Islamic Studies Dreams and Islam
Ozgen Felek
  • LAST REVIEWED: 12 January 2023
  • LAST MODIFIED: 12 January 2023
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195390155-0296


Dreams and visions have been part of Islamic lore since the revelation of the Qurʾan. Referred to variously as ruʾya, manam, bushra, hulm, ahlam, and adhas, dreams are particularly associated with the prophets Abraham (37:102–105), Joseph (12), and Muhammad (17:60 and 48:27) in the Qur’an. The story of Joseph in Sura 12 is one of the most well-known stories regarding dreams and dream interpretation, parallel to the Bible. The Hadith literature, the collection of the sayings, deeds, and teachings of the Prophet Muhammad (d. 632), plays a significant role in the understanding of dreams and their functions in the Muslim mind. Based on the Prophet’s words, Islamic dream lore classifies dreams by a set of prophetic traditions as either “true” and “veridical,” or “false” and “misleading.” While some dreams are seen as glad tidings (mubashshirat) from God that require interpretation, some dreams are frightening or baseless dreams influenced by the devil. The third type is confused dreams reflecting images and situations from the dreamer’s daily activities and encounters that may lead a pious Muslim astray. Although revelations ended with the end of prophethood, glad tidings will continue for pious Muslims through dream visions after the Prophet’s death, according to an explicit statement of the Prophet: “The believer’s dream is one of the forty-six parts of prophecy.” Because some dreams and visions were seen as being closely linked to prophecy, they have come to be highly valued in Muslim societies as indicators of divine approval, and thus they have maintained their significance up to the present time. As an example, a dream incubation technique called istikhara, which means “seeking goodnees” from God, has been practiced among Muslims to receive Divine guidance on a specific life affair, such as marriage. Dreams and oneiric encounters have been considered valuable in both Sunni and Shiʿa sects. The Shiʿa tradition, in particular the Twelver Shiʿism, holds in high regards the dreams and visions employing the 12th imam, Muhammad ibn al-Hasan (b. 870), who is believed to have gone into occultation until his return as the awaited Mahdi (the rightly guided one). However, most of the recent dream studies have focused on Sunni literature. Dreams and visions experienced in the state of sleep and wakefulness, or between the state of sleep and waking, appear in various genres in the Islamic world, and numerous studies have been conducted about dreams and Islam. While scholarly studies on Islam and dreams first appeared in the mid-nineteenth century, the topic rarely received attention in Western academia before the second half of the twentieth century. These studies generally focused on the essence and place of dreams in Islam and their role in Sufism. More recent studies have addressed dream culture in different regions of the Islamic world, with particular attention to dream culture among Sufis. Although the number is not very large, the dreams of women have also begun to receive the attention of scholars. With modern technology, dream anecdotes are shared on TV, as well as on the Internet. Ethnographic perspectives and comparative methodologies on the role of dreams in the contemporary Muslim world are applied to the dream narratives of Muslim dreamers. Since the 1990s, dreams in various genres have been studied by scholars in the fields of religious studies, history, and literature. Recently, anthropologists have also taken an interest in the subject, especially regarding jihadi culture. There is little work on dreams and sexuality, a subject that is still waiting to be studied. In addition, a detailed referencing of the topic in Islamic sources can be found in encyclopedia entries: Encyclopaedia of Islam, Second Edition, Glossary and Index of Terms; The Oxford Dictionary of Islam; Encyclopedia of Islam and the Muslim World; and Encyclopaedia Iranica.

General Overview

Up until the mid-twentieth century, there were few studies on dreams and Islam in English. The most comprehensive and often cited essays were in Grunebaum and Caillois 1966, a collected volume of essays on dreams and visions. The field has been growing gradually, particularly since the 1990s, and a number of studies have been dedicated to the perception of dreams in Islamic mysticism in specific regions and time periods. Felek and Knysh 2012 provides a comprehensive survey and analysis of materials on dreams in Islamic societies from the earlier days of Islam to the present. There are several studies on dreams and Islam in the contemporary world as well. The use of dreams as an effective tool of justification and motivation is examined in Kinberg 1993 and Edgar 2011. Psychoanalytic and psychological approaches and theories are referred to in the dreams of Muslims in Mittermaier 2010. The interest in dreams in the contemporary Muslim world is growing, as can be seen from the rising number of studies dedicated to the topic.

