On the Interpretation of Dreams |Sheikh Salman al-Oadah|
When people try to interpret dreams or to guess at their significance, they need to keep in mind that their interpretation might be wrong or it might be right. In Islam, no one besides the Prophets are guaranteed to interpret dreams accurately. It is a mistake to think that anyone else can be like the Prophets in this matter.
There are a number of reasons as to why such a comparison is false:
1. The Prophets (peace be upon him) are the only people protected from error in what they convey to others.
2. The claim that some person does not err in interpreting dreams is a claim without any proof from the Qur’ân or Sunnah to back it up. In fact, the Prophet (peace be upon him) put a lie to that idea when he said: “Every descendant of Adam is prone to make mistakes.” [Sunan al-Tirmidhî (2499) and Sunan Ibn Mâjah (4251)]
3. The Companions and the leading scholars of Islam made mistakes regarding the understanding of matters of Islamic Law, though the texts of the Qur’ân and Sunnah were before them. How can anyone hope to do better with more tenuous evidence to interpret?
4. The Sunnah tells us that a dream interpreter who is not a prophet will get some things right and some things wrong. Once, after Abû Bakr interpreted a dream, the Prophet (peace be upon him) told him: “You were right in some of it and wrong in some of it.” [Sahîh al-Bukhârî and Sahîh Muslim]
This was the case for Abû Bakr, the most knowledgeable Muslim after the Prophet (peace be upon him). What can we hope for anyone else?
5. Dreams, when it comes to the Prophets (peace be upon them), are a portion of prophecy. Therefore, when a Prophet’s interpretation of a dream is always true and this cannot be the case with anyone else.
It is a wonder of the Lord when it comes to pass that something a person sees in a dream subsequently comes true for that person in that person’s waking life. It also constitutes part of the miraculous proof of Muhammad’s prophethood, since it confirms what the prophet (peace be upon him) has told us: “Abu Hurayrah related that the Prophet (peace be upon him) said: “Dreams are three categories: the good one that is a glad tiding from Allah, a bad dream from Satan, and a normal dream which exposes what the person is thinking about. If you see what you dislike, get up and pray and do not mention it to others.” [Sahîh Muslim]
What we should be concentrating on is giving our waking lives a proper assessment. This is critical to us if we wish to improve our outlook, our thinking, and our behavior. We should ask ourselves: Are we using our waking hours effectively? Are we pleased with how we are spending our time? Are we reading what will give us blessings or useful knowledge. Are we engaged in productive work or fruitful dialogue? Or are we just whiling our precious hours away?
If we are using our waking hours poorly, then what is more important for us to reinterpret – our sleeping experiences or our waking ones?
With certainty, we can say that our waking lives are more important. We are held accountable before Allah for what we do when we are awake. When we are asleep, the pen is lifted from our accounts. This makes sleep of secondary importance to us. Therefore, the circumstances, the rulings, the thoughts, and the activities of our waking hours are what deserve our critical attention.
A great of the conversations that we engage in with our friends and online is unimportant and superfluous and unimportant. Admittedly, we need recreation and such conversations have a role to play. However, this should tell us something about our dreams. Do we really think that everything that speaks within ourselves during sleep is important and deserves to be critically analyzed and interpreted in earnest?
Quite often, people look to their dreams for a way out from the difficulties of life. People who are going through difficult and painful times are generally more likely to seek after the interpretation of their dreams.
They see their nightly visions as part of Allah’s relief for them, relying upon the hadîth: “When the last days draw nearer, a believer’s dream will almost never lie. The most honest of them in dreams will be the most honest of them in speech.” [Sahîh Muslim (2263)]
Their dreams, however, might be from Satan, who takes advantage of their anxieties, their pain, and their difficulties to make things worse for them by increasing their tensions and their sorrow. Allah tells us: “Secret counsels are only (inspired) by the Evil One, in order that he may cause grief to the Believers; but he cannot harm them in the least, except as Allah permits; and on Allah let the Believers put their trust.” [Sûrah al-Mujâdalah: 10]
Alternatively, their dreams could just be a natural consequence of what is preoccupying their thoughts. Their problems are already weighing down their minds, and they interpret their dreams in accordance with the changing condition of their problems.
In Arabian society, women tend to be more concerned than men about their dreams. This is because she tends to suffer from greater impositions – from her father, brother, or husband. This, compounded by her greater emotional sensitivity and openness, makes her more easily affected by her dreams than the men of our society.
Likewise, we see that people who are incarcerated are more closely concerned with their dreams.
Sâlih b. `Abd al-Quddûs has this well-known poem to his credit, though some have attributed it to `Abd Allah b. Mu`âwiyah:
While of its denizens, from the world we have departed;
Neither dwelling with its corpses nor among the living.
On the strange occasion when the jailors do their bidding
We gasp in awe: “Lo! `Tis from the world they have appointed.”
In dreams we do rejoice, and most of our conversation
Is upon our waking when we speak of where we’d been.
If fair had been the dream, it would remain a thing unseen
If the dream were ill, then swift would be its realization.
The crises that afflict our nations – of war and civil – give birth to a fair share of dreams. The tragedy that took place in the Holy Mosque twenty-five years ago was preceded by a dream and was accompanied by more and more dreams all the way to its unfortunate end. This is a good example to show us how Satan – or our own powers of suggestion – can inspire dreams in us that can lead us to sorrowful consequences. Moreover, a true dream might show us certain things that indeed come to pass, but then these dreams on show us that those things are to take place. They do not indicate the lawfulness or of those events and cannot be construed as a sign of approval for them.
