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Partisan dreams and prophetic visions: Shi'i critique in al-Masudi's history of the Abbasids.

Abu al-Husayn Ali ibn al-Husayn al-Masudi (d. 956), whom Ibn Khaldun called the Imam of the historians, is a well-studied figure. (1) These studies suggest that a close analysis of al-Masudi's work reveals, at times, a Shi'i bias. The historian's skill at concealing his views can be credited, in some measure, by explaining how such claims rest on circuitous interpretations of his texts. (2) Al-Masudi's critical historiography is difficult to appreciate, moreover, because of our ignorance of the literary code he used. This paper takes a step towards deciphering this code, and presents new and direct evidence of al-Masudi's partisan critique of the Abbasids--a dynasty notorious for its betrayal of Ali's family, in whose name it had made a successful bid for power.

In terms of methodology I propose, quite simply, that we pay closer attention to the reports containing dreams in al-Masudi's history of the Abbasids. While modern studies of al-Masudi's work enhance our understanding of his critical standpoint, they generally ignore dreams in their analyses. (3) This represents a hermeneutical lapse in our approach to early Islamic historiography: that is, a general tendency to prefer fact over "fiction" and material over "immaterial" reality. In contrast, I argue that the dream belongs to the lost "intellectual scaffoldings" with the help of which early Muslim historians constructed narrative. (4) Knowledge of this literary device is not lost to us; enough clues exist for a feasible attempt at its reconstruction. Accordingly, the first half of this study makes a case for a literary-critical approach for interpreting oneiric anecdotes in early Islamic historiography. The second half will apply this methodology to al-Mas udi's treatment of the Abbasids.


Today it is well accepted that the historians and chroniclers of al-Mas udi's time were more than mere compilers of available reports (khabar, pl. akhbar), and that they had something of their own to say. (5) There is little agreement, however, as to a useful methodology for extracting and analyzing these authors' implicit commentary from either the "facts" or the "style" of their historical reports. The most suggestive, and indeed pioneering, work to appear in this regard recently is Tayeb El-Hibri's Reinterpreting Islamic Historiography (1999). El-Hibri attempts a literary-critical analysis of major works of early Arabic historiography regarding the Abbasids in order to distill moral and political critique from these texts.

El-Hibri's work is based on a broad and deep reading of the early Arab historical tradition, and is ground-breaking in more respects than one. Nevertheless, his focus is more on executing a free-form literary analysis than on expounding a reusable theoretical framework. He freely admits as much, observing that many of the literary devices of the period are lost to us. His attempts at their recovery, even though illuminating, remain unstructured. More importantly, he is interested in showing how historians of the period produced a shared moral narrative of the Abbasids, designed to resonate with the (assumed) dominant cultural outlook and religious norms of their readership--what is today recognized as the Sunni majority. Such an approach, while it encourages a search for general themes and common patterns across different texts, tends to neglect the specific and oppositional politics embedded in them. The historiography of the period, according to El-Hibri's framework, appears as a subtle but uniformly conservative art combining aesthetic creativity with cautious moral critique. In this view, al-Mas udi's text yields a thesis that meshes well with, for example, that of al-Tabari (d. 923), his older contemporary. Such an image is not altogether incorrect, but it is incomplete. This lacuna, as I argue below, is the reason why, despite a detailed treatment of some of al-Mas udi's dream anecdotes about the Abbasids, El-Hibri overlooks what is plausibly this historian's most important pattern of critique regarding this dynasty.

In order to develop a more structured framework for understanding the function of the dream in Islam's early historiographical tradition, it is worth examining scholarly work on this topos in other Islamic literary spheres. There are useful studies of dreams in the Quran, in hadith traditions, as well as in genres of Islamic writings variously categorized as biographies, ethical treatises and works of literature (adab). (6) The research methodology applied in these studies is varied and includes psychological, anthropological, religious, literary, and historical approaches. A complete review of this scholarship is beyond the scope of this paper. For our purposes, however, it is worth mentioning the semiotic method espoused by Fedwa Malti-Douglas, who suggests conceptualizing medieval Arabic texts as systems of signs in which many semiotic codes co-exist together. (7) Such a system implies a historically structured hierarchy of meaning both among different codes and among signs within a code. Simply put, some signs become culturally more privileged than others over time. In applying this approach to the study of the early Arabic biographical tradition, Malti-Douglas acknowledges the privileged position and "great semiotic potential" of dreams in Islamic literary traditions. (8)

Admittedly, this theoretical perspective is neither necessary nor sufficient for understanding early Islamic historiography. It does, nonetheless, allow us to raise concrete questions regarding the structure and function of dreams as signs in a text. For example: how did the dream achieve a privileged position in the Islamic context? What specific cultural and literary functions did the dream come to serve? Did there develop a hierarchy of meaning within the semiotic code consisting of dreams in a text? In order to answer these questions, it is necessary to sketch out the genealogy of the "Islamic dream" (so to speak); for it is important to understand why, and in what manner, early Muslim historians like al-Masudi shared with their readership a deep-seated faith in a higher reality accessible via dreams.

