As a little boy, I had a recurring nightmare and it always featured my grandfather’s dog. Arthur Rose had a Labrador called Sir Lancelot – Lance for short – and I adored this dog. I think he liked me too, because we raced around Arthur’s great lawns together and when I tried to trip him up, he tried to trip me up and when I lay on the ground, he would sit with his back to me and bang his heavy, powerful tail into my face.
But in my nightmares I would be confronted by a hostile Lance – no friendly Lab now, but a biting, barking wolf-like creature, his face contorted with hatred. He would torment me until my cries of fear brought my father to my bed. He would shake me repeatedly until I freed myself from this fearsome, phantom dog.
We westerners tend to regard dreams as a haphazard phenomenon wrought by the sleeping diminution of a still working brain, a coma of flotsam thrown up by our daily experiences. But for many extreme Muslims, dreams are a far more serious affair. The Prophet Mohammed received his message from God – the Koran – after a series of dreams lasting six months, and there are those who believe that the entire text of the Koran was received by the Prophet in a dream-like trance.
Dreams, in other words, were no mere reflection of the idle human brain but could be a direct communication from God. Dr Iain Edgar of Durham University’s Anthropology Department has sent me the results of his own investigation into this phenomenon, the experience of the “true dream” – ruya in Arabic – which, he believes, “is a fundamental, inspirational, and even strategic, part of the contemporary militant jihadist movement in the Middle East and elsewhere.”
Describing Islam as “probably the largest night dream culture in the world today,” Edgar quotes a hadith (saying of the Prophet) in which Mohammed’s wife Aisha says that the “commencement of the divine inspiration was in the form of good righteous dreams in his sleep … He never had a dream but that it came true like bright of day.” An 8th-century dream writer from Basra in southern Iraq, Ibn Sirin – who wrote Dreams and their Interpretation – divided dreams into the spiritual (ruan), those inspired by the devil, and “dreams emanating from the nafs (which means “running, hot blood”) – an earthly spirit that dwells in the dreamer’s body and is distinct from the soul.”
I fear that my grandfather’s ferocious Labrador must be placed among the latter. But these ideas should not be trifled with. Mohammed Amanullah presented a paper at Berkeley three years ago which stated that half of the 12 Muslim staff in the religious studies department at a Malaysian university reported “true” dreams, 50 per cent of which revealed the Prophet. One hadith quotes the Prophet as saying that “whoever has seen me in a dream, then no doubt, he has seen me, for Satan cannot imitate my shape.”
Osama bin Laden certainly is a dream-believer. Not only did he once tell me that one of his “brothers” had a dream that he had seen me in a Muslim gown, bearded and riding a horse, and that this must mean I was a “true Muslim” – a possible attempt at recruitment which I swiftly turned down – but following September 11, he was quoted as saying that “Abul-Hassan al-Musri told me a year ago: ‘I saw in a dream, we were playing a soccer game against the Americans. When our team showed up in the field, they were all pilots!’ He (al-Musri) didn’t know anything about the (9/11) operation until he heard it on the radio. He said the game went on and we defeated them. That was a good omen for us.”
Yosri Fouda, an al-Jazeera journalist who interviewed al- Qa’ida planners Ramzi bin al-Shibh and Khalid Shaykh Mohammed in 2002, reported that al-Shibh spoke of experiencing many dreams about the brothers before the attacks. “He would speak of the Prophet and his close companions as if he had actually met them.” Al-Shibh was to recall that “Mohammed Atta [one of the leading September 11 hijackers] told me that Marwan [el-Shehdi] had a beautiful dream that he was flying high in the sky surrounded by green birds not from our world, and that he was crashing into things, and that he felt so happy.”
Fouda notes that “green birds” are often given significance in dreams; green is the colour of Islam and flying birds are a symbol of heaven. Edgar notes that bin Laden’s recounting of the dream in which the luckless Fisk was seen as an imam has me mounted on a horse which – according Iain Edgar – symbolises a “person’s status, rank, honour, dignity, power and glory.” Well thanks, but no.
Richard Reid, the British would-be shoe bomber, referred to a dream in which he tried to hitch a ride in a pick-up truck which was full and was forced to travel in a smaller car. The truck presumably represented the four aircraft used on September 11 from which Reid was excluded, and the car was the American Airlines plane on which Reid was forced to try to “catch up” with his 19 comrades.
Zacarias Moussawi, the Frenchman of Moroccan origin who may have been the intended 20th hijacker, found that his own dreams of flying a plane into a tall building became a significant issue in his 2006 trial in the US. Rahimullah Yusufzai, by far the wisest journalist reporting in Pakistan, was told by the Taliban that its founder, the one-eyed Mullah Omar, “gets instructions in his dream and he follows them up.” A dream was the genesis of the Taliban’s foundation. Mullah Omar once telephoned Yusufazai to ask for an interpretation of a dream in which a “white palace” was on fire. He knew that Yusufzai had been to the White House. Did it look like the White Palace? This was before September 11.
Extraordinarily, Qari Badruzzaman Badr, a Guantanamo ex-prisoner, recounted to the Daily Times in Lahore how “many Arabs had dreams in which the Holy Prophet personally gave them news of their freedom … One Arab saw Jesus who took his hand and told him that Christians were now misled. Later the other prisoners could smell the sweet smell of Jesus on his hand.” Jesus, in other words, a major prophet of Islam, is telling the Muslim prisoners that the Christians are misled. As Edgar comments: “What a transcendence of their oppression this dream message must have seemed!”
But there are false dreams. A Peshawar imam recounted how a man told him that the Prophet said he could drink alcohol. But when the man admitted that he himself drank alcohol, the imam said he had not seen the Prophet, only a self-justification for drinking. Alas, I fear there is no hope for us infidels!