By Asim Qureshi, CAGE Research Director
Before I could do or say anything, I found myself sat in a chair in the centre of a large room which had extremely bright ceiling lights that were fully powered on and white walls that seemed to go on forever. Police officers, who all wore uniforms and stood around me talking over one another, filled the room. I silently sat there trying to decipher what they were saying but to no avail. And then, I awoke from my sleep. I was home. It was all a dream…
Before leaving the house every morning, I would say goodbye to my mum and tell her what time I would return… In my uncertainty, before walking out of the lounge, I told my mum that I dreamt the police had come to the house to arrest me for terrorism. In her reassuringly motherly tone she told me not to worry. “Allah Maalik hai” she told me in her native Urdu — “Allah is the Master”.
Two weeks after having seen a disturbing premonition in his sleep, Dr Rizwaan Sabir would be arrested by counter-terrorism police for possessing a terrorism publication alongside Hicham Yezza. Both men would go on to be released, eventually, but not before their lives had been torn apart.
Dreams that have a premonition quality about them are not rare in the experience of prisoners. They often come soon (and on occasion a long while) before detention takes place, embedding themselves in the back of the brain, hibernating until the eventual moment when the initial anxiety they caused in sleep, would come into reality. One of the first instances of the premonition dream I encountered came in the book of my CAGE colleague Moazzam Begg, who started the prologue with a description of the scenes that he witnessed at Bagram Airbase in 2002, except, the scene he had described came from a dream from years before:
The concertina wire is ingrained deepest in my memory. As we strolled meaninglessly around the enclosure, cameras surmounted with machine guns, and guars in military uniform followed our every move. The situation was hopeless – without a foreseeable end. The dismal monotony of daily existence was becoming unbearable. The uncertainty of the future compounded the atmosphere of apprehension and fear…
That was how I woke up, next to my wife. She was woken by the sounds of my sobbing and asked me in her gentlest voice why I was so upset. I told her about the nightmare. But it was 1995. It would be another seven years before I learned its true meaning.
While the imagery in Moazzam’s dream was viscerally close to his future reality, in other circumstances, the premonition has taken on motifs that are more metaphorical. The former Taliban Ambassador, Abdul Salam Zaeef, saw a dream in which his elder brother beheaded him. At the time he did not understand what the dream meant, not until a few days later when Pakistani authorities would surround his house in Islamabad, breaching the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations by arresting a serving ambassador, and handing him over to the US to be eventually detained at Guantanamo Bay.
Of course, the dreamers have little notion of what meaning the dream will hold prior to its occurrence; so what is the value of such a dream in the absence of being able to ward off any harm? In this piece I want to think about the role that dreams play for prisoners, and how important they are as a source of comfort and reassurance, but also in the way they provide a sense of control by God over their fate – their imprisonment is something that was shown as part of their destiny.
Surah Yusuf in the Qur’an provides many layers of meaning to detainees, particularly so because it contains the story of a Prophet who is threatened with and is then subjected to unlawful imprisonment. I have had the privilege of interviewing hundreds of released prisoners across the world, and to a man or woman, they cite the relevance of Surah Yusuf as an uplifting story for them during their incarceration. While the Prophet Yusuf’s words of, “prison is dearer to me than that which they call me,” are frequently quoted, I have also heard from many that it is the fulfilment of Yusuf’s miraculous dream that really became a source of support. Such a dream was of course sent to a Prophet, and so its miraculous nature might seem exceptional, but when it comes to premonitions, we have this statement of the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him):
Nothing of the prophecy remains now except sound visions, which are bestowed on a righteous believer, and it constitutes one thirtieth of prophecy.
For those detained, the premonition might not be limited to pre-detention, but can also occur during a period of detention too, raising the prospect of an outcome or potential future release. In one of the most recent accounts to be released by a released Guantanamo Bay detainee, Mansoor Adayfi recalls how the vision of a female lawyer that came to him in a dream signalled to him that his release would come through the hands of a female representative. After fourteen years of imprisonment, he not only received one, but five different women who would all become crucial in bringing about his eventual release. Mansoor recalls how just the mere sight of the first woman, gave him confidence that his dream was true, and that his release would come before too long – which it did.
