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A Historical Review of Dreams
Sep 1, 2008

There are two questions concerning dreams, which have always puzzled human beings. One concerns the actual meaning or significance of dreaming. The other is the relationship between the dream and the waking world or the degree of reality one may attribute to it. These are questions that are easy to ask but very difficult to answer. The most honest answer in general is that we do not yet know the function or functions of dreams. To understand why one dreams, researchers and psychologists team up to study precisely when dreams occur during sleep.

Despite many theories we still do not fully understand the purpose of sleep, nor do we know the functions of different kinds of sleep. There are two main kinds of sleep that possess markedly contrasting physiological characteristics and mechanisms, and both of them occur normally in any extended period of sleep. One of these is known as activated sleep or rapid eye movement (REM) sleep that may also be referred to as “dreaming sleep” because it seems to be the stage where dreaming takes place.1 This state is characterized by a high degree of central nervous system (CNS) activity, a suppression of peripheral motor activity, and a temporal association with the vivid, hallucinatory experiences we call dreams. Brainwaves speed up, heart rate and breathing increases, blood pressure rises and the eyes dart around behind closed lids. Research has shown that if a person is awakened every time REM begins, preventing them from dreaming, after about three nights the individual will begin to show signs of having a nervous breakdown. Clearly dreams are an inner release mechanism which helps provide us with emotional balance and maintain our sanity. Dreams can be considered as guardians of our mental and emotional well-being.

The significance attributed to dreams will be presented here from a historical perspective starting from ancient times, passing through the Abrahamic religions and finally compared with contemporary psychological evaluations.

In most ancient cultures, consideration and even veneration of dreams played a great part. Some groups felt that dream life was more real and important than waking life. Not only were dreams looked to for information about hunting, as in Eskimo and African groups, but also for ways of healing physical and psychological ills, as seen in the Greek Dream Temples of Asclepius.2

Sources for information about dream divination in the ancient pagan world range from Homer in the eighth century bce to Artemidorus in the second century ce and the Greek Magical Papyri, some of which were written in the fourth century ce. Artemidorus’ five books are a compilation of dream interpretations that he collected from a variety of sources and then classified in a system. The system represented a synthesis of knowledge of dream interpretation at the time.3

Even though dreams are still a mystery, religious traditions value dreams and acknowledge that they can be used by God for divine revelation. Although the three Abrahamic religions differ on many other topics, they find substantial agreement on this particular point: dreaming is a valuable source of wisdom, understanding, and inspiration. In the Qur’an, as in the Jewish Torah and the Christian New Testament, dreams serve as a vital medium by which God communicates with humans. Dreams offer divine guidance and comfort, warn people of impending danger, and offer prophetic glimpses of the future.

Dreams have long been considered a legitimate form of divine revelation, particularly in Jewish mysticism. In Judaism information about dream divination is found in the Torah and the Babylonian Talmud. In the Torah dreams play an important part in the history of the

Jews, particularly as the motif of Jewish dream interpreters in a foreign court. Solomon, peace be upon him, received a dream from Yahweh who asks what he may give him (Kings 3:5). Solomon asks for the wisdom for which he became famous. Jacob, peace be upon him, dreams of the gates of Yahweh’s heaven and Yahweh promises Jacob land and blessedness for his people (Genesis 28:12). Joseph’s dreams in Genesis are prophetic and play an integral role in his brothers’ anger and conspiracy to kill him, peace be upon him. The brothers say “Here comes the dreamer. Come now, let us kill him and throw him into one of the pits, then we shall see what will become of his dreams” (Genesis 37:19–20).

