On Dreams and Other Truths

Posted by sepoy on October 16, 2012 · 20 mins read

At the recently concluded 41st Annual South Asia Conference at Madison, WI, I chaired a panel on dreams in the medieval Islamicate world. Most of my paper was part of a chapter in the book, but I thought I share a bit of it here (in light of CM's long standing tradition of sharing conference papers).

Panel Abstract: Dreams - good (ru'ya) and bad (hulm) - and their interpretation were prime concerns in Arabic and Persian texts from 10th century on - attested to by the presence of hundreds of dream manuals. Muslim oneirocrits largely focused on linking the life of dreams to the political life of society. Though, they drew heavily on Greek, Syriac and Sanskrit dream manuals, Islamicate texts are thought to have evolved into a closed system of meaning and interpretation. The scholarly literature on the interpretation of dreams in Islamic historiography has, thus, focused on the portents/ meanings of dreams in historical teleologies - a functionalist reading which reduces dreams as emplotment devices embedded in texts. Such work follows the dominant theoretical reading of dreams, often via Freud as disjointed readings of an internal psyche or via Barthes, for whom dreams were an "alibi of an absence". This panel seeks to offer a corrective along two lines. Firstly, it casts the question of dreams in the medieval period along the broad West Asian axis - bringing together Arabic, Persian and Sanskrit textual tradition. Secondly, it focuses on narrativity of dreams as inter and intra-textual means of creating understanding of particular presents, of social and cultural commentary and of revealing alternative schemas for the present. It begins with the question: what role does the dream narrative play in the text? How do questions of aesthetic, of genre, of materiality in textuality, of authorial intention interpellate the varied texts in textual corpora within which dreams are situated. Manan Ahmed's paper focuses on two prophetic dreams and a romantic episode from the early thirteenth century Persian text Chachnama written in Uch Sharif, then the court of Turkic warlord Qabacha in lower Sindh. Elisabeth Alexandrin focuses on the physiolgical and psychological descriptions in two early thirteenth century texts by the Central Asian Sufi Najm al-Din Kubra - the Fawa'ih al-Jamal, and the Risalat ila al-Halim. Sonam Kachru examines the historian and memorialist Śrīvara's use, in the mid fifteenth century, of the Sanskrit book of dreams, Mokṣopāya, a work already well known in Kashmiri literary circles by the mid eleventh century in Kashmir. Rajeev Kinra examines the dream imagery and Sufic resonances in the Mughal courtier Chandar Bhan's mid-seventeenth century insha', Chahar Chaman, and in his ghazals. Together these papers attempt to begin a new conversation on dreams and their interpretation across disciplinary and theoretical boundaries.

A Death Foretold

I settè not a straw by thy dreamings,
For swevens be but vanities and japes
Men dream all day of owlès and of apes,
And eke of many a mazè therewithal;
Men dream of thing that never was, nor shall.

This from Geoffery Chaucer's “Nun's Priest's Tale” which has a particularly interesting take on dream interpretation. Chauntecleer, the beautiful rooster, has a (prophetic) dream about his own death at the hands of a fox that day. Pertelote, his hen, dismisses the dream, but he insists that he is doomed. We are not entirely going to discuss Chaucer here, but I want to flag just the part that the prophecy comes true, and does not. It is that half-truth that caught my attention and which propels my reading of a different dream in a different corpus.

By way of preface, two remarks.

First, generations of scholars have noted the near-ubiquity of dream narratives in the medieval world — given that the dream work of Josephus, Joseph and Yusuf (in the Hebrew Bible, the New Testament, and Qur'an respectively) was readily and widely available. Within the Islamicate context, narration and interpretation of dreams emerges as a crucial mode of textual expression in the earliest records — from the Sira of Ibn Hisham to the Hadith collections, to the verifiable flowering of dream manuals in the 9th and 10th century where at least 180 dream-books were compiled and systematic translation of Greek oneirocritic tradition were undertaken. In the literary and cultural realm, dreams play an integral role in texts as varied as 1001 nights, Ibn Sina and Nizam ul Mulk. The Shi'ite and Sufic cosmologies had already integrated dreams, visions and prophesy as significant stars.

Second, contemporary scholarship has been sleeping on the job, when it comes to dealing with dreams in narratives. While the subject is Sufic or theological texts, there is an effort to read dreams for message and authorial intent but when it comes to historically minded narratives, they remain curtained off as “symbolic” or “metaphorical” bits in a narrative text that is otherwise engaged. G. E. von Grunebaum's influential study on the cultural function of dreams identified five basic categories: dreamer receiving personal message, dreamer getting a personal prophecy, dream explaining a theological matter, dream explaining a political matter, and dream acting as a political prophecy ((G.E. von Grunebaum, "The Cultural Function of the Dream as Illustrated by Classical Islam" in The Dream and Societies, Ed. Lynn White, Jr. (Berkeley, University of California Press, 1966: 147-178)). The question is whether these topologies always perform the same task in all texts or whether we can interpret particularities of modalities within specific historical contexts? (yes, we can).

