Dreams that Matter explores the social and material life of dreams in contemporary Cairo. Amira Mittermaier guides the reader through landscapes of the imagination that feature Muslim dream interpreters who draw on Freud, reformists who dismiss all forms of divination as superstition, a Sufi devotional group that keeps a diary of dreams related to its shaykh, and ordinary believers who speak of moving encounters with the Prophet Muhammad. In close dialogue with her Egyptian interlocutors, Islamic textual traditions, and Western theorists, Mittermaier teases out the dream’s ethical, political, and religious implications. Her book is a provocative examination of how present-day Muslims encounter and engage the Divine that offers a different perspective on the Islamic Revival. Dreams That Matter opens up new spaces for an anthropology of the imagination, inviting us to rethink both the imagined and the real.
Dreams That Matter Egyptian Landscapes of the Imagination
But they are cutting off our dreams-dreams don't mean much, they say, and proceed to make it so.... I can feel the Wiper wipe away the dream traces ... fading like steps in windblown sand or snow.
Then he said: Why dreams? For that kind of stuff you have to go to Iran or maybe Morocco. They know more about this stuff. I said: But Egyptians dream too, don't they? He said: Yes, but we dream of going out and of girls.
-fieldnotes, 1 February 2003
"Hey! Have you heard yet? A Saudi Arabian woman called in and said she saw the moon breast-feeding a boy, and the shaykh said this means the mahdī has been born." If you're in Cairo (and if you speak Arabic), most likely you will have heard-if not this version, then a slightly different one. Maybe the woman was not Saudi Arabian but Palestinian. Maybe she did not see the moon breast-feeding a boy, but herself breast-feeding the moon, or the moon being breast-fed by the sun. You might also have heard that the shaykh asked the woman to perform her ablutions and made her swear three times that she had neither lied nor exaggerated. Or that the shaykh cried upon hearing the dream. Regardless of which version you heard, you will be familiar with its central elements: a woman, a phone call, the moon, the shaykh, the mahdī ... and a dream.
The rumor was out and spreading throughout Cairo. While the dream had simply seemed strange, its interpretation was alarming and troublesome. Within a Sunni eschatological context, the mahdī is a savior who will restore true Islam at a time of decadence and decay immediately preceding Judgment Day. His birth is a serious matter: it indicates that the end of the world is near. In newspaper interviews, Shaykh Hanafi insisted that a dream of a breast-feeding moon would be absurd and lie "outside of rationality (khārig 'an al-'aqlāniyya)." He swore that neither had he been asked about this particular dream nor had he given this particular interpretation. Yet it mattered little how often the shaykh asserted that he, like everyone else, had learned about the supposed dream only from random people on the street and at work. "Bring me a single person who has seen me interpret the dream and not just heard about it," Shaykh Hanafi protested again and again, but the repetitive chatter of the rumor drowned him out. As far as Cairo was concerned, the dream had been dreamed and Shaykh Hanafi had offered his troubling interpretation. Al-Azhar promptly issued a decree that interdicted the broadcasting of dreams and other metaphysical matters (al-ghaybiyyāt) to "the masses." Ru'a, Shaykh Hanafi's popular dream-program, was taken off the air. It was 22 January 2003.
Having arrived only three weeks prior to this incident, I had been spending my days with friends and relatives, carefully testing the ground by broaching my research topic. Some of my friends marveled over the fact that two research foundations had given me thousands of dollars to study something as obscure and ephemeral as dreams and visions. Those more supportive of my project would either pull their copy of Ibn Sīrīn's dream manual from one of their shelves or out of their bedside drawer or, alternatively, they would begin talking about Ru'a. The TV program was recommended to me by a variety of people, ranging from a woman who sweeps the floors in the Sayyida Zaynab mosque to a medical student in the upper-class neighborhood of Medinat Nasser. Broadcast every Wednesday night on Egyptian national television, Ru'a was a typical live call-in TV show. Viewers told their dreams via phone, and a young female moderator directed their requests for interpretation either to Shaykh Hanafi or to an Egyptian psychologist (a different one was invited to participate in the show every week). Many people commended Ru'a as a perfect example of how Islam and modern science could successfully be brought together. For others it was an ongoing source of information. Instead of looking up symbols in classical dream manuals, by watching the show they would learn how to interpret their own dreams. Marwa, a twenty-one-year-old student from a lower-middle-class background, eagerly awaited Ru'a every week, took detailed notes, and over the course of a year had composed her own little dream manual based on the shaykh's mass-mediated interpretations. Like her, many of my friends were excited about the program, and I, in turn, found their excitement reassuring during those first few weeks of fieldwork. Ru'a was a readily available conversation topic and set of field data, easily consumable and just as easily recordable. Or so I thought.
The day came on which I was to watch Ru'a myself for the first time. I settled onto a sofa in front of the television in the apartment that I was renting in Mohandeseen. I had inserted a videocassette into the recorder and sat waiting with a cup of Nescafé, notebook in hand. The evening passed, and Ru'a was never broadcast. I called Marwa to find out what was going on. Maybe the shaykh is sick, she suggested, or maybe he's traveling. But she sounded doubtful. It could also be the case that the program had simply been discontinued without any warning or explanation-a fate not uncommon for TV programs in Egypt. Marwa's fears were confirmed when a few days later the rumor of the breast-feeding moon and the impending arrival of the mahdī began circulating, accompanied by the Azharite decree against mass-mediated dream interpretations.
Ru'a's end was widely discussed on Cairo's streets and in its print media. Everyone seemed to have an opinion about it, and my disappointment at the program's cancellation soon gave way to the realization that it constituted an ideal "incitement to discourse." Multiple religious and secular discursive regimes converged in the attempt to ban dream interpretation from the public sphere. Among Ru'a's loudest critics was the Egyptian state itself, which has a particular dislike for all "excessive" forms of Sufism and which draws legitimacy from its claim to protect the Islamic heritage (cf. Starrett 1998). While not an Islamic state per se and often attacked by its opponents as too secular, Egypt has a state mufti; mosques are subject to government inspection; al-Azhar was effectively placed under state control in 1961; and over the course of the twentieth century, reform laws were issued that prohibit specific ritual practices and that moved the administration of Sufi orders under the supervision of the Higher Council of Sufi Affairs. The latter, first established in 1903, exists to assure that Sufism remains within the confines of "true Islam" and free of ecstatic rituals and claims to ongoing forms of prophecy. Although the Egyptian state and al-Azhar are not always neatly aligned, in the debate around Ru'a their positions overlapped. The Azharite decree stated that dream interpretation on television was dangerous "because it can cause confusion or anxiety (balbala) in the public opinion," and the Ministry of Religious Affairs declared Ru'a to be a form of "idle talk" and claimed that "there is nothing in the Islamic religion that confirms the idea of dream interpretation." For this reason, the ministry insisted, the TV station should replace Ru'a with a different program, which was to "deal with religion and morals instead of dream interpretation and intrusions into the Unknown (al-ghayb)." By way of the preposition instead of, dream interpretation was placed outside the realm of religion and morals. Al-Azhar and the state seemed to agree: dream interpretation is un-Islamic and only confuses the masses.
