Like many non-Muslims, we, Muslims, believe that just as there is a physical world where we live and see one another with our eyes, there is another world, or even maybe other worlds to which the physical rules and regulations do not apply. However, we can still, in some way or another, communicate with those metaphysical worlds and see certain things and matters in those worlds.
To which extent is what we see true? Is it something realistic or imaginary? Is it something true or fanciful? Is it from God, Satan, ourselves or from where? Is there a way to know that?
It is fortunate for us, Muslims, that we have such rules and regulations whereby we can differentiate between divine revelation and non-divine revelation, including its various forms, be they true or imaginary, good or evil. Moreover, we can decide the authority of such visions in terms of religious texts, legal rulings and dogmatic questions.
This is one of the most marked characteristics of Islam and the Islamic religious sources, which distinguishes the Muslim faith from the previous Abrahamic religions where divine revelation and non-divine revelation are indiscriminately mixed together.
Let’s have a look now at divine revelation and non-divine revelation in Islam in terms of authority when it comes to the religious texts, legal rulings and dogmatic questions.
Divine and Non-Divine Revelations in Islam
Muslims believe that man can communicate with the metaphysical world(s) and see matters and things which are not a part of the physical reality which we perceive with our very eyes in this material world.
While we believe that not everything seen by man in this situation is real or true, we believe that there are some cases where the things seen by man are actually real and true. Nevertheless, there is a very big difference between the divine revelation, which may underlie religious texts, legal rulings and dogmatic questions, and non-divine revelation, which, albeit sometimes real and true, has varied forms, including dreams, inspirations as well as divine and spiritual manifestations.
Divine Revelation and How it Came in Islam
The Qur’an tells us that God sent down revelations to Prophet Muhammad just as He had sent down revelations to the previous prophets and messengers. About that, we read:
Indeed, We have revealed to you, [O Muhammad], as We revealed to Noah and the prophets after him. And we revealed to Abraham, Ishmael, Isaac, Jacob, the Descendants, Jesus, Job, Jonah, Aaron, and Solomon, and to David We gave the book [of Psalms]. (An-Nisaa’ 4:163)
About being a revelation from God, the Qur’an says:
Then do they not reflect upon the Qur’an? If it had been from [any] other than God, they would have found within it much contradiction. (An-Nisaa’ 4:82)
In the Qur’an, we also read:
Say, “What thing is greatest in testimony?” Say, “God is witness between me and you. And this Qur’an was revealed to me that I may warn you thereby and whomever it reaches. Do you [truly] testify that with God there are other deities?” Say, “I will not testify [with you].” Say, “Indeed, He is but one God, and indeed, I am free of what you associate [with Him].” (Al-An`am 6:19)
We further read:
And when Our verses are recited to them as clear evidences, those who do not expect the meeting with Us say, “Bring us a Qur’an other than this or change it.” Say, [O Muhammad], “It is not for me to change it on my own accord. I only follow what is revealed to me. Indeed I fear, if I should disobey my Lord, the punishment of a tremendous Day.” (Yunus 10:15)
About the way in which revelation used to come, we read in the Qur’an:
And it is not for any human being that God should speak to him except by revelation or from behind a partition or that He sends a messenger to reveal, by His permission, what He wills. Indeed, He is Most High and Wise. (Ash-Shura 42:51)
`A’ishah (the Mother of the Believers) reported that Al-Harith ibn Hisham asked the Messenger of God: “O Messenger of God! How does the divine revelation come to you?” The Messenger of God replied, “Sometimes it is (revealed) like the ringing of a bell, this form of revelation is the hardest of all and then this state passes off after I have grasped what is inspired. Sometimes the Angel comes in the form of a man and talks to me and I grasp whatever he says.” `A’ishah added: “Verily I saw the Prophet while revelation was coming to him on a very cold day and noticed sweat dropping from his forehead (as the revelation was over).” (Al-Bukhari)
