by Rick Kronk
The author summarizes experiential data and compares it with the biblical evidence in an effort to suggest a paradigm shift for the Church in the West with regard to the salvific utility of dreams and visions for Muslims.
The phenomenon of Muslim conversion to Christianity as a result of dreams and visions is now well documented and no longer hidden in long-lost personal diaries. Moving, firsthand accounts dating from the Medieval Period through the present day can be found in mission histories, biographies, magazine articles, and television and radio interviews (e.g., www.morethandreams.tv.
Despite the widespread popularity of such stories, what is often lacking is a discussion of the implications for Christian witness. In short, what difference does it make, missiologically speaking, that God uses dreams and visions to bring Muslims to faith in Jesus Christ? Below I summarize experiential data and compare that with the biblical evidence in an effort to suggest a paradigm shift for the Church in the West with regard to the salvific utility of dreams and visions for Muslims.
Eastern Value of Dreams/Visions
The origins of Islam can be said to depend upon a succession of visions by which Mohammad received the content of what would later become the Qur’an. Because of this particular beginning, dreams and visions as vehicles of supernatural revelation are inseparably linked to the worldview of Islam. In such a worldview, which embraces the view that “faith is conviction through direct experience, and not the result of a process of reason” (Glassé 1991, 231), dreams and visions play a significant role in informing and defining religious meaning.
In contrast to Western thought, which has historically given little credence to the unconscious, Muslims are fully aware of and engaged in a daily experience that is not only open to, but depends upon supernatural encounters. For Muslims,
…dreams are central to the(ir) cosmological outlook…from founder to followers, dreams form part of the total paradigm within which (they) live and move, touch and are touched, meet and are met. They (dreams) are not optional; they are a meaningful component of life. (Musk 1988, 164)
Following the death of the Prophet Mohammad and the end of Koranic revelation, dreams and visions grew in importance as means of receiving divine instruction. As a result, the science of dream interpretation developed and prompted the compilation of interpretation manuals to assist in decoding the meanings of recurring symbols in dream and vision events. An historical review of the development of the rise of these dream manuals leads us to conclude that for a Muslim, “…to reject dream interpretation, is to reject the Prophet and his commands…. it is [therefore] incumbent on good Muslims to attend to their dreams and their prophetic significance” (Musk 1988, 59).
Categories of Dreams/Visions
For Muslims, then, it is no surprise that God speaks through dreams and visions. It is, however, the more or less recent “discovery” of this phenomenon by Western missionaries that has given rise to the increase in the reported incidence of Muslim conversion as a result of such supernatural encounters. One singularly important resource of related testimonies are the commentaries of early twentieth-century missionary Constance Padwick on the journals of Lilias Trotter, missionary to Algeria in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.
Padwick’s careful documentation of the personal stories that she gleaned from these diaries provide a significant look into the role of dreams and visions in conversion for many Muslims. In her seminal article (1939), Padwick begins her discussion by reviewing and categorizing the dream and vision events in the Bible under four general categories:
1. Moral Warning—Pilate’s wife (Matt. 27:19)
2. Guidance—Joseph/Mary’s departure into Egypt (Matt. 2:13)
3. Encouragement—God’s encouragement of Paul during the shipwreck (Acts 27:24)
4. The Presence (of God/Christ)—Stephen’s stoning (Acts 7:56)
After laying the biblical groundwork, Padwick then cites examples of dream and visions conversion stories taken from Trotter’s diaries that fit each category. What is clear from accounts is that the breadth of circumstances, the range of personal issues, and the differences in the details of the dream/vision experiences which God uses are limitless. There seems to be no barrier to the employment of dreams/visions as a divine instrument of salvation: men, women, young, aged, educated, and illiterate all are potential candidates for a dream/vision encounter with Christ.
A careful analysis of these stories leads us to the following conclusions:
1. God uses previously acquired information about himself, despite the fact that sometimes that information is woefully incomplete.
2. Dream and vision encounters apparently come unannounced and unprovoked, leaving the “dreamer” with a sense of urgency to respond, but uncertain how to do so.
3. The role of a Christian friend is crucial as a link to assisting the “dreamer” in understanding and responding appropriately to the message received.
Criteria for Judging Dreams/Visions
For those dreams and visions which call the “dreamer” to consider the truth of the gospel, understanding the message of the dream/vision event and knowing how to respond is crucial. But what are the criteria for judging the validity of dreams and visions which truly originate with the God of the Bible?
Old Testament Law sheds some light on this. In Deuteronomy 13:1-5, God warns the people of Israel that seemingly divine instruction should not be heeded just because it issued from a supernatural encounter such as a dream or vision. Rather, the key to discerning the origin and binding nature of the supernatural message lay in its agreement with previously-revealed truth.
New Testament teaching of the Apostle Paul alludes to a similar standard. In his letter to the Galatians, Paul argues in defense of the singular content of the gospel, regardless of the so-called special circumstances surrounding the origin of the message or pedigree of the messenger (1:8). Here, as in Deuteronomy, the test of the validity of the message and the messenger was not its seemingly supernatural context, but its relationship to God’s previously-recorded teaching. So for both the Old and New Testament, the litmus test for truthfulness of a given dream/vision experience is the whole of God’s revealed truth contained in the Bible.