State officials and religious scholars were joined on this issue by Western-trained professionals and liberal journalists. Whereas a number of psychologists had participated in Ru'a, others had long rejected the program, complaining either that the shaykh always had the last word on the show, or worse: that he was a charlatan. One newspaper criticized Ru'a for deflecting the public's attention from "real, political issues," and that at a time-shortly before the invasion of Iraq in 2003-when all Arabs should be keeping an eye on what was happening in the region. The state-run daily newspaper al-Gumhūriyya warned that in particular "illiterate and uneducated people" needed to be protected from the spreading of humbug and myths, and an Azharite publication expressed concern about the rumor of the mahdī arising right at a time when the Muslim community was facing such grave dangers. In the eyes of secular critics and religious scholars alike, dream talk is nothing but an opiate of the masses. It depoliticizes and numbs.
Taking the Ru'a debate as an entry point into the complex terrain of Egypt's dream landscapes, this chapter introduces some of the players that continuously reshape these landscapes-not so much the more obvious ones such as dream interpreters and psychologists (to whom I turn in later chapters), but rather bureaucratic institutions, colonial forces, Orientalists, Saudi scholars, al-Azhar, Muslim Brotherhood members, and Muslim reformists. By reformists I mostly mean here thinkers associated with Salafism, a Sunni reform movement that emerged in Egypt in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries and that aimed at overcoming a perceived stagnation through a return to the Islam of the salaf, the pious ancestors, and by proving Islam's compatibility with rationality and modern science. While reformist rationalities do not abandon the prophetic, they bracket it by promoting the view that the Prophet Muhammad's revelation experience was the final divine intervention and that, consequently, contemporary Muslims should rely on their minds instead of their dreams.
In what follows, I first turn from the Ru'a debate to another incident from my fieldwork that illustrates how reformist reason confines the imagination to a this-worldly social realm while foreclosing its metaphysical dimensions. The remainder of the chapter aims to contextualize these interdictions and separations by unraveling discourses around "charlatanry" and "superstition," tracing the impact of the Orientalist stereotype of the irrational "Arab mind" and describing a brief genealogy of reformist views on dreams. Muslim scholars have been discussing the relation between reason and revelation for many centuries, but the hyperrationalism of the Salafi reformers needs to be understood at least in part as a reaction to a modern European exaltation of scientific reason. Although the kind of rationality that is promoted by Muslim reformers is not simply a copy of modern European rationalities, like them, it insists on firm boundaries between the knowable and the Unknown, the real and the imaginary, the living and the dead. Instead of dwelling on the in-between, reformist reason insists on clear-cut boundaries.
Erasures of the Barzakh
"But he's dead," the imam repeated.
It seemed as though what he really wanted to say was, "Don't you get it? He's dead! Is that so hard to understand? Are you telling me you're as ignorant as these folks who come here every day?"
Here: Cairo's City of the Dead, and more specifically the beautiful medieval mosque in which the famous legal scholar al-Imām al-Shāfi'ī (d. 820) lies buried. Here: where hundreds of Egyptians drop off letters or where letters arrive by mail, addressed to the long-deceased saintly scholar. Here: one of those places where I expected to hear marvelous dream-stories. How else could al-Imām al-Shāfi'ī respond to the letter writers but by appearing to them in dreams or waking visions?
Besides being the founder of one of the four Sunni schools of law, al-Imām al-Shāfi'ī was directly related to the Prophet Muhammad. He is revered as a saint in Egypt and believed to serve as a defendant on the hidden court of saints (al-maḥkama al-bāṭiniyya). For decades Egyptians have been sending letters to the saint to ask for his help or intercession. Having read about the letters, I had come to the shrine to find out about the saint's means of responding to these many requests. Since most of the visitors were absorbed in prayer or busy talking to the saint, I decided to ask the imam in charge of the mosque about al-Imām al-Shāfi'ī's preferred mode of communication. Upon entering the imam's office, I noticed Ibn Sīrīn's dream manual on his desk, next to classical hadith and tafsīr works, and so, after having introduced myself, I quickly and confidently brought up the question of dream-visions.
"I've heard that people write letters to al-Imām al-Shāfi'ī," I said, "and I was wondering how he responds to them. Do people see him in their dreams?"
The imam's hospitable welcome gave way to a frown. "Al-Imām al-Shāfi'ī is dead," he said, "so how could anyone still see him?" To emphasize al-Imām al-Shāfi'ī's absolute deadness, the imam used the harsh word mayyit (dead) instead of the gentler mutawaffi (passed away). He could also have said that the saintly legal scholar dwells in the realm of God's mercy (fī raḥmat Allāh), which would have implied that death is not an end but rather an awakening.
I was thrown off by the imam's response and began wondering whether Ibn Sīrīn fulfilled only a decorative function on his desk. If the imam had read the dream manual, he would know that seeing the dead in a dream can be quite informative. According to Ibn Sīrīn, when a dead person wears a crown or green clothes, this means that he is doing well in the afterlife. A dream in which the dead perform a good deed is a sign that one should do the same. Classical sources are full of stories that rely on dreamed communication between the dead and the living. The imam's claim that the dead are unable to guide the living diverges not only from these classical sources, but also from the dream ethics adhered to by many Egyptians, who consider the visitational dream a real interlocutory possibility. According to them, dream-encounters are possible because the dead are in the barzakh, as are the spirits of the living while they are asleep or in a heightened spiritual state. Many dreamers and dream interpreters appreciate the barzakh as a dialogical in-between space, a space in which the living and the dead can meet.
In what sense, then, does it matter that al-Imām al-Shāfi'ī is dead? And why would someone so dismissive of the intimate ties between believers and saints have chosen to work in such a saintly mosque? It dawned on me that this was turning into one of those absurd moments when anthropologists explain to their informants what they would have liked to hear from them.
I couldn't help it: "So he's dead, but he's still around, isn't he? He's still in the barzakh."
"So what if he is?" the imam responded. "How can he solve our problems down here from there?"
"But ... ," I began again.
The imam interrupted me:
It's wrong of people to write letters to al-Imām al-Shāfi'ī, complaining to him and asking for help. They do it only out of ignorance. Of course al-Imām [al-Shāfi'ī] never responds to them. He's dead, after all. How could he respond to them? How could he solve their problems for them? It's wrong to turn to him for help. We are only to turn to God for help. [God said] "I am near" [Qur'an 2:186]. Seeking help through anyone else (al-tawassul) is not permitted.... Writing letters to someone like that is idolatry (shirk).... Luckily it has gotten less, the problem of people writing letters. One or two centuries ago people used to do it much more. Now they understand better. Because of science ('ilm) their minds are enlightened (yastanīr al-'uqūl). And of course the mind tells you that it's wrong. That he's dead. That he won't solve your problems for you.