As Azfar Moin points out in his essay “Partisan Dreams and Prophetic Visions” (2007) that the two major studies of al-Masudi, one of the most prominent historian of early Islam, by Khalidi or Shboul do not deal at all with dreams in al-Masudi's history of the Abbasids. Similarly, barring the very recent dissertation by Johan Westerijn on al-Tabari ((J. Weststeijn “A Handful of Red Earth: Dreams of Rulers in Tabari's History of Prophets and Kings” (2012))), that historian's usage of dreams is similarly under-studied. The historian, put more starkly, when confronted by dreams has usually skipped ahead to follow the narration and closed their eyes to this pivotal part of the text. I want to follow Julie Meisami ((J. Meisami, “Masudi and the Reign of al-Amin: Narrative and Meaning in Medieval Muslim Historiography” (2005))), Azfar Moin ((Azfar Moin, “Partisan Dreams and Prophetic Visions: Shi'i Critique in al-Masudi's History of the Abbasids” (2007))), Sholeh Quinn ((Sholeh Quinn, “The Dreams of Shaykh Safi al-Din and Safavid Historical Writing” (1996))) and others into attempting to postulate the social function of the dream narrative in medieval historiography and the what we can hypothesize about it, from this great distance.

The prefatory remarks over: Let me describe what I will be doing: I am going to talk about one dream and several visions that occur in one specific text and then offer some thoughts on how we can read that solo dream, in light of the text-as-whole and authorial intent.


Jacque Le Goff in his reading of dreams in the medieval West notes the “Christian intellectual's feeling of guilt” and the confrontation with alienation, of melancholy, of denature-ness, of an anxiety of a new age which permeates the dream accounts. ((J. Le Goff, “Dreams in the Culture and Collective Psychology of the Medieval West' in Time, Work and Culture in the Middle Ages (1980), 201)) These feelings in the text, the presence of such mentalities offers to him the possibility of arguing for the “dream's effectiveness in a new battle in the process of cultural evolution”. That is to say, the capacity of the dream-text within the narrative to allow certain new forms of imagination and certain anxieties to unfurl.

In his essay “On the borders of Middle English Dream Visions” makes the analogy of the narrative as a house, with dreams acting as rooms, connected via doors. ((Peter Brown, ed. Reading Dreams: The Intrepretation of Dreams from Chaucer to Shakespeare. (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1999)) In his reading, the medieval dream visions allow the presence of an individuated self which is harder to frame in the wider narrative — crossing the threshold from waking into dreaming “makes possible perception which, while anchored in the dreamer's spiritual self, are also moral, social and political”.

Building upon these two conceptualizations - the idea of newness creeping into the genre-narrative, and the notion of dreams intricately connected to the narrative text (a room is a part of the house) - I want to turn to the Chachnama, a persian text written in the early thirteenth century, which deals with the region of al-Sind and the political and religious contours of the land prior to the Arab conquest of early 8th century. What I want to investigate are the anxieties as well the evolutions apparent within the Chachnama and its usage of dreams, divinations, and prophetical visions. Chachnama is a text written in 1226 by 'Ali Kufi to narrate a history of the land of al-Sind immediately prior to the Muslim campaign and the story of Arab conqueror Muhammad bin Qasim who deposed the local Raja Dahir of al-Sind in 712 CE. 'Ali Kufi was a migrant to the frontier of al-Sind at the time of intense tibulations — across Central and Southern Asia as Chinghiz Khan on one end and the various descendant Ghurid warlords were expanding and contracting city-fort by city-fort. 'Ali Kufi was hoping to submit a composition and receive a stipend from the court of Nasir al-Din Qabacha who had already welcomed luminaries such as 'Awfi and Juzjani to his court.

My effort in my study of this text is to present in finely textured detail the various shifts in genres and narrative voice which Chachnama employs and through which it makes an argument for a new political order. In concentrating on the text of Chachnama alone, I further make two claims on historiography: the need to examine the textual and situational wholeness of medieval texts (this would be a corrective to positivist historiography) and to move beyond over-determined genre-specified reading (that is, a history works in a particular way, a mystic text is some other way). It is clear that Chachnama occupies a certain relationship to both space and to conceptions of past and present (its past, its present) which enabled its circulation and resonance in Uch across centuries, even as it remained a marginal text from other vantage points, and in other geographies. My main effort, thus, is to do a close reading of the text of Chachnama and then to situate Chachnama materially and conceptually in Uch of the 1220s.


