleanliness and spiritual purification practices. If they do not do so, they live in a state of unawareness and thus cannot understand the subtle realities presented in dreams.

The fact that many Qur'anic verses and Prophetic hadiths mention dreams means that Muslims should pay attention to them. The narration of the Prophets' dreams and their interpretations in the Qur'an, as well as Prophet Muhammad's statement that dreams are the doors to spirituality, indicate that they contain a crucial type of knowledge ('Ilm).


According to some scholars, the essence of dreaming consists of traces left on the shared sense (hiss-i mushterek) that descends from one's imagination. Philosophers assume that this shared sense is not one of the five basic senses.

In addition, people have a nafs-i natika(1) a "spiritual intellect" that is the perception itself. This intellect perceives what is happening around it, but its preoccupation with bodily activities hinders it from reflecting upon knowledge related to the Unseen (ghayb).(2) During sleep, the burden of the five senses is lightened, which enables this spiritual intellect to receive ghayb-related knowledge from the metaphysical world. Then it turns to the body. Since it is located within the body, it becomes bound by corporeal things and can function only via bodily faculties. The spirit transmits what it perceives from its world to the faculty of the imagination, after which one's imagination describes and pictures this information in an appropriate manner and presents it to "the shared sense." The sleeping person feels as if he or she is actually seeing those things. This is a partial explanation of dreaming.

Now, let us dwell upon the matter of sleep during which dreaming takes place.(3)


It is generally believed that an adult needs an average of 8 hours of sleep a night. However, researchers point out that the need for sleep differs from person to person: babies need about 16 hours, while elderly people show a great variation from the average. In addition, some people dream frequently while sleeping; others wake up frequently.

The actual cause and function of sleeping is not understood completely. Allan Rachtschaffen, a sleep researcher at the University of Chicago, states that sleep has no active function for the body. Despite the reduction in muscular fatigue and weariness, the body does not actually need sleep to renovate itself for our cells can restore and mend themselves under any condition. According to recent research, the human body does not have to undergo this renovation process to be in a passive condition or a sleeping mode. Electroencephalograms (EEGs) administered during sleep detect no such passive activity in the brain. According to Dr. Evans, a psychologist at England's National Physics Laboratory, Computer Science Section, the main purpose of sleeping is to allow a person to dream.

Dr. William Dumont, a doctor at Stanford Medical Center, Sleep Disorders Clinic and Research Division, claims that dreaming is very important, for dreams help to maintain the body's physical balance.

Dr. Colin D. Hendrigh of Stanford University writes that all organs perform systematic movements and activities at different times and various rates, and to extents that are specific to them. These changes, which are the rhythms' highest and lowest levels, are different for every person. Physical activities reach their peak at midday and their lowest level at dawn.

Dr. Franz Halberg introduced the term circadian for changes that occur regularly on a 24-hour basis. Physical balance can be maintained by the rhythmic changes in accordance with time.

When the organs' rhythm is the most inadequate, we feel sleepy. The first period of sleep, the non-rapid eye movement (NREM) state, is the most tranquil state for the body. Breathing is regular and quiet, and EEGs show that all mental activities are normal and orderly. Snoring occurs in this period.

The active sleeping state is the rapid eye movement (REM] state. Here the body is steady, except for irregular facial muscle and fingertip movements. Breathing becomes irregular, which leads to a continual rhythmic oscillation between slow- and fast-paced breathing. There is no snoring in this state. Some researchers claim that the REM period is not a part of sleep, but rather a kind of epileptic fit. REM sleep usually lasts for 1.5 to 2 hours, and NREM and REM cycles range from 70 to 110 minutes. On the average, they are expected to last for 90 minutes.

People who are spiritually depressed feel relaxed as long as they are not in REM sleep, for this is the state in which dreaming usually occurs. Many people cannot avoid REM sleep, however, even if they take sedatives or soporifics designed to block it either partially or entirely.

The first REM period of sleep lasts for about 10 minutes. As the night passes, REM periods might last longer, sometimes even as long as an hour. We dream, regardless of this period's duration, but usually forget what we have dreamed when we wake up. (Researchers wake sleepers and ask whether they dreamed or not in order to record the dreams.)

During dreams, many details are removed from our memory. Usually we remember dreams consisting of nice and pleasant meanings and suggestions. If we were to recall all of our dreams, we would stay under their influence during the entire day and be unable to use our senses.

If there were no REM period, people would wake up for 10 or 20 minutes every 1 or 2 hours, instead of sleeping through the whole night. Experiments indicate that people deprived of REM sleep show psychological, spiritual, or bodily disorders. Other experiments show that when people deprived of REM sleep are given soporific drugs, they have longer REM periods. Ernest I. Hartman states that human beings need constant NREM periods with variable in-between REM periods. In other words, everybody has a constant period of NREM sleep, but REM periods vary from person to person.

"Long sleepers" are mainly those with demanding manual jobs or those who work long hours. If they do not sleep properly, they face problems in various aspects of their lives, are unhappy and constantly complaining, and have neurological problems. On the other hand, people with a romantic or artistic nature sleep to escape from society.