From a reformist point of view, the dead, including the Prophet and the awliyā', are truly dead; mutual visits and conversations between the dead and the living are impossible. To underline this point, reformist thinkers often cite a Qur'anic verse stating that "behind those [who leave the world] there is a barrier [of death] (barzakh) until the Day when all will be raised from the dead" (23:100). According to reformist readings of this verse, the dead are strictly separated from the living until Judgment Day. The barzakh here is not an in-between space but a barrier.
"So what if he is?" the imam responded when I referred to the saint's presence in the barzakh. Al-Imām al-Shāfi'ī might be in that realm, but he cannot influence the lives of the living. So what? might be the best way to sum up what reformist reason more generally has to say about the possibility of truthful dream-visions. Such dreams exist in theory but no longer in practice. The dead are in the barzakh, but the living have no access to that realm. While dream-visions are not categorically denied, dreams cannot live up to the imperative of certitude that is embraced by reformist reason. The possibility of prophecy is accordingly not erased, but it is bounded.
In the imam's view, the fact that people write letters to a dead saint is a token of their ignorance, their lack of enlightenment. Instead of turning to a metaphysical Elsewhere for help, they should learn how to take their problems into their own hands. Like Ru'a's critics, the imam holds that expecting help from an Elsewhere leads to idle talk and confusion and that Islam should be swept free of all superstitious beliefs. Modern science in his eyes is not a token of secularism or Western imperialism but a tool for purifying Islam. Through it, all minds are to be enlightened.
Gradually our conversation turned to more mundane matters. I learned that the imam had grown up in Upper Egypt, that he had studied in Saudi Arabia, that he greatly admired the orderliness that he associates with Germany, and that he had never chosen to work in al-Imām al-Shāfi'ī's saintly mosque but the government had assigned him to it-maybe precisely because of his rationalistic stance.
Of course, until all minds are "enlightened," neither the Egyptian state nor its imams can prevent people from dreaming of saints or from writing letters to them. The most they can do is interdict dream programs on national television and ritually erase the material traces of the people's "superstitions." At al-Imām al-Shāfi'ī's shrine, government officials collect and burn the believers' letters on a weekly basis. In a gesture toward a brighter future, when all "ignorance" will be overcome, the people's requests go up in smoke. Other times the letters fulfill an even more pragmatic purpose. The imam told me that before the letters are burned, he occasionally reads some of them to get a sense of people's worries and concerns, which he then addresses in his Friday sermons. If, for instance, a number of the letters are about divorce, the sermon will include strategies for dealing with marital problems. In the imam's opinion, he can provide concrete, religiously and scientifically sound advice; al-Imām al-Shāfi'ī cannot. He is dead and out of reach.
Of Charlatans and Superstitions
Those who insist that they can communicate with the dead and those who ascribe too much value to their dreams are frequently labeled "superstitious" in Egypt. Muslim dream interpreters, in turn, are called charlatans. When superstitions or acts of charlatanry threaten to get out of hand, the boundaries of "true Islam" are enforced. Often the difference between acceptable and unacceptable practices is a matter of scope and audience. Just as saint veneration embarrasses state officials because of its highly visible nature, an article in the Egyptian weekly 'Aqīdatī expressed outrage at the abuse of dream interpretation for the "tricking of simple people" and introduced the readers to a "proper" dream interpreter-one who recognizes her limits and remains within the boundaries of the private; one who interprets only for relatives, friends, and neighbors and does "not receive anyone, be it at home or at work or on the telephone in order to interpret. It is for those around [her]." Shaykh Hanafi's televised interpretations, by contrast, were reaching an entire TV audience, and the announcement of the coming of the mahdī (and thus of the impending end of the world) concerned all Muslims, if not the world at large.
The terms daggāl and sha'wadha are used widely in the Arabic media, the former meaning "swindler," "cheat," "imposter," "quack," or "charlatan," and the latter "magic," "humbug," "swindle," or "trickery." Time and again friends warned me that I should choose my interlocutors carefully. Worried that I might represent Islam wrongly in the "West," they urged me not to talk to dervishes, Sufis, elderly women, and those who make a "business" out of lying. A basic rule of thumb suggested by a young Egyptian woman was that "whoever tells you he's a dream interpreter is a charlatan." When Egyptians speak of charlatans, they generally refer to people who abuse their religion and make money by tricking others. Occasionally a Faustian contract with the devil or evil spirits is also implied. Terms such as charlatan derive their discursive force in part from how they group practices and beliefs. Dream interpretation is superstitious because it is just like reading the future in coffee cups, writing horoscopes, or using charms. A dream interpreter is a charlatan who financially exploits people just like those claiming to exorcise evil spirits. Categorizations of this sort manifest themselves in analogies drawn by journalists, in how books are arranged in bookstores, and also in what people assumed to be relevant for my project. Some handed me their booklets on zodiac signs when I brought up dreams; others spoke to me about magic spells, drew amulets, or took me to Qur'anic healers or zār rituals. Dreams were of little importance in these contexts, but somehow these spheres belonged together in the minds of my interlocutors.
A study of "274 different kinds of superstitions," conducted in 2003 by the National Center for Criminal and Social Research in Cairo, concluded that Egyptians have been spending a yearly amount of ten billion Egyptian pounds on "unraveling unknown matters (qirā'āt al-ghayb)," magic, and the treatment of spirit possession. Thousands, the research center reported, seek out charlatans in the hope of being healed, averting the evil eye or magical spells, or becoming pregnant. According to the report, the fees paid to charlatans range between ten pounds for less-known ones and ten thousand pounds for the most famous healers, who are frequented by Egyptians and visitors from the Gulf states alike. The research center claimed that currently about three hundred thousand charlatans are active in Egypt. Besides Egyptian newspapers, their counterparts in Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states also reported on these findings. How is it possible, they asked, that Arabs spend more money on humbug than on education? Why are Egyptians so prone to falling for charlatanry? How has superstition taken hold of Egypt's "collective mind (al-'aql al-jamā'ī)"?
Different answers were suggested. Some sociologists held the cinema and television responsible for portraying charlatanry in an increasing number of films. Such films, according to one journalist, exploit the masses' ignorance and promote an escape to the supernatural instead of enculturing (tathqīf) and enlightening (tanwīr) people. Others came to the defense of the mass media and argued that films only portray what is already an eminent phenomenon in society, or merely show why it is wrong to go to a charlatan. Frequently Egyptian journalists correlated the resurgence of magic, humbug, and superstitions with political, economic, and social instabilities, arguing that historically, people turn to the supernatural especially during crises. Instead of taking the future into their hands, one journalist noted, the Arabs subject it to a "nonreal and nonmaterial world that is woven by the imagination of magicians, swindlers, and charlatans." A newspaper from the Emirates blamed the increase in charlatanry on a feeling of despair, insufficient religious knowledge, and shortcomings in the educational structure.
