"Life is a dream!" Hardly anyone must not have heard that phrase. Some must have interpreted it accurately, whereas others have not. Some liked it, whereas others were saddened. One way or another, everyone has certainly something to do with that phrase. Occasionally dreams are about what we want. In this sense, "to live like a dream" is a yearning. That phrase – to live life like a dream – means to overcome all obstacles to have a life that enables us to get what we want. One wants their own life to be like a dream while envying those whose lives are like dreams. Most of the time that is the root cause of one's interest in literature and fairy tales! Sometimes, we use the phrase – "it passed by like a dream!" – to describe those parts of our lives, which are already gone, and the good things that we experienced. In that case, dreams represent nostalgia, wherein we seek refuge to shelter ourselves from the present. There are various kinds of dreams and we describe our lives with reference to them. To define a dissatisfactory life or a situation we would like to end as soon as possible, we use the term "nightmare." Indeed, a nightmare is a troubling dream. In this case, the dream represents our fears, problems, and sadness.
What makes the dream such a convenient term of description, though? It goes without saying that the most attractive thing about dreams is their link to fantasy and, by extension, the connection between fantasy and endless opportunities. One takes the state of "possibility" over realization and wants only those things they like to occur. We experience joy, to the extent that we wish it to take place and experience sadness when those things do not happen (as we want). Indeed, the realm of dreams is the only place where one's desires become a reality, completely and flawlessly: "Anything is possible in dreams and the dream represents the broadest world of opportunity." Overnight, kings could become enslaved, the poor could get rich, the rich could become poor, the sick could heal, and beautiful lands could be destroyed! Humans, in turn, always want and hope that change will serve their interests. Hence the emergence of other phrases: "People live as long as they hope and dream!" Such expressions assume that the realization of one's desires is linked to dreams and fantasy. That is why we refer to the good parts of life as "dreams." When success is on the horizon, it encourages us to do better. In the face of failure, we escape to dreams, hoping to compensate for our losses in the realm of dreams. We dream while awake and dream again when asleep. Dreams are what we call the act of imagination while asleep! An act of imagination in which we (are encouraged to) engage!
The connection between dreams and life is an ancient relationship that one encounters in the works of great thinkers. At some point in their life, philosophers have asked themselves: "Is it possible that we are merely dreaming?" Is the world, which we perceive as reality, actually an illusion? Are we all within a dream? Indeed, those who posed themselves that question have also asked the following: "Is all this but a dream? And am I – the person who asks that question – merely someone who dreams of having woken up within that dream?"
Certainly, one of the best expressions of critical thinking is for someone to ask themselves that question. Moreover, that is not an assumption yet; possibly, the closest one gets to the truth within that initial stage of thought. Indeed, the following might be one of the potential answers to that question: "Why shall we ever doubt that we are dreaming?"
Could it be that we are just dreaming? Could thinking be just dreaming within a dream? It is possible to find such questions, phrased in various ways, in the works of the great thinkers of the East and the West. The story of "the cave" and man's departure from it – which accounts for the emergence of metaphysics — is actually about waking up! It is possible to detect the traces of waking up from a dream in the writings of Muslim thinkers, too. Such comparisons are found in al-Ghazali as well as Ibn Arabi. Indeed, the vast majority of Sufis, too, talk about waking up from dreams: One of the most common critical concepts in tasawwuf, the sleep of heedlessness, relates to that particular notion. To wake up from a dream forms a significant necessary foundation in Cartesian philosophy.
Notwithstanding, those concepts, which could be used to describe dreams, tend to change occasionally. To clarify, what we call what we witness while awake and asleep tend to change. Sometimes, one cannot be sure whether what we see is an illusion – which is why we use the word "mirage" to describe everything. In this case, a mirage is to see what we want to see while we are awake yet generally under duress – as opportunity disappears, allowing reality to cause us stress: Like a source of water in the desert!
In the desert, a thirsty person heads toward the water, only to be disappointed upon realizing that they had been chasing a mirage. In this case, the mirage represents a state of illusion. The dream is the state of pretending. In fairytales, too, does the rhetoric of "once upon a time" actually describe the dream and the realm of possibility. Dreams are exactly like that: They are not real, but their impact feels like they were.
