Source / Courtesy: Muslim Sunrise, Winter 2011 volume
By Zia H Shah MD
Christopher Hitchens has been called one of the four horsemen of neo-Atheism. In a very well attended and televised debate in Mexico in 2009, regarding evolution and religion, he along with Sam Harris and Daniel Dennett represented atheism against theist debaters. In a friendly tone he suggested, “I do not know about you, but if I know someone in a public bus, who is hearing voices, I will quickly move away from him.”[i] This was a convenient trick of bait and switch! He described a schizophrenic and then implied a Prophet. There is only a superficial resemblance between them and there exists a clear distinction between the two, as will become apparent from the reading of this article.
Common sense understanding of sleep is that it is a period of inactivity of brain. But, since 1953, when dreaming or REM sleep was discovered, we know that it is very far from the truth. In REM sleep human brain is as active as in the awake state, if not more; just the activity is of a different kind.
REM sleep in adult humans typically occupies 20–25% of total sleep, about 90–120 minutes of a night’s sleep. During a normal night of sleep, humans usually experience about four or five periods of REM sleep; they are quite short at the beginning of the night and longer towards the end. Many of the muscles are normally paralyzed during this sleep so that the subjects do not act out their dreams and cause injury to themselves or their bed partners. The phenomenon of REM sleep and its association with dreaming was discovered by Eugene Aserinsky and Nathaniel Kleitman with assistance from William C. Dement, a medical student at the time, in 1952 during their tenures at the University of Chicago. Numerous studies have suggested that REM and NREM sleep are important for consolidation of different kinds of memories and learning. NREM sleep has different stages and the deeper stages are called slow wave sleep, which are more restorative.
This is distribution of normal sleep between NREM and REM sleep in a normal subject.[ii]
The three states of human existence, wakefulness, NREM and REM sleep have different physiological features, some of which are exclusive to them. Sometimes, in health or disease, features of one state can intrude into another. This gives us insight into the physical aspects of revelation, while awake. Revelation should be thought of as intrusion of dreaming of REM state into the state of full wakefulness.
A commonly known manifestation of intrusion of one state into another that most of the perceptive adult population has witnessed or at least heard about is sleep walking, which is intrusion of some features of awake state into NREM sleep. Sleepwalkers arise from the slow wave sleep stage in a state of low consciousness and perform activities that are usually performed during a state of full consciousness. These activities can be as benign as sitting up in bed, walking to the bathroom, and cleaning, or as hazardous as cooking, driving, violent gestures, grabbing at hallucinated objects, or even homicide.[iii]
In a fashion, similar to sleep walking, intrusion of dreaming without its accompaniment lack of total awareness, in the awake state, should be considered as a model for revelation.
Description of revelation by the Messiah of this age: Mirza Ghulam Ahmad Qadiani
Hadhrat Mirza Ghulam Ahmad’s description of revelation, suggests intrusion of REM sleep like state during wakefulness. He says:
The physicians have prescribed some natural means for sleep but I have observed that when Allah wants to reveal something to me, He suddenly brings a state of drowsiness and sleepiness in the midst of perfect wakefulness. He takes me away from a physical to a spiritual realm and after He has revealed something, he bestows full consciousness that the recipient of revelation has a chance to assimilate the revelation. He gives drowsiness again and wakefulness again to memorize, at times these cycles can up to 50 times and these are special influences from God. Such revelations are not the same as normal sleep and the physicians do not understand the details of this.[iv]
This very insightful and instructive description was mentioned in 1900, more than 5 decades before the discovery of REM sleep in 1950s. With better understanding of REM sleep, this excerpt highlights for us the physical nature of true revelations. Of course, the supernatural aspect of revelation will always evade human reductionism, as God is Subtle and Imperceptible, but as the Infinite meets the finite, the end result is observable and understandable by the human mind and appropriate mixing of REM sleep and awakefulness, perhaps, serves as the best model or metaphor for human understanding.