Channel of Divine Revelation
Even a cursory reading of the Bible makes it clear that when it comes to dreams and visions, God is not just concerned with providing criteria by which such supernatural experiences can and should be evaluated. Rather, the Bible records a world in which dreams and visions operate as a legitimate channel of divine, personal revelation. The biblical evidence suggests that dreams and visions are means of divine revelation which are “accommodated to man, his language, his culture and his powers” (Ramm 1961, 32) that God uses to warn, direct, or encourage someone. In light of the biblical record we must acknowledge that,
Dreams occur in the service of revelation from Genesis to Acts. The ‘redeemed’ (Joseph, Daniel and Peter [among others]) and “unredeemed” (Pharaoh, Nebuchadnezzar and Pilate’s wife) both experience them. In the dream the human mind is the screen upon which the divine revelation is reflected. (1961, 45)1
In reflecting upon the wealth of biblical dream and vision accounts, what is remarkable is that biblical “dreamers” and Muslim “dreamers” appear to share a common attitude toward the dream/vision event. First, dreams and visions are understood as legitimate means by which humans receive instruction from God. Second, the content of these dream and vision experiences, when properly interpreted, is understood to have undisputed relevance. Finally, the dream or vision is understood to demand some kind of response. In this sense, dreams and visions are not sent by God simply to instruct the “dreamer”, but to motivate him or her to do something.
Need for Human Engagement
Here is where the dream and vision phenomena intersects with the gospel mandate. For whereas the divine use of dreams and visions is not hindered by ideological or religious barriers which otherwise limit access to the gospel (as is more or less common in predominantly Muslim contexts), conversion stories stemming from dream and vision encounters nearly always describe the assistance of a Christian friend who brings a gospel explanation of the dream/vision event.
This was the case with Saul and Ananias (Acts 9) and Cornelius and Peter (Acts 10), and continues as the pattern that confirms Paul’s argument in Romans 10:14: “How then will they call upon Him in whom they have not believed? [And] How will they believe in Him in whom they have not heard? And how will they hear without a preacher?” For in effect, the dream and vision encounter does not serve as an instrumental means of salvation, but as a catalyst for faith in Christ. And it is the Christian friend as the gospel messenger (the “preacher”) who comes alongside to explain the gospel and invite the “dreamer” to follow the Christ of the dream or vision.
Need for Christian Witness
With this in mind the topic of dreams and visions should become commonplace in our discussions with Muslim friends. When we pray for Muslims, we should ask God to reveal himself to them in dreams and visions. When we have the occasion to read the scriptures with them, instead of focusing on doctrine and theology, we should read from the lives of Abraham and Daniel or Saul (that is, Paul) and Cornelius—stories of supernatural, divine encounters that may remind them of their own experience and prompt a request for an explanation. Such an approach implies that we are prepared to answer questions, and are to able provide a competent biblical explanation of the gospel which may not arise from familiar prompts.
The proliferation of dream and vision conversion stories challenges the Church, especially the Church in the West that has been conditioned to elevate reason above experience, to make room for supernatural, divine intervention. Scripture is clear: God is at work calling people to himself from every tribe and tongue and nation so that the vision of Revelation 7:9 can be fulfilled.
According to testimonies from across the Muslim world, much of what God is doing among them is sparked by dream and vision encounters. Over and over again these stories remind us that the God of heaven has found a way to enter the conscious and/or subconscious realm of men and women in order to deliver to them a personal invitation to follow him. That he is doing this is undeniable. That we can play a part is incredible.
1. Interestingly, Padwick relates some findings from the diaries of Trotter. In her diary, Trotter notes that the dream and vision accounts which were used of God for spiritual benefit in the lives of Muslims were nevertheless colored by the subjects’ prevailing cultural situation. For instance, Algerians always dreamed of Christ dressed in white, which either reflected the biblical depiction of him that was propagated by missionaries, or the fact that Arab men dress in white unless Europeanized.
Glassé, Cyril. 1991. “Koran.” In The Concise Encyclopedia of Islam. Eds. Nicholas Drake and Elizabeth Davis. New York: Harper Collins Publishers.
Musk, Bill. 1988. “Dreams and the Ordinary Muslim.” Missiology 16(April): 163–172.
Padwick, Constance E. 1939. “Dreams and Vision: Some Notes from a Diary.” International Review of Mission 28(2): 205–216.
Ramm, Bernard. 1961. Special Revelation and the Word of God. Grand Rapids, Mich. Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.
Rick Kronk has spent the last twenty years fulfilling two passions: announcing the good news to Muslim friends and neighbors and assisting the Church in understanding and responding to Islam. In addition to writing and speaking, Rick is engaged in developing curriculum for church leadership in the emerging Muslim-convert Church, as well as for workers among Muslims worldwide. He has recently published a book entitled Dreams and Visions: Muslims’ Miraculous Journey to Jesus.
EMQ, Vol. 49, No. 2, pp. 360-364. Copyright © 2013 Billy Graham Center. All rights reserved. Not to be reproduced or copied in any form without written permission from EMIS.