During his imprisonment in the US, Dr Sami Al-Arian experienced a similar dream during a period of intense isolation in an empty women’s wing of a prison that is usually supposed to house 70 people. This was a particularly difficult period for him as he was in conflict with his own lawyers over strategy in the case – leading to a great many arguments. In these circumstances, the dreams that were sent were not only a premonition, but had the added value of providing advice on the way forward through his difficulty. His vision brought his guards to his cell at 3am in order to check his diabetes. Dr Sami describes how usually they would switch on the lights and he would see the medical cart they would bring, but instead, the lights remain off and all he sees is a man holding a huge rock in his hand, coming to crush Dr Sami’s head:
Of course you think this is reality and you are about to die. So you have one of two reactions that came to my mind, either I try and stand up and try and wrestle with that person and defend myself, or just accept my fate and pray and then whatever happens, happens.
It was only three steps between me and that person. And during these times I remembered a very long du’a actually, but I don’t have time to say it, so I take a very small part it and I say “God is Great, God is Great, God is Great. I seek refuge from bad things to happen.” So this person is coming now and I see the footsteps and I feel the fear and I hear the breathing, and they are right there on top of my head about to crush my head with that rock and I continue my prayer when suddenly the breathing stops and suddenly I open my eyes and see the door is open and the lights are out.
This is when I wake up and see exactly the same thing, but this time with the door shut. So I tried to make sense of what that meant, and I was guided to the fact that the message I was getting was, do not fight, just pray. From that moment on, I decided not to fight my lawyers, let them defend the case the way they see it, just pray. So I concentrated on just praying. Really, every day, and my wife, God bless her, she gave me a book of prayers that was very helpful as it has all kinds of prayers even if you are in prison. And I remember there was one special prayer that you need to say continuously without interruption, but to say it, it takes around 4.5 hours. I kept delaying it because I don’t have 4.5 hours where I’m not interrupted. In order to do it, I had to time it so that from 11 o’clock when the last guard came to the medical cart coming at 3:30am, these were the only 4.5 hours I had. I kept on delaying it and delaying it until my trial when I said to myself that I have to just do it. I finished it, and it was that prayer that promised freedom would come.
Dr Sami Al-Arian was not only given an indication of that his freedom would come, but was also sent the means by which he might achieve his freedom – in this circumstance, engaging himself in prayer while allowing those assisting him to play their role. Ultimately, Dr Sami’s submission to the interpretation of the dream removed the barrier that had existed, allowing him the freedom to turn to Allah swt for assistance.
Dreams of future events can come to those who are not righteous, such as the ones received by Fir’aun, but ultimately even those dreams are a way of assisting the believers in the end. A hadith in Muslim (4200), explains that truthful dreams are sent to those who are most sincere and righteous, those who are most truthful in speech. Thinking about this hadith, I’m struck by the ways in which all the prisoners mentioned above consistently refused to lie about themselves, or to tell lies about others in order to gain some form of amelioration for their conditions or to try and secure release. Mansoor Adayfi’s book Don’t Forget Us Here has a particularly moving passage on being offered a new life in a western European country with money and a home if he gave evidence against a man he had never met. Mansoor’s refusal to base his freedom on harming another is a consistent among all the above men, signalling their strong ethics in relation to nor harming others. With often very little material help or resources in supporting them, the sending of dreams to indicate release is often a form of support. In a hadith of the Prophet (peace be upon him), he said:
…Prophethood and its effects will be so far away in time, so the believers will be given some compensation in the form of dreams which will bring them some good news or will help them to be patient and steadfast in their faith. (Bukhari, 6499)
The consistency with which Muslim political prisoners receive dreams that help them make sense of future events is a phenomenon that the wider Muslim community should not take lightly. This form of communication from Allah swt to them is indicative of the position they hold and thus should remind us of the obligations that we have towards them. As the stories of these men testify, the plan of their detention and release was only ever with Allah swt, no matter what their captors had in mind. Where that leaves those of us who are free, is how we are viewed in relation to their plight, one that we should never take lightly.
Image Courtesy of Stefano Corso on Flikr
(NOTE: CAGE represents cases of individuals based on the remit of our work. Supporting a case does not mean we agree with the views or actions of the individual. Content published on CAGE may not reflect the official position of our organisation.)