Popular conceptions about dreams in pre-Islamic Arabic formed an important basis for Islamic oneirology. The most significant aspect of this pre-Islamic legacy was how it conceived of prophecy, poetry and oneiromancy as phenomena related by the use of rhymed prose (saj'). We are told that the pre-Islamic Arabian soothsayer (kahin, pi. kuhhan), who was also a diviner of dreams and omens, spoke only in saj'. Moreover, poets were commonly thought to receive their inspiration from otherworldly sources, often from demons or spirits. (9) It is for this reason that when the Prophet Muhammad brought rhymed verses of the Quran to his tribe of Quraysh, they rejected his revelation as the "confused dreams" (adghath ahlam) of a poet. (10)

Later in Muhammad's life, when he had become the established leader of a growing Muslim community, rhymed verse was employed against him, but this time in an imitation of the Prophet. A1-Tabari relates an incident from the Prophet's last years, in which Musaylima, who had apostatized and "posed as a prophet, and played the liar," sought to attain the same stature as Muhammad by fabricating rhymed verse that mimicked the Quran. (11) Historians have used such incidents to explain why Muhammad forbade the soothsayers once he came to power. Nonetheless, the pre-Islamic notion that discourses of divination, poetry and prophecy were linked through rhyme was absorbed into Islam. (12) The survival of this nexus is noteworthy, for it enabled the dream and the poem to serve as literary devices whose very form could at times signify prophecy, foreknowledge, or a higher moral authority originating from another world.

In short, dreams were already part of Islamic religious and cultural discourses before the Muslim discovery of Greek knowledge. (13) Nonetheless, Greek influence on Islamic intellectual traditions was significant, not just for the flowering of philosophy, science, and medicine in general, but also for the development of oneirocriticism. (14) The Abbasid caliph al-Ma'mun (d. 833) is famous for bringing about this early Islamic renaissance with his large-scale patronage of scholars who translated Greek works into Arabic. It is less well known, however, that al-Ma'mun's intellectual interests were justified in spiritual terms--we are told that a "dream conversation with Aristotle was one of the reasons that induced the caliph al-Ma'mun to promote translations into Arabic of Greek philosophical texts."(15) And so, it was during his reign that Artemidorus' influential work on dreams, Oneirocritica, was translated into Arabic. (16)

Dreaming could open up a world--at least for the learned followers of Plato, Galen, and Artemidorus--that was in a sense more real than the ordinary material reality experienced in the waking state. It has indeed been argued in the context of Greek late antiquity that while modern dichotomies such as dream/reality "may be epistemologically useful, they are ontologically suspect." (17) In order to make a similar case for the Islamic milieu, it is worth examining samples of popular as well as intellectual discourses on dreams.

How did early Muslim society grant dreams the power of legitimation in Islamic discourses'? In order to quantify the level of popular interest in a particular topic in early Islamic society, it is constructive to examine the formal hadith literature on it. As Richard Bulliet has argued, bodies of hadith tradition grew out of the questions that the masses of newly converted Muslims had about their religion. (18) The canonical hadith traditions, according to this view, are more than just the extant repositories of the Prophet's sayings; these texts represent the "sedimentation in social time" (19) of answers to questions that were important for early Muslim converts.

In light of early hadith literature, dreams must have been a particularly popular topic in early Muslim society, since each of the six canonical collections of hadith has a chapter dedicated to dreams. For example, a century or so before al-Masudi's time, al-Bukhari (d. 870) had compiled his prominent hadith collection, the Sahih, which includes a "book" with sixty two prophetic traditions on the interpretation of dreams. (20) A majority of these hadith traditions served to legitimize the prophetic nature of dreams. (21) Thus dreams, especially those in which the Prophet appeared, took on a power to legitimate a particular position--ideological, religious, cultural--similar to that of a hadith tradition, (22) because if Muhammad appeared to a Muslim in a dream, it was the Prophet himself and not Satan trying to inspire a "confused dream." Moreover, according to these traditions severe penalties awaited people who related false dreams--a warning that was obviously intended as a check on the abuse of the slice of prophetic power enjoyed by the laity. In this qualified way, early Muslim society seems to have granted dreams the power of legitimation in Islamic discourses.

If so many hadith traditions legitimate the prophetic nature of dreams, then what were the limits, if any, to their utility? Was there a debate about the application of the knowledge that Muslims could gain via dreams? Evidence of this debate can be found in the fact that dreams appear unevenly in the various literary genres of Islam. For example, biographical dictionaries are considered the richest sources of dreams. (23) These dictionaries were mainly used to record the reliability of the transmitters of hadith traditions. A divine or prophetic oneiric vision as part of a biographical report served, in effect, as a stamp of approval on the character of that particular transmitter. By contrast, dreams were not accepted as an episteraological tool in works of Islamic jurisprudence. (24) Nevertheless, it is the acceptance of the prophetic power of dreams in both popular and formal belief systems of medieval Islam that made the dream such a versatile and potent literary device.

Islamic oneirocritical techniques and beliefs had taken a firm, legitimate shape by al-Masudi's time, for he provides a detailed discussion of "the dream and its causes" (al-ru'ya wa-asbabuha) in the Muruj al-dhahab. (25) Though he situates his discussions on dreams in a chapter on Arab divination and soothsaying, he also presents a broad comparison of the various Greek theories for the causes of dreams. In keeping with his often repeated statement that this is a work of reportage (khabar) and not of analysis (nazar), he does not assume a critical stance on any of the oneiric theories he describes. Instead, he refers the reader to another work of his for a detailed analysis of these and other claims arising from Christian, Jewish, Magian, Sabean and Sufi beliefs regarding dreams. (26) Since we do not have al-Masudi's own perspective on dreaming, it is worth exploring other Islamic intellectual discourse where dreaming was explicitly deployed to one's advantage.