The man behind the Iraqi invasion Kuwait supposedly had a number of dreams and had those dreams interpreted. This is because, when a person finds himself confronted by a new set of circumstances, he does not know what to do, so he resorts to dreams for guidance.
Interpretation is, by nature, speculation. Allah says about Joseph (peace be upon him): “And he said to him whom he thought would be delivered of the two: ‘Mention me to thy lord.’” [Sûrah Yûsuf: 42]
Though Joseph (peace be upon him) was a prophet, we still se the word “thought” being used to describe the conclusion he arrived at from his interpretation of the dream. Therefore, a person should never speak with certainty regarding a dream interpretation.
A dream interpretation is also like the issuing of a verdict. Allah quotes Joseph as saying: “Thus is the case judged concerning which ye did inquire.” [Sûrah Yûsuf: 41]
This tells us that a person should take care and not rush into interpreting or analyzing his dreams. Hastiness and presumption can bring harmful consequences. Mâlik b. Anas became angry when he heard people hastily interpreting dreams and would say: “Are you playing at prophecy?”
Too often, we give dreams more weight than they deserve. Maybe a certain dream is the truth from Allah. However, this does not mean that a person cannot go wrong by overemphasizing its importance – maybe fancying that the fate of the world rests upon his dream. This causes him to act in an injudicious and inappropriate manner. He interprets his dream to have great global and historical ramifications. He strives for political change on the strength of his dream, or at the very least, makes radical and unnecessary changes in his own life.
Had such a person asked a scholar of Islamic Law, he would have been informed that the implications of a person’s dream do not extend beyond the person who sees it. Therefore, someone who witnesses the end of the world in a dream often goes forth and preaches is vision to the world, causing no end of trouble for himself and others. However, maybe his dream was true… maybe it reflected the fact that his watch had stopped. This shows the deficiency of thought of someone who allows the nightly visions of his mind to have an undue influence over the decisions of his life.
Then you have the dream interpreters who peddle their all-purpose dream interpretations to a credulous public. Like palm readers, they have answers that will safely apply to any of their customers, regardless of who they are. Who does not have problems, concerns, goals, and unresolved issues in their lives?
He says: “Your dream means that you have a concern that needs resolution.”
The customer answers: “You have spoken the truth.”
He says to a young woman: “You will get married.” To the new bride: “You will have a child.” To the middle-aged housewife: “There are problems in your marriage.” To anyone he might say: “You have plans.”
The answer will be: “How true!”
Sometimes, a keen-eyed interpreter who notices subtleties and picks up on hints, can offer interpretations that are more custom-tailored to the customer.
Generally, dream interpretation relies upon standard metaphors and similes, and upon the associations that are commonplace in people’s experience. This is the easiest way for people to understand things. Interpretations that are innovative and unprecedented are more difficult for people to identify with.
This is why we find milk is often interpreted to signify the natural lifestyle, in that both are a mainstay of nourishing the self and that a child on its own knows to drink milk. This is why it is interpreted to represent the Islamic way of life that Allah has predisposed his creatures to live by. Likewise, this is why a cow in a dream is often interpreted to signify people of religion and righteousness, since they – like the cow – are a source through which civilized life is nourished and sustained, and they are like the cow in that they bring no harm but many benefits. Likewise, a dead tree in a dream is seen to signify the hypocrites, since they are likewise devoid of inner life, of beneficial shade, and provide no fruit to the public.
In this way, a dream is like a parable and the interpreter compares it to that shares with it some quality. If it were not for the fact that we give rulings to things by comparing them to what resembles them from we are already familiar with, this kind of dream interpretation would not prevail and would not have any basis.
Allah cites parables in a number of places in the Qur’ân, calling us to listen to them and ponder their implications.
However, a person’s interpretation can be affected by the meddling of Satan who can suggest some interpretations to the person’s heart while he is unaware. Though the personal state of the interpreter is not a reliable measure of the accuracy of his interpretation, the more knowledgeable and truthful a person is, that farther he is from Satan’s tricks.
The same can be said for seeing the Prophet (peace be upon him) in a dream. It is not necessary that everyone who thinks he has seen the Prophet (peace be upon him) in a dream has really seen him. It is necessary that the Prophet (peace be upon him) is seen as he is known to appear, as stated in the hadîth regarding seeing the Prophet (peace be upon him) in dreams. When people came to Ibn Sîrîn or al-Hasan claiming to have seen the Prophet (peace be upon him) in a dream, they would ask that person to describe him to them. If the person described him by other than his well-known description, then he had not seen the Prophet (peace be upon him) in a dream.
No one should ever interpret his seeing the prophet (peace be upon him) in a dream to be an admittance pass into Paradise. This is a serous self-deception. The one the person sees must never command him to do something sinful. He should be aware that Satan can appear to him – awake or in a dream – representing himself as God or as any one of the prophets, even Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him), just not upon the Prophet’s true appearance.
Ibn Taymiyah quotes the following account from`Abd al-Qâdir al-Jîlânî [Majmû` al-Fatâwâ (1/173)]:
I was once deeply involved in worship, and I saw a great throne endowed with light. It spoke to me: “O `Abd al-Qâdir! I am your Lord, and I have made lawful for you what I have forbidden for others.”
I said: “Be gone, you enemy of Allah!”
Then that light was rent apart and was replaced by darkness. It said: “O `Abd al-Qâdir! Your knowledge and your understanding of the religion have saved you. For indeed, I have deceived in this way seventy men.”
Someone asked `Abd al-Qâdir: “How did you now that it was Satan.”
he said: “By his saying: ‘I have made lawful for you what I have forbidden for others’ – because the Law of Muhammad (peace be upon him) will never be abrogated or replaced.
The only safeguard from error is to be safeguarded by Allah.