History of Reading -or- Dream Vision and the Arab Oral Tradition

1001 Nights in the Global Village -or- On Dreams and the House of Wisdom

Alberto Mangel "A History of Reading" informs his readers that; "Aristotle's adoption by the Arabs begins with a dream. One night early in the ninth century, the caliph al-Ma'mun, son of the almost legendary Harun al-Rashid, dreamed of a conversation. The caliph's interlocutor was a pale, blue-eyed man with a broad forehead and frowning eyebrows, sitting regally on a throne. The man (the caliph recognized him with the assurance we all have in dreams) was Aristotle, and the secret words that passed between them inspired the caliph to command the scholars at the Baghdad Academy to devote their efforts from that night onwards to the translation of the Greek philosopher." (1)

Aristotle "On Dreams" believed that dreams should be studied in a rational fashion, and that dreams could provide insight into a person's health. Aristotle's philosophy would have an influence on Judeo-Islamic philosophy. The "Great Book of the Interpretation of Dreams" by Ibn Sirin provides an Islamic theological form of dream interpretation. Interpretation is viewed through the Arab visual culture, everyday rituals and thematic Islamic organization of the Qu'ran.

The importance of dreams in the Arab oral tradition and literary canon, is illustrated by the significance that Muhammad's first wife Khadīja bint Khuwaylid reportedly placed in her dreams. Khadīja decision to marry Mohammed is said to have been influenced by a dream she had. Muhammad who was visited in a dream vision, by the angel Gabriel asked him to read, Muhammad reportedly responded; "I do not know how to read." The first verses of the Qu'ran  were then born from his dream vision dialogue with Gabriel. The literary significance of the Qu'ran and the pilgrimage to Mecca can still be found in modern dreams. Read the dream interpretation "A Pilgrim's Progress in Turkey".

The Arab oral tradition would be defined by the "Islamic Golden Age" having an influence on medieval Middle Eastern and Western world knowledge. The Baghdad Academy (or House of Wisdom) became an Arab centre for the study of the sciences, arts, humanities and world knowledge. In al-Ma'mun's dream above, we are informed that; "the secret words that passed between them inspired the caliph", were these "secret words" the words related to Sufism?

Scheherazade's frame story "One Thousand and One Nights" which includes historical tales, love stories, tragedies, comedies, dream visions, poems, burlesques and various forms of erotica, provides an expose on Islamic philosophy. The frame tale includes stories of al-Ma'mun's father Harun al-Rashid, and his Grand Visier Jafar al-Barmaki. The Arab folk-tale in 1001 Nights "Aladdin" was made into a 1992 Disney film and includes the song "Arabian Nights" (watch music video).

Harun al-Rashid reportedly had a dream in the closing days of his life and decided that he wanted his son al-Ma'mun to become caliph upon his death. Intrigue and a family power struggle broke out leading to civil war, al-Ma'mun won the war and became caliph

Further Reading: 

  1. Johannes Pedersen, "The Arab Book", translated by Geoffrey French.
  2. Yehia Gouda, "Dreams and Their Meanings in the Old Arab Tradition."





All material Copyright 2006 International Institute for Dream Research. All rights reserved.