(ruʾyā, manām, bushrā, ḥulm, taʿbīr al-ruʾyā, taʾwīl al-aḥādīth)

Muzaffar Iqbal and Csaba Okvath

Dreams are defined as the sleeper’s visions, hearing of sounds, experiences of touch, movement, and other perceptions resembling sensory experiences. The Qurʾān uses four terms for dreams: ruʾyā, manām, bushrā, and ḥulm.This entry explores semantic aspects of these terms and their usage in the following sections:

Definitions and Usage

Four Qurʾānic terms for dreams:

  1. ruʾyā (pl. ruʾan), from the root r-ʾ-y, meaning visions seen in sleep (fīl-manām) (Rāghib, Mufradāt). This root appears 328 times in the Qurʾān (ʿAbd al-Bāqī, Muʿjam), seven times in the sense of dreams (Q 12:5, 12:43x2, 12:100; 17:60; 37:105; 48:27);
  2. manām, from the root n-w-m, which is a synonym of the verbal noun nawm (“sleep”) (Rāghib, Mufradāt). This root appears nine times (ʿAbd al-Bāqī, Muʿjam); manām occurs twice for sleep (Q 30:23; 39:42) and twice for dreams (Q 8:43; 37:102);
  3. bushrā, from the root b-sh-r, meaning glad tiding (see Glad Tidings and Warnings). This root is used 123 times in various verbal and nominal forms (ʿAbd al-Bāqī, Muʿjam). The noun bushrā appears fifteen times; only one usage (Q 10:64) is interpreted as “dream” (see below); and
  4. ḥulm, from the root ḥ-l-m, which has negative connotations in the Qurʾān and Sunna. The Prophet, upon him blessings and peace, said, “A good dream (al-ruʾyā al-ṣāliḥa) is from Allah and a ḥulm is from Satan” (Bukhārī, Badʾ al-khalq, ṣifat Iblīs wa junūdih; Muslim, Ruʾyā). This root appears 21 times in various nominal and adjectival forms (ʿAbd al-Bāqī, Muʿjam). Ḥulm occurs twice (Q 12:44; 21:5), in the phrase aḍghāthu aḥlāmin (“confused dreams”, see below).

Dreams of the Prophets

With the exception of Q 10:64, all reference to dreams in the Qurʾān occur in relation to three Prophets: Muḥammad, Ibrāhīm (Q 37:102-105), and Yūsuf (Q 12:4, 12:35-43), upon them all blessings and peace.

The dreams of the Prophets are a form of divine revelation, as per Ibn ʿAbbās (3bh-68/619-688), who said, “The dreams of Prophets are revelation” (Tirmidhī, Manāqib, manāqib Abī Ḥafṣ ʿUmar b. al-Khaṭṭāb; Ḥākim, Tafsīr, 2:468). Abū ʿAbd Allāh Muḥammad b. Aḥmad al-Qurṭubī (d. 671/1273) cites Muḥammad b. Kaʿb (108/726), who said, “Revelation came to the Prophets both during their sleep and in their waking state; and this is proven by a hadith of the Prophet, upon him blessings and peace, ‘The eyes of the Prophets sleep, but their hearts sleep not’” (Tafsīr, sub Q 37:102).

According to Fakhr al-Dīn Muḥammad b. ʿUmar al-Rāzī (543-606/1148-1209), the dreams of Prophets have three stations (maqāmāt) with respect to their fulfillment: they are either (i) fulfilled as dreamt (ʿalā wafq al-ruʾya), as with the one alluded to in Q 48:27, You will surely enter the Sacred Mosque; (ii) realized through the occurrence of the opposite (mā yaqaʿ ʿalā al-ḍidd), as with Ibrāhīm’s dream that he sacrificed his son (cf. Q 37:107); or (iii) realized in a way that needs further interpretation, as with the dream vision of the young Yūsuf, upon him peace (see below for these examples). “This is why dream interpreters hold that their dreams (manāmāt) are true and inevitably come to pass in one of these three ways” (Rāzī, Tafsīr, sub Q 37:102-105).

Dreams of the Prophet Muḥammad, upon him blessings and peace

True dreams marked the onset of his prophethood, as related by his wife ʿĀʾisha (d. 58/678), Allah be well-pleased with her: “The commencement of the revelation to the Messenger of Allah was in the form of good and truthful dreams (al-ruʾyā al-ṣāliḥa) seen in sleep, which came true like the light of daybreak (mithl falaq al-ṣubḥ).” These dreams were followed by the visitation of Jibrīl, who brought the first revelation (Q 96:1-5) (Bukhārī, Badʾ al-waḥy, kayf kāna badʾ al-waḥy…; Tafsīrs of Qushayrī; Qurṭubī; Rāzī; Samarqandī; Ṭabarī; sub Q 96:1-5). “The dreams before the commencement of the revelation contained no jumble or confusion (ḍighth); they were initiation (tamhīd) and preparation (tawṭiʾa) for the reception of Divine revelation in wakefulness” (Ibn Ḥajar, Fatḥ al-Bārī).

