Stanford's Özgen Felek investigates the power of dreams in Sufism

Through a study of dreams, Özgen Felek charts the ascendance of the 16th-century Ottoman ruler Sultan Murad III from humble disciple to spiritual and political leader.

L.A. Cicero Stanford scholar Ozgen Felek shows an example of an illuminated manuscript in a class

Stanford scholar Özgen Felek shows an example of an illuminated manuscript in a class that introduces students to traditional techniques and styles of Islamic art.

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.'"  

L.A. Cicero One of Ozgen Felek's illuminations in progress.

One of Özgen Felek's illuminations in progress.

"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.

For many Muslims the relevance of their visions has not waned over the centuries. According to Felek, disciples of the Khalwatiyya order still report their dreams to their Sufi masters in search of spiritual guidance and understanding. According to Felek,  "Some dream narratives in which the Prophet appears are circulated via Internet blogs and forums or being forwarded through emails among Muslims."

The practice of "Istikhara," first prescribed by the Prophet Muhammad, is common in some communities today. Devotees who face large decisions are encouraged to say a specific prayer meant to incite a dream that will guide their decision.  Generally, as Felek explained, Muslims turn to elder or more pious Muslims to say the prayer on their behalf in the belief that "the dreams of pious people are more likely to come true."

Dreaming in the classroom

In the course of her research, Felek became intrigued by the idea of visual representations of the dreams she was studying.

"I was fascinated by how descriptive and lively his [the sultan's] dream accounts were," Felek said. "One can envision each dream in detail, so I decided to combine my academic interests and artistic skills to make his dreams even more visible by illustrating them. I thought this would make the sultan happy, too." 

Felek uses very fine brushes and crushed gold leaves to capture every fine detail. A calligrapher adds the transcription of the dream accounts in traditional Arabic text.

"I closely examine the illustrated manuscripts commissioned by the sultan in order to stay loyal to the dress code, architecture and the artistic style of his time as much as possible in my paintings," said Felek.

Each ornate painting takes a full year to create. Felek is currently working on creating a book of all of her artistic endeavors and hopes to put them on exhibition one day. 

This spring Felek is teaching two undergraduate courses that she developed. Islamic Manuscript Illumination: History, Theory and Practice is designed to give students more than just a theoretical introduction to Islamic manuscripts. Over the course of the quarter each student will produce at least one painting in the traditional techniques and styles of Islamic art.

Although the students were apprehensive about the painting component of the class, Felek said it has in fact helped students uncover artistic abilities they didn't know they had.

A study of masculinity in Islam

A second class revolves around another aspect of her current research – an approach to Islamic literature through the lens of sexuality and gender identity.  This class, Men and Masculinity in Islam, addresses the meanings of manhood and constructions of masculine identity in Islamic tradition.

Felek said she believes this will lead to "a better understanding and evaluation of why Muslim men do the things they do."

Kelsey Geiser is an intern with the Human Experience, the Humanities web portal for Stanford University.

Corrie Goldman, Stanford Humanities Outreach Officer: (650) 724-8156,