`A’ishah (the Mother of the Believers) also reported: The commencement of the divine revelation to the Messenger of God was in the form of good dreams which came true like bright day light, and then the love of seclusion was bestowed upon him. He used to go in seclusion in the cave of Hira where he used to worship (God alone) continuously for many days before he liked to see his family. He used to take with him the journey food for the stay and then come back to (his wife) Khadijah to take his food like-wise again till suddenly the Truth descended upon him while he was in the cave of Hira. The Angel came to him and asked him to read. The Prophet replied, “I do not know how to read.” The Prophet said, “The Angel caught me (forcefully) and pressed me so hard that I could not bear it any more. He then released me and again asked me to read and I replied, ‘I do not know how to read.’ Thereupon he caught me again and pressed me for the second time till I could not bear it any more. He then released me and again asked me to read but again I replied, ‘I do not know how to read (or what shall I read)?’ Thereupon he caught me for the third time and pressed me, and then released me and said, ‘Read in the name of your Lord, who has created (all that exists), and created man from a clot. Read! And your Lord is the Most Generous.’” (Iqra’ 96:1-3) Then the Messenger of God returned with the revelation with his heart beating severely. Then he went to Khadijah bint Khuwailid and said, “Cover me! Cover me!” They covered him till his fear was over and after that he told her everything that had happened and said, “I fear that something may happen to me.” Khadijah replied, “Never! By God, God will never disgrace you. You keep good relations with your kith and kin, help the poor and the destitute, serve your guests generously and assist the deserving calamity-afflicted ones.” Khadijah then accompanied him to her cousin Waraqah ibn Nawfal ibn Asad ibn `Abdul `Uzza, who, during the Pre-Islamic era became a Christian and used to write writings in Hebrew. He would write from the Gospel in Hebrew as much as God wished him to write. He was an old man and had lost his eyesight. Khadijah said to Waraqah, “Listen to the story of your nephew, O my cousin!” Waraqah asked, “O my nephew! What have you seen?” The Messenger of God described whatever he had seen. Waraqah said, “This is the same one who keeps the secrets (Angel Gabriel) whom God had sent to Moses. I wish I were young and could live up to the time when your people would turn you out.” The Messenger of God asked, “Will they drive me out?” Waraqah replied in the affirmative and said, “Anyone (man) who came with something similar to what you have brought was treated with hostility; and if I should remain alive till the day when you will be turned out then I would support you strongly.” But after a few days Waraqah died and the divine revelation was also paused for a while. (Al-Bukhari)
Jabir ibn `Abdullah Al-Ansari, while talking about the period of pause in revelation, reported the statements of the Prophet “While I was walking, all of a sudden, I heard a voice from the sky. I looked up and saw the same Angel who had visited me at the cave of Hira’ sitting on a chair between the sky and the earth. I got afraid of him and came back home and said, ‘Wrap me (in blankets).’ And then God revealed the following verses (of Quran): ‘O you (i.e. Muhammad) wrapped up in garments!’ Arise and warn (the people against God’s Punishment),… up to ‘and desert the idols.’ (Al-Muddaththir 74:1-5) After this, the revelation started coming strongly, frequently and regularly.” (Al-Bukhari)
Accordingly, it becomes evident for us that revelation would come to Prophet Muhammad and the previous prophets and messengers as direct revelation from God, revelation through an angel, mainly Gabriel or in a dream. Abdullah ibn `Umayr said: “Prophets’ dreams were a sort of revelation.” (Al-Bukhari)
As for the stated revelation’s authority as a part of the religious texts, when it comes to the Qur’an and Qudsi (divine) hadiths, only revelation coming through Angel Gabriel is taken into consideration.
About the Qur’an coming down to Prophet Muhammad through Angel Gabriel, we read in the Qur’an:
Say (O Muhammad, to mankind): Who is an enemy to Gabriel! For he it is who bath revealed (this Scripture) to thy heart by God’s leave, confirming that which was (revealed) before it, and a guidance and glad tidings to believers (Al-Baqarah 2:97)
Yet, the verses of the Qur’an were being revealed word for word and letter for letter through Gabriel. However, only the meanings of Qudsi hadiths were being revealed through Gabriel, whereas the wordings were being made by Prophet Muhammad.