Abū Zakariyyā Yaḥyā b. Sharaf al-Nawawī (631-676/1234-1277) explains the wisdom behind these true dreams:

The commencement [of revelation] with true and pious dreams was indicative of Divine Wisdom; they were a gradual introduction for the Prophet, so that [the visitation of] the angel would not surprise and frighten him, blessings and peace upon him, by putting the full burden of Prophethood unexpectedly (wa yaʾtiyahu ṣarīḥ al-nubuwwa baghtatan)… and [these dreams were also] glad tidings of Divine blessings, like true dreams and [his] hearing of greetings from the stones. In this way he became conscious of the immense task that was to come (Nawawī, Sharḥ Muslim; ʿIyāḍ, Sharḥ Muslim, Badʾ al-waḥy ilā Rasūl Allāh ṣallā Allāh  ʿalayh wa sallam).

Dreams continued throughout the life of the Prophet, upon him blessings and peace. Some are recorded in Hadith collections, often in distinct chapters (e.g. Bukhārī, Taʿbīr; Muslim, Ruʾyā). These dreams contained portents of events, of which some came to pass during his lifetime, others after his death, and others are yet to be come.

Three specific Prophetic dreams are further explained in the following three sections.

Concerning the Battle of Badr

In Q 8:43, the Prophet is reminded of the dream he had before the Battle of Badr (2/624), fought on the day the two hosts met (Q 8:41) also called Criterion Day (yawm al-furqān) in the same verse,(see Badr). This dream providentially prepared the believers for their historic encounter with an army three times their number: And recall when Allah showed them in your dream as being few. If He had shown them to you as many, you would have surely faltered and quarreled over the matter; but Allah delivered [you]. Truly He knows what lies within breasts (Q 8:43). A restful sleep (Q 8:11) preceded the encounter with the disbelievers, who came out in arrogance in the name of their idols. The Prophet, upon him blessings and peace, supplicated at length both the night before and as the battle commenced, saying: “O Allah, grant me what You promised me. If You allow this small Muslim band to perish, You will no longer be worshiped on the face of the earth!” (Muslim, Jihād wal-siyar, imdād bil-malāʾika; see also Bukhārī, Maghāzī, idh tastaghīthūna Rabbakum).

When the Prophet saw the disbelieving army in his dream as being few in number, he informed his Companions (see: Companion(s) of the Prophet), who said in response, “The dream of the Prophet, upon him blessings and peace, is true (ḥaqq);” and Allah Most High made their foe appear as few in the eyes of the believers so as to confirm and fulfill the dream (Samarqandī, Baḥr). At the same time, Allah Most High made the army of the believers seem small in the eyes of the pagans (Q 8:44). “The wisdom in the first decrease was to confirm the dream of the Messenger, upon him blessings and peace, and also to strengthen [the believers’] hearts and fighting spirit. The wisdom in the second decrease was that when the pagans deemed the Muslims to be few in number they lowered their guard and did not make complete preparation against them; that became the means for the believers to overcome them” (Rāzī, Tafsīr, sub Q 8:44). In Q 3:13 this Divine succor on the day when the two hosts met is called a sign for you. The verse indicates that Allah Most High made the believers see the enemy only as twice their own number, instead of three times. Thus in effect He decreased their real number so that the believers could expect victory because of the piety of their hearts, for they already knew of the Divine promise of victory over twice their number (see Q 8:66: So if there be one hundred of you [who are] steadfast, they will overcome two hundred) (Wāḥidī, Wajīz).

Concerning the Sacred Mosque (Q 48:27)

While in Madina (q.v.) the Prophet, blessings and peace upon him, dreamt that he was entering the Sacred Mosque in Makka (see: Makka al-Mukarrama). Divine confirmation of the dream came in Q 48:27: Indeed, Allah has fulfilled for His Messenger the dream in truth: you will surely enter the Sacred Mosque in security, if Allah wills, with your heads shaved and [hair] shortened, not fearing. He knew what you know not, and He has granted besides that a near victory.

The Prophet, upon him blessings and peace, gathered his Companions, told them his dream, and announced a pilgrimage trip (see ʿUmra; Hajj). The Companions rejoiced at the prospect of visiting the Sacred House after six years of absence from Makka. Some seven hundred Companions left Madina in Dhūl-Qaʿda 6/628, taking 70 camels intended for sacrifice. When they reached al-Ḥudaybiya (also al-Ḥudaybiyya: Yāqūṭ, Muʿjam 2:229), 24 kilometers from the Kaʿba and just outside the boundary of the sacred precinct, the Makkan disbelievers prevented them from entering the city. After negotiations, the Treaty of Ḥudaybiyya was concluded (see Alliance and Treaty), according to which Muslims were to postpone their pilgrimage until the following year. Some Companions were disappointed. ʿUmar b. al-Khaṭṭāb (d. 23/644) asked the Prophet, “Did you not tell us that we would go to the House and circumambulate?” “Yes,” the Prophet responded, “But did I tell you that you would do so this year?” (see Tafsīrs of Qurṭubī; Ibn Kathīr; Ibn Hishām, Sīra, Amr al-Ḥudaybiyya, 2:308).