  • Bearman, P. J., Th. Banquis, C. E. Bosworth, E. van Donzel, and W. P. Heinrichs, eds. Encyclopaedia of Islam: Glossary and Index of Terms. 2d ed. Leiden, The Netherlands: E. J. Brill, 2006.

    The Second Edition of the Encyclopaedia of Islam provides brief entries on Islamic dream terminologies, such as ruʾya, manam, hulm, istikhara, and taʿbir.

  • Bulkeley, K., K. Adams, and P. M. Davis, eds. Dreaming in Christianity and Islam: Culture, Conflict and Creativity. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2009.

    The book brings Islam into a discussion with other world religions’ approaches to dreams and visions. It consists of three parts. Part one deals with dreams in the Christian tradition. Part two examines dreams in Islam. Part three provides a comparative perspective on the role of dreams in Islam and Christianity. It scrutinizes dream interpretation manuals, conversion dreams, and dreams in various populations, including children, college students, and prisoners in contemporary Muslim and Christian societies.

  • Edgar, Iain R., and D. Henig. “Istikhara: The Guidance and Practice of Islamic Dream Incubation Through Ethnographic Comparison.” History and Anthropology 21 (2010): 251–262.

    DOI: 10.1080/02757206.2010.496781

    An article that introduces and contextualizes the practice of istikhara (literally, “seeking goodness”) as a way to understand the dynamics of Muslims’ inner and outer worlds. It also discusses ethnographic examples of istikhara practiced by British Pakistani and Bosnian Muslims to contextualize the role of dreams in well-being through a culturally informed lens.

  • Edgar, Iain R. The Dream in Islam: From Qurʾanic Tradition to Jihadist Inspiration. New York: Berghahn Books, 2011.

    After providing a historical overview of dreams, interpretation, and Sufi understanding of dreams in Islam, social anthropologist Edgar explores jihadists’ dream narratives as authorizing agents. Chapters 5 and 6 are dedicated to the dreams of al-Qaeda and Taliban members to demonstrate the use of dreams as a political strategy and authorization to promote their jihadist goals. Edgar then analyzes several Islamic dream interpretation manuals and offers a comparative approach to Islamic dream theory and Western psychological dream theories.

  • Edgar, Iain R., and Gurynned de Loojer. “The Islamic Dream Tradition and Jihadi Militancy.” In Jihadi Culture: The Art and Social Practices of Militant Islamists. Edited by Thomas Hegghammer, 128–150. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2017.

    This is a book chapter in Hegghammer’s edited volume on Islamic jihadi culture first summarizes the terms used for different types of dreams, the appearance of dreams in the Qurʾan and the Hadith tradition, and the early dream interpreters in Islamic tradition. It then discusses how dreams and dream interpretation are used by some contemporary Muslims to justify their militant and policital agendas and actions. In doing this, the authors analyze the dreams and interpretations by charismatic figures, such as Mullah Omar, Osama bin Laden, and Richard Reid.

  • Fahd, Toufic. La divination arabe: Études religieuses, sociologiques et folkloriques sur le milieu natif de l’Islam. Leiden, The Netherlands: E.J. Brill, 1966.

    A comprehensive account of prophecy and dreams in Islam. After a general introduction to the cultural and religious aspects of dreams and Arabic divination in pre-Islamic Arabia, the book examines religion and divination in central Arabia and mantic practices of ancient Arabia and their evolution in early Islam.

  • Felek, Ozgen, and Alexander Knysh, eds. Dreams and Visions in Islamic Societies. Albany: State University of New York Press, 2012.

    This edited volume is the result of a conference panel (The Middle East Studies Association, 2008) and a follow-up conference (2009) organized by the editors. The collection features twelve articles in two parts: Part I looks at dreams and visions in biographical, historical, theological, poetical, oral narratives, and on the Internet; Part II is dedicated to dreams and visions in Sufi literature. The articles cover a wide variety of primary sources from the early days of Islam to the present.