The dream arrives well into the text. The dream comes to a governor dispatched to the restive frontier of al-Sind during the reign of Umayyad caliph Mu'awiyya. The governor, one Sinan bin Salma, Chachnama notes had the privelige of having been born during the lifetime of the Prophet. When he was dispatched to the frontier, during his journey, he sees the Prophet himself in the dream (dar khawab deed) who informs him: your father was proud of your masculinity, today is your day. You will conquer many lands and they will be reformed”. Here, following von Grunebaum, we can note this is type 1 and 2. Sinan bin Salama having received this imprimatur sallies forth, conquers “many lands”, but then suddenly, shockingly, dies via treachery before he is able to establish rule. This is the first hint that we have as readers of Chachnama that the text is participating in some other symbolic universe than the expected one. In the expected one, following von Grunebaum again, a prophesy by the Prophet himself is guaranteed (narratively speaking) to Truth. Yet here al-Kufi makes two odd moves: one he narrates a prophetic dream and pins it to someone inconsequential and second, the prophecy fails (in part).

Now that we have seen something odd buried deep in the text, something that assures us that 'Ali Kufi is not playing by the rules of the Shahnama (where Firdausi dreams of writing the text after a prophetic vision about Sultan Mahmud) or his contemporary 'Juzjani (whose Tabaqat-i Nasiri plays close attention to prophetic dream) let us start to collect some more oddities. The very next governor mentioned by Chachnama being dispatched to the frontier is Munzir bin Jarud bin Bashar. Once again he is given a certain amount of cultural cachet — he receives a robe of honor from the Caliph before he embarks on his journey. But on the way over, his fancy robe (assumption) gets caught on a protruding wood shrapnel and tears. Grief-stricken the governor proclaims: fal-e Munzir neko neest (the divination for Munzir is not good). Prophetically, he dies as soon as he reaches the frontier via sickness.

Now most importantly, the one dream (half untrue) is paired with one piece of divination via sign/omen (totally true).

The case of the frontier of al-Sind lingers until the status quo is broken when pirates kidnap and imprison Muslim women enroute from Sarandip to Hejaz. Chachnama then narrates the agency of the Iraqi governor Hajjaj bin Yusuf who makes it his personal quest to subdue the frontier of al-Sind. It also mentions that Hajjaj bin Yusuf had been waging a decade long war against Kharajite rebels who had carried on a stiff resistance to his governors and who had recently assassinated an Umayyad functionary. Chachnama notes that Hajjaj bin Yusuf had recently received the stretched skin and head of one Safowi bin Lan Alhami but they were entrenched within an alliance with the Raja of al-Sind, Dahar bin Chach bin Salaij. Once Hajjaj bin Yusuf gets the permission from the Caliph to launch a new campaign on al-Sind, he receives a message from 'Umar bin 'Abdullah — a prominent military commander, who volunteers for the task of subduing vilayat-e Hind. Hajjaj bin Yusuf, the stalwart Iraqi governor, the annihilator of all heresies gives the most curious answer: fa imma munajjiman istakhraj kardand wa dar hukm tawarikh baz namud-eand, wa man nez qir'a andakhtay am, kay vilayat-e hind bar dast-e Muhammad qasim fath khwahid shud (The astrologers have extracted from their calculations and even I have divined that the land of al-Hind will only be conquered by Muhammad bin Qasim. Here divination (via studying the stars) provides a different prophecy than usually encountered in Persianate historiographical texts. Lest we think that the Chachnama had a momentary lapse of reasoning, it circles back to the Hajjaj bin Yusuf's divination much later in the narrative and the predestination of Muhammad bin Qasim is underlined.

In telling contrast to the, divination via stars, omens and visions which are also present and True in the earlier half of the Chachnama, the absence of dreams in the conquest narrative of this Persian text is striking. What exactly is the text doing by relegating such an integral part of the narrative arsenal to the corner? Why is the Chachnama distancing itself from a mode of exposition that has long sense-roots in the community? The answer to this question lies in my argument for the text-as-whole. The paucity of dream material is precisely the cultural evolution that LeGoff notes in his study, and the way in which I can make an argument for this evolution is by following Brown's advice in not disentangling the 'dream' from the text. That dreams do not function as projected, that they should be there but aren't is the case of the dog that did not bark in the night.

Chachnama performs two social functions by giving credence, if not supremacy, to cosmologies that abut the Islamicate frontier culture of Sind in the early thirteenth century. It priviliges, via many silences and with many prejudices, the nodes of knowledge and material production that are apparent in the region, and it argues that the Muslim notables were always already participating in it. This attempt to create a practice genealogy for divination via stars (and on books outside of the "Islamic" canon) is a remarkable attempt to envision a new possible future for al-Sind. There are many additional textual evidence buttressing my reading - in the way Chachnama posits the treatment of the lowest caste, and in the ways it argues for taxation - but we need not detain ourselves on those matters. What is important is to realize that the dream-function in the text is immensely important. The one and only dream is precisely situated against the divination to put into conversation the Indic and the Islamic practices. Again, there are corrolaries to other encounters in the text — between the budhi-man and the brah-man, and between the man and the idol which tie together the overall argument of the text.


rachel | October 18, 2012

you might be interested in Amira mittermaier's ethnographic work on dreaming in contemproary Egypt. Obviously a very different context, but her framing of dreaming is beautifully executed and the ethnography contrasts nicely with embedded religious ideals of dreams and dreaming.

sepoy | October 19, 2012

Yep, loved her book.