Why Do We Dream?

In September 2015 AMSA UK held its very first ‘Student Retreat’- a weekend away for Ahmadi Muslim students at Jamia Ahmadiyya UK. This talk was part of the weekend’s ‘Student Talk’ session, where speakers gave personal and original messages about faith and spirituality. In this talk, AMSA UK President Umar Nasser (@UmarN91 ) discusses how our experiences in dreams can teach us lessons about the ‘real’ world, as well give us hints as to what lies beyond…

When I was a child, I used to have a recurring nightmare. The world was black and I would be alone, except for these coloured spirits that would follow me wherever I went. There was no-one else around me to help me, the colours would begin to advance towards me, I’d feel very anxious and the dream would end. That dream used to disturb me, and I would sometimes even have flashbacks whilst I was awake. They would last only a moment, usually when I was tired, and it was like for a second or two I was back in that dream. It was then that my ten year old self thought enough is enough. If I could somehow defeat the spirits in the dream, maybe I could get rid of the flashbacks too.

I forgot about it, until one night, I was faced with my multi-coloured friends again. This time, it was more intense, and in typical dream-style the content of the dream was absurd. The spirits were fighting me, but not in a normal way- my mind was visualising it as a tennis match. There was a huge crowd of these spirits and they were hitting the ball at me hard. Every time I hit it back, they would hit it harder. I was almost completely spent when they went for the finisher. I can remember outstretching my racquet and feeling I would never make it. Then something weird happened. I suddenly remembered my real life, and thought to myself that if I beat them here, they would leave me alone when I was awake. The dream suddenly stopped happening to me, and I took control. As soon as I made that resolve, I felt the ball hit  my strings, and I hit it back harder than I had ever hit before. As the ball bounced back into their court, I looked up and saw that the spirits had gone. I had won. From that day those flashbacks I was having late at night vanished too.

I’ve since found out that what I had done, has a name. It’s called lucid dreaming. Lucid dreaming is now the preferred therapy of choice for people who have chronic nightmares. It’s a technique that is taught to you when you’re awake that allows you to realise you’re in a dream, and take control.

That experience has always had me questioning dreams. How can a world feel so real, and so convincing, but turn out in an instant to be so unreal? As I grew up and learnt more about Islam, I began to understand that there is a curious symmetry between our experience of the dream world and the Qur’an’s teachings on the afterlife. When you’re in a dream, you see things, you hear things, you feel things. And yet, the moment you wake up you realise that your vision in your dream was totally defective. Your hearing and all your other senses were completely incomparable to what you’re experiencing now that you’re awake. That world didn’t really make sense, and you almost feel embarrassed that you fell for it. How could you ever think that the dream world was real when this world is so much clearer, so much brighter, a higher form of reality in every sense of the word.

So I want you to imagine something. Imagine that you go to bed tonight and you start dreaming. Someone comes up to you, and he tells you that you may think this is the real world, but there is a reality far greater than this waiting for you. Every sense will be heightened, all the affairs of this world will seem completely pointless and trivial when you wake up. What would your reaction be? You’d probably laugh at them, you’d find it really funny… and then you’d wake up.

Now what does Islam tell us? It tells us that this world is not the final destination. As every second that passes simply vanishes out of existence, so too will our world pass. It tells us that our purpose here on this Earth, in this reality, is that we may know, love and worship our Creator. You see opposites are known by their contrast, and we only truly recognise the value of Allah when we experience the disappointment of the world. And we have in our lives every opportunity to indulge in worldly pleasures. But when, on the basis of our belief in the unseen, we consistently choose Allah over worldly pleasures, we find a delight that has no equal. And as we do this more and more, something special happens. A veil begins to be lifted from our eyes. What we thought was real, becomes totally unreal. That which we thought life was all about becomes completely dead in our eyes. We begin to see everything in a new light. When we hear, we understand more than we had ever before. When we develop a real, two-way connection with Allah the Almighty we begin to experience a whole new reality.

I want to take you back to what we said earlier- imagine that you’re asleep, in the dream world. Someone comes to you and tells you that there is a greater reality than this, a Hidden Hand behind everything you see, waiting for you to go towards it. Maybe at first you don’t believe him, but he proves it. You become a believer in the real world. Then he goes one step further. He tells you that how you conduct yourself in this dream world will determine the condition in which you wake up. He says that your inner condition in this dream will determine your outer condition when you wake up the next morning. You could be a cripple, or be a superman; blind, or seeing; with those you love, or bereft and alone. The choice, he says, is yours. What would you do? Do you think it would be right to sit idle, and waste away your days waiting to wake up, or do you think it would better to work day and night to experience that true reality- to open your eyes and see real light for the first time.

This is exactly what Islam teaches with regards to the afterlife. You see, paradise is not something that begins when we physically die. Rather, it begins as soon as we give up our worldly life for our spiritual life. When we consistently choose Allah over this world, we enter that paradise here and now. We begin to experience Allah’s reality, and when we look back on our former selves, we understand what the Holy Prophet (sa) meant when he said that the difference between those who remember Allah and those who don’t is like that between the living and the dead. For Hell too begins in this life, when we turn away from the yearnings of our souls.

The Promised Messiah (as) once wrote:

“Our condition during sleep is a mirror for the purpose of our comprehension of our condition in death. He who seeks true comprehension of the soul should reflect deeply on his condition during sleep.”

We live in a world where people laugh at the idea that there can be a soul, or a greater reality beyond that which we can see and feel with our own eyes. And yet, every night they go into a reality that they can see and touch, only to awaken every morning and realise it’s not real. When they look back at their dreams, they slip away from them, only remembering snippets here and there. So too will be the condition in the next life of those who waste their lives in pursuit of a world that was never meant to last:

God will say, ‘What number of years did you tarry in the earth?’ They will say, ‘We tarried for a day or part of a day, but ask those who keep count.’ He will say, ‘You tarried but a little, if only you knew!  ‘Did you then think that We had created you without purpose, and that you would not be brought back to Us?’


My dear brothers, I want to leave you with a question that we should all be asking when we look in the mirror every day. My question to you is: Are you awake? I’m not asking if you’re sleeping, I’m asking if you’re awake. Being awake means to have perception of the true reality of things. We are blessed to belong to that community, of that Messiah, of that Prophet (sa) who showed us the true reality of things. Do we go to bed every night a little bit more awake than we were that morning, or are we content to sleepwalk through life? In the words of the Promised Messiah:

“Oh sleeping ones awaken. What is the use of life but to find Him? Cursed is the live lived apart from Him.”

Register for the Student Retreat 2016 now at: amsa.org.uk/studentretreat/

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