Since it feels like I have neglected Asian history and Islamic civilisation recently, I thought I would spend today writing about the historical uses of dreams, particularly in the Turco-Islamic context. We’re all familiar today with ideas about the interpretation of dreams and Freudian psychoanalysis, but the symbolism of dreams was also grasped by mediaeval and early modern authors. In the Turco-Islamic cultures of the Middle Ages–a fusion of influences begun around the 10th century and still alive today–dreams were a particularly potent way to lay claim to political legitimacy.
During the rule of Timur’s descendants in 15th century Central Asia, for example, dreams of conquest and universal rule expressed the divine predetermination of Timurid political power. These themes can be seen in a dream ascribed to Qachulay, a Mongol ancestor of not only Timur, but also Genghis Khan, in a 15th century source, the Zafarnama, here translated by John E. Woods:
“One night, Qachulay dreamed that he saw four stars ascend successively from the breast of his brother Qabul. The last of these filled the entire world with his brilliance, diffusing light to other bodies which sprang forth from the fourth star and continued to glow even after it had set. He then saw seven stars rise one after another from his own breast followed by an eighth, a great star which cast its light everywhere and from which emanated lesser bodies, each illuminating a different region.” (Quinn, p.128).
In this dream-prophesy, the descendants of Qabul stand for the lineage of Genghis Khan, who is symbolised by the fourth star. Timur’s lineage from Qachulay, however, suffers seven generations of subordination to that of Qabul before Timur, symbolised by the eighth star, gains pre-eminence. Interpreted this way in the Zafarnama, the dream explains away the looming reputation of Genghis Khan so that Timur and his descendants can claim superior prestige and success as conquerors. This was particularly important because Timur’s dynasty was relatively new, and needed ideological support.
Another emerging dynasty of roughly the same time period, the Ottomans, also had Turco-Mongolian roots and relied upon a dream-narrative to express their vision of empire. In this example, the dreamer is Osman Ghazi, the warrior from whom the Ottomans derived their name, and the dream itself was related by the 15th century historian Ashikpashazade. In the dream, Osman is staying with a holy man named Ebedali:
“As Osman Ghazi slept, he saw in his dream that a moon arose out of this holy man’s [Edebali’s] breast and entered Osman Ghazi’s breast. Then a tree sprouted out of Osman Ghazi’s navel, and the shadow of the tree covered the entire world. In its shadow, there were mountains, with streams issuing from the foot of each mountain. And from these flowing streams some people drank and some watered gardens, and some caused fountains to flow.” (Quinn, p.129.)
According to Ashikpashazade, this dream meant that a great dynasty would arise from the descendants of Osman, who married Ebedali’s daughter (symbolised by the moon.) As in the dream of Qachulay, this vision presents a universalising vision of rule by granting Osman sovereignty over the entire world. The Ottoman dream, however, has a greater role for religious personages, as Osman’s warrior nature is combined with the holiness of Ebedali’s family.
During the later 15th and early 16th centuries, the Ottomans themselves would face a rival dynasty, the Safavids, whose control spread from the Caucasus and Iraq to cover all Iran. Initially a religious movement, the Safavids looked back to their dynastic founder, the shaykh Safi al-Din, who lived in early in the 14th century. His dream was presented by the author Ibn Bazzaz as a religious vision:
“One night he [Shaykh Safi] dreamed that he was on the dome of the Friday mosque of Ardabil. A sun rose which illuminated all the regions of the earth. When he looked, that sun was his own face…” (Quinn, p.134.)
Instead of interpreting this dream himself, Ibn Bazzaz has Safi’s mother interpret in the text, when she tells Safi:
“You will be a shaykh whose guidance and mentorship shall shed light and lustre upon the whole earth.”
Here, the universal nature of Safi’s importance is tied to his religious leadership, rather to his importance as a conqueror or emperor. This interpretation was rather inconvenient to his 16th century descendants, and subsequent historians continously re-worked the dream so that it became more political in nature.
Through these dreams, we can see the various concerns of the dynasties involved. For Timur and his descendants, the legacy of the Mongols was all-important. They therefore attempted to use Qachulay’s dream to express their superiority to the imperial tradition of Genghis Khan, a renowned world conqueror. Far to the west, the Ottomans had their own dynastic traditions, and were far more concerned by showing the friendliness between an Islamic holy-man and their warrior-founder. For the Safavids, navigating the transition between a religious movement with a saintly founder to a powerful empire, the dreams of Safi al-Din were subject to constant revision so that the dynasty’s political ambitions would be legitimated.
That all three dynasties used prophetic dreams to express these aims hints at the religious and cultural affinities in western and central Asia at the close of the Middle Ages, marked both by Turkic tribal powers and Islamic faith.
The extracts above, though translated by different historians (in somewhat tortuous chains of transmission,) can all be found in Quinn, Sholeh A., ‘The Dreams of Shaykh Safi al-Din and Safavid Historical Writing,’ Iranian Studies vol.29 issue 1/2 (1996), pp.127-147.