When the pilgrims returned to Madina, the hypocrites mocked them, saying, “We did not enter; we did not shave [heads]” (Rāzī, Tafsīr). Yet all that the Prophet had seen came to pass at the time decreed and prescribed for it (Bayḍāwī, Tafsīr). As Abū Bakr al-Ṣiddīq (d. 12/634) said, there was no fixed time for the fulfillment of the dream (Qurṭubī, Tafsīr). Exegetes explain that the phrase if Allah wills in the verse in question indicates reported speech (ḥikāya): the Divine Words were transmitted to the Prophet, upon him blessings and peace, by Jibrīl, upon him peace, who told him, “You will surely enter the Sacred Mosque, if Allah wills” (Samarqandī, Baḥr, Qurṭubī; Tafsīr; Makkī, Hidāya, sub Q 48:27). Fakhr al-Dīn al-Rāzī adds that in shāʾa Llāh is also intended to teach etiquette (adab) to the believers and is a further reminder of His Words in Q 18:23-24, And say not of anything ‘Indeed I will do that tomorrow’, without [adding]: If Allah wills (Rāzī, Tafsīr).

The Vision in Q 17:60

The majority of exegetes interpret the word al-ruʾyā in Q 17:60 as referring to a waking ocular vision (ruʾyā ʿayn), not a dream seen while asleep; this is based on the explanation by Ibn ʿAbbās (Tafsīrs of Mujāhid; Ṭabarī; Farrāʾ, Maʿānī; Māturīdi, Taʾwīlāt; Makkī, Hidāya; Khāzin, Lubāb; also cited by Bukhārī, Tafsīr al-Qurʾān). The verse reads: And [remember] when We said to you, “Surely thy Lord encompasses mankind.” We made the vision (al-ruʾyā) that We showed you as naught but a test for humankind, and the accursed tree in the Qurʾān. And We inspire fear in them, but it increases them in naught but great rebellion. The exegetes explain that the verse refers to the Night Journey (see Night Journey and Ascension) mentioned at the beginning of the sura (Q 17:1); and, implicitly, to those things miraculously shown that night to the Prophet, upon him blessings and peace—all of which he saw with his eyes. The phrase as a test (fitna) for humankind alludes to the difficulty some had in accepting the Prophet’s account of his Night Journey, which led to apostasy by those weak in faith and increased the disbelievers’ transgression (Tafsīrs of Ṭabarī, Samarqandī, Baghawī, Ibn Kathīr, and Qurṭubī; Ibn ʿAṭiyya, Muḥarrar).

Two other interpretations of this Prophetic vision (al-ruʾyā) are recorded in several commentaries but are classed as weak or rejected: (i) that it was a dream about the conquest of Makka (Bayḍāwī, Tafsīr); and (ii) that it was a dream about the sons of al-Ḥakam b. Abī al-ʿĀṣ of Banū Umayya climbing the mosque pulpit like monkeys (Tafsīrs of Ṭabarī, Ibn Abī Ḥātim, Samʿānī, Suyūṭī, Durr).

Dream of Prophet Ibrāhīm, upon him peace

The prayer of Ibrāhīm, upon him peace, to have a virtuous child was granted (Q 37:100-101), but when the son reached the "age of exertion (al-saʿy)," Ibrāhīm dreamt that he was sacrificing his son. He related the dream to him: “O my [dear] son, I see while dreaming that I am to sacrifice you; so consider, what do you think?” He replied, “[Dear] father, do as you are bidden. You will find me, God willing, among the steadfast.” But when they had submitted and Ibrāhīm had laid him upon his forehead, We called unto him, “O Ibrāhīm, you have fulfilled the dream.” Thus do We recompense the virtuous. Truly this was a manifest trial; then We ransomed him with an immense sacrifice. And We left for him among later generations, “Peace be upon Ibrāhīm.” Thus do We recompense the virtuous. Truly he was among Our believing servants (Q 37:102-111).

The early exegete Muqātil b. Sulaymān al-Balkhī (d. 150/767) said, “Ibrāhīm saw this dream on three consecutive nights” (Muqātil, Tafsīr). Several later exegetes link Muqātil’s statement about the recurrence of the dream for three nights to the names and times of the rites of Hajj. According to these interpretations, when Ibrāhīm, upon him peace, heard a voice say, “Allah orders you to sacrifice this son of yours,” he reflected (tarawwā) on this dream in the morning, wondering if it were from Allah or from Satan—whence the name of that day as the “Day of Reflection” (yawm al-tarwiya, that is, 8 Dhū al-Ḥijja). Upon seeing the same dream again the next night, he knew (ʿarafa) that it was from Allah; so that day is called the “Day of Knowing” (yawmu ʿarafa, 9 Dhū al-Ḥijja). On the third night he saw the same dream and in the morning he took his son to sacrifice him—that day is now known as the “Day of Sacrifice” (yawm al-naḥr, 10 Dhū al-Ḥijja) (cf. Tafsīrs of Qushayrī; Rāzī; Qurṭubī; Ibn ʿĀdil, Lubāb; Ibn ʿAjība, Baḥr, sub Q 37:102). Yet, for some exegetes, this formulation by Muqātil and consequent three days’ delay in acting upon the dream raised a serious question: Since the dreams of the Prophets are a form of revelation, then why would a Prophet not act upon it the very next day? Muqātil was severely criticized by certain authorities including the Hadith master al-Bukhārī (194-256/810-870) and the jurist Abū Ḥanīfa (d. 150/767) as being unreliable and hence [to be] “disregarded” (matrūk), while others praise him and Muḥammad b. Idrīs al-Shāfiʿī ((150-204/767-820) said, “all people are the dependants of Muqātil in tafsīr” (see Ibn Ḥajar, Tahdhīb al-tahdhīb, 10:282-83).