We cannot change our sleeping habits. If you cannot sleep for more than 6 hours, it just means that you only need that much sleep. The 8-hour average is just a generalization used in scientific circles, and thus is not supposed to apply to everybody.


Ibrahim Hakki of Erzurum, in his Marifetname, writes:

Ahl Allah (people who have proximity to God) said that: "The spirit has two windows for the world of Barzah(4): sleep and inspiration. In dreams, sometimes a person sees future happenings directly and sometimes in symbols. The latter should be decoded. If the sensory organs are closed to the physical world, and the internal mirror (the heart) is clean of all evil and polished, spiritual beings and unknown writings in theLawh-i Mahfooz(5) can be reflected and seen in this mirror. But if the senses are occupied with the material world and the internal mirror is rusty, the spirit cannot view the world of Barzah. Rather, it becomes busy with images left in the memory from the five senses. When a person dies, however, the spirit can view the metaphysical world and learn about the world of the Unseen (ghayb), for the senses and the body can no longer serve as obstacles. By inspiration, people can learn many previously unknown things. But if their hearts are not clean, they will not recognize and understand the actual source of these inspirations" (Marifetname, pg. 581). WT

Ibn Khaldun devotes a portion of his book al-Muqaddimah (Prolegomena) to dreams:

"A dream is a spiritual activity that consists of seeing and observing the forms and shapes of entities reflected to the spirit from the Unseen (ghayb) after the spirit enters into the metaphysical world during sleep. When people are awake, they do not contemplate their spirituality, for they are occupied with their carnal and physical functions. Thus they forget the information reflected from the Unseen. Since people reduce their connection with the flesh and physical existence while asleep, they become spiritual entities somewhat like other spiritual beings and, when they turn toward the world of the Unseen, can observe angels and other ethereal beings [lateef entities(6)]" (Bayram, 33).

The bond between body and spirit, merely a connection, becomes ideal during dreams. With this development, the human spirit becomes an incorporeal being and can perceive without the help of the body and the sense organs. In this state, the human spirit is lower than an angel, because an angel's perfection comes from its nature and creation. As an angel's intuition or cognition never develops, it cannot improve itself. However, as long as the spirit inhabits a physical body, it can develop and grow in metaphysical understanding. This ability can be classified into two groups: special (belonging to the saints in the form of gifts) and general (found in everybody in the form of contacting the Unseen).

The spirits of Prophets are purely spiritual, for they transcend the body. This state is the highest rank of spirituality. Its onset could be observed whenever a Prophet received Revelation, for his

body's perceptive faculties would enter a dozing-like period different from regular sleep. In reality, sleeping is greatly inferior to such a state. Concerning this state, the Prophet said: "The (good) dreams of a believer are one part of the forty-six parts of Prophethood (Al-Bukhari, vol. 9: no. 116). Some Muslim scholars interpret this hadith as meaning that when the Revelation began, it was in the form of dreams for the first 6 months. (His Prophethood lasted for 23 years in total, and so the first 6 months would constitute l/46th of this period.)

A Prophet's dreams are not ordinary, for they come true exactly as they are seen. All Prophets had dreams in the first stage of their Prophethood. This only indicates the association of dreams to Prophethood, not the reality of dreaming to the essence of Prophethood, of which dreaming constitutes only a small part. In addition, it is an innate human ability that allows us to reach spiritual and unseen worlds. The smallness of this fraction (l/46th) contrasts the relationship of this common ability to dream with a Prophet's ability to contact spiritual and unseen worlds.

Contacting these nonmaterial worlds is very difficult, although it is a general potential for human beings. Many obstacles prevent us from making the best use of this ability. The first one is the external senses. God made sleeping an innate and natural characteristic and state of mind so that we could bypass, temporarily, these external obstacles. During sleep, one can try to understand the reality behind events and also have some of his or her concerns addressed in dreams. For this reason, Prophet Muhammad regarded dreaming as a harbinger. He said: "Nothing is left of Prophethood except al-mubashshirat (harbingers, glad tidings)." His Companions asked: "What are al-mubashshirat?" He replied: "The true, good dreams (that convey glad tidings). Only pious people and you have such dreams" (Al-Bukhari, vol. 9: no. 119).

The nafs-i natika can perceive and think only via the human spirit, for they are tied to each other. Creation, through combining and synthesizing physical elements, prevents ethereal entities from influencing material objects. Since the human spirit is both ethereal (lateef) and located within material entities, it needs a means (the nafs-i natika) through which it can receive the stimuli of material things. The nafs-i natika, which fulfills this function, acts within the human spirit and has both internal and external perceptive abilities. Internal perceptions come through the brain's faculties, while external perceptions come through the five senses.

These means of perception, despite their innate abilities, inhibit the perception of metaphysical realities. The external senses, which are all corporeal, are used by the nafs-i natika so often that they become exhausted and require sleep to rest.

Even though the spirit can leave the body, tired senses inhibit the nafs-i natika from perceiving metaphysical realities. God implanted within the spirit a desire to depart from the material realm, as shown by its turning from the external senses toward the internal senses. As the night's coolness helps this departure, the body's natural heat withdraws deep inside the body and the spirit, which causes the nafs-i natika to ascend to the spiritual realm. The human spirit remains inside the body. This is why people fall asleep.