As for the Prophetic hadiths, Prophet Muhammad would inspire them either from direct revelation, revelation through Gabriel or dreams. Sometimes, Prophet Muhammad would exercise discretion and then revelation would come down, confirming or abrogating any such discretion.
About that, we read in the Qur’an:
Nor does he speak from [his own] inclination. It is not but a revelation revealed, Taught to him by one intense in strength (An-Najm 53:3-5)
As for the divine revelation’s authority in terms of the legal rulings and dogmatic questions, all forms of revelation coming to Prophet Muhammad, including direct revelation, revelation through Gabriel and dreams, may underlie legal rulings and dogmatic questions.
About that, we read in the Qur’an:
And whatever the Messenger has given you – take; and what he has forbidden you – refrain from. And fear God; indeed, God is severe in penalty. (Al-Hashr 7:59)
Still, the revelation to be considered for religious texts, legal rulings and dogmatic questions in Islam is restricted to that revelation coming to Prophet Muhammad and the inspirations and dreams of his Companions he approves in his lifetime.
Muhammed ibn `Abdullah ibn Zayd related that his father reported: “The Messenger of God was thinking of a bell, and he commanded that a bell be made and it was done. Then I saw in my dream a man carrying a bell. I said to him, ‘O slave of God, will you sell the bell?’ He said; ‘What will you do with it?’ I said, ‘I will call (the people) thereby to prayer.’ He said, ‘Shall I not tell you of something better than that?’ I said, ‘What is it?’ he said, ‘Say: Allahu Akbar (God is the Most Great)’ four times. Then, he went but not far away from me and said: ‘If you are going to offer prayer…’ and made Iqamah once, saying: ‘prayer is about to be offered’ twice. In the morning, I went out and came to the Messenger of God, and told him what I had seen. The Messenger of God said, ‘It is a true dream, God willing! Go out with Bilal to the mosque and teach it to him, for he has a louder voice than you.’ I (`Abdullah) went out with Bilal to the mosque, and I started teaching him the words and he was calling them out. `Umar ibn Al-Khattab heard the voice and came out saying, O Messenger of God! By the One Who sent you with the truth, I saw the same (dream) as him. Then, Prophet Muhammad said: ‘Praise be to God!’” (Ahmad, At-Tirmidhi, Abu Dawud and Ibn Majah)
Anas reported: `Umar said, “I agreed with God on three things,” or said, “My Lord agreed with me on three things. I said, ‘O Messenger of God! Would that you take the station of Abraham as a place of prayer!’ I also said, ‘O Messenger of God! Good and bad persons visit you! Would that you order the Mothers of the Believers to cover themselves with veils!’ So the verses of hijab (i.e. women’s veil) were revealed. I came to know that the Prophet had blamed some of his wives so I entered upon them and said, ‘You should either stop (troubling the Prophet) or else God will give His Messenger better wives than you.’ When I came to one of his wives, she said to me, ‘O `Umar! Does the Messenger of God not have what he can advise his wives with, that you try to advise them?’ Thereupon, God revealed: ’It may be, if he divorces you (all), that his Lord will give him instead of you, wives better than you, who are Muslims (submit to God).’” (At-Tahrim 66:5) (Al-Bukhari)
Non-Divine Revelation in Islam
According to Islam, people other than prophets may communicate with metaphysical world(s) as indicated above in some way or another. Such communication may have several forms, including dreams, inspirations as well as divine and spiritual manifestations.
However, such communication cannot be considered such divine revelation which may be included in the Qur’an or the Prophetic hadiths.
As for the authority in terms of legal rulings and dogmatic questions, there is a difference between the Companions of the Prophet and the later generations of ordinary Muslims.
The Companions’ dreams, inspirations and divine or spiritual manifestations, if approved by Prophet Muhammad, will be like the divine revelation in terms of the legal rulings and the dogmatic questions.
