On the Answering of Questions in the World of Dreams: Two Early Modern Dreamers

A satirical print of a Quaker preaching session, after a work by Egbert van Heemskerck I, produced c. 1690, and while satirical in intent, an accurate enough depiction of both Quaker clothing styles as well as the ubiquity of women in Quaker life and practice, their authority on ‘religious’ matters not a given as the very existence of such satirical prints would indicate. (BM 1854,0812.49)

Across the early modern world- in Afro-Eurasia and in the Americas, their population of European and African descent rapidly increasing- the world of the dream was an important ‘place’ in which people of all origins and backgrounds might receive knowledge of things unknown to them, prescience of events to come, and even divine inspiration. The importance of the dream world- a ‘landscape’ at once like and unlike that of the physical world of waking life- resonated among Catholics, Protestants, Muslims, Orthodox, Jews, and others, often in forms and in contexts of striking similarity. The following two dream accounts- one from an English Quaker woman, Elizabeth Webb (1663-1726) , the other from the Ottoman Syrian sufi, saint, and frequent presence on these pages ‘Abd al-Ghanī al-Nābulusī (1641-1731)- come from milieus in some ways quite different from one another. Webb was a Quaker preacher whose career took her on a journey through the still young North American colonies along the Atlantic Coast; she passed but a few miles south of where I am now writing in fact, spending some time among the Quaker communities of Maryland and Virginia (sources of the tobacco that would feature quite prominently in ‘Abd al-Ghanī’s career, in fact). ‘Abd al-Ghanī’s travels took him throughout much of the Ottoman world, threading together communities of sufis and saints in the process, not unlike Webb’s work of joining Quaker settlements through her journeys. Both wrote accounts of their travels, and both presented themselves as beneficiaries of some degree of divine inspiration, not least of all through the medium of dreams.

In both the world of Ottoman Islam and of trans-Atlantic English dissenting Protestantism, dreams were potential sources of the resolution of confusion and of answers for outstanding questions. While dreams could also be themselves sources of confusion and in need of interpretation, particularly for people possessed of sanctity (or who claimed as such for themselves at least) the dream, sent by God to the dreamer, could just as easily be an agent of interpretation. In both of these dreams the dreamer had an outstanding issue- not only that, but their issues were remarkably similar, as were other features of their dreams. Let’s consider Webb’s dream first, which she related in the course of an autobiographical letter to the German Lutheran pietist Anton Wilhelm Böhme (1673–1722), long resident in London as a chaplain:

Oh! it is good to trust in the Lord and be obedient to him, for his mercies endure forever; so about the middle of the twelfth month [1], 1697, through the good providence of the Almighty, we arrived in Virginia, and as I traveled along the country from one meeting to another, I observed great numbers of black people, that were in slavery, and they were a strange people to me, and I wanted to know whether visitation of God was to their souls or not, and I observed their conversation, to see if I could discern any good in them, so after I had traveled about four weeks, as I was in bed one morning in a house in Maryland [2], after the sun was up and shone into the chamber, I fell into a slumber, and dreamed I was a servant in a great man’s house, and that I was drawing water at a well to wash the uppermost rooms of the house, and when I was at the well, a voice came to me, which bid me go and call other servants to help me and I went presently; but as I was going along in a very pleasant green meadow, a great light shined about me, which exceeded the light of the sun, and I walked in the midst, and as I went on in the way, I saw a chariot drawn with horses coming to meet me, and I was in care lest the light that shone about me, should frighten the horses, and cause them to throw down the people which I saw in the chariot; when I came to call them, I looked on them, and I knew they were the servants, I was sent to call, and I saw they were both white and black people, and I said unto them, why have you stayed so long? And they said the buckets were frozen, we could come no sooner, so I was satisfied the call of the Lord was unto the black people as well as the white… [3]

At root here is the question of how Webb- and by extension, other Quakers- were to understand people of African descent, and how they were to relate them (or not) to the Quaker community. Webb is also making an argument for her own authority: in this dream God- implicitly, as she does not say so in so many words- authorizes her to incorporate blacks as well as whites into the Quaker community, resolving through a direct intervention her question.

