Dune and Religious Appropriation
"All science goes back to something that we believe because we believe it. We believe it because we believe it and we have no proof for it. It's like a religion."
Anyone who has read Dune won’t struggle to believe that those are the words of Frank Herbert. The celebrated American author has made a career of cross-pollinating his literature with themes of religion and science and none of his work does it with quite so much vigour than that which sits within his infamous Duniverse.
Beginning with the 1965 novel, Herbert delivers a poignant examination of religion, mysticism, politics, ecology, science, sociology and humanity through the futuristic lens of a feudal interstellar society that exists thousands of years into the future. His story revolves around a young noble boy called Paul Atreides who is caught up in the political rivalry over the control of the most valuable commodity in the universe (melange/spice) but ends up becoming a prophet to an oppressed people looking to take their freedom and land back from tyrannical powers. Now forgive the rather basic summary of the plot of Dune, there is of course far more narrative twists and turns that I could talk about, but for the purpose of this piece I’m going to focus on the religious influence on his prose and characters.
Herbert was raised Catholic before converting to Zen Buddhism but there are several religious theologies including Christianity, Judaism, Navajo and Islam he has appropriated in the novel or reworked to create new religions that play a significant role in the evolution of this feudal society. More often than not religion is used as a weapon used by authorities to keep people, planets and the universe in place and allow the few to control the many. The superpowered sisterhood of the Bene Gesserit is some of the worst culprits of this. For centuries, the matriarchy has engineered various religions to include myths and prophecies of their own design in order to utilise them later for their own gain. The Bene Gesserit did this to the Fremen and it is their religion that takes centre stage in the book and most closely borrows from Islam.
For this desert-dwelling race, whose home is on Arrakis where the spice is farmed, Herbert mixed elements of his adopted Zen Buddhism (several of the epigraphs are his own version of Zen riddles/koans) with Sunni Islam in order to create their religion. The Fremen are thus descended from Zensunni Wanderers, a religious faction who, according to the Terminology of the Imperium, broke away during the Third Islamic Movement from the teachings of Maometh, also known as the “Third Muhammed”. It is because the Zensunni escaped from slavery and persecution to Arrakis that the Fremen people, through a collective religious resolve based in ecology, were able to survive the treacherous climate, evade the capture of the Emperor’s forces and make the planet their home.
Much of the Fremen language is laced with Arabic (the language of the Quran) and Islamic terminology too. “Auliya” is the Arabic word for “saints” and in the Duniverse it means “the female at the left hand of God” or “God's handmaiden” in the Zensunni Wanderers' religion. “Ulema” is another word with Arabic origins as in the book it refers to a Zensunni doctor of theology while in reality, it is the name for a Muslim doctor of the science of religious law.
Paul, of course, has a Fremen name with origins in the Arabic language too. In the novel, “muad'dib” is a mouse admired by these nomadic people for its ability to survive in the desert and the young hero adopts it for himself. “Mu'adibs” in real life means “teacher” in Arabic, which is, of course, an apt title for Paul who becomes not just a teacher to the Fremen but a prophet too.
Many readers have likened Muad'Dib to Muhammed, the founder of Islam and it is obvious why. Muhammed was exiled from Mecca by the Quraysh, a powerful tribe, after preaching that there is just one God (he called Allah) compared to the many gods believed to exist in pre-Islamic Arabia. After finding sanctuary in Medina, Muhammad united his followers and many tribes under one religion, Islam, and together as Muslims, they took back Mecca. In Dune, Paul is run out of his home and threatened with death but escapes to the desert and soon enough he and his mother Lady Jessica, of the Bene Gesserit, secure their safety within the Fremen community by exploiting the Messiah legend that her order had put in place.
Like Muhammed to Muslims, Paul becomes a prophet-like figure to the Fremen and under his leadership, they take back control of Arrakis as well as the entire universe. However, this religious power comes with severe consequences as Paul knows that if he leads the Fremen rebellion against the Emperor it will trigger a mass genocide across the Imperium. Herbert again uses Islamic terminology to describe this massacre, a ‘Jihad’, which in modern times is more closely associated with terrorism and the extremists who manipulate Islam to justify their destruction. Herbert, however, wrote this book in the ‘Sixties so jihad had a slightly less loaded meaning. Khalid Baheyeldin makes this point in an article on the subject.
“In Dune, ‘Jihad’ is described as Holy War,” he writes. “The contemporary stereotype of Jihad in Western media conjures images of planes crashing in buildings, or young men in suicide bombing missions. However, in Dune, ‘Jihad’ is given more of a realistic meaning: struggle for justice against oppression, a fight against evil by the masses, even by rebellion or armed resistance.
“The Harkonnen and the Emperor's Sardaukar are seen as oppressors, and the Fremen (especially the Fedaykin), use armed resistance against them. This is labeled by Frank Herbert as ‘Jihad,’ and is very close to the real meaning of the concept."
Herbert does not, therefore, seem to be using his appropriation of religion, Islamic in particular, to portray the various theologies in a bad light. In fact, many readers of the Islamic faith have enjoyed his work. “None of my friends or I came across anything offensive, even the more conservative ones,” Reddit user amifufu writes. “Rather we found it interesting to see how a culture we are familiar with influenced Herbert's universe. It's not something you see very often.”
Though some feel that by creating a Lawrence of Arabia figure in Paul he is using Islamic culture to perpetuate a white saviour narrative. “Herbert relies on the fact that you don’t know Arab Islamic history to lend the story exoticism and fantasy,” writes Zaina Ujayli. “Add that their prophesied saviour is the son of the colonist extracting Arrakis’ resources and you have Orientalism at its finest.”
Maybe they’re both right. Yes, Herbert does appropriate Islamic tenets and terminology to create his own brand of fictional religion, but the people that practice it, at least in the first book, are the ones you are rooting for. They are the equivalent to the Resistance in Star Wars, the heroes, when so often Islam is associated in pop culture with the bad guys. But when the Islamic prophet of Muhammed is seemingly white-washed into the image of Paul Atreides, Herbert is still guilty of creating religious appropriation in his text.
Paul is part of the dominant society and he and his mother use their powers to manipulate the religious beliefs of a disadvantaged minority culture to their own advantage. The fact that we’re going to now see this play out on screen in a new movie by Denis Villeneuve, with no Arab or Islamic actors playing the main Fremen roles, it only perpetuates the issue.
In the end, Dune is a 50-year-old book that Frank Herbert borrowed a large amount of material from various theologies, cultures and even other sci-fi novels (check out Sabres of Paradise) in order to write. Yes, he appropriated religious ideas but it wasn’t to put them totally in a bad light. In fact, Herbert was critiquing the messianism of science through the Bene Gesserit and their psychology powers just as much as the messianism of Paul by the Fremen. As Timothy O'Reilly, author of Frank Herbert, writes: "It is too easy to see messianism as something that happens only to desert peoples like the Fremen. Less immediately apparent is the fact that to Herbert the neurotic use of science in modern Western civilisation betrays the same pattern as messianic religion.”
Herbert didn’t like the idea of being trapped in the box of absolutism that both science and religion champion and Dune was his way of using each belief system to hit that home. “Deep in the human unconscious is a pervasive need for a logical universe that makes sense,” he writes in Book Three. “But the real universe is always one step beyond logic.”
Well, I believe in that.