On Dreams and Reality

Ibn Batuta had initially set out to from his hometown in Morocco to perform the pilgrimage to Mecca but the meanings his dream(s) held for him and his encounters with some of the great sufis of his time exerted a huge influence on his journey and perhaps altered its course in many ways. His encounter with Burhan al-Din Lung (the Lame), whom he met in Alexandria, was the first one of such kind.

One day, when I had entered his room, he said to me:’I see that you are fond of travelling and wandering from land to land.’ ‘Yes,’ I replied, ‘I am fond of it,’ although there had not as yet entered my mind any thought of penetrating to such distant lands as India and China. Then he said: ‘ You must certainly, if God will, visit my brother Farid al-Din in India, and my brother Rukn al-Din Zakariya in Sind, and my brother Burhan al-Din in China, and when you reach them convey to them a greeting from me.’ I was amazed at his prediction, and the idea of going to these countries having been cast into my mind, my wanderings never ceased until I had met these three that he named and conveyed his greeting to them. (The Travels of Ibn Battutah, Macintosh-Smith 2002, 8)

Later, when he goes on to meet Shaykh Abu Abdallah al-Murshidi who was well versed in the science of dreams and their interpretations; Ibn Batuta asks him to interpret a dream.

That night, as I was sleeping on the roof of his cell, I dreamed that I was on the wing of a huge bird which flew with me in the direction of the qiblah, then made towards the Yaman, then eastwards, then went towards the south, and finally made a long flight towards the east, alighted in some dark and greenish country, and left me there.
I was astonished at this dream and said to myself, ‘If the shaykh shows me that he knows of my dream, he is all that they say that he is.’ ..So I related it to him and he said: ‘You shall make the Pilgrimage to Mecca and visit the tomb of the Prophet at al-Madinah, and you shall travel through the lands of al-Yaman and al-Iraq, the land of the Turks, and the land of India. You will stay there a for a long time and you will meet there my brother Dilshad the Indian, who will rescue you from a danger into which you will fall.’ (The Travels of Ibn Battutah, Macintosh-Smith 2002, 12)

Ibn Batuta mentions this dream as a testament to the wisdom of the shaykh who interpreted his dream as well as to convey a sense of the degree of truth that his dream embodied. Needless to say many years later when he travels to India he is saved by Dilshad from a calamity as was predicted.

It is interesting to note that in one of the oldest translations of the book (albeit abridged) that I found, thanks to archive.org, the translator, Samuel Lee, in typical Orientalist fashion dismisses off hand the entire tradition of dream interpretation and its significance whatsoever, in his remark in the footnote about the saints who can interpret dreams (awliya al mukashifeen)

Awliya al Mukashifeen – These seem to be nothing more than perpetuators of the ancient practices of divining mentioned so often in the Hebrew Bible. The influence these impostors still possess in the East is very great, as may be collected from the text in this place. (The Travels of Ibn Batuta 1829, Lee Samuel, 9)

Although admittedly there is now no dearth of people both in the East and West who dismiss dreams and their interpretations as complete mumbo jumbo. Nevertheless in the Islamic tradition dreams and their meanings have a strong scriptural (Quranic) and traditional (Prophetic Hadith) basis.

Muhammad Ibn Sirin who lived in the 7/8th century was a very pious and well respected scholar and a sufi (mystic) of his time and wrote one of the first books ever written on dream interpretation called Muntakhab Al-Kalam fi Tafsir Al-Ahlam (The Key Declamation on Dream Interpretation) which is considered by dream interpreters in the Muslim world as a major source of knowledge that enriched the spirit of readers as well as dream interpreters for the past one thousand years. Professor Mahmoud Ayoub adapted his translation Ibn Seerin’s Dictionary of Dreams based on Ibn Sirin’s original work, which is a very interesting and informative read for anyone who is interested in dreams and their significance according to the Islamic inner traditions.

I remember in my sophomore year at university a friend, who had aced the midterm exams scoring two standard deviations above the mean, entered the class and walked over to where we were seated. He looked a little worried and told us that he had a strange dream the night before.  He saw that he was contesting his “B+” grade that he was awarded in the course even though he was well ahead of the rest of the class up until the finals! Based on the relative grading system it meant that he would really have to under-perform exceptionally compared to the rest of the class in the final exams to end up with a B+ from a projected A+ grade.

No sooner had he finished narrating his dream another friend, in true spirit of friendship, suggested casually that it meant that he would get a B+ and would somehow mess up his final. We joked about it but none of us took it seriously..fast forward a month and he eventually ended up messing his final and landing a B+!

Until then I always thought that it was only folklore that the first interpretation anyone offers for a dream is what really colors the outcome. I remember being told that one should only share their dream with someone they trust. Someone who will avoid callously commenting about it. This was only to be the first of the numerous times I saw dreams manifested in real life.

Interestingly when going through Ibn Sirin’s book I came across a passage on the significance of relating ones dream and to whom it should be related to

God’s Prophet (uwbp) also said: “A dream sits on the wing of a flying bird and will not take effect unless it is related to someone.” Therefore, one should only tell his dream to a trustworthy person, a pious and a knowledgeable person. (Ibn Seerin’s Dictionary of Dreams, pg xxv)

Something similar to this has been reported in the following hadith as well

Waki bin Udus narrated that Abu Razin Al-Uqaili said: Allah’s Messenger (PBUH) said, ‘The believer’s dreams are a portion of the forty six portions of Prophet-hood. And it is on the leg of a bird, as long as it is not spoken of. But when it is spoken of, it drops.’I think he said: And it should not be discussed except with an intelligent one or a beloved one. (Hadith No. 2278, Chapters on Dreams, Jami’ At-Tirmidhi, Vol. 4)


The Similarity Between An Athlete And A Gnostic

A guy that I work with had a sky diving accident almost 3 years ago. He was hospitalized for over a month ending up with two broken vertebrae, titanium rods in both legs coupled with a few other less brutal injuries.