When the human spirit leaves the external senses and supervises the internal faculties, the nafs-i natika's tasks are alleviated. This reduces the obstacles to its ascent, which allows it to deal with sensory images. Imagination engenders virtual figures by synthesizing and analyzing sensory images, because the carnal soul perceives, observes, and becomes mostly accustomed and familiar with these figures. This is the basic habit of the nafs-i natika. After this, the collective sensory powers, which gather all external sensory perceptions in the brain, observe those images as if they were actually perceived with external senses.

During sleep, the spirit does not deal with internal or external powers. Rather, it grasps its spirituality as if it were a physical perception, and acquires information about the Unseen. The human spirit then submits these images directly to the imagination, which either accepts them totally or puts them into resembling shapes (symbols). Dreams that result from the latter process require interpretation, for the meaning is not immediately clear. If the nafs-i natika analyzes and synthesizes the images acquired through external senses and hidden in its memory with what it perceived from the Unseen during sleep, the dream is confusing and mixed up.

In an authentic hadith, the Prophet says: "There are three kinds of dreams: those inspired by God during sleep, those from angels, and those inspired by Satan" (Al-Bukhari, vol. 9: no. 144). This does not invalidate the above argument. Dreams that need to be interpreted are from angels, while confusing and mixed dreams come from Satan. The latter are beguiling and erroneous.

Most of our dreams are neither deliberate nor intentional. When one's spirit focuses on the Unseen world to learn the hidden reality about itself or something else, the reality of these things may reflect on it instantly, and the subjects of concern may become clear. If this is not the case, the spirit cannot see and observe whatever and whenever it wants to during sleep.

Medieval Islamic literature records many instances of pre-Islamic Arabs relying on soothsayers who also dealt with dream interpretation. For example, Shiqq (from the family of Enmer bin Nizar) and Sutayuh (a descendent of Mazun bin Garsan) were well-known soothsayers. Sutayuh had no bones in his body, except for his skull, and so could be folded like cloth.

The most well-known stories about these soothsayers are Shiqq's interpretation of Rebia bin Muzar's dream heralding the Abyssinian invasion of Yemen, and Sutayuh's interpretation of the famous Persian scholar Mubezan's dream. Chosroes of Persia sent 'Abdulmesih to ask Sutayuh to interpret Mubezan's dream. Sutayuh said that it foretold the coming of a new Prophet and the destruction of Chosreos' kingdom (Bayram, 38).

'Abdulgani an-Nablusi states, in light of Qur'anic verses and the Prophet's hadiths: They shall have glad tidings in this world and in the Hereafter (10:64). According to some Qur'an interpreters, glad tidings in the earthly life means dreams about a person regardless of who dreams; glad tidings in the Hereafter means seeing God.

The Prophet said: "One who does not believe in true dreams does not have a sound belief in God and the Resurrection." 'A'isha, the Prophet's wife, stated that: "The commencement (of the Divine Inspiration) to God's Apostle was in the form of true dreams in his sleep, for all of his dreams turned out to be true and clear as bright daylight" (Al-Bukhari, vol. 6: no. 478)

The Prophet once told Abu Bakr as-Siddiq: "I dreamed we were climbing up some stairs, but that I was two steps ahead (of you)." Abu Bakr interpreted this as follows: "O Messenger of God, after God raises your soul to heavens near Him and grants you His Compassion, I will give for another 2 1/2 years" (Bayram, 38).

Your Lord will approve you (Yusuf) (as in your dream) select you and grant you the knowledge on interpretation of dreams (12:6), and 0 my Lord. You have indeed bestowed on me (something of) sovereignty, and taught me something of the interpretation of dreams and events... (12:101). According to these verses, God granted the knowledge of dreams to Yusuf (Joseph).

to be continued...


  1. Nafs-i natika is the faculty of the soul that is responsible for thinking and talking.
  2. Ghayb means hidden, secret, or unseen. It is usually used for the metaphysical world, as in 'alam-i ghayb (the Unseen world). Here, we translate it as "the Unseen."
  3. This section is borrowed from an article of Mr. Ali Toker, published in Kopru (The Bridge) magazine. (See also references.)
  4. Barzah literally means precipice, chasm, or abyss. In Islamic terminology, it is the period between one's death and resurrection. It refers to the place between this world and the Hereafter, or sometimes the world of the dead.
  5. Lawh-i Mahfooz literally means a protected or preserved tablet. In Islamic literature, it means the Tablet preserved in God's presence and contains His decrees and the destiny of all creation. It is a title for Divine Knowledge.
  6. Lateef literally means soft, intangible, and pretty. In Islamic literature, it means something nonmaterial, incorporeal, and impossible to see with the eyes, and a type of being that is less dense than physical entities. We translate it as "ethereal" to indicate this peculiarity.


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  • An-Nablusi, Abdulgani. Tatir-ul Enam fi Tabiri'l Menam. (The Beautiful Fragrances of Sleep with Dream Interpretations). Egypt: 1359 AH/1940 CE.
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