The writings of the renowned Sunni theologian al-Ghazzali (d. 1111) provide an intriguing example of how dreaming could be used in an argument. In his autobiographical work (al-Munqidh min al-dalal), written about a century and a half after al-Masudi's death, he focuses on dreams while discussing the nature of prophecy. Al-Ghazzali was writing urgently and polemically to unite Muslims in the face of divergent religious, intellectual and cultural forces. One of the intellectual trends he fought against was Greek-inspired rationalist theology which, in a word, preferred reason over revelation in the pursuit of absolute truth. (27) Al-Ghazzali, however, was not against using the rational techniques of the Greek philosophical tradition, and deployed these with considerable skill to further his own theological arguments. Ironically, Greek-inspired oneirology played a pivotal role in al-Ghazzali's rational proof of prophecy.

Prophecy, for al-Ghazzali, was a stage beyond the intellect: "In this another eye is opened, by which man sees the hidden, and what will take place in the future. ..." (28) Just as someone who had not reached the stage of intellect would reject the existence of phenomena perceptible only via the intellect, those who have not reached the stage of prophecy also have difficulty believing in its reality:
 Now if a man born blind did not know about colors and shapes from
 constant report and hearsay, and were to be told about them abruptly,
 he would neither understand them nor acknowledge their existence. But
 God Most High has brought the matter [of the possibility of prophecy]
 within the purview of His creatures by giving them a sample of the
 special character of the prophetic power: sleeping [al-nawm]. For the
 sleeper perceives the unknown that will take place [ma sayakunu min
 al-ghayb], either plainly, or in the guise of an image the meaning of
 which is disclosed by interpretation. (29)

For al-Ghazzali the existence of prophecy--not dreams--was at issue. Dreams were real. There was no debate about their existence or their potential to deliver a higher truth. Indeed, dreams provided an empirical proof of prophecy. Just as a man born blind would know about the reality of colors and shapes from "constant report and hearsay," a Muslim would know about the reality of prophecy from an established social discourse centered on the dream as a widely experienced mode of divination. Al-Ghazzali's argument indicates that by the eleventh century the meaningful dream was already a "social fact": Muslims were born into a society with a well-formed and legitimized cultural apparatus for decoding oneiric visions.

A similar intellectual perspective on dreams can be found in Ibn Khaldun's well-known treatise on the philosophy of history and culture, al-Muqaddimah. Written half a millennium after the fall of the Abbasids, this work shows the continued vitality of an Islamic science of dreams in which Greek, Arabian and Islamic ideas had fused together. Ibn Khaldun says that the soul can receive three kinds of meaningful dreams, that is, clear, allegorical and confused dream visions which come from God, angels, and Satan respectively. The implication is that literal or clear dreams are of the highest order, coming directly from God and requiring no interpretation. Symbolic dreams are ranked next because their source is an angel. It is the third and lowest type of dreams--confused dreams--that seem to form a unique Islamic oneiric category. These are symbolic dreams, inspired by Satan, which cannot be interpreted because their truth has been mixed with falsity. This new category conforms to the notion of "confused dreams" mentioned in the Quran; and it also serves to accommodate the pre-Islamic Arabian conception of the demon-inspired visions of the soothsayers.

Ibn Khaldun outlines a detailed theory of dreams in his chapter on the nature of prophecy. He begins with an explication of the interrelated meaning of prophecy and soothsaying, reminding us of the nexus of divination, poetry and prophecy prevalent in pre-Islamic Arabia. However, he emphasizes the distinction between prophets and soothsayers (Kuhhan) and explains it on the basis of an evolutionary theory of creation. (30) According to him, prophets are those human beings whom God has placed at the final stage of earthly evolution--they are ready to evolve to a higher spiritual realm. Furthermore, in order to legitimate the notion that meaningful dreams are a weaker form of prophecy, he quotes the hadith tradition which "defined dream vision as being the forty-sixth ... part of prophecy." (31) For Ibn Khaldun the possibility of foreknowledge is a universal characteristic of humanity; it is only natural (God-given) ability which separates prophets from soothsayers, and soothsayers from the common dreamer.

To summarize, the Islamic science of dreams separated meaningful dreams from meaningless ones. The meaningful variety was further categorized into literal and symbolic dreams. Literal dreams did not require interpretation, and were sent directly by God. Symbolic dreams required interpretation and were brought down by angels (or Satan, in the case of "confused" dreams). A sign in a symbolic dream could carry multiple significations. Muslims authored entire "dictionaries" of dreams, in the tradition of the Greek Artemidorus, which described possible meanings of objects seen in symbolic dreams. Despite the wealth of oneirocritical literature dealing with symbolic dreams, it is important to note that it was the literal variety of dreams that held greater moral and truth content. (32) Even within literal dreams there was a value hierarchy. Dreams in which the dead delivered a message, for example, were considered privileged, for it was believed that the dead could tell no lies. Most importantly, at the apex of the Islamic oneiric hierarchy were the literal dreams in which the Prophet appeared, reminding us of the connection between dreams and prophecy that existed since the early days of Islam. In some cases, these prophetic dreams were considered to be equivalent in cultural terms to hadith traditions. (33)


Writing in the fourth/tenth century, al-Mas'udi produced his work of history less than a century after the framework of Islamic oneirology had solidified. Therefore his work provides a valuable example of how dreams were employed as literary devices in the historiography of the period. Also, al-Mas'udi was only a generation younger than the famous historian and exegete al-Tabari whom he had read, praised, and perhaps even met. (34) It is imaginable that he was writing his universal history not only under the influence of al-Tabari's encyclopedic work, but also in dialogue with it. This assumption makes for a potentially fertile comparison of the use of the oneiric trope in al-Mas'udi's and al-Tabari's work.