I met him almost 2 years ago when I started working at my current job, he had only joined a month earlier after recovering from his near fatal fall. I distinctively remember seeing streaks of blood stains occasionally on the back of his shirt, thinking he must have had a back injury..

A few months later he started training for Iron Man Triathlon and successfully completed it in the following Summers. Within a few weeks he competed in Ultra Iron Man Triathlon as if one Iron Man wasn’t enough of an accomplishment (or chastisement for the body  !?). I found it quite remarkable for somebody who had a near fatal experience, his body showing clear marks of what it had been through, to tune it to achieve this athletic fiat! Had he told me that he hoped to participate in the Iron Man at the time he shared the details of his accident with me, I would have wished him luck, empathizing with him at his almost certain failure to complete let alone complete such a physically challenging race.

It made me think that part of the reason why I understand and appreciate his accomplishment is because I have seen him achieve it, thinking it nearly impossible. If rigorous training and self discipline can help a battered body attain such a physical state; why is it so difficult for us to comprehend that people, who dedicate their lives in the attainment of one goal – knowing their Creator, and  continuously strive to cleanse themselves spiritually, can have a stronger connection with God and can achieve certain spiritual graces by conditioning their soul through devotional practices and spiritual exercises ?

Why are we so determined to see proofs of spiritual significance in the physical/material realm when the demonstration of a spiritual gift runs counter to the essence of spirituality? Why do we have to see to believe ? Is it because our scientifically conditioned mental arrogance leads us to think that that the modern man of our age has achieved the height of intelligence and nothing is beyond the grasp of our minds!? Just because something has not happened in our times or in front of our eyes does not make it an impossibility !?

Professional sports men to me are very similar to gnostics, one tries to acheive a physical state through exercises, self discipline and commitment to excel at a particular sport and the other exerts his energies at purifying and conditioning his soul to develop a stronger connection with God..

A Gentleman’s Agreement – How I got my ‘Sabbatical’

When I finally realized that I had to go travelling I started thinking about ways to make it possible. The simplest option available was to quit my job and hit the road. However I faced a conundrum – having worked for the past 8 years in a few different organizations in London, I felt that this place was one, where even though I had spent a year and a half working, I liked the people I worked with, the role and there was still a lot to learn and experience..

I didn’t want to come back from travelling to start looking for a new role with risk that it may not be as satisfying as the job I currently have. I wanted the best of both the worlds – to go travelling and to have a job, that I liked, to come back to.

So, I searched my company’s Employee Handbook to see if there was anything related to sabbaticals. Generally, big organizations have written down policies about sabbaticals which have some pros and cons. One of the cons being that, one has to have worked a set number of years to be able to apply for a sabbatical. Almost always the number of months of the sabbatical is correlated with the number of years worked. I didn’t stand a chance based on such a criteria as most places require the employees to have worked at least 2-3 years before applying for sabbaticals.

Thankfully my employer (a hedge fund) did not have a written down policy which meant that if they liked me enough things could go in my favor. I started working a little harder than usual to ensure that my employers recognized and valued my contribution and would be keen to retain me.

Fast forward six months, with the stars all perfectly aligned (read personal circumstances suddenly becoming conducive to travel) , I decided that I was ready to go even if it meant that I had to quit my job and look for a new one upon my return. Fortunately my manager was happy with my work. They offered me a 3 months sabbatical (instead of the 6 months I had asked for). A fair compromise I thought (especially since the other option was to quit my job without any guarantees), besides if I really wanted to go for longer I still had the option to quit! So I accepted the offer. A few weeks later I learnt that that a certain department was not in favor of granting sabbaticals (and there was no policy as such for a reason). Perhaps to deter any wayward souls who might have similar ideas ?!

My boss, true to his word, proposed a Gentleman’s Agreement. The gist of it was – I would have to resign, and if I were to come back within 3 months I could have my job back. After a final round of negotiations we agreed on a 4 month period of absence with me confirming to them within one month after starting my journey, if I would be coming back at all or not. I thought that worked out better for me than a plain old 3 month sabbatical! A pertinent analogy for those obsessed with Options in finance would be to look at the gentleman’s agreement as an American Call Option on an ’employment contract’ with one month expiry. From an option holders perspective, it was Deep In The Money so I took it.

For those looking for some inspiration to hit the road, here is a piece of advice from Edward Abbey:

One final paragraph of advice: do not burn yourselves out. Be as I am – a reluctant enthusiast….a part-time crusader, a half-hearted fanatic. Save the other half of yourselves and your lives for pleasure and adventure. It is not enough to fight for the land; it is even more important to enjoy it. While you can. While it’s still here. So get out there and hunt and fish and mess around with your friends, ramble out yonder and explore the forests, climb the mountains, bag the peaks, run the rivers, breathe deep of that yet sweet and lucid air, sit quietly for a while and contemplate the precious stillness, the lovely, mysterious, and awesome space. Enjoy yourselves, keep your brain in your head and your head firmly attached to the body, the body active and alive, and I promise you this much; I promise you this one sweet victory over our enemies, over those desk-bound men and women with their hearts in a safe deposit box, and their eyes hypnotized by desk calculators. I promise you this; You will outlive the bastards.

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