Al-Ṭabarī (d. 310/923) omits Muqātil’s narrative altogether and asserts: “The Prophets’ dreams are sure knowledge (yaqīn)”. He cites several authorities in support including the Successor-exegete Qatāda b. Diʿāma (d. 117/735), who said, “Dreams of the Prophets are true (ḥaqq); when they see something in their sleep, they act upon it”; the Successor ʿUbayd b. ʿUmayr (d.  73/692), who said, “The Prophets’ dreams are revelation” and then recited, I see while dreaming that I am to sacrifice you (Tafsīr, sub Q 37:102, also quoted by Bukhārī, Wuḍūʾ, al-takhfīf fīl-wuḍūʾ); and ʿIkrima (d. 107/725), who said, “Both father and son submitted to the decree: the son accepted his sacrifice, and the father accepted to sacrifice him” (Tafsīr). Others such as Thaʿlabī, Wāḥidī, Baghawī and Qurṭubī all mention Muqātil’s account.

Perhaps the clearest and most detailed explanation of the Prophets’ dreams is in the Aḥkām al-Qurʾān of the Andalusian jurist and exegete Abū Bakr Ibn al-ʿArabī’s (d. 543/1148), who devotes a section (“The question of the dreams of the Prophets”) of his commentary on Q 37:102 to this issue:

The Prophets’ dreams are revelation (waḥy)… Satan has no power to deceive them or induce false imaginings in them (takhyīl). There is no evidence to show that [Satan] can bring obscurity and cause confusion (ikhtilāṭ) to them, for their hearts are pure, their faculties and thoughts are crystal-clear (wa-afkāruhum ṣaqīla). Therefore, anything that is sent down to them, or anything that the King [Allah Most High] casts into their hearts (fī rūʿihim)—any likeness He coins for them—is authentic. That is why ʿĀʾisha, Allah be well-pleased with her, said, “I did not expect a passage of the Qurʾān to be revealed and recited in connection with me; but I hoped that the Messenger of Allah, upon him blessings and peace, would have a dream in which Allah would absolve me.”… Therefore, it is proven that the Prophets’ dreams are revelation, for a dream either (i) consists of predominance of confused visions, as is claimed by philosophers—but confused visions cannot appear in [the dreams of] the Prophets; or (ii) is a speech, a suggestion of the soul (ḥadīth al-nafs)—but Ibrāhīm never suggested to himself to sacrifice his son; or (iii) can be Satanic interference (talāʿub al-shayṭān)—but Satan has no power over their imagination and no way to make them act idly in a foolish manner, as we have already elucidated and explained in detail.

Explaining the sequence of events and linguistic structure of the dream verse, Ibn al-ʿArabī goes on to dismiss all fanciful explanations such as those which have Ibrāhīm, upon him peace, close his eyes and put the knife to his son, only to find that the latter’s skin has turned into copper:

Ibrāhīm said to his son, “I have seen in a dream that I sacrifice you”. Both father and son understood the dream in its outward manifestation and name (bi-ẓāhirihā wa ismihā). Hence [the son] said to him, “Do as you are commanded, for this is a command from Allah Most High.” Both of them knew that the dreams of the Prophets are revelation from Allah. They both surrendered to the decree of Allah, this one (Ibrāhīm) with regard to the apple of his eye (i.e. his son), and that one (Ismāʿīl) with regard to his own life. Instead, he was given a ransom and was told, “This is your ransom, so use it to obey what you saw in the dream; for this is the actuality of what We demanded of you.” Therefore [the command to sacrifice] was an allusion (kināya), not literal (ism); thus he confirmed the dream by his hastening to obey, for believing in the obligation and preparing for the action are indispensable. When they both accepted the obligation and prepared for the act—he [the father] as the sacrificer and he [the son] as the sacrificed—the sacrifice seen in the dream was replaced by a ransom, as an indication of the promised truth. (Ibn al-ʿArabī, Aḥkām, sub Q 37:102, masʾalat al-naskh qabl al-fiʿl, 4:33)

Four Dreams Related to the Prophet Yūsuf, upon him peace

The chronicle of the Prophet Yūsuf, upon him peace, related in Sūrat Yūsuf (Q 12), begins with the narration of a dream: “O father, I have seen eleven stars and the sun and the moon; I saw them bowing before me.” His father, the Prophet Yaʿqūb, upon him peace, tells him, “Recount not your dream to your brothers, lest they devise some scheme against you.” “He understood the meaning of the dream to be a prophecy of Yūsuf attaining an exalted rank” (Ibn Juzayy, Tafsīr) and that his brothers and parents would submit to him (yakhḍaʿūn lah) (Rāzī, Tafsīr, sub Q 12:5). So Yaʿqūb feared for his son and wanted to save him from his siblings’ envy and wrongdoing (Bayḍāwī, Tafsīr). Yūsuf, upon him peace, is also told: “Allah Most High will choose you and teach you the interpretation of dreams  (taʾwīl al-aḥādīth) and complete His blessing upon you and upon the family of Yaʿqūb as He completed it upon your forefathers, Ibrāhīm and Isḥāq; truly Your Lord is All-Knowing, All-Wise” (Q 12:6; cf. the interpretation of taʾwīl al-aḥādīth in the Tafsīrs of Ṭabarī and Qurṭubī).