While journalists, sociologists, and other experts were busy debating what has led to an increase in superstitious beliefs and charlatanry, they failed to consider a number of alternative questions. Instead of asking what has caused a turn to "superstitions," one might ask, for instance, what all this talk about "superstition" signifies. In part the answer might be that the portrayal of "bad Muslims" helps to define and reaffirm the "good Muslims." Additionally, as I suggest next, the categories of charlatanry and superstition need to be understood as outcomes of particular colonial histories. Although the distinction between experts and charlatans is not a modern phenomenon, and although the lines that are drawn today resonate with older binaries, they were intensified when colonizers' and Orientalists' accounts of the Muslims' irrationality and illogicality fueled reformers' calls to rid Islam of all superstitions. The lingering image of the muddled, illogical "Arab mind" haunts, so I believe, many contemporary debates about the contours of "true Islam."
The "Arab Mind"
A recurring trope in Orientalist and colonialist discourses insists that Islam is inherently irrational. Scottish Orientalist H. A. R. Gibb commented on the "aversion of the Muslims from thought-processes of rationalism" (1947, 7), and American Islamicist Duncan MacDonald (1911, 48) claimed that the "Orientals" have the creative imagination of a child and are therefore in need of missionaries. According to MacDonald, while Christianity managed to bring the unseen into history, Islam failed to do so and was therefore overpowered by the uncanny (cf. Pruett 1984). As Edward Said (1979) has pointed out, MacDonald and Gibb participated in an immense, intertextual web of meanings that constructs the Orient as Other and that intersects with and feeds into colonialist discourses. A typical colonialist take on the "Oriental mind" was offered by Lord Cromer, the first British viceroy of Egypt, who mused over how Egypt could best be brought out of its "semi-civilized condition." While stating that he felt a deep sympathy for the Egyptian people, Lord Cromer explained that true understanding between Egyptians and Europeans was practically impossible because of a want of mental symmetry. In a chapter on the nature of Egyptians in his book Modern Egypt, Cromer juxtaposed the logical, scientific, curious, questioning European mind with the superstitious, fatalistic "muddle-headedness" of Egyptians. According to Cromer, the European is a "close reasoner" and "natural logician, albeit he may not have studied logic," whereas the Arab's mind, "like his picturesque streets, is eminently wanting in symmetry" (1908, 146). Although he noted that the Arabs perfected the science of dialectics and contributed to European thought in the eleventh and twelfth centuries through their teachings of Aristotelian philosophy, Cromer held that the contemporary Egyptian is inherently gullible and therefore "readily becomes the dupe of the magician and the astrologer. Even highly educated Egyptians are prone to refer the common occurrences of life to the intervention of some supernatural agency" (146f.).
Similar discourses not only crop up today in the Arab press but linger also in other forms. One version of the trope of the irrational Muslim, Arab, or Oriental appears in Raphael Patai's book The Arab Mind, which was first published in 1973 and has been used in U.S. military training camps in recent years. Patai explains that "what the Arab mind does is to elect purposely to give greater weight in thought and speech to wishes rather than reality, to what it would like things to be rather than to what they objectively are" (1983, 165). According to Patai, the Arabs are unable to grasp reality objectively and are therefore stuck in a fantasy world. He relates these mental incapacities to the Arabic speakers' intoxication with eloquence, proneness to verbal exaggeration, tendency toward repetitiousness, and grammatical unconcern with time distinctions (44-72).
More recently, the trope of the irrational or anti-rationalist Muslim reemerged in Pope Benedict XVI's controversial speech in Regensburg, Germany, in September 2006-a speech in which the pope contrasted the intrinsic harmony between Christianity and Greek philosophy with the supposed view of Muslim scholars that God is absolutely transcendent and not bound by rationality. In response, a number of Muslim scholars pointed out that the pope had failed to address the relationship between God's transcendent nature and human reason in the Islamic tradition, and that the use of one's reason is a religious duty in Islam. Like the stereotype of the irrational Muslim, these counterarguments are nothing new. Muslim reformers have long been going to great lengths to prove that Islam is in fact a highly rational religion. What is overlooked by both those insisting on the inherent irrationality of Islam and those insisting on its inherent rationality is a realm that is neither rational nor irrational: the imagination.
Muslim reformers feel compelled to defend Islam against colonialist and Orientialist stereotypes. But they insist on the need to rely on rational thought also because of the powerful political and even revolutionary potential that can arise from claims to prophecy and divine inspiration. A famous historical example of a vision-inspired national heroine is Joan of Arc, who was executed for heresy in the fifteenth century after she had asserted that her visions of God told her to recover France from English domination. In the early twentieth century the Muslim reformist journal Al-Manār received a letter inquiring whether Joan of Arc should be considered a prophet. Rashīd Ridā, one of the key Salafi thinkers, responded that Joan of Arc was not a prophet because she never called her followers to a religion. He went on to explain that the French are a people easily moved by irrational factors, as proved by the example of Napoleon leading his troops into certain death by reciting poetry for them (1996, 42). Ridā later included the inquiry along with his response in The Muhammadan Revelation, a book centrally concerned with dislodging the Orientalist claim that Muhammad received only a "personal revelation," that is to say, an inspiration that "flowed from his subliminal self, with its highly refined religious sensibilities, into his conscious mind" (3). While Ridā acknowledged that Muhammad's prophecy started with dreams, he held that "visions are actually mental pictures that are open to interpretation, so that it is only the true prophet who is capable of distinguishing the true interpretation from the false" (22). Ridā confirmed the possibility of revelation in the form of dreams but simultaneously limited its accessibility to the Prophet. The Prophet's revelation experience was more than a dream, and only he was able to recognize it as such. Ordinary believers' dreams, by contrast, are always less than revelation. Ridā explained that Joan of Arc "was motivated by nervous energy which came about as a result of her anxiety over the political situation and as a result of her sentimental religiosity and belief in the legends that were popular in her times. All of this is quite common, and is shared by all those who claim to be the awaited Messiah, like Mohammad Ahmad in the Sudan, or the Bab in Iran, or Ahmad the Qadiani in India" (43).
According to Ridā, Joan of Arc was not a prophet, but neither were the modern messianic leaders of Islam, such as Muhammad Ahmad, who proclaimed himself mahdī in Sudan in 1881 and declared a jihād against the Ottoman rulers; Bāb, the founder of Babism in Iran (from which the Baha'i faith was later derived); and Mirza Ghulam Ahmad, who founded the Ahmadiyya movement in India in 1889. Ridā implied that all these messianic leaders were motivated by psychological anxieties, political instabilities, and prevalent beliefs that allowed them to imagine and present themselves as mahdī-like figures.
