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The Religious and Cultural Roles of Dreams and Visions in Islam*

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Abstract

Since “visions appear material to spiritual persons only, the vulgar herd of historians and annalists cannot hope to be so favoured by Heaven”. So, in his nineteenth-century account of the sūfīs of Sind, Sir Richard Burton expressed the dilemma of scholars researching Muslim dream and visionary experiences in his characteristic style. But while scholarly discussion of the visionary activities of premodern sūfīs and other Muslims is still no straightforward matter we need no longer be deterred by Burton's sardonic pessimism. Despite the reticence of earlier generations of positivist scholarship, the past two decades have witnessed a flourishing of research into the visionary aspects of Muslim religious and cultural practice, chiefly through the analysis of the extensive literature surrounding the dream and vision in Islam. For, from the very beginning of Islamic history, there has developed a rich and varied discourse on the nature of the imagination and its expression in the form of dreams and waking visions. The theoretical approaches to the imagination developed by early Muslim philosophers and mystical theorists were always accompanied by the activities of a more active sodality of dreamers and vision seekers. For this reason, Islamic tradition is especially rich for its contributions to both theories of the imagination and the description of its expression in dream and visionary experience. The abundant yields from this rich research field in recent years afford new insight into the Muslim past, allowing an often intimate encounter with past individuals and private experiences scarcely granted by the analysis of other kinds of documentation.

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This article was researched and written with the financial support of the Sir William Ouseley Memorial Scholarship held at London University's School of Oriental and African Studies from 1999–2001 and the Gordon Milburn Junior Research Fellowship held at Lady Margaret Hall, Oxford University from October 2002.

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* This article was researched and written with the financial support of the Sir William Ouseley Memorial Scholarship held at London University's School of Oriental and African Studies from 1999–2001 and the Gordon Milburn Junior Research Fellowship held at Lady Margaret Hall, Oxford University from October 2002.

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Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society
  • ISSN: 1356-1863
  • EISSN: 1474-0591
  • URL: /core/journals/journal-of-the-royal-asiatic-society
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