Note that she suggests the date- four weeks from her arrival, so, the middle of January- as well as the location of her dreaming and the specific time. This attention to detail is found in dreamers’ accounts across the early modern world, and figures into our second dream, which ‘Abd al-Ghanī included in a compendium of his dreams, a compendium that served to highlight his own sanctity and connection to divine inspiration. The issue at stake comes up later on in the dream: namely, whether or not ‘Abd al-Ghanī was authorized to disclose certain divine ‘secrets’ of ‘divine oneness and divine gnosis’ to ordinary, uninitiate people. Even at this early point in his career ‘Abd al-Ghanī was looking to reach a wider and wider audience, both in person and through his (often very accessible) texts, even though in so doing he ran up against many of the hallowed conventions of sufi teaching and initiation practice. As with Webb, though for different reasons, ‘Abd al-Ghanī faced the question of the scope of his mission; like Webb, he found authorization in a dream:

During the month of Rajab, 1088 (August, 1677), I saw in a dream that I was inside a house I didn’t recognize, and that the Messenger of God [Muḥammad], God bless him and give him peace, was in that house, and I saw him only, no one else being with him in that house, and I could not see myself with him. Then he, God bless him and give him peace, cried out: ‘Bilāl!’ [4] I heard this from him, God bless him and give him peace. And then a tall black man of slight build when out from the door here at my right, from a vestibule of the house, until he came to a stop before the Messenger of God, God bless him and give him peace, silent. Then he, God bless him and give him peace, said to him: ‘Say to Ḥasan,’ or, ‘Say to Ḥusayn,’ the doubt being mine regarding the specifics of that, ‘that he should address the people,’ or, ‘that he should speak among the people.’ Then I looked to the source of the speech, and he who I had seen to be the Messenger of God, God bless him and give him peace, in the house—he was me, and I was alone there. Then Bilāl, God be pleased with him, when he was commanded by him, he sought me to speak to me, and I was also the one commanded that he spoke to, so he spoke to me as he commanded. Then I found, opposite the shrine of Yaḥya ibn Zakiriyya, God bless and give them both peace, in the Umayyad Mosque in Damascus the protected, a minbar built resembling the sudda which muezzins use in mosques. It had steps, so I ascended by them, and spoke a long discourse. Then I awoke and was deeply happy. Before seeing that dream vision, I had been disturbed within concerning regarding permission from the Messenger of God, God bless him and give him peace, regarding speaking with the people about the knowledge of divine oneness and divine gnosis. I had seen in one of the books that Junayd al-Baghdādī [5], God be pleased with him, did not speak with the people until he was given permission by the Messenger of God, God bless him and give him peace regarding that matter in a dream vision which he saw. So my mind was put at rest. God’s is the praise and the grace! [6]

In ‘Abd al-Ghanī’s dream, while, as with Webb, there are symbolic elements, the most important difference is the central role played by Muḥammad in ‘Abd al-Ghanī’s dream. It is his presence and intervention that ultimately gives the dream its authorizing power. Somewhat daringly, ‘Abd al-Ghanī suggests a collapse of his own self into the self of the Prophet, connecting his saintly authority to Muḥammad’s prophetic authority.

‘Abd al-Ghanī’s mention of Bilāl’s physical appearance- ‘a tall, black man of slight build’- points to another significant difference between the perceptional worlds Webb and ‘Abd al-Ghanī were born into: Webb’s central issue is the question of how to situate people of African descent within the Christian salvation economy and more particularly her own mission, a question that she was forced to confront in America because of the omnipresence of Africans and African-Americans there (coupled with the increasingly rigid and racialized nature of slavery practiced in the Chesapeake region and southward). If she had seen black people in England before, it was incidental, passing, such that blackness did not figure into her imaginal world, into her systems of reference. Things were different for ‘Abd al-Ghanī: while blackness and slavery were closely connected in the Ottoman world, it was not an all but absolute connection in the way it would become in the Americas. ‘Abd al-Ghanī encountered at least one living saint of African descent (and who had formerly been a slave), pointing to the complexities of Ottoman slavery practices and of concepts of ‘blackness.’ The reference to Bulāl in the above dream points to another important context: Bilāl was deeply rooted in Islamic memory, a seminal figure in the earliest Muslim community, such that, in his dream, ‘Abd al-Ghanī found himself identifying with Bulāl, becoming him in a manner of speaking- passing from ‘white’ to ‘black,’ in other words.