Although Ridā was more conservative than other Salafi reformers and increasingly became influenced by Wahhabi thought, his suspicion against ongoing claims to prophecy resonates with a broader Salafi emphasis on reason and aspiration to certitude. Famous debates, such as that between the reformer al-Afghānī and the French historian Ernest Renan in 1883, or that between Muhammad 'Abduh and the Christian Lebanese secularist Farah Antoun in 1902, centered precisely on the question of whether Islam is compatible with reason. In insisting that Islam is a highly rational religion, the Salafi reformers described it as distinct from Christianity, which, according to their account, has long embraced a belief in miracles. Ridā noted that whereas the concepts of reason, thought, consideration, and deliberation are absent from the Bible, the Qur'an mentions the word mind ('aql) more than fifty times (1996, 107).
When Salafi thinkers emphasize Islam's inherent rationality, they do not necessarily embrace European models of reason. As Talal Asad (2003, 221f.) has pointed out, it would be reductive to think that the reformers simply turned against manifestations of mysticism because they represented the irrationality that the European bourgeoisie disliked most about Islam. Far from exclusively being a colonial legacy, such a skepticism is prominent already in the writings of the medieval scholar Ibn Taymiyya (d. 1328), who, as Fritz Meier puts it, was "in favor of 'Apollonian' intellectual clarity and against all forms of 'Dionysian' rapture" (1999, 317), and who held against Sufis their unwarranted valuation of experience and exceptional states. While not denying the possibility that one might even see God in dreams and waking visions, Ibn Taymiyya warned that one should never consider dreams or visions binding and true in a way that would raise their status to that of the Qur'an and sunna.
Ridā emphasized Islam's high regard for the mind and, like Ibn Taymiyya, he rejected an overvaluation of mystical experience. Simultaneously he denounced the supposed rationality of Western Orientalists who claimed to be using a mode of critical analysis to disprove the divine origins of the Qur'anic revelation (1996, 49). While defending the historical occurrence of revelation, Salafi reformers were particularly skeptical of Sufi claims to divine inspiration. Ridā, 'Abduh, and al-Afghānī were all involved in Sufi orders early in their lives and continued to express their respect for "true Sufism," but they repeatedly denounced the aberrations of popular religious customs and wanted to outlaw what they considered to be excessive Sufi practices. One token of the reformers' ambivalent attitude about Sufism is al-Manār wa-l-Azhar, a book that Ridā wrote toward the end of his life. In it he recalled a number of extraordinary mystical experiences that he himself underwent as a young man: he felt himself move outside his body while reading al-Ghazālī's Revival of the Religious Sciences; he saw visions of future events; he was able to heal the sick through his prayers; and, during his involvement with the Naqshabandiyya order, he saw the Prophet, Abū Bakr, and a shaykh of his order in a state between sleeping and waking (Riḍā 1933; cf. Sirriyeh 1999, 99). Although Ridā was impressed and moved by these experiences, he later came to reject them as inherently unreliable. He did so without resorting to European Enlightenment thought or modern scientific arguments. Instead of referring to his contemporaries Freud and Jung, he discarded supposed "dreams of the holy dead as mainly dreams of the unholy devils" (Sirriyeh 2000, 130).
Interestingly, Ridā was not entirely consistent in devaluing the dream's evidential potential. In his 1933 book he drew on a dream that a father of an acquaintance had seen and in which he questioned the great medieval Sufi master Ibn al-'Arabī about what happened to him after his death. Ibn al-'Arabī confessed in the dream that he led many people astray in his life because he was confused about the imaginal world (155). It is ironic that Ridā provided imaginary proof to disprove the importance of the imaginary realm. Apparently the evidential promise of dream-visions could be so compelling that even the rationalist reformer disregarded his own convictions when a dream fitted into his argument. In principle, however, Salafi reformers reject the dream's prophetic and ethical potential. The reformers' expulsion from Islam of whatever is seen as nonrational (i.e., the insistence on a rational Islam and the construction of "superstition" as an abject category) draws on rationalist trends in the Islamic tradition while simultaneously responding to Orientalist tropes of the quintessentially irrational Muslim. The resulting skepticism finds expression today not only in state-aligned institutions but also in oppositional religious movements.
Muslim Brotherhood Thinkers on Dreams
Although "modernist" and "Islamist" trends are frequently juxtaposed in academic and journalistic writings, as far as dreams are concerned, state-aligned, modernist positions often converge and overlap with oppositional, "Islamist" ones. Salafi thought not only has permeated al-Azhar and Egypt's official religious institutions, but it also is reflected in the epistemological stance adopted by thinkers affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood, an organization that has moved in and out of legitimacy since it was first founded in 1928 and today forms one of the strongest oppositional forces in Egypt.
Hasan al-Bannā, the founder of the Muslim Brotherhood, stressed in his Risālat al-Ta'līm (Thesis of Education) that Islam is a rational religion, a religion that "frees the mind (yuḥarrir al-'aql)" (1981, 358). He distinguished sharply between legitimate sources of knowledge (namely, Qur'an, sunna, science, and rational thought) and their deviant counterparts, and he denounced knowledge gained by way of dreams, divine inspiration, and premonitions. Al-Bannā's take on dream-visions and divination was later echoed by Yūsuf al-Qardāwī, a key figure in the Islamic Revival movement, who was stripped of his Egyptian nationality because of his support for the Muslim Brotherhood and who currently lives in Qatar. In a book titled Islam's Position on Divine Inspiration, Illumination, Dream-Visions, Amulets, Divination, and Spells, al-Qardāwī explains that Hasan al-Bannā's stance illuminates the movement's position on "excessive Sufis who make of what they are inspired by in the waking state and what they see in their sleep a proof through which they justify their deeds and words as if it were the infallible revelation. They even have turned illumination, inspiration, and dream-visions into legal evidence (dalīl). This is a clear error and a big mistake" (1996, 11).
Again, "excessive Sufis" are here criticized for overvaluing their experience and for mistaking their dream-visions for a form of revelation. Yet like Ridā, al-Qardāwī not only denounces "those who rely on dream-visions in their life as if they were revelation and wait in every matter for a dream-vision that will point them the right way," but he also disagrees with those who deny the existence of dream-visions altogether: "There are people whose view is obscured [literally: whose veil is thick], like the materialists of our time and of all times and like the followers of the school of psychoanalysis. They deny the truthful dream-vision and see all dream-visions only as a reflection of what is in the psyche during the waking state or what is hidden in the basements of the inner mind, the unconscious" (ibid. 120).