  • Ghaemmaghami, Omid. “Numinous Vision, Messianic Encounters: Typological Representations in a Version of the Prophet’s Ḥadīth al-ruʾyā and in Visions and Dreams of the Hidden Imam.” In Dreams and Visions in Islamic Societies. Edited by Ozgen Felek and Alexander Knysh, 51–76. Albany: State University of New York Press, 2012.

    A unique study that examines narratives about the appearance of the youthful Hidden Imam in the dreams and visions in the Twelver Shiʿi tradition. The author draws a parallel between the story of the Prophet’s vision of God as a handsome youth and the numerous dreams and visions in which the Hidden Imam also appears as a handsome youth in the Shiʿa tradition.

  • Green, Nile. “The Religious and Cultural Roles of Dreams and Visions in Islam.” Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society 13.3 (2003): 287–313.

    DOI: 10.1017/S1356186303003110

    Starting with the pre-Islamic heritage of dream interpretation, this lengthy article provides a comprehensive overview of Islamic dream interpretation. It covers the types of dreams as well as understanding dreams according to the Qurʾan, the Hadith collection, and early Sufi writings. It also discusses the visionary initiations, dream diaries, and autobiographical dream narrations, as well as dreams in historiography and popular pilgrimage books.

  • Green, Nile. “A Brief World History of Muslim Dreams.” Islamic Studies 54. 3/4 (Autumn–Winter 2015): 143–167.

    Through a world history approach to Muslim dreams, the article presents a general survey of the history of dream narratives and dream interpretation among Muslim communities from the early Islamic period through the twentieth century.

  • Grunebaum, G. E. Von, and Roger Caillois, eds. The Dream and Human Societies. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1966.

    This edited volume is the result of a conference titled, “The Dream in Human Societies” organized by G. E. Von Grunebaum in France in 1962. It comprises twenty-five essays that offer an interdisciplinary approach to dreams from historical, sociological, philosophical, physiological, and anthropological perspectives in different religions and cultures. Six essays in the volume are dedicated to dreams and visions in medieval Islamic society as well as Islamic literature and spirituality.

  • Hughes, Aaron. “Imagining the Divine: Ghazali on Imagination, Dreams, and Dreaming.” Journal of the American Academy of Religion 70.1 (March 2002): 33–53.

    DOI: 10.1093/jaar/70.1.33

    Hughes focuses on the importance of the imagination as a responsible agent for dreams, visions, and prophecies in the translation process from the Divine to the material world. More specifically, the study focuses on al-Ghazali (d. 1111), one of the most prominent and influential Muslim philosophers and theologians, to provide an explanation for how the imagination has helped to shape certain truths within religious life.

  • Kinberg, Leah. “Literal Dreams and Prophetic Ḥadīṯs in Classical Islam: A Comparison of Two Ways of Legitimation.” Der Islam 70 (1993): 279–300.

    The article has two parts. In Part I, Kinberg, a leading expert on Muslim oneiromancy, examines the development of literal dreams as reliable sources for guidance in the earliest days of Islam. In Part II, the author provides some dream accounts to demonstrate the role of dreams as a guide with a similar function to the hadis for the early Muslims.

  • Mittermaier, Amira. Dreams That Matter: Egyptian Landscapes of the Imagination. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2010.

    DOI: 10.1525/9780520947856

    Drawing exclusively on the author’s own fieldwork in contemporary Egypt, this is an anthropological study of the dreams of ordinary Muslims. The author engages her research with theories of modern philosophies as well as psychoanalysis and Islamic literature.

  • Schimmel, Annemarie. Die Träume des Kalifen: Träume und ihre Deutung in der islamischen Kultur. Munich: C.H. Beck, 1998.

    Provides a comprehensive survey of dream literature in Islam and explores the origins and essence of dreams and their roles in Arab, Persian, and Ottoman-Turkish traditions through a variety of sources, including poems, legends, biographies, and Sufi manuals.

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