In al-Mas'udi's history of the Abbasids there are seven dream reports. (35) Three of these reports mention the appearance of the Prophet in a dream. This paper focuses primarily on the dreams that had the highest truth value--the prophetic dreams. These three dreams appear independently and are related to three different Abbasid caliphs--al-Rashid (d. 809), al-Mu'tasim (d. 842), and al-Mutawakkil (d. 861). On the surface these reports seem to have no narrative connection with each other; but a closer analysis reveals a pattern of critique directed towards the Abbasids. Interestingly, these three dreams are not present in the more detailed chronicle of al-Tabari. This difference in the two historians' use of dream sequences in their description of Abbasid rule, 1 argue, reveals their divergent literary approaches and, probably, their differing ideological positions. (36)

The anecdote containing caliph Harun al-Rashid's dream (37) is narrated by his head of police (shurta), al-Khuza'i, who is awakened and summoned by the caliph late one night. Harun orders him to free Musa ibn Ja'far from prison immediately, give him thirty thousand dinars, and allow him to stay or to go to Medina, as he chooses. Musa ibn Ja'far is no other than Musa al-Kazim (d. 799), the seventh Imam of what would eventually come to be recognized as Twelver or Imami Shi'ism. The Abbasids had succeeded in their struggle against the Umayyads in part because of Shi'i support. However, upon gaining power they had neglected to share power with the Shi'a. As a result, Shi'i groups had continued their political activism against Abbasid authority in various forms. Musa had been imprisoned by Harun due to political agitation by the Shi'a during his reign. (38)

The order to free Musa is so unexpected that the police chief asks the caliph for reconfirmation three times. The caliph tells him that Musa must be freed immediately, because he had just seen in his dream (fi manami) that an Abyssinian (habashi) appeared with a lance in his hand and said "Give Musa ibn Ja'far his freedom at once--or I will pierce you with this spear (al harba)!" Al-Khuza'i hurries to the prison, frees Musa, and informs him of the reason behind this sudden reprieve. Musa in turn tells him that he also saw a dream that night. In Musa's dream, the Prophet Muhammad appears and tells him that he was imprisoned unjustly (mazluman) and that he has only to recite certain words (kalimat) to obtain freedom that same night. Musa apparently follows these instructions successfully and is thus freed from prison.

This report presents a hagiographical account of Musa and a critique of the Abbasid caliph. Both men experience a literal dream the same night, but only the pious of the two, Musa, receives a blessing from the Prophet in the form of a dream appearance. Harun, on the other hand, receives a threat from an Abyssinian armed with a spear. But why does Harun take the dream appearance of an Abyssinian so seriously? After all, the man did not say whose message he was delivering. The answer lies, perhaps, in the fact that the king of Abyssinia had given a spear as a gift to the Prophet Muhammad, which later had been passed down from one caliph to the next as a symbol of authority. The Abbasids used this spear in official ceremonies and parades. (39) This might be the reason why Harun took the oneiric instructions of the armed Abyssinian so seriously; for he did not require an interpreter to realize that the Abyssinian in his dream came carrying the Prophet's weapon as well as his threat.

This historical report also reveals something of al-Mas'udi's Shi'i leanings. After the sixth Shi'i Imam Ja'far al-Sadiq, the Shi'i community experienced several fractious disputes over the identity of the text Imam. The most important split, historically speaking, was that of the Sevener or Isma'ili Shi'a. Originally, Ja'far al-Sadiq had designated his son Ismail as the next Imam; but Ismail did not survive his father and, eventually, the majority of the Shica accepted Musa as the seventh Imam. However, the Ismailis continused to believe that Ismail's son Muhammad, rather than Musa, was in fact the next Imam. In context, this particular historical report is favorable to Musa, and hence unfavorable to the Ismaili position, because Musa apparently receives an oneiric endorsement from the Prophet. For when Musa asks the Prophet what words to recite in order to gain freedom, Muhammad tells him to pray thus to Allah:
 O Thou, Who hearest all voices and anticipates all things. Thou Who
 with clothe our dry bones with flesh and resurrect the dead, I
 implore You, calling upon Your glorious names, I implore You by Your
 greatest and most sublime titles, by that hidden and mysterious name
 [wa-bi-ismika al-a'zam al-akbar al-makhzum al-maknun] which no man
 knows! Merciful God ... come to my aid!

As seen in this quote, the Prophet instructs Musa to invoke the Supreme Name (ism a 'zam) of God to obtain his freedom. According to Shi'i tradition, the Supreme Name has very powerful thaumaturgic properties. Only the Prophet and the Imams are supposed to have knowledge of the Name and the ability to exercise its power to bring about powerful miracles. (40) Since in this report the Prophet seems to assume that Musa knew how to invoke the Supreme Name, it appears to indicate that he considered Musa, and no one else, to be the rightly guided Imam. In general, al-Mas'udi's Shi'i bias is even more apparent when seen in the light of al-Tabari's historical treatment of Musa. This report is not to be found in al-Tabari's chronicles of the reign of Harun al-Rashid. Indeed, al-Tabari mentions Musa ibn Ja'far only once, in a necrology. (41)

The second dream appearance by the Prophet involves an important Abbasid official, Ishaq ibn Ibrahim ibn Mus'ab (d. 850), (42) who served as the prefect or chief-of-police (sahib al-shurta) of Baghdad in the reign of al-Mutawakkil. (43) In a dream (manam) he sees Muhammad, who orders him to "set the murderer free!" The Prophet does not indicate, however, who is to be freed. Ishaq, upon asking his officials, discovers that a self-confessed murderer is about to be executed. He sends for the condemned man, who tells him that he is in prison for murdering a fellow outlaw who was intent on raping a girl. This girl had pleaded for help and proclaimed her 'Alid lineage by invoking the names of the Prophet, his daughter Fatima and her son Hasan ibn 'Ali (the second Shi'i Imam). (44) The man decided to fight the outlaws and rescue her and, in the process, killed one of the attackers. The authorities arrested him and he was sentenced to death. The Abbasid prefect, as instructed by the Prophet in the dream, sets the man free. The report ends here without mentioning either the name of the man or of the girl he saves.