Whereas the imam in al-Imām al-Shāfi'ī's mosque drew on "modern science" to discard the masses' "backward" beliefs, al-Qardāwī puristically aims at disproving the dream's reliability from within the Islamic tradition. In opposition to materialists, empiricists, and psychoanalysts, he reaffirms the reality of dream-visions and asserts that divine inspiration and illumination do occur in the miracles of prophets and saints, to whom God might reveal some "hidden things of the unknown matters of the future" (ibid. 37). While not denying the theoretical possibility of dream-visions, al-Qardāwī tries to contain their effectiveness. Dream-visions, he warns, can never qualify as evidence. He explains that if one learns through a dream that a specific witness has lied, or that money was stolen, or that water is impure, none of these findings matters in reality as even the Prophet always judged based on visible facts (al-ẓawāhir) and not based on what God had revealed to him. Offering an example of what can happen when dreams are mistaken for evidence, al-Qardāwī cites an article from the Egyptian newspaper al-Ahrām, according to which a judge changed the date for local elections because of a dream-vision he had seen. "This way," al-Qardāwī laments, "dream-visions have begun interfering in religion, politics, and all aspects of life" (120).
In light of his distrust of the dream-vision's epistemological and ethical potential, it is not surprising that al-Qardāwī responded to the Ru'a debate in the form of a rhetorical question: "And why should we care about dream-visions? (fa-mā bālunā bi-l-ru'ā al-manāmiyya)." In the wake of the debate a fatwa was also issued on Islam Online, a bilingual Web site initiated by al-Qardāwī, which urged Muslims not to "arrange their conditions and [not to] modify their states depending on these kinds of dream-visions. It is a dangerous slippery ground (mazlaq) that Muslims should not trust." One of the Egyptian muftis involved in the collective issuing of the fatwa told me proudly that it was clicked on far more often than any other recent fatwa.
Along with state-aligned and oppositional reformist voices coming out of Egypt, Saudi scholars have been expressing their disdain for dream interpretation, particularly in its mass-mediated forms. Saudi scholars are primarily associated with Wahhabism, a literalist reform movement that began in Saudi Arabia in the eighteenth century and that aims at the purification of Islam through a return to the Qur'an and the sunna while taking a strong stand against bid'a, saint worship, polytheism, and Sufism. Wahhabi thought has influenced some Salafi thinkers directly, and many Egyptian scholars have studied in Saudi Arabia; additionally, since the early 1960s the well-funded Muslim World League in Mecca has been sending Saudi-trained scholars into various parts of the Muslim world. Through these educational exchanges, by way of labor migration, television, the Internet, and print media, Wahhabi thought has been extending beyond Saudi Arabia's borders, and I often found Egyptians quoting authoritative Saudi opinions that they had read in newspapers. Others complained of what could be called a "Saudification" of Islam.
In 2003 'Abd al-'Azīz Āl al-Shaykh, the main mufti of Saudi Arabia, warned against the phenomenon of dream interpretation, which "is spreading widely in the name of Islam" on television and in newspapers and magazines, and which can lead to social unrest and cause "disputes and discords by bringing apart a woman and her husband, or a man and his relatives and friends." He concluded that all Muslims should work together in closing the door before this "great evil (sharr 'aẓīm)." In an article in an Emirati newspaper, published a few months after Ru'a's discontinuation, a Saudi scholar went a step further, claiming that even "the Prophet (peace and prayers be upon him) did not know how to interpret dreams. Dream interpretation on satellite channels is slander (iftirā') against God. They talk about things that they know nothing about. They commit horrid mistakes in filling people with doubt and in confusing their lives in unprecedented ways. They should fear God!"
Dream interpretation, once the only legitimate form of divination in Islam, has here become a great evil. The notion that not even the Prophet Muhammad knew how to interpret dreams diverges from standard hadith works, according to which the Prophet frequently interpreted his companions' dreams. Since even he knew next to nothing of al-ghayb, the metaphysical realm of the Unknown, it is implied, regular believers should not dig into that dangerous realm either. To underline this point, critics of dream interpretation, and of divination more generally, frequently draw on the following Qur'anic verses:
For, with Him [God] are the keys to the things that are beyond a created being's perception (al-ghayb): none knows them but He. (6:59)
Say: "None in the heaven or on earth knows the hidden reality (al-ghayb) save God." (27:65)
Say [o Prophet]: I do not say unto you, "God's treasures are with me"; nor [do I say], "I know the things that are beyond the reach of human perception"; nor do I say unto you, "Behold, I am an angel": I but follow what is revealed to me. (6:50)
Salafi and Wahhabi reformers do not dismiss al-ghayb, but they declare it to be inaccessible. In separating the knowable from the Unknown, they call for an exclusive reliance on verifiable knowledge. Since the Unknown is out of reach and the gate of prophecy is closed, the dream arises as an object that needs to be controlled and domesticated. According to reformist thinkers, dreams are at best a private matter but should play no role in the public, legal, or political realm.
Faced with criticism from various sides, dream interpreters have been defending their work against the allegation that it is fraudulent, superstitious, or outdated. Countering the notion that dream interpretation is un-Islamic, they insist that it is part of, and legitimated by, the textual tradition. One dream interpreter from Upper Egypt who has appeared on a number of television shows asserted in June 2003, "dream interpretation is a lawful matter (amr shar'ī) that is proven in the Qur'an, the sunna, and the sayings of the ancestors (al-salaf)." Similarly, Shaykh Hanafi defended Ru'a in an interview by insisting that "all [he had] said in this [TV] show were things in agreement with the Qur'an and the sunna. These things can be found in the depths of books." Unlike the Egyptian Ministry of Religious Affairs, which requested a religiously sound program "instead of" Ru'a, dream interpreters assert that dream interpretation lies fully within the boundaries of the Islamic tradition, thus reclaiming for their work the status of orthodoxy.
Already before the rumor about the mahdī dream erupted, Shaykh Hanafi had been asked in an interview whether dream interpretation was not a superstitious practice. He answered that dream interpretation is a divine gift and a science legitimized by Ibn Sīrīn and in the hadith. "The books of the sunna are filled with this kind of knowledge," he said, "but people have become alienated from it." When talking to me, Shaykh Hanafi often emphasized his religious training, noting that by the age of ten he had memorized the Qur'an, that he had studied the classical Islamic sciences at al-Azhar, and that for forty years he had learned from a shaykh of the Bayyūmī Sufi order. Subsequently he worked as a teacher, an imam, and in the field of da'wa; and when he started the TV program, he was an employee in the administrative office of al-Azhar's professoriate. Whereas al-Azhar's decree denounced dream interpretation as un-Islamic, Shaykh Hanafi tried to resituate his work within the scope of Azharite legitimacy. In a newspaper interview following Ru'a's discontinuation he claimed, "If I had said empty talk or sought refuge with delusions and charlatanry, no one would have let me; my colleagues at al-Azhar would have directed me onto the right path."
