Visions and Dreams

Visions and Dreams


In many cultures, little or no distinction is made between visions and divine message dreams, indicating that they share some intangible quality. This is especially the case in the Judeo-Christian-Islamic family of traditions, in which religious truth is communicated through direct revelations from God or one of His messenger angels. When God’s message is communicated by an angel in the writings of the Hebrew prophets, it is sometimes difficult to determine whether the message is being delivered in a dream or in a waking vision. When communicated to the Jews, these messages are always clear and direct, whereas those to Gentiles are always symbolic dreams that only Hebrews can interpret.

The distinction between dreams and visions is similarly blurred at certain points in the New Testament, although there is an interesting contrast between them in the Gospels regarding the delivery of the news of Jesus’ birth to Mary and Joseph. The angel Gabriel appears directly to Mary in a waking vision, whereas he delivers the same message to Joseph in a dream. The implication here seems to be that Mary is in a more elevated spiritual state than her husband. Dream revelations, in other words, are less venerated than visions. A comparable hierarchy of revelations is evident in Islam.

Muslim prophetism distinguishes the prophets according to the degree of visionary perception, from the sights and sounds of a dream to the suprasensible perception in the waking state. According to this classification, which is probably derived from criteria suggested in Hebrew Scriptures, there is the simple prophet, who sees or hears an angel in a dream. Then there is the envoy to a group, who sees the angel while awake. Finally, among the envoys there are the six great prophets, including Muhammad, who were charged to reveal the new law, which was dictated to them by the angel while they were awake.

No distinction between dreams and visions was made at the time of Muhammad, who received spiritual instruction in both states. Dreams played an important role in the life of the Prophet, who received his first revelation and became conscious of his vocation in a dream. His initiation into the mysteries of the cosmos occurred during a great dream known as the “Night Journey”.