The continuum of intuition to true dreams to prophetic revelations
Every one of us has had our creative moments of a good idea and original intuitions. Some of us would have been recipients of true dreams also. The Holy Prophet Muhammad, may peace be on him said, “True dreams are one of the forty-six parts of Prophethood.”[v] Additionally, true dreams are not limited to pious persons only; anyone can be recipient of true dreams. Hadhrat Mirza Ghulam Ahmad notes that the blessings of Al Rahman God are general and for all. He writes in his book, Nature of Revelation, “God All Mighty has with a few exceptions granted all men with eyes, nose and ears and blessed them with sense of smell and other senses and has not been miserly towards any nation. Likewise, Allah has not excluded any people or nation from the blessings of the basic seed of the spiritual faculties. Just like you see that the sunlight reaches every place and no place whether clean or dirty is exempted from it. Same is the law for the light of the spiritual sun and it shines in all places regardless of the spiritual station. However, it is true that this spiritual light loves a heart that is clean, pure and true.”[vi] In other words, dreams, even the true ones, are a shared feature among all humans. There are, however, differences in true dreams of the ordinary and the pious, in terms of frequency, subject matter and clarity. This is examined by me in an article available on Google-knol, Al Aleem: The Bestower of true Dreams.[vii]
Today, people have a lot of misunderstandings about revelations because of false prophets and con artists. An evangelical broadcaster whose end-of-the-world prophecy earlier this year stirred a global media frenzy has now vanished from the public eye and airwaves ahead of his recalibrated doomsday date, set for Friday, October 21, 2011.
Days after the apocalypse he originally predicted for May 21, 2011 conspicuously failed to materialize, Harold Camping emerged from a brief seclusion to say he had merely miscalculated by five months, and he pronounced a new Judgment Day, October 21.
The following month, the now 90-year-old former civil engineer was said by his California-based Christian radio network to have suffered a stroke that left him hospitalized.
He has largely dropped out of sight since then, and his daily radio program, “Open Forum,” broadcast on more than 60 U.S. stations, has been canceled.[viii] He was only one of the examples, in recent times, of false prophets who have created bad name for revelations.
Hallucinations versus genuine revelations
Hallucinations of a malfunctioning brain or a schizophrenic need to be distinguished from the revelations of a saint or a prophet or a true dream of a scientist. The immediate and obvious difference between a mad person and a saint or a prophet is that the former is a failure, while the later is a high achiever. Here, I will quote a Christian, a historian and a politician, who served as Foreign Minister of France also briefly, Alphonse de Lamartine, as he highlights the achievements of the Holy Prophet Muhammad, may peace be on him, “If greatness of purpose, smallness of means, and outstanding results are the three criteria of human genius, who could dare to compare any great man in modern history with Muhammad?”[ix] Additionally, I add a few references to establish the unprecedented accomplishments of the Holy Prophet Muhammad.[x] [xi] [xii] We believe, Jesus, may peace be on him, to be a true prophet also and the devotion and the dedication of his disciples, later to be called apostles, is a testament to the truth of his revelations and his great achievements through his followers. So, whereas, a schizophrenic has rambling ideas and is a failure, a true prophet is the wisest of the wise and the best among the high achievers. A movie titled A Beautiful Mind, about Nobel Laureate John Nash, shows his life story.[xiii] [xiv] The movie shows his struggle with his hallucinations until he masters them and is cured of his illness. After decades of suffering, he becomes able to dissociate hallucinations from his normal life experiences. For a more detailed understanding of this issue, of distinguishing hallucinations from the blessings of revelations, go to my Google-knol titled, Al Aleem God: The Bestower of true Dreams![xv]
Sleep, memory and learning
We are learning while we are sleeping — an unconscious form of memory that is still not well understood, according to a recent study by Michigan State University researchers. The findings are highlighted in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: General.