Even though the caliph al-Mutawakkil is not mentioned explicitly in this incident, the fact that it occurs in his reign is significant. Al-Mutawakkil is known for his persecution of Shi'i as well as non-Muslim groups. He razed the revered shrine of Imam Husayn in Karbala and forbade Shi'i pilgrimages to that town. (45) In this report, the oppression against the Shi'a seems to be symbolized by the brutal assault on an innocent and helpless girl. (46) She remains anonymous but reveals her Shi'i allegiance by invoking the name of the second Shi'i Imam and of his mother, Fatima, the daughter of the Prophet. According to this symbolism, the Prophet is shown as rewarding a savior of the Shi'a who were being persecuted during al-Mutawakkil's rule. This portrayal can be read as a trenchant critique of the caliph's harsh anti-Shi'a policies. Interestingly, al-Tabari refers to Ishaq ibn Ibrahim ibn Mus'ab frequently in his reports of the period but does not mention this dream anecdote, encouraging the idea that in this historical report we are witnessing al-Mas'udi's own perspective. (47)

The third dream report involving the Prophet relates a dream of the Turk Bugha al-Kabir, or Bugha the Elder (d, 862), regarding an event during the reign of al-Mu'tasim (d. 842). (48) In this dream Bugha sees the Prophet Muhammad, his son-in-law, Ali, and some of the Companions. Muhammad praises him for helping an Alid supporter escape a gruesome punishment ordered by al-Mu'tasim. The prophet rewards him by praying for a long life (ninety-five years) for Bugha. At this juncture Ali also steps forward and prays that "he [Bugha] be preserved from all misfortune!" Bugha relates that even though he fought countless battles, he never suffered a single injury, because of Ali's prayer. When asked about the man he had helped to escape. Bugha says that this man had stood accused of heresy (bida) and was condemned by al-Mutasim to be thrown into a pit filled with wild beasts. When Bugha helps the man escape, he tells Bugha that he had killed an agent of the caliph who had "descended on our country, committing all sorts of crimes and excesses and stifling the truth to make error triumph. His behavior threatened to corrupt the purity of the Sharia, and to overthrow the dogma of monotheism."

Besides the obvious ideological support for the Shi'a implied in this report, it also presents a criticism of the official religious inquisition (mihna) initiated by the caliph al-Mamun and continued by his immediate successor al-Mutasim. (49) This historical report shows both Muhammad and Ali, in their dream appearance, as being against the Abbasid-sponsored theology because they reward Bugha for aiding a man who had killed one of al-Mutasim's agents apparently sent out to enforce the inquisition. When read along with the prophetic dreams discussed earlier, this dream indicates a continuing tendency in al-Masudi to present a Shi'i point of view that is critical of Abbasid policies. Again, the notion that this is al Mas'udi's preferred perspective is supported by the fact that such a report cannot be found in al-Tabari's work. (50)

When analyzed together, the common structure of these three dreams becomes evident. In the entire account of Abbasid history the Prophet appears in a dream only to ensure that justice is done towards the Shi'a, their leaders, their supporters and well-wishers. Moreover, Muhammad's presence does not bless the Abbasids. Rather it is only their subordinates and rivals who receive the Prophet in their dreams. This is clearly meant to be a criticism of the Abbasids who, despite being Muhammad's relatives through his uncle al-Abbas, were not pious enough to receive the Prophet in their dreams. Indeed, we see that Harun al-Rashid actually receives a death-threat in his dream from a menacing Abyssinian allegedly sent by the Prophet. These dreams also indicate the depth of al-Masudi's ideological support for a Shi'i position against the politics of the Abbasids. They oppose official Abbasid ideology, whether it is the violently enforced inquisition of al-Mu'tasim or the anti-Shia religious crackdown of al-Mutawakkil. In this way, al-Mas'udi grants religious and moral authority to the Shi'i resistance against the Abbasids by selecting dream reports in which Muhammad and 'Ali support the Shi'a and condemn the Abbasids.

These "literal" dreams are not quite literal. They are full of symbolism that only readers with a discerning literary-critical sense could appreciate. By casting his commentary using literary devices, al-Mas'mdi could still maintain his explicit claim to ideological neutrality and avoid alienating his broader readership. Moreover, he encoded his critique in terms that sympathetic audiences would have recognized as markers of their beliefs. This is not to suggest that he made up these reports, but in constructing a narrative around the Abbasids he certainly had an active part in selecting and editing them. In this way he could avoid using an explicit authorial voice to construct his criticisms of the Abbasids and instead do it through the use of tropes. And what symbol could be more potent than the Messenger of God actively engaged, through the prophetic medium of dreams, in overturning the "unjust" decisions of the Abbasids?

Before concluding, a brief comment is due on the other four, the non-prophetic dreams, that appear in al-Mas udi's accounts of the Abbasids. One is a literal dream in which a dead man delivers a message regarding the caliph al-Muntasir's (d. 862) impending doom. (51) It is a dream of moral commentary which is also present, with only slight variations, in al-Tabari's work. The remaining three dreams are symbolic ones and concern three different Abbasid caliphs: al-Mansur (r. 754-774), al-Rashid (r. 786-809) and al-Amin (r. 809-813). (52) These dreams are placed either at the birth or ascension of a future caliph, and all three include prophecies that the reader knows to have come true. (53) Open to multiple interpretations, some of these reports contain praise and others subtle criticism of the Abbasids. (54) Without going into a detailed discussion, it is fair to say that these four non-prophetic dreams generally uphold El-Hibri's thesis; al-Mas'udi joins the rest of his fellow historians to provide an integrated religious and moral perspective of Islamic history for a broader, non-sectarian, Muslim audience.