While he was in prison, two of Yūsuf’s fellow-prisoners asked him to interpret their dreams (Q 12:35-42): one had dreamt that he was pressing wine and the other had seen birds eating from bread he bore on his head (Q 12:36). Yūsuf, upon him peace, replied: “O my two fellow prisoners, as for one of you, he will serve wine to his master; but the other will be crucified, and birds will eat from his head. The matter about which you ask has already been decreed” (Q 12:41). Al-Qurṭubī explains that “The dream interpretation of a Prophet is a judgment (ḥukm): if he has said it will be such-and-such, then Allah Most High will make it come to pass, as confirmation of his Prophethood” (Tafsīr).

The next dream is that of the king of Egypt (Q 12:43) who saw seven fat cows were eating seven lean cows and further saw seven green heads of grain and others dry. He asked his notables to interpret his dream (Q 12:44), but they said, “Confused dreams! We are not experts in the interpretation of dreams.” Then the prisoner who had been saved among the two said, remembering after a while, “I shall inform you of its interpretation, so send me forth.” He went to Yūsuf, upon him peace: “Yūsuf, O truthful one, give us your opinion concerning seven fat cows eating seven lean ones, and seven green heads of grain, and others dry, that haply I may return to the people, that they may know” (Q 12:45-46). The Prophet Yūsuf interpreted the dream of the king as portending seven years of good harvest followed by seven years of poor crops, and explained to him how to prepare for the lean years (Q 12:47-49). He was then released from prison and appointed keeper of the storehouses of the land (Q 12:47-55).

Yūsuf, upon him peace, saw the fulfillment of the dream mentioned at the beginning of the sura: He raised his parents upon the throne, and they bowed to him in prostration. And he said: ‘O, my father, this is the interpretation of my dream aforetime. My Lord has made it come true’ (Q 12:100) in 22, 40, or 80 years later, per various exegetes. The exegetes are unanimous that the prostration of his family to Yūsuf was an expression of greeting (taḥiyya) and gratitude, not an act of worship (Tafsīrs of Rāzī; Qurṭubī, Tafsīr, sub Q 12:100).

Three Types of Dreams

The Prophet, upon him blessings and peace, divided dreams into three types: (i) dreams containing terrifying things, which are from Satan and are aimed at causing distress to the son of Ādam; (ii) those originating in matters that a person is concerned with when he is awake, so he sees them in his dreams; and (iii) those which are one of the 46 parts of Prophecy (Qurṭubī, Tafsīr, sub Q 12:5). The first type arises from one’s lower self, and they are either entirely from Satan or emerge from a collusion of the lower self with Satan. Such dreams are either harmful or insignificant. Their harm can be kept at bay by seeking refuge in Allah from them and not telling them to others. The Prophet, upon him blessings and peace, also said, “Dreams are tied to the leg of a bird; they come to pass if they are narrated” (Tirmidhī, Abwāb al-ruʾyā, mā jāʾ fī taʿbīr al-ruʾyā; Aḥmad, Musnad al-Madaniyyīn, 26:120 §16205).

Good dreams, on the other hand, originate in the higher spiritual realm and bring good news and disclosures of future events. ʿAbd Allāh b. ʿAbbās said, “The Messenger of Allah drew aside the curtain—and his head was wrapped because of the illness in which he died—and he said three times, ‘O Allah, have I not conveyed [Your message]? Nothing is left of the glad tidings of Prophethood, except a good dream which a pious slave [of Allah] sees or which someone else is made to see on his account [li-ajlihi: someone having a dream about someone else; Mubārakfūrī, Tuḥfat, 6:456]” (Muslim, Ṣalāt, al-nahy ʿan qirāʾat al-Qurʾān fīl-rukūʿ wal-sujūd; Bukhārī, Taʿbīr, al-mubashshirāt). On another occasion, the Prophet, upon him blessings and peace, said, “He who sees me in his sleep is like someone who saw me [in life], for Satan cannot impersonate me. A believer’s dream is one of twenty-six parts of Prophethood” (Ibn ʿAbd al-Barr, al-Tamhīd, bāb al-alif, ḥadīth 8, 1:282). Al-Qurṭubī cites several other Prophetic reports in which different fractions are mentioned (dreams are one of 26, 44, 49, 50, or 70 parts of Prophethood); although he concludes that the most generally accepted fraction is 1/46 (Bukhārī, Taʿbīr, ruʾyā al-ṣāliḥīn; Muslim, Ruʾyā; Ibn Kathīr, Samʿānī, Qurṭubī, Tafsīrs, Wāḥidī, Wajīz, sub Q 10:64; Baghawī, Tafsīr, sub Q 12:5; Thaʿlabī, Kashf, sub Q 10:62-70). He explains that other ratios given in authentic hadiths are not mutually contradictory, because they fall within a spectrum which is linked to the spiritual state of the dreamer (Tafsīr).