The dream, then, is a certain threshold that one must overcome in one's pursuit of the truth! For a thinker, "waking up from a dream" is to start thinking. However, thinking is not only about waking up and saving oneself from the dream. Likewise, any attempt to grasp reality (as is) is made possible by a struggle against the dream.
One of the examples, which best describes the difficulty of the question at hand, can be found in a narrative by the Chinese thinker Zhuang Zhou: "I, Zhuang Zhou, once dreamt that I was a butterfly, flying in the air. I was happy. I did not know that I was Zhou. Suddenly, I woke up. I was myself. I was the real Zhou. Yet I could not grasp whether I was Zhou, who had dreamt that he was a butterfly or a butterfly that dreamed that it was Zhou."
As explained, the relationship between man and dreams has ups and downs. Sometimes we force ourselves to start dreaming to distance ourselves from our lives. Other times, we push ourselves to wake up and shake off the impact of the dream. Still, our connection with the dream remains intact.
At this point, religious thought offers us a new perspective, which is different from philosophy yet, in certain ways, similar to it. Religion "compels" us to focus on the meaning and interpretation of the dream – rather than the act of dreaming. Humans must not be beings that dream and derive pleasure from that act. The true human is an individual that pursues and finds an interpretation of the dream. In other words, what matters most in religious thought is the interpretation of the dream – as opposed to the dream itself or the act of dreaming of life. A dream without an interpretation is an unread letter! In that case, one's job is to find the interpretation of the dream – whether one engages in the act of dreaming or wants to transform life into a dream. In this regard, there is a good example, found in religious texts, that speaks to the connection between life, the dream and the interpretation: Joseph, whom the Quran recognizes as a prophet, and his dream! The story of Joseph is described as "the most beautiful story" in the Quran and told to humanity.
Any person, who engages with that "most beautiful story" in a superficial manner, might think that Joseph's life, which was full of adventure, was a life worth reading or reciting: Why would a life which brought together family disputes, ups and downs, betrayal and (most importantly) a strong and interesting love story, not be the "most beautiful" story? In this sense, the history of literature is indeed full of such "beautiful" stories! Looking at the analysis of religious thought regarding the truth and man, it becomes clear why Joseph's story is the "most beautiful story."
Joseph's dream is not noteworthy or important because it is a dream and his life is not noteworthy or important because it was full of "struggle." As a story, Joseph's story was no more important or beautiful than the story of another – not his dream more important or beautiful than the dream of another. Everyone dreams and everyone has a story. Among them could be a difference in levels, but not in essence. It is possible to argue that "each person's dream is a dream of Joseph" – just as people say to "assume that anyone you see is Khidr!" — from the perspective of Muslim metaphysicists who have exclusively focused their attention on Allah! We must, then, ask the following question: What makes Joseph's experience "the best story?" Why should life at the center of a dream be "the most beautiful" story? Why do we deem Joseph's story worth telling yet find the story of another less valuable?
It would appear that the answer to that question is hidden within the interpretation of the dream – not the dream itself. Joseph dreamt a dream, like any other person, and led a life in line with the symbols that emerged in that dream. In this regard, one could establish a mirror-image relationship between life and the dream. As such, one could imagine that Joseph's dream mirrors his life. Joseph saw a "rough" image of his life in the mirror dream. He thus realized that Allah was preparing him for a certain purpose. Eventually, his life became a mirror of that dream, enabling him to interpret the dream in the mirror, what the Sufis call pleasure!
Joseph merely dreamt that eleven stars, the sun and the moon "bowed" to him. Of course, it goes without saying that "bowing" is not used here in the religious sense, as the faith does not permit bowing to anyone except Allah. In certain contexts, however, "to bow" may be used in the sense of being "subjected" –which is what is meant here.
As such, the dream foretold all things being subjected to Joseph, who would serve as Allah's caliph. His father understood the meaning of that dream and urged his son not to recount it. He acted in that way because he feared that Joseph's siblings could hurt Joseph out of jealousy.