When I first met the shaykh, he highlighted his Azharite credentials along with the textual embeddedness of his interpretive work. He showed me the many books that he uses when dealing with dreams, among them the manuals of Ibn Sīrīn, Ibn Shāhīn, and al-Nābulusī, hadith collections, classical works of fiqh (Islamic jurisprudence), al-Ghazālī's and Ibn al-Qayyim al-Jawzī's writings, and Kitāb al-Ḥayawānāt, as well as more recent self-help literatures. Our subsequent meetings usually began with us comparing the newest books on dreams we had acquired. The shaykh took great pride in the bookcases that were being built in his living room during my fieldwork, and one day he introduced me to Zaynab, another visitor to his house, whom he commended for "reading everywhere and at all times." After Zaynab had confirmed that reading is "more important to [her] than eating or sleeping," Shaykh Hanafi asked her to take off her reading glasses so he could compare them with his own. He was proud that his were thicker. For Shaykh Hanafi, the size of his private library and the thickness of his glasses characterize him as a proper scholar and symbolize the textual grounding and legitimacy of dream interpretation.
The point is therefore not that Muslim reformers are rational whereas dreamers and dream interpreters fall victim to, or intentionally embrace, irrationality. A quick glance into any of the classical dream manuals shows that Muslim dream interpretation is a highly complex, elaborate hermeneutical science with many rules and complicated techniques. It is also worth recalling in this context Shaykh Hanafi's remark that a dream of a breast-feeding moon would lie "outside of rationality." Shaykh Hanafi not only believes in the validity (and rationality) of dream interpretation but also asserts that dreams offering guidance or prophetic insight are themselves "rational." For him, being a dream interpreter does not mean subscribing to irrationality, it means following a particular rationality that comes out of a complex textual tradition. This tradition, however, does not reject the imagination as reason's Other, instead welcoming it as a mode of divine inspiration.
While relying on his ever-growing library, Shaykh Hanafi believes that the art of dream interpretation is not something that can be learned or passed on easily. His work as a dream interpreter, he says, responds to a gift given to him by God. The shaykh legitimizes his practice by insisting that it is grounded in years of study and that it is a divine gift, both at once. In his view, precisely because TV programs like Ru'a bring together scholarly knowledge and divine inspiration, they have an important role to play in society. Far from numbing the masses or distracting them from political matters, such programs can incite the viewers' political imaginations. Sharply rejecting the claim that his program was brainwashing the masses, Shaykh Hanafi insisted that Ru'a "does not spread superstitions and does not numb (yukhaddir) people. Counter to what some are claiming, it does not alienate [the viewers] from the difficult matters that the Muslim community is facing. It proceeds in the sphere of true and safe direction and the call for a reform of the self and the awakening of the Muslims. It incites them to hold on to their religion and to busy themselves with the worship of God and the issues of their community (umma)." For Shaykh Hanafi, far from being un-Islamic, dream interpretation is his duty as a Muslim. Although he denies ever having announced the coming of Judgment Day, he believes that his interpretations are ethically and politically awakening. Dream interpretation in his view exceeds distinctions between the public and the private, the psychological and the political.
Even the dream of the breast-feeding moon could potentially have awakened Ru'a's viewers. While declared irrational by Shaykh Hanafi himself, the dream announced a radical change and simultaneously commented on the current state of affairs. Things were so bad in Egypt (or in the world at large) that the end was near. Aware of these implications, critics of the program warned that such dream talk could incite social unrest or fitna. The fact that dreams (or rather their interpretations) can be mobilizing has been proved by history. I referred earlier to Rashīd Ridā's dismissal of different messianic leaders who claimed to be divinely inspired. Ridā could have used many additional examples. The founding of the Ottoman Empire was supposedly inspired by a dream seen by Osman. Shaykh Mansūr, a shaykh associated with the Naqshabandiyya order in the northern Caucasus, had a dream of the Prophet in the late eighteenth century that convinced him to lead an anticolonial resistance movement. More recently, the insurrection in Mecca in 1979 was triggered by an eschatological expectation of the mahdī's arrival that had been revealed to the insurgents' leader by way of a dream-vision. Even some of the Western media's favorite "Islamists," like Bin Laden and Mullah 'Omar, the founder of the Taliban movement, have claimed to have been inspired by dream-visions.
Most of the dreamers and dream interpreters whom I came to know during my fieldwork do not aim at overthrowing governments or global powers. Dream interpretation for Shaykh Hanafi and his Egyptian colleagues speaks rather to everyday concerns with piety and virtue that, as Saba Mahmood and Charles Hirschkind have argued, are as much part of the Islamic Revival as are its more obviously political manifestations. As the examples in later chapters will show, dream-visions often direct dreamers to concrete actions such as visiting the saints, distributing alms, or joining a Sufi order. Practices and experiences of the imagination can have powerful ethical dimensions; they can shape lives and create communities. Dream interpreters accordingly often provide dreamers not only with an interpretation but also with a directive for how they are to live their life.
While Shaykh Hanafi denounced the dream of the breast-feeding moon as irrational and while he is wary of making his interpretive work sound too political, he refers to his calling at times as a form of jihād or da'wa. Jihād in this context implies neither a holy war nor an inner spiritual struggle but a constant striving to heighten the Muslim community's awareness and moral state. The term da'wa here refers to calling Muslims back to their religion and inciting them to adhere to the Qur'an and to follow the Prophet's tradition. For interpreters like Shaykh Hanafi, and for those watching their programs, there exists a space even within a rationalized, reformed, postcolonial world in which the imaginary is not sealed off from the real. According to their view, dream interpretation does not distract Muslims from political realities, it is instead a call for a reform of the self, political awareness, and correct religious practice. It is a form of jihād. Dream interpretation, then, is not numbing but, one might say, an "experiment in the technique of awakening" (Benjamin 1999a, 388). Far from being tied to superstition, the dream is here redeemed as a prophetic medium. And far from being a charlatan, the dream interpreter is a translator of ethical imperatives from an Elsewhere.
Dreams are unreliable, say the Muslim reformers. Träume sind Schäume, we say in German. Dreams are nothing but foam. They might be bubbly and fun. They might reflect the whole spectrum of colors. They might seem substantial. Yet in reality they are only air: meaningless, fleeting, and inconsequential. At the moment the dreamer wakes up, the dream is devalued, dismissed, and generally forgotten. If they are merely foam, dreams have little to offer to dreamers in their waking lives. From a rationalistic and Muslim reformist perspective, the relationship between dream and wakeful time is marked by oppositional pairs: internal versus external, subjective versus objective, illusory versus real.
Tracing the impact of such dichotomization, I began with an end in this chapter. Ru'a's discontinuation in January 2003 raised questions not only about the predictability of the coming of Judgment Day but also about the legitimacy of Muslim dream interpretation, particularly in its mass-mediated forms. The possibility, reliability, and relevance of dream-visions were debated by al-Azhar, the Egyptian Ministry of Religious Affairs, Saudi scholars, journalists, sociologists, psychologists, laypersons, and at least one disappointed anthropologist and her friends. The Ru'a debate is interesting not only for the answers that these various people and institutions provided but also for the very event of the debate. Rather than attempt to decide whether Shaykh Hanafi truly is an expert or a charlatan, or if dream interpretation is indeed part of the Islamic tradition or merely a form of superstition, I have examined how, why, by whom, and to what effect these questions were being discussed with such urgency. Ultimately, the debate points to a broader remapping of Egypt's religious and imaginary landscapes. While seemingly trivial, Ru'a's end illustrates the dream's precarious place within the continuously reconfigured fields of Islam, politics, and ethics in Egypt.