The dream of the king of Egypt (Q 12:43) is characterized by his counselors as confused and uninterpretable (aḍghāthu aḥlāmin; cf. Q 12:45). The same expression also appears in Q 21:5, where disbelievers use it to describe Divine Revelation. Aḍghāth (sing. ḍighth) “are mixed-up dreams, as their true essence cannot be known with certainty; hence the expression denotes tangled and confused dreams” (Rāghib, Mufradāt, sub ḍ-gh-th). Al-Qurṭubī says, “the dream ascribed (al-ruʾyā al-muḍāfa) to Allah is free from confusion and delusion (awhām) and its interpretation agrees with that which is on the Preserved Tablet (al-lawḥ al-maḥfūẓ, q.v.), because it belongs to the category of a report (khabar); [but] mixed-up dreams are called ḥulm (phantasm); they are ascribed to Satan and are described as “mixed-up” because they contain mutually contradictory things (ashyāʾ mutaḍādda)” (Tafsīr, sub Q 12:5).

A hadith clarifies the difference between a dream (ruʾyā) and a phantasm (ḥulm, pl. aḥlām): “A good dream (al-ruʾyā al-ṣāliḥa) is from Allah and a phantasm is from Satan. So anyone who sees [in a dream] something he dislikes should cough it out thrice to his left side and seek refuge with Allah from Satan, and it will not harm him; and Satan cannot impersonate me” (Bukhārī, Ṭibb, al-nafth fīl-ruqya; Muslim, Taʿbīr, al-ḥulm min al-Shayṭān). Al-Nawawī explains: “A dream one likes is ascribed to Allah as praise of and gratitude to Him, while a phantasm is an unpleasant dream and is ascribed to Satan. Both types, however, are the creation of Allah Most High, for Satan has no capacity to create anything; he is simply present with the unpleasant dream” (Nawawī, Sharḥ Muslim).

In his commentary on the opening hadith of the chapter on dream interpretation in al-Bukhārī’s Ṣaḥīḥ, Ibn Ḥajar al-ʿAsqalānī (773-852/1371-1449) writes that some exegetes hold that Allah Most High commissions an angel to convey a dream. The angel is acquainted with the condition of all the Children of Ādam as inscribed in the Preserved Tablet (al-lawḥ al-maḥfūẓ). When a person is asleep, the angel presents these things to them to impart wisdom (ʿalā ṭarīq al-ḥikma) and to give him glad tidings or a warning, or rebuke him. However, Satan can also gain control over a person because of the intense animosity between Satan and humanity. He plots against them from every angle and desires to corrupt his affairs in every way. He deceives them through their dreams, either by confusing him or making him forget. Dreams are therefore of two broad types: (i) true dreams: those of the Prophets and the righteous who follow them, which can also benefit others by providing an outstanding example when they are fulfilled; and (ii) confused dreams, which give no benefit by way of admonition or foretelling of the future. Such confused dreams can be further subdivided into dreams caused by Satan, when he plays tricks in order to make the dreamer depressed; absurd dreams; and dreams which stem from one’s waking habits or from what dominates one’s temperament during the day, regarding what his psyche (nafs) suggests to him, most frequently from concerns for the future, often due to present conditions, and less often due to past conditions (Fatḥ al-Bārī 12:353).

The righteous receive good news as well as instructions and inspirations in their dreams. One of the three exegetical opinions about the instruction to the mother of Mūsā, upon him peace, to cast her son in the river (Q 28:7: So We revealed to the mother of Mūsā, “Nurse him, but if you fear for him, then cast him into the river. Fear not nor grieve; surely We shall bring him back to you and make him one of the Messengers”) is that it came in the form of a dream (Tafsīrs of Māwardī, Samʿānī; Ibn ʿAṭiyya, Muḥarrar).

Citing al-Rāzī’s treatise al-Lawāmiʿ, Ibrāhīm b. ʿUmar al-Biqāʿī (d. 885/1480) provides a glimpse of an Islamic dream-psychology:

[A dream] is inactivity (rukūd) of the external senses (al-ḥawāss al-ẓāhira) with regard to discernment and perception, and [it is the] motion of inner consciousness (al-mashāʿir al-bāṭina) toward mental faculties (al-madārik). The human soul has external sense organs and inner consciousness: when the outer senses are inactive, the inner senses become active and discern things unseen (al-umūr al-ghāʾiba). Sometimes one can understand [the dream] in the form it is seen and it does not need interpretation; sometimes one sees it in a form that only suggests the intended content, in which case the dream needs interpretation. An example of the former kind is the dream of the Prophet, upon him blessings and peace, foretelling his entry into the Sacred Mosque (Q 48:27); an example of the latter kind is the dream of Yūsuf, upon him peace. (Naẓm, sub Q 12:5)

These early exegetical reflections provided material for subsequent theories of dreams. Abū Ḥāmid al-Ghazālī (450-505/1058-1111), for instance, further articulated a connection between dreams and the Guarded Tablet. He likens the human heart to a mirror, which when purified is able to reflect the Guarded Tablet: “The winds of [divine] favor (riyāḥ al-ilṭāf) blow, the veils are lifted from the eyes of the heart, and some of what is written on the Guarded Tablet appears; this happens, at times, in dreams (manāmāt) disclosing future events” (Iḥyāʾ, Kitāb ʿAjāʾib al-qalb, 5:67).