Another Ottoman imagining of Bilāl (center), here seen conversing with ‘Umar ibn al-Khaṭṭāb in a late 16th century copy of the Siyer-i Nebî, an Ottoman Turkish rendering of the life of Muḥammad (NYCPL, Spencer Coll. Turk. ms. 3)

Webb’s dream does however reveal a relatively radical- in the context of early modern American practices of enslavement and (still developing, to be sure) ideas of race- view of the relationship between ‘blacks and whites’ that she developed over the course of her journey. In her autobiographical account this shift in attitude is attributed entirely to her revelatory dream, though it seems likely she would have been aware of the thinking and practice of other early modern Quakers in this regard, too.  It’s worth noting that for Webb at least, whether as she argues because of her revelatory dream or for other reasons, blacks and whites could be imagined as part of one community, one movement of devotion to God, even if her dream did not in itself challenge slavery as a practice, at least not explicitly. Nor did ‘Abd al-Ghanī, despite his recognition of the saintly potential of slaves of African descent, suggest any need to overhaul or abolish slavery in the Ottoman world or elsewhere. As such they are hard to ‘fit’ into the topographies with which we are used: if both accepted slavery as a social fact, neither accepted the emergent racial justifications or arguments being developed in the Atlantic world and elsewhere tying blackness and the enslaved condition inextricably together.

And on many other points, ‘Abd al-Ghanī’s and Webb’s dreams- or, rather, their records of their dreams- are quite similar in their ‘architecture’: both lay a great deal of stress upon the spaces traversed and encountered within the dream, with abundant detail and description. Their dreams are not reduced in their telling to what to our eyes might be the ‘important’ or ‘significant’ components. The whole of the dream, including seemingly obscure or purposeless parts, mattered- and was remembered. It’s possible of course that given the importance of recording dreams in their entirety that both authors expanded the details of what they remembered [7]; but it seems likely that in cultures in which dreams were (and are) vital, their vitality in part dependent upon one’s ability to recall the precise details, such recall and attention to detail becomes more ‘natural,’ even while in the dream-state. That said, ‘Abd al-Ghanī’s notice that he did not remember certain details is a reminder that such recall was not total, and also suggests the care with which dreams and their recording was approached.

In sum, while it might not seem at all obvious to read these two dream accounts side by side, doing so reveals shared elements that could be found across much of the early modern world, not least of all the continued importance of the ‘true dream,’ including in early eighteenth century England and in its outposts in North America. And these true dreams could play a crucial role in the religious controversies that roiled societies from Maryland to Beijing, controversies and transformations of religious practice and community that were often linked by other developments and patterns of a genuinely global nature. One of those- the slave trade centered on Africa- is directly visible in Webb’s dream, and obliquely so in ‘Abd al-Ghanī’s. The particulars of what people in the early modern world did with these shared ‘technologies’ and contexts varied greatly, of course- but despite those obviously important differences and distinctions, the ‘imaginal worlds’ that an Elizabeth Webb and an ‘Abd al-Ghanī al-Nābulusī inhabited remained in vital ways deeply commensurable.


[1] Quakers, like many other dissenting groups, refused to use the conventional names for months and days because of their ‘pagan’ origins, instead referring to months and days as ‘first,’ ‘second,’ and so forth.

[2] Note the variety in early modern sleeping practices suggested here, as well as, perhaps implicitly, the likelihood that Webb had been awake well into the night, another practice typical of global early modernity.

[3] Elizabeth Webb, ‘A Letter from Elizabeth Web to Anthony William Boehm, With His Answer,’ reprinted in Elizabeth Webb, Rachel Cope, and Zachary McLeod Hutchins, The Writings of Elizabeth Webb: A Quaker Missionary in America, 1697-1726 (University Park, Pennsylvania: The Pennsylvania State University Press, 2019), 45.

[4] Bilāl ibn Rabāḥ, an African slave who became one of the early companions of Muḥammad and is remembered in the Islamic tradition as the first muezzin (someone who gives the call to prayer).

[5] Junayd (835–910) was one of the ‘founders’ of sufism and hence stands here as an important exemplar and authority.

[6] Reproduced in al-Ghazzī, Intimate Invocations: Al-Ghazzi’s Biography of ʻAbd Al-Ghani Al-Nabulusi (1641-1731), ed. Samer Akkach (Leiden: Brill, 2012), 473. Translated by Jonathan Parkes Allen, 2019.

[7] It is possible, of course, that dream accounts were fabricated, or at the very least embellished. However, I think it entirely likely that just as often early modern authors strove to genuinely remember and reproduce their dreams as best they could- that they did so filtered through other concerns, concepts, and so on is hardly surprising but to be expected.


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