There is a great emphasis in early Arab historical texts on aesthetic style and the encoding of political critique. Much work remains to be done in understanding the detailed workings of this process. The central interpretive problem is to determine which parts of the historical text to privilege when decoding the ideological position of the narrator. This study offers a part of the solution, a vertical slice to be precise, by focusing on dreams. Islamic culture had developed elaborate theories of dream interpretation by al-Mas'udi's time. The belief in dreams as vehicles of foreknowledge was firmly grounded in the Quran and reinforced by hadith. Dreaming in this sense could be a lower form of prophecy. The potential of a dream to open up a world of higher, even absolute, truth made it a valuable literary device for inserting ideological commentary. When praising allies or condemning foes, a narrator could elevate his position by situating the narrative in dream reality rather than in the waking world. If a moral position staked out in dream reality was superior to an ethical stance in the waking world, should not one privilege the reading of dreams when searching for ideological commentary?

(1.) There are two book-length studies in English on al-Masudi: Tarif Khalidi, Islamic Historiography: The Histories of Masudi (Albany: State Univ. of New York Press, 1975); Ahmad M. H. Shboul, Al-Mausdi and His World: A Muslim Humanist and His Interest in Non-Muslims (London: Ithaca Press, 1979).

(2.) Khalidi's arguments that al-Masudi had Twelver Shi'a sympathies are based on the historian's comparative treatment of Ali versus the first three caliphs; when Khalidi asserts that al-Masudi's perspective on the Abbasids is subtly negative and "colored with sectarianism," he bases his case on a number of indirect political observations (Histories of Masudi, 120-45). Shboul, who also bases his opinion about al Masudi's sectarian leanings on similar factors, states: "In all probability al-Masudi was among those Shi'ites who, although influenced by Mu'tazilite thinking, differed from them by adopting the opinion of the Twelvers on the question of the Imamate" (Al-Mas'udi and His World, 41). We should be careful, however, in attributing a Twelver or Ithna 'ashari view to al-Mas'udi, because, as Etan Kohlberg has shown, this sectarian designation had not stabilized by this time (Kohlberg, "Early Attestations of the Term 'Ithna" 'ashariyya'," Jerusalem Studies in Arabic and Islam 24 [2000], esp. 345-47).

(3.) Neither Khalidi nor Shboul analyzes a single dream in al-Masudi's work. For recent exceptions, see Tayeb El-Hibri, Reinterpreting Islamic Historiography: Harun al-Rashid and the Narrative of the Abbasid Caliphate (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1999), Julie S. Meisami, "Masudi and the Reign of al-Amin: Narrative and Meaning in Medieval Muslim Hisloriography,"in On Fiction and Adab in Medieval Arabic Literature, ed. Philip F. Kennedy (Wiesbaden: Harrassowitz, 2005), 149-76.

(4.) El-Hibri argues that historians, in dismissing parts of historical texts that seem fictional, in fact fail to uncover many of the lost "intellectual scaffoldings that permitted literary constructions" in these works (Reinterpreting Islamic Historiography, 21). More specifically, in this regard, Chase Robinson notes that "dreams were an extremely useful literary device for historians, particularly those working within a tradition that otherwise eschewed precisely the private, reflective--at times, even confessional--mode of self-narration that dreams expressed." Chase F. Robinson, Islamic Historiography (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 2003), 152.

(5.) See R. Stephen Humphreys, Islamic History: A Framework for Inquiry, reved (Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press, 1991). 74-75; see also the discussion on "the significance of ninth-century change" in Robinson. Islamic Historiography, 40-43.

(6.) For a good discussion of basic Islamic concepts on dreams, see "Ru'ya," E12 (T. Fahd). For a useful bibliography, see Leah Kinberg, "Dreams and Sleep," in Encyclopaedia of the Qur'an (Leiden: Brill, 2001), 553. See also Marcia K. Hermansen, "Introduction to the Study of Dreams and Visions in Islam," Religion 27 (1997): 1-5.

(7.) Fedwa Malti-Douglas, "Dreams, the Blind, and the Semiotics of the Biographical Notice," Studia Islamica 51 (1980): 137-62.

(8.) Ibid., 142.

(9.) Fritz Meier, "Some Aspects of Inspiration by Demons in Islam," in The Dream and Human Societies, cd. Gustave E. Von Grunebaum and Roger Caillois (Berkeley and Los Angeles: Univ. of California Press, 1966), 423.

(10.) Ibid.

(11.) "Then he [Musaylima] began to speak in rhyming speech and in imitation of the Quran: 'God has bestowed favors upon the pregnant woman; He has brought forth from her a living being that moves from between the bowels and peritoneum'." Al-Tabari, The History of al-Tabari, vol. 9: The Last Years of the Prophet, tr. Ismail K. Poonawala (Albany: State Univ. of New York Press, 1990), 96.

(12.) As Lecerf put it, "[Muhammad] integrated in Islam dreams and their interpretation without integrating the kahin profession." Jean Lecerf, "The Dream in Popular Culture: Arab and Islamic," in The Dream and Human Societies, 371. Also, the Quran uses the words ru'ya, manam, bushra and hulm at various places to refer to good dreams, visions, good tidings, and bad (or confused) dreams, respectively. See Kinberg, "Dreams and Sleep."