One could obviously derive from that example the principle of not recounting one's dreams. That principle comes up, especially within the context of courtesy. Eventually, the purpose, communicated through symbols in the dream, comes true. As such, Joseph moves from state to state and from one attitude to another: He is first betrayed by his siblings. In other words, a superficial perspective would portray that story as a jealousy problem! In truth, what happened was part of Joseph's "training" for a purpose. He had to taste his siblings' betrayal to grasp Allah's forgiveness through the morality of "forgiving" within himself.
Later, Joseph had to be thrown into a well. To fall or be thrown into the well represents a threshold one must constantly pass to pursue maturity. Upon falling into a well, man learns not to lose hope. It is that hope which allows him to be rescued by Allah. Thanks to that incident, Joseph would understand that Allah was the agent, even without apparent reason, and his faith in Allah would grow stronger. Joseph was subsequently auctioned off in the slave market, deprived of any value and his reputation. In a manner of speaking, he was "sold on the cheap" and not appreciated in any way.
That is one of the most significant phrases in Joseph's story: He was sold on the cheap! Joseph, whose beauty was appreciated by all, was sold on the cheap and not appreciated. That is what the Quran tells us. On Earth, each person that feels underappreciated becomes part of that statement about Joseph. After all, Joseph the Prophet is on top of the list of the underappreciated! That means that the interpretation of any dream involves its underappreciation. Those are among the stages of humanity that one must overcome to become truly human: He shall regain his reputation, love, denigrate and imprisoned! The prison became a school for Joseph, who learned to wait and be patient, thinking of Allah there.
In the end, after a long time, Joseph was sent to humanity by Allah as a teacher and Prophet. He would tell society about the grace of Allah as a human who witnessed that grace and protection. In the presence of his siblings, who had thrown him into a well, Joseph told them, "I have released you." That phrase relates to forgiveness – one of the most important requisites of being human.
Consequently, the dream that Joseph dreamt was but an ordinary dream. Yet the interpretation would eventually transform that dream into "the most beautiful of stories." In this regard, religious thought draws one's attention to the interpretation at the expense of the dream. The interpretation is about man grasping the meaning of life.
Joseph embodied that experience and was interpreted through the maturity he attained through his dream. Upon encountering his father, Joseph said the following to his father: "Here, father! That was the truth of the dream which I dreamt. My Lord proved it right."
Prophet Joseph had dreamt a dream for himself and come to learn the interpretation of that dream through his own life. From there, the prophet established a universal principle and presented the following analysis to all humanity: "All people are asleep/dreaming and wake up upon death." Death is the ultimate and inevitable interpretation of the dream. For interpretation means to interpret – to move from one place to another. The interpretation of the dream is to move from the "symbol" that it contains to the meaning of that symbol. If life is a dream, that shall also have meaning. And to move from it or its apparent meaning to its true sense means to interpret and understand life.
Through death, man grasps that his life on Earth was not final – that this place is but a bridge. In this case, the interpretation is a man facing the ultimate reality. In turn, religion's purpose is to find that interpretation before dying. That is why the prophet described the purpose of religion as "to die before dying" – or to grasp the purpose of life while living.
Prophet Joseph was a man who grasped the meaning of life – the interpretation of his dream – before his death. That is why his life proved to be the most beautiful life and his story the most beautiful story. Islam establishes the goodness or beauty of things in connection with Allah. Just as an interpretation, which does not lead to Allah, cannot be a true interpretation, any deed, which does not lead to Him, shall be without result.
In this case, reaching the truth is only possible through reaching Allah – whether we call it a dream or something else. Allah is the meaning of life. At that point, religion and metaphysical thought speak the same language, albeit with different tools – Metaphysics aims to lead man out of the cave and get him to confront reality. Religion, in turn, encourages people to discover their boundless "ability to create caves" within and without and to face reality under any condition. That is the meaning of constant self-critique.
At that point, dreams and imagination become things from whose influence one ought to liberate oneself. In other words, religion treats the dream as an obstacle or veil before the truth. That is why faith refers to certain necessary tools. Yet the result of reaching Allah and interpreting the dream is to lead a moral life. For fear – the ultimate obstacle before morality – is thus eliminated and man thus finds the interpretation of the dream within the calmness of an eternal life.