Every night when the 16th-century Ottoman ruler Sultan Murad III went to bed, he looked forward not just to rest, but also to the guidance he would find in his dreams. In the morning, Murad, the grandson of Suleiman the Magnificent, reported his dreams to his Sufi – a mystical Islamic master who interpreted and transcribed the signs and symbols to help the sultan make decisions about his empire and his personal progress.
One night while dreaming of a boy with "a bejeweled crown on his head," the sultan reported hearing a voice in his dream that said, "It is not a boy, it is the religion of Muhammad and the religion of Islam; it is the religion of Muhammad."
Hundreds of dream narrations like this were eventually compiled into a bound manuscript that established the ruler not only as a religious leader but also as an important authority figure.
To this day, Islamic mysticism places a great emphasis on the significance of dreams as windows into the dreamer’s soul. The mystics also believed that dreams, and even visions that happen when one is awake, correspond to real-world scenarios. While many modern historians write off dreams as fiction, Muslim populations understood the interpretation of these dreams as ways in which to achieve "orientation in a world that would otherwise be experienced in chaos," according to Stanford scholar Özgen Felek.
The research of Felek, a Mellon Postdoctoral Fellow in Religious Studies at Stanford, has shed new light on Ottoman dream culture and Sufism. Her international investigation of archival documents has yielded new perspectives on the spiritual progress of important figures in Ottoman history.
"For Ottoman chroniclers and their audiences, dreams were as real as historical events. But, for some Sufis, dreams were particularly significant for each disciple’s individual progress," said Felek.
For example, in the Khalwatiyya order of the Sufi tradition, if one’s dreams featured elephants and camels or the color blue, the individual’s soul was in the first stage or "Nafs-i Ammara" (the Soul/Self that Dictates Evil), which indicated that the soul was still dominated by earthy desires and passions.
Felek, co-editor (with Alexander D. Knysh) of the recently published book, Dreams and Visions in Islamic Societies (SUNY Press), is studying how Sultan Murad III’s portrayal of himself in dreams established him as a universal Islamic ruler and an accomplished Sufi.
Felek, inspired by the rich descriptions of the dreams, is also painting a series of miniatures that illustrate some of their themes.
Charting the rise of a ruler
A series of divine messages that the sultan received in his dreams led him to envision a broad expansion of his kingdom. The sultan referenced these dreams to justify a 12-year war with the neighboring Safavids.
Felek noted the transcription of one dream in which the sultan said God had granted him the lands of Persia: "I was wandering with Suleiman Ghazi (Suleiman the Magnificent). I heard a Divine call that said, ’O Murad Khan, the sovereignty of the province of the Persian Lands was given to you. Its invasion and conquest was made easy for you. It was all given to you.’"
"His dreams function not only to create an image of Murad as a spiritual leader, but also to legitimize his political and military decisions," said Felek.
In earlier accounts, the sultan is portrayed as the humble friend of God, but as time goes on he begins to dream of doing the types of miracles that can only be performed by the great Sufi figures and prophets. He walks on water, flies in the air, turns stones into cheese, produces milk from his fingers, and ascends into the heavens.