(13.) Muslims had interpreted dreams before the Abbasid period; among the more famous oneiroeritics of the Umayyad period are Sa'id b. a;-Masayyab (late seventh century) and Ibn Sirin (d. 728). However, no works of dream compilations or oneirocriticism are available from this period. Toufic Fahd, "The Dream in Medieval islamic Society," in The Dream and Human Societies, 357.

(14.) There were other cultural influences, such as Babylonian and Jewish, on the development of Islamic oneirology, but these are beyond the scope of this essay; see the sources in Kinberg's bibliography. "Dreams and Sleep," 553.

(15.) Gustave E. Von Grunebaum, "Introduction: The Cultural Function of the Dream as Illustrated by Classical Islam" in The Dream and Human Societies, 12.

(16.) Artemidorus, a second century A.D. contemporary of Galen and Ptolemy, had traveled far and wide in search of people's dreams. It is on the basis of this data that the "empiricist of fantasy" created a complex theory and classification of dreams. In simple terms, he divided dreams into meaningful and meaningless ones. Dreams in the first category were subdivided into symbolic (or allegorical) and literal (or theorematic). Symbolic dreams, which could be of eighty different varieties, required interpretation, while literal dreams were self-explanatory. It was to interpret the symbols of meaningful dreams that Artemidorus constructed his theory of dream-interpretation. He was also influential among Greek thinkers in resolving a historical debate about the meaning of dreams. Patricia Cox Miller. Dreams in Late Antiquity: Studies in the imagination of a Culture (Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press, 1994), 42-51.

(17.) Ibid., 4.

(18.) According to Bulliet, it was the queries of the newly converted Muslim laity, driven by a quest for cultural identity, rather than of a central ecclesiastical body, that were instrumental in shaping Islam. The eventual institutionalization of the "answers" as formal religion may have come from the learned elite, but the "questions" were driven by the Muslim masses. See Richard W. Bulliet, Islam: The View from the Edge (New York: Columbia Univ. Press, 1993), 81-99.

(19.) I use the term in the sense of Paul Ricoeur's use of it in developing his theory of reading social action as text: "Thanks to this sedimentation in social time, human deeds become 'institutions.' in the sense that their meaning no longer coincides with the logical intentions of the actors." Paul Ricoeur, "The Model of the Text: Meaningful Action Considered as a Text," in Interpretive Social Science: A Reader, ed. Paul Rabinow and William M. Sullivan (Berkeley and Los Angeles: Univ. of California Press, 1979), 85.

(20.) This is probably only a small sample of the number of traditions about dreams that circulated in the first three centuries of Islam, as al-Bukhari reportedly culled the six hundred thousand or so hadith traditions he had collected down to roughly seven thousand that he believed to be authentic. See Muhammad ibn Ismail al-Bukhari, Sahih al-Bukhari, 9 vols. (Cairo: Lajnat Ihya Kutub al-Sunna, 1966).9: 37-57.

(21.) Kinberg states: "The main contribution of [hadith] literature to the subject of dreams is its presentation of prophetic statements which legitimize the usage of dreams. One of the most common traditions asserts that dreams are part of prophecy. ... This saying ... regards dreams as an extension of prophecy, and as such indispensable to an Islamic world that remained with no Prophet." See Morality in the Guise of Dreams: Ibn Abi al-Dunya; A Critical Edition of Kitab al-Manam, ed. Leah Kinberg (Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1994), 35.

(22.) "Practically, this means that in order to justify a certain idea, an anecdote telling about a vision of the Prophet could have been made up and words of approval could have [been] ascribed to him in the same way it could have been done by using the medium of [hadith]." Leah Kinberg, "Literal Dreams and Prophetic Hadits in Classical Islam--A Comparison of Two Ways of Legitimation," Der Islam 70 (1993): 286.

(23.) Kinberg, Morality in the Guise of Dreams, 39.

(24.) See ibid., 36-37.

(25.) Al-Masudi, Muruj al-dhahab wa-ma adin al-jawhar, ed. Yusuf Asad Daghir (Beirut: Dar al-Andalus. 1965-1966), 2: 155-60.

(26.) Al-Masudi refers to a work entitled Sirr al-hayat (Secret of Life), which is no longer extant.

(27.) Al-Ghazzali classified the Greeks (Aristotle, Plato, Socrates, and the earlier "Theists"), as well as their Muslim followers (Ibn Sina, al-Farabi, and their adherents) as men who "must be taxed with unbelief." Al-Ghazzali, Freedom and Fulfillment: An Annotated Translation of al-Ghazali's al-Munqidh min al-dalal and other Relevant Works of al-Ghazali, tr. Richard Joseph McCarthy (Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1980), 72.

(28.) Al-Ghazzali states that the "intellect" is a stage in the natural development of man which allows him to perceive things that cannot be perceived with the five human senses (ibid., 97).

(29.) Ibid. For the Arabic text, see al-Ghazzali, al-Munqidh min al-dalal, ed. 'Abd al-Halim Mahmud (Cairo: al-Maktaba al-Anjlu al-Misriyya, 1964), 62.

(30.) According to Ibn Khaldun, worldly creation began with minerals that evolved into plants; plants, in time, evolved into animals; animal species multiplied in number until monkeys appeared: finally, from monkeys evolved human beings. Ibn Khaldun then appends a spiritual stage to this earthly process of evolution in which highly evolved humans, i.e., prophets, can attain access to the angelic realm. Ibn Khaldun, The Muqaddimah: An Introduction to History, tr. Franz Rosenthal, abridged and edited by N. J. Dawood (Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press, 1969), 74-78. These notions are not original with Ibn Khaldun, but represent a summary of concepts which evolved during the ninth and tenth centuries, with which al-Mas'udi was certainly familiar.

