Professional dream interpreters have become something of a prerequisite for successful pan-Arab satellite television: Gamal Nkrumah
asks whether such practice is religiously sanctioned in Islam
Dream interpretations have become a fixture of Arab satellite television. Some decipher dreams through the Freudian model, others eschew the father of psychoanalysis and focus on religious explanation. Call it obsession -- it is more that than passion, anyway -- but enquiring about the meaning and implications of dreams has become all the rage.
The new talking-point for Arab audiences is the interpretation of dreams. The viewers are curious and yearn for someone in the know to explain the meaning of a particular recurring nightmare or a strange fleeting dream. Others find the entire experience very entertaining; they stay glued to their television sets for as long as the professional dream interpreters are on air.
The programmes are hosted by a variety of motley characters -- some conservative, uncompromising religious figures, others eccentric, often garrulous charlatans and spin doctors. There are also the secular psychoanalysts and psychiatrists. With 150 channels to choose from, dream lovers in the Arabic-speaking world are spoilt for choice.
One of the satellite channels that take dreams very seriously is the Egypt-based Al-Mehwar. The satellite channel has a special programme on dreams and viewers can phone in to be enlightened, often baring their innermost fears and concerns as they patiently wait for a reasonably sounding exegesis -- preferably with Quranic injunction. Al-Mehwar has an especially popular dream interpreter, Sayed Hamdi, who interprets dreams by means of the Quran.
"The important point is that the interpreter of dreams must be a religiously upright, just and humane person. He or she must be honest and humble. He must have experience and be capable of ascertaining the mental state of the dreamer, and taking account of the personal, social and psychological problems facing the dreamer," Abdel-Hay El-Faramawi, professor of Quranic Sciences at Al-Azhar University, told Al-Ahram Weekly.
The audiences are mostly but not exclusively women, and though they love to find out about their own dreams, they also enjoy listening to other people's dreams.
Research indicates that on average an individual dreams four of five times a night. That means that on average an individual dreams 100,000 times in the course of his or her lifetime -- roughly for about four solid years of dreaming. Small wonder then that dream interpretation has emerged as an ever more popular pastime. Obviously, very few individuals remember all their dreams. Most dreams are forgotten on waking, or else briefly remembered. Only some leave a vivid impression imprinted on the dreamer's memory long after he or she has arisen. The intensity of the popularity of dream interpreters is such that they are treated as celebrities; many are virtually household names. Indeed, professional dream interpretation has become an especially lucrative trade. Like any other trade or profession, those dream interpreters with the largest following tend to be the most accurate, convincing and charismatic. They know how to capitalise on a phenomenon.
Traditionally, there is a great deal of ambiguity as far as dreams are concerned. From a religious perspective, opinions vary widely. There is a fine line between religiously-sanctioned interpretation of dreams and sorcery and superstition. Dajal, an Islamic term used to denote divination, palmistry, numerology and astrology -- are all deemed sinful, or haram. Even though it is common in many Muslim countries, Islam prohibits making a living out of predicting the future. But those who interpret dreams insist that they are neither soothsayers nor sorcerers. They decipher dreams in order to regulate people's lives. They point to the common practice of istikhara (seeking the proper path to take) when one is confronted with a difficult or perplexing decision. The practice of istikhara is religiously sanctioned. However, a munajjim (astrologer) and an arraf (foreteller) are both frowned upon. The Quran reads: "And with Him are the keys of Al-Ghaib (the unknown future). None but He knows them". Yet historically, the ancient Egyptians were the first to document the interpretations of dreams. The Chester Beastly Papyrus is one of the earliest documents on dreams. And their dreams were closely linked with divination and soothsaying.
In Islam, too, Mufassir Al-Ahlam (dream interpreter) has traditionally had an unmistakable aura. The most famous was Ibn Serene, whose treatise Tafsir Al-Ahlam (the interpretation of dreams) remains one of the most valuable reference works on dreams in the Muslim tradition. His work is still regarded as the most significant reference point for Islamic dream interpretation. But there were others besides him, even some of Al-Salaf Al-Salih (The Righteous Predecessors) were often gifted dream interpreters. Indeed, the ability to interpret dreams is seen as being derived directly from God. Traditionally Islam distinguishes between ru'yah (vision of true dream) and hulm (untrue, ephemeral and somewhat meaningless dream). "In Islam, we distinguish between three ru'aa (plural of ru'yah )," explains Al-Faramawi. "First, there are true ru'aa from God. Only the pure in heart and upright entertain these visions. The sinful cannot receive them."
Al-Faramawi goes on to explain a second type of dream, which is ungodly in nature. "The second type are nightmares -- dreams in which the individual is suffering or dying, drowning, being caught up in flames, falling from a precipice. These nightmares are the works of Satan, the Devil... A third type of dream in which the individual does not necessarily imagine that he or she is in mortal danger, and which is the most common type of dream, is to entertain an unusual, even bizarre, dream -- an explanation of which the then desires. This type of dream, Islam designates as Adghath Al-Ahlam : a poor man might dream that he is rich, a sickly person that he is healthy, and so forth." All of which does not prevent the dream narrative from being regarded by many as an allusion to a future occurrence, especially a particularly consequential one.
Al-Faramawi's websites www.hadielislam.com and islamguidance.net, which focus on religious matters, also include the interpretation of dreams from an Islamic perspective; he sees dreams and their interpretation as a means to draw people to Islam. "Dreams could be the means by which the sinner is reformed," he explains. "It is important for the interpreter of dreams to be compassionate and strengthen the faith of those who come to him for guidance." None of which is very new, in the end. The Judeo-Christian tradition is actually replete with dream interpreters. Perhaps the most famous of whom is the Old Testament figure of Joseph.
"Behold thee came up out of the river seven cattle, sleek and fat, and the fed on the marshes. Behold seven other cattle came after them out of the river, ugly and thin and stood by the other cattle on the brink of the river". Then, the biblical story goes, ugly and thin cattle devoured the seven sleek and fat cattle. The Pharaoh woke up, but soon fell asleep only to conjure up yet another disturbing dream. "The thin heads of grain swelled up the healthy and full ears."
In much the same vein, the Quranic version of the story of Joseph emphasises that he interpreted dreams because he was pious.
In contemporary times, however, Sigmond Freud's seminal study The Interpretation of Dreams remains the most authoritative work on the subject. Dreams, as far as Freud was concerned, are motivated by our unconscious. What Freud termed the "id" is our hidden desires, the pleasures we seek and unchecked urges. He extrapolated, however, that the desires of the id are habitually suppressed by the superego. In dreams, these urges and consuming passions find free expression. Dreams know no bounds, and this is where their magic lies. There are, of course, many types of dreams ranging from nightmares and anxiety dreams to wish-fulfilment dreams. One thing that entertains audiences is that the professional dream interpreters are deadly serious about their craft.
"I find that I learn a great deal from the interpreters of dreams. They give me tips on a wide variety of topics and I find myself drawn to the subject matter. I am curious about my dreams and the dreams of others," Ahlam, a regular and avowed viewer told Al-Ahram Weekly.
One can only guess at what Freud, the father of psychoanalysis, would have made of this phenomenon. For many, the "disturbing new trend" as they put it must be averted. The charlatans who capitalise on it must be penalised and not encouraged to make money out of people's misery.
That dream, for now, remains a distant prospect.