“We speculate that we may be investigating a separate form of memory, distinct from traditional memory systems,” said Kimberly Fenn, assistant professor of psychology and lead researcher on the project. “There is substantial evidence that during sleep, your brain is processing information without your awareness and this ability may contribute to memory in a waking state.” In the study of more than 250 people, Fenn and Zach Hambrick, associate professor of psychology, suggest people derive vastly different effects from this “sleep memory” ability, with some memories improving dramatically and others not at all.[xvi]
If you see a student dozing in the library or a co-worker catching 40 winks in her cubicle, don’t roll your eyes. New research from the University of California, Berkeley, shows that an hour’s nap can dramatically boost and restore your brain power. Indeed, the findings suggest that a biphasic sleep schedule not only refreshes the mind, but can make you smarter. Conversely, the more hours we spend awake, the more sluggish our minds become, according to the findings. The results support previous data from the same research team that pulling an all-nighter — a common practice at college during midterms and finals — decreases the ability to cram in new facts by nearly 40 percent, due to a shutdown of brain regions during sleep deprivation. “Sleep not only rights the wrong of prolonged wakefulness but, at a neuro-cognitive level, it moves you beyond where you were before you took a nap,” said Matthew Walker, an assistant professor of psychology at UC Berkeley and the lead investigator of these studies.[xvii]
In 1865 a German chemist, Friedrich August Kekule, was struggling to solve a problem in chemistry that had baffled all researchers. One night Kekule had a dream in which he saw a snake with its tail held in its mouth. This dream instantly put him on the right track leading to the solution of the perplexing question. Thus was unraveled the secret of the molecular behavior in certain organic compounds, a discovery which created a revolution in the understanding of organic chemistry. He interpreted this dream to mean that in the benzene molecule, carbon atoms bond together to form a ring structure. This knowledge gave birth to the huge and highly developed field of synthetic organic chemistry producing a vast new range of synthetic materials. The contemporary pharmaceutical industry has become growingly dependent on synthetic drugs. Mankind is indeed indebted to that one dream through which Kekule resolved that problem.
Elias Howe was the first person to mechanize the process of sewing. He too received the answer to a problem that had frustrated him for a long time through a dream. In his dream he saw himself surrounded by savages, who threatened to kill him unless he designed a sewing machine. Being unable to respond he was tied to a tree and the savages started to attack him with arrows and spears. It surprised him to see eyelets on their spearheads. On waking from this dream, he immediately realized the solution, which led him to invent the prototype of the sewing machine that was to dramatically revolutionize the sewing industry. Through his dream he understood that he should consider placing the eye of the needle in its point. It was this idea which helped him resolve a seemingly impossible task. It is difficult to visualize the sorry state in which man would find himself today without the blessing of this dream. What a revolution was created indeed by this revelation!
How can we distinguish a dream arising purely from subconscious mind versus a revelation? It will have to be based on the judgment as to whether the subconscious could host the information revealed in the dream or not. If the information is altogether new and novel and there is no reason to believe that a certain person’s subconscious possessed that knowledge then the most reasonable explanation is to give credit to All Knowing Allah for that particular piece of information. More specifically, human mind has no ability to know the future with any degree of certainty. We, humans can only conjecture about the future but only the Omniscient knows the precise details![xx] Here, let me also suggest some additional food for thought for the critic, who would insist that revelation is no more than ideas of subconscious mind. It is reported with good evidence that the Holy Prophet Muhammad, may peace be on him, and the Messiah, Mirza Ghulam Ahamd Qadiani, also had a few revelations in foreign languages also that they had no knowledge of. Go figure!
In the Holy Quran, Allah tells the Holy Prophet Muhammad to announce, “Say, ‘I am only a man like yourselves; but I have received the revelation that your God is only One God. So let him who hopes to meet his Lord do good deeds, and let him join no one in the worship of his Lord.’” (Al Quran 18:111) This verse describes the distinction between the Holy Prophet Muhammad and ordinary people. However, the religion has been completed in the revelation of the Holy Quran and there cannot be any new Shariah or law bearing prophets. Likewise, to be a non-law bearing prophet is also a very tall order. But, as mentioned before the door of true dreams is open and if we look for effective tools, we can develop not only in the domains of intuitions and unconscious learning but also true dreams. This article is meant to only ignite a spark and sow a seed! The journey is long but not tiring. It is rather very enjoyable, like a visit to a popular and beautiful destination. It is time to take the trip; “a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step,” according to the Prophet Confucius.
[iv] Hadhrat Mirza Ghulam Ahmad Qadiani. Malfoozat, volume: I/V page 303.
[v] Book of Hadith, Bukhari and Muslim.
[vi] Promised Messiahas. Haqiqat-ul-Wahi, Ruhani Khaza’in, vol. 22, pp. 26.
[xx] Al Quran 72:26-28.