Saturday, December 14, 2019

The Muslim scholar who identified dreams as a foundation of history

One of the history books that draws me back every few years is Ibn Khaldun's Muqaddimah - or "Introduction" - to world history. Writing in the 14th century, in the midst of constant war and turmoil between the rival Muslim dynasties of the Maghreb, he brought modern principles of evidence to the grand ambition of writing a universal history. Many scholars of historiography see him as the first true world historian.
     He was an evolutionist, in his way. He observed that every order of creation may evolve into one above it. For humanity, this would mean evolving to the condition of the angels – “angelity”. For now, only the prophets are at home in that realm.
     Ibn Khaldun wanted to understand the reasons for the rise and fall of different cultures, and identified cycles - or "returns" - throughout history.
      I see I am engaged in one of the "returns" of my own life. In 1967-1968, I considered writing my MA dissertation on the Muqaddimah, partly influenced by a Pakistani scholar of Ibn Khaldun who was at the School of Advanced Studies at the Australian National University. He thought I would find the Maghreb historian's approach refreshing. I even embarked on studying Arabic in this cause - but my wife of that era complained that I kept sounding like I was gargling or throwing up, so I switched my thesis topic to West African history.
    Though Ibn Khaldun’s project was often delayed or interrupted by needs of state (he was a minister and ambassador and occasionally a general for the dynasties of Tunis, Fez, and Andalusia) his Introduction is extraordinary, and an extraordinarily good read today. He begins with six essays defining the stage on which history is played out, covering (for example) the influence of climate and geographical features in human affairs, the human need for community, and the nature of group consciousness.
     His sixth essay is the most arresting and arousing. He explains how knowledge of the future, the realm of angels, and the Divine purpose become available through dreams and visions. He distinguishes the "true dream" (which requires no interpretation) from lesser dreams. Ibn Khaldun describes how in dreams the soul travels outside the body, remaining connected by a "thin vapor" whose seat is in the heart. He is very interesting on the theme of how dream experiences are reshaped into more conventional or familiar - and sometimes deceptive - imagery (in ordinary or "confused" dreams) as the dreamer returns.
     He defines the nature of the prophet, making it clear there have been many, though Muhammad is unique because he received and retained the vast and unique revelation that is the Koran. Ibn Khaldun reports that prophets, in the grip of revelation, can appear to lose control of their senses and feel overwhelmed - sometimes "choked", as Muhammad complained to Gabriel - by what is upon them. But unlike mediums or victims of possession, they retain their knowledge and bring it back with clarity, and that knowledge serves and sustains humanity and furthers its evolution.
     All this in laying the foundation for writing history! Today's historians should take note. I was partly inspired by this approach to write my ow Secret History of Dreaming,which reveals how dreams and visions have been a secret engine of history and evolution throughout the whole human odyssey on the planet.

Photo by Robert Moss

1 comment:

fishgirl said...

Makes me want to delve into Ibn's book, too. By the way, the photograph of the Islamic window screens or doors is beautiful. Love how the image is a portal into your essay.