(31.) Ibid., 81.

(32.) For discussion, see Kinberg, "Literal Dreams and Prophetic Hadits," 281.

(33.) See ibid.

(34.) Shboul, At-Mas'udi and His World, 34.

(35.) For the purposes of this study, I ignore two incidents mentioned by al-Masudi that involve waking visions and the witnessing of apparitions that could possibly be included in a wider definition of "dreaming."

(36.) Julie Meisami has also commented on the differences in the two historians' literary approaches, specifically in the context of analyzing a long dream anecdote in al-Mas'udi's history of the Abbasids. She notes that in general al-Tabari's account is dryer, more factual, and more balanced than that of al-Mas'udi who, in comparison, creates an immediately and poignancy in his historical writing. For her insightful discussion of how al-Mas'udi's "biographical" style makes use of intertextuality with the more "historical" writings of al-Tabari to create meaning, see "Mas'udi and the Reign of al-Amin," 168-69.

(37.) Al-Mas'udi. Muruj al-d'hahab, 3: 346-47; English translation in al-Mas'udi, The Meadows of Gold: The Abbasids, tr. Paul Lunde and Caroline Stone (London: Kegan Paul International, 1989), 74-75.

(38.) Reportedly, Harun had Musa imprisoned twice durinig his reign due to Musa's messianic claims to authority and because of the political activism of various Shi'a factions in general. Moreover. Shi'a sources assert that Musa was poisoned and murdered in a Baghdad prison. See Muhammad Husayn Tabataba'i. Shi'a. tr. Seyyed Hossein Nasr (Qum, Iran: Ansariyan Publications, 1981), 208.

(39.) A1 Tabari. The History of al-Tabari, vol. 35: The Crisis of the Abbasid Caliphate, tr. George Saliba (Albany: State Univ. of New York Press, 1985). 3.

(40.) Even the Prophet and the Imams know only seventy-two of the seventy-three letters of the ism a'zam; the seventy-third letter is known only to Allah. The first Imam, 'Ali, is reported to have reversed the course of the sun with the invocation of the Supreme Name. See Mohammad Ali Amir Moezzi, The Divine Guide in Early Shi'ism: The Sources of Esotericism in Islam, tr. David Streight (Albany: State Univ. of New York Press, 1994), 92-93.

(41.) Al-Tabari, The History of al-Tabari, vol. 30: The 'Abbasid Caliphate in Equilibrium, tr. C. E. Bosworth (Albany: State Univ. of New York Press, 1989), 172.

(42.) Ishaq ibn Ibrahim ibn Mus'ab was a member of the Tahirid family, some of whom held important offices in Iraq under the caliphate; see E12, s.v. Tahirids.

(43.) See al-Mas'udi, Muruj al-dhahab, 4: 12-14; Meadows of Gold, 243-44.

(44.) While pleading for help, the girl had said: "The Messenger of God is my grandfather; Fatima is my mother and Hasan ibn 'Ali my father. They have offended them in me!" The last sentence in the translation is my own, and is a correction of the English translation given in al-Mas'udi, Meadows of Gold, 243-44.

(45.) Tabataba'i, Shi'a, 208.

(46.) In this regard, see Meisami's observations on al-Mas'udi's marked tendency to use female characters to offer moral commentary ("Mas'udi and the Reign of al-Amin," 167).

(47.) See the entry for "Ishaq b. Ibrahim b. Mus'ab" in the index to al-Tabari, The History of al Tabari, vol. 34: Incipient Decline, tr. Joel L. Kraemer (Albany: State Univ. of New York Press, 1989).

(48.) The report is not from the reign of al-Mu'tasim but from the year when Bugha al-Kabir died; see al Masudi, Muruj al dhahab, 4: 75-76; Meadows of Gold, 288-89.

(49.) It has been argued that the political goal of the mihna was to increase caliphal authority in matters of religion, bring popular belief under control, and thus to root out sedition. For a succinct review of literature on the mihna and the debate surrounding its causes, see Michael Cooperson. Classical Arabic Biography: The Heirs of the Prophets in the Age of al Ma'mun Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 2000). 34-40.

(50.) Al-Tabari mentions Bugha al-Kabir four times under the events of the year 862 but does not mention this dream; see al-Tabari, History, 34: Incipient Decline, 176, 78; 210, 12.

(51.) See al-Mas'udi, Muruj al-dhahab, 4: 49-50; Meadows of Gold, 271-72.

(52.) See al-Mas'udi, Muruj al-dhahab, 3: 282, 334, 38-89; Meadows of Gold, 21, 64-65, 133. Al-Tabari also mentions one of these dreams, regarding al-Rashid; see History, 30: The 'Abbasid Caliphate in Equilibrium, 30, 300.

(53.) None of these symbolic dreams can, in my opinion, be seen as "dreams of sovereignty" as defined by Roy Mottahadeh. The latter are literal dreams that involve a sacred personality and a clear positive message, signifying a pact between God and ruler. Conversely, the symbolic dreams under discussion are ambiguous and rich in meaning-containing images such as roaring lions, burgeoning branches, and poetry chanted by women that can be interpreted positively or negatively. See Roy P. Mottahedeh, Loyalty and Leadership in an Early Islamic Society, rev. ed. (London: I. B. Tauris, 2001), 69-72.

(54.) For a sophisiticated analysis of the dream regarding al-Amin, see El-Hibri, Reinterpreting Islamic Historiography, 61-66: also Meisami. "Mas'udi and the Reign of al-Amin." 154-55.


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