Without necessarily drawing on the same arguments or sensibilities, Muslim reformists and secular professionals frequently converge in their criticism of "superstitions" and "charlatanry." Although they form a somewhat uneasy alliance, both parties tend to banish the in-between and the possibility of communication with the dead, the unseen, and the Unknown. Concerned with certainty, reformists take rationality as the prime source of orderliness. Adopting the language of either/or, they divorce the political from the imaginary, the visible from the invisible, the dead from the living, and the dream from that which matters. Whether insisting on the irrationality or rationality of Islam, both secularists and reformists overlook an imagination that is neither rational nor irrational. This imagination is what dreamers and dream interpreters trade in, and it is the central focus of this ethnography.
Why then, one might ask, begin a book on dreams and imaginations with the end of a dream interpretation program? I chose this beginning because a close look at the range of skeptical voices that aim to confine, discipline, and domesticate the dream allows for a better understanding of the charged political context in which the dream-stories in this book are situated and with which they are always already engaged. Attention to interdictions, to the work done by categories such as "superstition" or "charlatanry," sheds light on what "true Islam" is supposed to look like in the eyes of the Egyptian state, modernists, and reformers, and it situates current debates within the context of larger histories of colonization.
Another reason for beginning with contestations is that the perceived need to tame and depoliticize the dream reveals the dream's ethical, political, and even revolutionary potential. Simply put, the continual assertion that dreams don't or shouldn't matter can tell us something about the extent to which they do matter. Al-Azhar's concern with the broadcasting of dream interpretations "to the masses" is related to the fact that dream-visions can move dreamers, their communities, and even entire societies. Precisely because dream-visions have these ethical-political dimensions, they trouble secularists. Because they promise a glimpse of the prophetic, they trouble this-world-oriented, rationalist reformers. And because they undermine hierarchies, they trouble the Egyptian state and scholars who claim the exclusive right to define Islam for Egypt's citizens.
Still, it could be argued that beginning with material conditions and political contestations gives in to the narrative conventions of secular storytelling. The danger of such a beginning is that it overdetermines the political while obscuring the fact that before we are citizens, we all are dreamers. While the material and political context is crucial-at least for those of us trained in and by secular narrative conventions-it can lead us away from that which exceeds the secular modern, that which is never contained by it yet is always already a part of it. Dreams are not bubbles that float through the secular modern; they speak directly to, of, and within the modern. In this sense the perpetual attempts of the secular modern to erase its own dreamy sides attest not to the effectiveness of these attempts but to their ongoing failure.
Although state officials, orthodox scholars, reformists, and rationalists try to banish dreams into the private sphere, dreams, like rumors, have a habit of spilling over. Yet while dreams frequently guide dreamers in their waking lives, their meaning is often not immediately transparent. This is why dreamers call in to TV shows such as Ru'a or consult locally known dream interpreters. The next chapter is devoted to one such dream interpreter: the guardian of Ibn Sīrīn's shrine. As we will see, not only state institutions but also dream interpreters discipline the dream. They do so not by enforcing the imperatives of a secular rational order but by subjecting the dream to the intricate rules of the Muslim tradition of dream interpretation. At the same time, dream interpreters claim not to have control over the dream but to translate its ethical imperative. They occupy an in-between space. Thus, the next chapter leads us from the either/or into the realm of the in-between.
Shaykh Hanafi's story, too, does not end where I left off earlier. Only a few months after Ru'a had been discontinued, a journalist approached the shaykh and suggested that he record lectures on the Muslim tradition of dream interpretation and sell them on tapes and CDs. Banned from national television and eyed with suspicion by al-Azhar and the Egyptian state, the dream reemerged in other media. When I returned to Egypt a year later, Shaykh Hanafi had also found his way back onto Egypt's television screens. He was now interpreting dreams on a privately owned Egyptian satellite television station, and this time he had done away with his colleague, the psychologist. My friend Marwa was happily following the shaykh's new program, and she made me realize that not only do dream-stories circulate by way of satellite waves, but so do dreams. Marwa still takes notes on Shaykh Hanafi's interpretations and occasionally, she told me, she redreams dreams that the shaykh has interpreted on the program. Dreams are tricky. They might be declared irrelevant, but they cannot easily be wiped away.
About the Book
“Engaging, theoretically sophisticated and ethnographically rich. . . . Anyone interested in dreams, visions, psychoanalysis, the imagination Islam, religion or media(tion) will find this to be a welcome and refreshing addition to scholarship in these areas.”—Anthony Shenoda Social Anthropology
“[This] exploration of Egyptian dream life is a unique, if not compelling, one.”—Bidoun"This brilliant study presents contemporary anthropology at its best. Whether one's goal is understanding the permeability of traditions and modernities or the changing shape of religious imagination and thought in one of the most pivotal countries of the Middle East, this book is an outstanding point of departure."—Dale F. Eickelman, author of The Middle East and Central Asia: An Anthropological Approach, 4th ed.
"Dreams That Matter is an insightful and well-crafted study of the practice of dreaming in contemporary Egypt. Mittermaier provides a superb analysis of the imaginative repertoires of Islamic traditions and shows how the dream has remained not only a site of Muslim scholarly interest, but an important part of the way ordinary Muslims encounter and engage with the divine."—Charles Hirschkind, author of Powers of the Secular Modern: Talal Asad and His Interlocutors
"Amira Mittermaier has given us the most complete anthropological study of dream culture in the Middle East—perhaps in any culture. It is a sensitive, intellectually challenging, indeed a courageous, investigation of the psychological, ontological, and ethical assumptions that lie behind dreams, visions, and dream-visitations in contemporary Egypt—where the dream is a vibrant site of political, religious, and interpretive contest. Dreams That Matter will rank among the most important contributions to the anthropology of the imagination for years to come."—Vincent Crapanzano, author of The Harkis: The Wound That Never Heals
Table of Contents
List of Illustrations
On Transliterations and Translations
Introduction: Studying Dreams in Undreamy Times
1. Dream Trouble
2. Thresholds of Interpretation
3. Seeing the (In)visible
4. Poetry and Prophecy
5. The Ethics of the Visitational Dream
6. The Royal Road into the Unknown
7. Virtual Realities, Visionary Realities
Afterword: On the Politics of Dreaming
- Second Place for the Victor Turner Prize in Ethnographic Writing, Society for Humanistic Anthropology
- Chicago Folklore Prize, American Folklore Society
- Clifford Geertz Prize in the Anthropology of Religion, American Anthropological Association
- Awards for Excellence in the Analytical-Descriptive Studies category, American Academy of Religion