Dreams That Matter: Egyptian Landscapes of the Imagination

Dreams That Matter: Egyptian Landscapes of the Imagination

by Amira Mittermaier

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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.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780520258518
Publisher: University of California Press
Publication date: 12/16/2010
Edition description: First Edition
Pages: 328
Sales rank: 893,749
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 8.90(h) x 0.90(d)

About the Author

Amira Mittermaier is Associate Professor of Religion at the University of Toronto.

Read an Excerpt

Dreams That Matter

Egyptian Landscapes of the Imagination

By Amira Mittermaier


Copyright © 2011 The Regents of the University of California
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-520-94785-6


Dream Trouble

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.


"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 mahdi 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 mahdi ... 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 mahdi 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 (kharig 'an al-'aqlaniyya)." 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-ghaybiyyat) 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 Sirin'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 mahdi 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-Gumhuriyya 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 mahdi 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.


"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-Imam al-Shafi'i (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-Imam al-Shafi'i 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-Imam al-Shafi'i 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-mahkama al-batiniyya). 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-Imam al-Shafi'i's preferred mode of communication. Upon entering the imam's office, I noticed Ibn Sirin's dream manual on his desk, next to classical hadith and tafsir 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-Imam al-Shafi'i," 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-Imam alShafi'i is dead," he said, "so how could anyone still see him?" To emphasize al-Imam al-Shafi'i'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 (fi rahmat Allah), 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 Sirin 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 Sirin, 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-Imam al-Shafi'i 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-Imam al-Shafi'i, complaining to him and asking for help. They do it only out of ignorance. Of course al-Imam [al-Shafi'i] 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 (yastanir al-'uqul). 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 awliya', 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-Imam al-Shafi'i 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-Imam al-Shafi'i's saintly mosque but the government had assigned him to it—maybe precisely because of his rationalistic stance.


Excerpted from Dreams That Matter by Amira Mittermaier. Copyright © 2011 The Regents of the University of California. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESS.
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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


What People are Saying About This

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"Engaging, theoretically sophisticated and ethnographically rich."

Social Anthropology

"[This] exploration of Egyptian dream life is a unique, if not compelling, one."—Bidoun

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