Nevertheless, if such non-divine revelation was not approved or took place after Prophet Muhammad’s demise, any such revelation would be considered a statement by a Companion and would be called “Athars” which would be considered for legal rulings and dogmatic questions unless they contradict a Qur’anic verse with a definite indication or a prophetic or Qudsi hadith with an authentic chain of narration and a definite indication.
For example, `Urwah reported: Thuwaibah was the freed slave girl of Abu Lahab whom he had manumitted, and then she suckled the Prophet. When Abu Lahab died, one of his relatives saw him in a dream in a very bad state and asked him, “What have you encountered?” Abu Lahab said, “I have not found any rest since I left you, except that I have been given water to drink in this (the space between his thumb and other fingers) and that is because of my manumission of Thuwaibah.” (Al-Bukhari)
It is also reported that Grand Companion `Umar dispatched an expedition under the command of a man called Sariyah. While `Umar was preaching a sermon to people one day, he kept shouting while on the pulpit: “O Sariyah, the mountain! O Sariyah, the mountain!” Then, the army’s messenger came and then `Umar asked him after the army. So, he replied: “O Commander of the Believers, we encountered our enemies and they were about to defeat us. All of a sudden, somebody shouted: ‘O Sariyah, the mountain! O Sariyah, the mountain!’ Thereupon, we turned our back to the mountain and so God defeated them at our hands.’” (Recorded by Ahmad in “Fada’il As-Sahabah”, Abu Nu’aym in “Dala’il An-Nubuwwah”, Ad-Diyaa’ in “Al-Muntaqa Min Masmu`atih”, Ibn `Asakir in “Tarikh Ibn `Asakir”, Al-Bayhaqi in “Dala’il An-Nubuwwah”, Ibn Hajar in “Al-Isabah”, Ibn Kathir in “Tarikh Ibn Kathir” and Al-Haythami in “As-Sawa`iq Al-Muhriqah”
The abovementioned dream and inspiration are just instances of the Companions’ statements which may be considered for legal rulings or dogmatic questions unless they contradict a Qur’anic verse with a definite indication or a prophetic or Qudsi hadith with an authentic chain of narration and a definite indication.
As for common Muslims’ dreams, inspirations and divine or spiritual manifestations, they may not be considered for religious texts, legal rulings or dogmatic questions. They may be acted on only by such a Muslim who has any such non-divine revelation.
If a Muslim has a dream, inspiration or divine or spiritual manifestation, any such non-divine revelation will be exclusively intended for such a Muslim, and so he/she cannot make it binding on other Muslims simply because any such non-divine revelation comes just as glad tidings, warning, exhortation, honorary miracle or divine manifestation.
I heard the Prophet saying, “When one of you sees a dream that he likes, then it is from God. He should praise God for it and relate it to (others). If he sees one which he dislikes, then it is from Satan, he should seek refuge in God against its evil and should not mention it to anyone. Then it will not harm him.” (Al-Bukhari)
To sum up, the revelation considered for religious texts, legal rulings, and dogmatic questions is such a revelation conveyed to us by Prophet Muhammad, including Qur’anic verses as well as Qudsi and prophetic hadiths. As for the dreams, inspirations, manifestations of Muslims, including those of the Companions if not approved by Prophet Muhammad, they do not constitute divine revelation. They just account for non-divine revelation. However, this does not necessarily mean that they are not true or realistic. Rather, this means that they may not be considered as sacred texts to be included in the Qur’an or prophetic hadiths. Moreover, they may not be considered for legal rulings and dogmatic questions to the exclusion of the statements of the Companions, which may be considered for such rulings and questions unless they contradict a Qur’anic verse with a definite indication or a prophetic or Qudsi hadith with an authentic chain of narration and a definite indication.
1- The Qur’an
2- Sahih Al-Bukhari
3- Dala’il An-Nubuwwah by Abu Nu’aym
4- Dala’il An-Nubuwwah by Al-Bayhaqi