Dreams as Glad Tidings

Two Companions, ʿUbāda b. al-Ṣāmit (d. 34/654) and Abū al-Dardāʾ (d. 32/652), Allah be well-pleased with them, are reported to have asked the Prophet, upon him blessings and peace, about the “glad tidings” (bushrā) in Q 10:63-64: The Friends (awliyāʾ) of Allah, truly no fear shall come upon them, nor shall they grieve; those who believe and are God-fearing, for them are glad tidings (bushrā) in the life of this world and in the Hereafter. There is no altering the Words of God. That is the mighty success). The Prophet replied, “Good dreams seen by or shown to a Muslim” (Mālik, Muwaṭṭaʾ, 2:958; Aḥmad, Musnad, 37:363 §22688; Zurqānī, Sharḥ al-Muwaṭṭaʾ, 4:564; al-Qasṭallānī, Irshād al-sārī, 10:128 §6990). This explanation is cited in several commentaries (e.g. Tafsīrs of Ṭabarī; Qurṭubī; Rāzī; Māturīdī, Taʾwīlāt; Ibn al-ʿArabī, Aḥkām; Suyūṭī, Durr).

Fakhr al-Dīn al-Rāzī comments that the interpretation of bushrā as dreams is supported through transmitted knowledge as well as rationally, because a person who is fully devoted to Allah and whose heart and soul are immersed in His remembrance would have nothing left in his soul while asleep but the gnosis (maʿrifa) of Allah Most High, and it is well-known that only truth and sincerity can lead to the knowledge of Allah and the light of Allah’s Exaltedness (nūr jalāli-Llāhi). On the other hand, someone whose thoughts are dispersed and focused only on the affairs of this dark and turbid worldly life would have dreams like his waking thoughts (Tafsīr). 

Etiquettes and Rulings

Ibn Ḥajar provides guidance to etiquettes and rulings about dreams: Good dreams require three things: gratitude to Allah Most High, acceptance of the good news, and not care in not mentioning them to anyone except a loved one. Phantasms entail four things: to seek refuge in Allah Most High from its evil; to seek refuge from the evil of Satan; to spit thrice to the left upon awakening; and never to relate it to anyone. Additionally, it is recommended to turn to the side upon which one has dreamt a bad dream, offer prayer upon awakening, and recite Āyat al-Kursī (Q 2:255)” (Fatḥ al-Bārī, qawluh bāb bil-tanwīn al-ruʾyā min Allāh, 12:369-372).

Several Hadiths warn of severe consequences of lying about dreams: “Whoever claims to have a dream which he did not have will be ordered [in the Hereafter] to tie two barley grains together, which he will never be able to do…” (Bukhārī, Taʿbīr, man kadhaba fī ḥulmih). This severity is because dreams are part of Prophethood, and therefore such lying is tantamount to lying against Allah Most High, which is far more grievous than lying against His creatures (al-Munāwī, Fayḍ al-Qadīr, 6:99 §8577; Ibn Ḥajar, Fatḥ al-Bārī, 12:428).

The Prophet, upon him blessings and peace, said, “When the time draws near, the dream of a believer will hardly tell a lie. And the truest dream will be that of one who himself is the most truthful in speech, for the dream of a Muslim is the forty-fifth part of Prophecy…” (Muslim, Ruʾyā; Bukhārī, Taʿbīr, al-qayd fīl-manām). Ibn Ḥajar cites three opinions about what is meant by “the time draws near”: (i) a time close to the End of Time; (ii) a time when there will be a paucity of honest persons; and (iii) the time when ʿĪsā, upon him peace, returns. He prefers the first opinion, for true dreams will be a source of solace at that time.

When dreams are repeated they confirm their truthfulness, especially if several different persons have the same dream. This is established by the dream about the Night of Qadr dreamt by several Companions: when it was related to the Prophet, upon him blessings and peace, he said, “I see that all your dreams agree that [the Night of Qadr] is in the last seven nights; so whoever wants to search for it, let him search in the last seven” (Bukhārī, Faḍl Laylat al-Qadr, iltimās Laylat al-Qadr fī-l-sabʿ al-awākhir; Muslim, Ṣiyām, istiḥbāb ṣawm sittat ayyām min Shawwāl itbāʿan li-Ramaḍān).

Oneirology (Dream Interpretation)

The validity of the science of dream interpretation is based on the Qurʾān, as taught by Allah Most High to Yūsuf, upon him peace: And thus shall your Lord choose you, teach you the interpretation of dreams, and complete His favor upon you and upon the family of Yaʿqūb, as He completed it upon your fathers before, Ibrāhīm and Isḥāq. Truly your Lord is All-Knowing, All-Wise (Q 12:6). “If true, dreams are narrations from the King (aḥādīṭh al-malik, namely Allah Most High), and if false, they are narratives from the soul (aḥādīth al-nafs) or from Satan” (Bayḍāwī, Tafsīr, sub Q 12:6). Dream interpretation must not be taken lightly. When Imām Mālik (93-179/712-795) was asked, “Can anyone interpret dreams?” he replied, “I seek refuge in Allah; are they toying with Prophethood?” (al-Nawawī, Sharḥ Ṣaḥīḥ Muslim, 15:30; Ibn ʿAbd al-Barr, al-Tamhīd, 1:288; cf. Ibn Ḥajar, Fatḥ al-Bārī, 12:363).