Daniel’s dream visions illustrate how faithfulness to Jewish practice brings divine aid to triumph over enemies. In Joel, Yahweh declares that dreams are a valid form of spiritual information, “I will pour out my spirit on all flesh; your sons and your daughters will prophesy, your old men shall dream dreams and your young men shall see visions. . .” (Joel 2:28) In Numbers, Yahweh declares that he speaks to prophets in visions and dreams; however, this story is singling out Moses, peace be upon him, as a leader because God speaks to him “face to face.” In the Talmud, there are 217 references to dreams covering the origin of dreams, their purpose and meaning, wish-fulfillment in dreams, the relation of dreams to reality, and the technique of dream interpretation.3

The New Testament is full of dreams that are explained by prophets. There are constant references to communication between humankind and God, between humankind and the angels, and between the human being and his or her higher self through the medium of dreams. The moral standards of the individual are exactly reflected in the clarity and degree of quality of his or her dreams. Joseph, the eleventh son of Jacob, peace be upon them, had the ability not only to remember and interpret his own dreams, but to interpret those of others.4

God has chosen to communicate with humankind through dreams and visions according to the New Testament (Acts 2:17). He guides and counsels us through our dreams (Psalms 16:7). He establishes covenants with us through our dreams as in the dream of Abraham (Genesis 15:12, 13, 18). He grants us supernatural gifts in our dreams, like that given to Solomon (I Kings 3:5, 9, 12, 15). He has utilized dreams from Genesis to Revelation, and declared that He will continue to use them in the last days.

Islam has historically shown greater interest in dreams than either of the other two Abrahamic traditions, and has done more to weave dreaming into the daily lives of its followers. From the first revelatory visions of Prophet Muhammad, peace and blessings be upon him, to the myriad dream practices of present-day Muslims, Islam has developed and sustained a complex, multifaceted tradition of active engagement with the dreaming, imagination, origins, functions, and meanings of dreaming. Muslim scholars and theologians have followed the prophetic path in dealing with dreams, and have judged dreams according to the Qur’an and the Sunna, examples from the Prophet’s life.

The episodes about Prophet Joseph, peace be upon him, in the Qur’an are similar to those in the Old Testament (Genesis 37–50), and these episodes combine to make a clear point: dreams, and the ability to interpret them, are an important sign of God’s favor (Yusuf 12:4–100). In chapter 37, The Ranks (Saffat), the Qur’an retells a story found in the book of Genesis. Here the main subject is Prophet Abraham, peace be upon him, whose life is recounted in Genesis 12–25. The Qur’anic version focuses specifically on God’s command to Abraham to sacrifice his only son.

Prophet Abraham is true to his dream, not by literally enacting it in the physical sacrifice of his son (which is finally prevented by God); rather, he “fulfills his vision” by a demonstration of his absolute obedience to God. There is a very important point here which is worth noting. It is the unquestioned assumption by both Prophet Abraham and his son that the dream is a command from God, peace be upon them.

In addition there are narratives about the dreams of Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him, in Qur’an, in chapter 8, The Spoils (Anfal). After the Muslim victory at Badr (March 15, 624 ad), where some three hundred and fifty believers vanquished close to a thousand non-believers, the Prophet received a revelation in which God affirms that He brought to pass the encounter which, without His contriving, neither of the parties would have sought. In this context the Prophet was told: “When God showed them to you in your dream as few; and if He had shown them to you as many you would certainly have become weak-hearted and you would have disputed about the matter, but God saved (you); surely He is the Knower of what is in the breasts ”(Anfal 8:43).5

Muslim scholars have ruled that true dreams are from God-some warn and others bring glad tidings. Ibn Mas’ud narrated, “The Prophet said, ‘Prophecy is finished but tidings remain.’ People asked, ‘What are these tidings?’ He replied, ‘A true dream which a man sees, or others see for him’” (Bukhari and Maalik). These tidings could be good or bad as God says in the Qur’an, which says, “So give them tidings of a painful doom” (Inshiqaq 84:24). These dreams are the ones about which the truthful and trustworthy Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him, said, “At the end of time, the believer’s dream will rarely be incorrect; the more truthful a person is, the truer his dreams are; and the dream of a faithful believer is a part of the forty-six parts of Prophecy” (Bukhari and Muslim). What people see in their sleep is one of the three types. As narrated by Awf Ibn Maalik, the Prophet said, “Dreams are of three types: some are from Satan to sadden the son of Adam, some are the result of what a person thinks about while he is awake so he sees it in his sleep, and some are one of the forty-six parts of prophecy” (Ibn Majah).