The Prophet, upon him blessings and peace, would ask his Companions after the morning prayer, “Have any of you had a dream last night?” (Mālik, Muwaṭṭaʾ, Ruʾyā; Ḥākim, Mustadrak, 4:432 §8176). Abū ʿUmar Yūsuf b. ʿAbd Allāh Ibn ʿAbd al-Barr (d. 463/1071) comments that this Prophetic practice underscored the noble status of the science of dream interpretation and had pedagogic import for the Companions (Tamhīd, bāb al-alif fī asmāʾ shuyūkh Mālik, Isḥāq b. ʿAbd Allāh b. Abī Ṭalḥa, hadith 13; p. 1:313). Al-Nawawī deduces several principles of dream interpretation from this hadith, including that early morning is especially suitable because the intellect is fully composed and not yet diverted by the activities of everyday life, the dreamer is close to the time of the dream, and the interpretation can then serve as motivation to right action in the remainder of the day (Sharḥ Muslim, Ruʾyā). One such instance of the Prophet’s dream interpretation concerns Ibn ‘Umar’s dream of a piece of silken cloth in his hand, carrying him to whichever direction of Paradise he waved it. Ibn ‘Umar’s sister Ḥafṣa told the Prophet this dream, and he replied, “Truly your brother is a righteous man,” or “Truly ‘Abd Allāh is a righteous man.”’” (Bukhārī, Ṣaḥīḥ).

Abū Muḥammad al-Ḥusayn b. Masʿūd al-Baghawī (d. 516/112) writes that dreams can be interpreted (i) with reference to evidence taken from the Qurʾān; (ii) in the light of the Sunna; (iii) with reference to present-day analogies (al-amthāl al-sāʾira); (iv) by identifying specific names and metaphorical meanings (maʿānī); (v) by inferring the opposite (for example, a fearful dream is changed to safety, per Q 24:55: He will surely substitute for them, after their fear, security”); or (vi) by substituting (qalb) another term (Sharḥ al-Sunna, kitāb al-ruʾyā, aqsām taʾwīl al-ruʾyā).

Among the Companions, Abū Bakr al-Ṣiddīq, Allah be well-pleased with him (q.v.), was singled out as an expert dream interpreter. In the succeeding generation, the most eminent interpreter was Ibn Sīrīn (32-110/653-729), the client (mawlā) of Anas b. Mālik (d. 93/712) (Dhahabī, Siyar, vol. 4, no. 246). Muslim and al-Tirmidhī both include in their collections Hadiths about seeing the Prophet, upon him blessings and peace, in dreams.

Selected Literature

  1. Misattributed to Ibn Sīrīn, Muḥammad al-Baṣrī al-Anṣārī (33-110/653-729), Tafsīr al-aḥlām, also known as Muntakhab al-kalām fī tafsīr al-aḥlām (Cairo: Sharikat Muṣṭafā al-Bābī al-Ḥalabī wa awlādih, 1359/1940). Translated by Muhammad M. Al-Akili as Ibn Seerïn’s Dictionary of Dreams according to Islamic Inner Traditions (Philadelphia: Pearl Publishing House, [ca. 1991]). This is a spurious abridgement of Taʿbīr al-ruʿyā, a now-lost book also attributed to Ibn Sīrīn and mentioned in Ibn al-Nadīm, al-Fihrist, Maqāla 8, Fann 3, pp. 384-85.
  2. al-Kirmānī, Kitāb Taʿbīr al-ruʾyā: Ibn al-Nadīm, ibid., pp. 384-85.
  3. al-Faryābī, Kitāb Taʿbīr al-ruʾyā: Ibn al-Nadīm, ibid., pp. 384-85.
  4. al-Ḥasan b. Maḥbūb al-Sarād, Kitāb Taʿbīr al-ruʾyā: Ibn al-Nadīm, ibid., Maqāla 6, Fann 5, p. 273.
  5. Ibn Qutayba, Abū Muḥammad ʿAbd Allāh b. Muslim al-Dīnawarī (213-276/828-889), Kitāb Taʿbīr al-ruʾyā (Damascus: Dār al-Bashāʾir, 1491/2001), which contains this declaration: “In the various sciences and fields of wisdom which people deal with, there is nothing more obscure, subtle, exalted, noble, difficult and problematic than dreams, for they are a form of revelation and of Prophethood” (p. 8-9).
  6. al-Kharkūshī, ʿAbd al-Malik b. Muḥammad b. Ibrāhīm al-Naysābūrī (d. 407/1016), al-Bishāra wal-nadhāra fī tafsīr al-aḥlām, manuscript only.
  7. Ibn ʿAbd al-Samīʿ ʿAbd al-Raḥmān b. Muḥammad al-Qurashī (d. 621/1224), Kitāb Taʿbīr al-ruʾyā; mentioned by al-Dhahabī, Siyar, vol. 22, no. 126.
  8. Shihāb al-Dīn Abū al-ʿAbbās Aḥmad Ibn Surūr b. Niʿma al-Nābulusī (d. 697/1298), al-Badr al-munīr fī ʿilm al-taʿbīr, also known as Qawāʿid tafsīr al-aḥlām (Beirut: Muʾassasat al-Risāla, 1421/2000).
  9. ʿAbd al-Ghanī b. Ismāʿīl b. ʿAbd al-Ghanī al-Nābulusī (d. 1143/1731), Taʿṭīr al-anām fī taʿbīr al-manām, (Beirut: Dār al-Fikr, n.d.), originally printed in the margins of Muntakhab al-kalām fī tafsīr al-aḥlām (in 2 vols. Cairo: al-Maṭbaʿa al-Kubrā al-Amīriyya).


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See also

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