Although dreams are not considered decisive, especially when there is an apparent contradiction with common sense, there is a very strong tradition on dreams in Islam, and there have been several scholars who have put a significant effort into composing books about dreams and their interpretations. Looking in more detail at Muslim teachings, the first example to consider comes from the scholar Ibn Arabi (1164–1240). His classification of dreams establishes the basic framework used throughout later Muslim history. According to Ibn Arabi, there are three basic types of dream. The first is an “ordinary” dream, produced by the imagination when it takes experiences from daily life and magnifies them as in a mirror, reflecting in a distorted symbolic fashion our wishes and desires. The second and much more significant type of dream draws its material not from daily life but from the “Universal Soul” (Preserved Tablet), a source of knowledge closely associated with the faculty of abstract reasoning. “Universal Soul” dreams reveal fundamental truths about reality, although, like the first type of dream, these are distorted by the imperfect mirror of the human imagination. Interpretation is therefore required to discover what the symbolic images mean. The third and final type of dream involves a direct revelation of reality, with no distortion or symbolic mediation-a clear vision of divine truth. Ibn Arabi’s typology portrays a wider range of dream experience than is usually acknowledged in Western psychological thinking, which focuses its attention almost exclusively on his first category, the “ordinary” dreams of daily life.

A further elaboration of this classification appears in the monumental Muqaddimah (“An Introduction to History”) written by the scholar Ibn Khaldun (1332–1402). Briefly, he emphasizes the idea that in sleep, people are liberated from their senses, freeing their rational souls to gain glimpses of transcendent truth. The distinctive feature in Ibn Khaldun’s theory is that he asserts the divine wisdom of creating sleep could be that it is an opportunity for humans to “lift the veil of the senses” and gain access to divine realities and higher forms of knowing. Dreaming appears in this light as one of God’s gifts to humankind, a “natural” means of spiritual insight potentially available to all people.

Having said this much about the dreams and their significance in the history of Abrahamic religions, let us turn now to psychology for a contemporary evaluation of dreams. Freud looked upon the dream as a somewhat disturbed form of mental activity, or as a form of psychic activity that, if it worsens, would tend to become pathological-an activity that is not significant in itself and at the very most manifests a more or less infantile desire. Freud insisted that one’s dreams were one’s earliest mental images and memories. He regarded the brain as a sponge.6 He said one’s primal evolutionary impulses were catalogued in dreams. Freud believed these were held in one’s memory for interpreting events that occurred later in life. Freud explained the dream as a picture-word puzzle.7

Jung completely abandoned such prejudices against the dream. He sees the dreams as a spontaneous, normal, creative expression of the unconscious in the form of images and symbols.1 Jung believed that dreams speak in symbols, images and metaphors, a language that is the unconscious mind’s natural way of expression. For Jung the dream world was just as rich, as diversified, and as polymorphic as the conscious world. One is not able to understand this “language” right away because the images are different from the language in one’s everyday life.6 Jung divided dreams into two levels. The first level is the objective level, when dreams illustrate the relation with the external world. This would be a thing such as people, events or activities. The second level is the subjective level. This level deals with the thoughts and feelings of the person.7

Many religious traditions still “believe that the ability to receive visions through dreams and in the waking state is a faculty that is latent in human beings, whose attachment to material things clouds their receptivity to impulses from the spiritual realm.”8 What has changed our view of dreams as divine revelations? Could it be simply our strong desire for worldly and material things that is blocking our divine communication channels?

Muhammed Toprak is a research fellow at The Royal Institute of Technology, Sweden.


  1. Grunbaum, Gustave Von, Roger Caillois. The Dream and Human Societies, University of California Press, 1966, p. 85.
  2. Crisp, Tony. Dream Dictionary: An A to Z Guide to Understanding Your Unconscious Mind, Gramercy Books, 2005.
  4. Virkler, Mark and Patti Virkler. Hear God Through Your Dreams, Communion with God Ministries, New York.
  5. Translation of the Qur’an by M.H. Shakir.
  6. Lohff, David C. The Dream Directory. Philadelphia: Running Press Book Publishers, 1998.
  7. Bulkley, Kelly. “Dreams of Social Transformation.” Association for the Study of Dreams. 27 Nov. 2001.
  8. Hoffman, Valerie J, “The Role of Visions in Contemporary Egyptian Religious Life.” Religion (1997) vol. 27, no. 1, p. 53.