To Arrakis and Back: Frank Herbert’s Dune in Retrospect

A Book Review of Dune by Frank Herbert

This article contains spoilers.

The reputation of Frank Herbert’s Dune precedes it. It’s widely regarded as one of the biggest milestones in the history of science fiction in the same vein as Rossum’s Universal Robot, the Foundation series and so on. It’s not uncommon to hear Herbert’s name alongside other pioneers in modern genre fiction, the likes of J.R.R Tolkien and C.S Lewis.

The book, however, is not lauded on all fronts. It has its critics as well as its fans and even so, much of what people tend to enjoy about the novel has to do with the wider project of Herbert’s literary Universe and the depth of craft in his world-building, as opposed to the narrative alone. 

That being said, its impact on pop culture is far reaching. Without Dune, we wouldn’t have Star Wars or the modern space opera. It’s a novel which any sci-fi aficionado would recommend to their friends, even if they hadn’t read it themselves. The culmination of 8 years of planning and execution, Herbert combined various cultures and philosophies, literary references and ecological study, to create the world of Dune. Most notably for our readership, it owes much of its influence to Islam and bedouin culture. 

Reading the novel as a Muslim evokes a spectrum of sentiments. Whilst some might appreciate the references to their faith tradition, others might not look upon this appropriation so kindly. Having studied this book twice, I’m still not completely sure where I stand on the novel. As such, this review does not aim to come to a clear cut conclusion concerning the book. Instead, this is a reflection on the influences of Dune in relation to its themes and how the Muslim reader might react to their deployment. 

For those asking whether or not they should read it, and hoping this review could answer that, the short answer is: maybe. The technical aspects of the novel; narrative structure, language, characterisation, are not the focus of this review. Rather, it will specifically concern the role of Islam and Islamic themes within the novel, and how their presentation might be interpreted by Muslim readers.

However, to comment briefly on those aspects for those interested: it’s a slow novel, with inconsistent pacing and a need for quite a bit of investment on the part of the reader. The novel doesn’t explain much of the lore at first, and so you will likely depend on its glossary for references during much of the first volume. The prose is quite dry, not uncommon for sci-fi novels of its era, but might not be to the taste of modern readers. That said, the lore is incredibly rich, as would be expected given the time dedicated to crafting its world. For those interested in immersive world-building, this might be right up your alley. 

With these aspects aside, let’s get to the crux of this review – what is Dune? Set eons into a distant future, where humankind is an interplanetary civilization, Dune takes place in the harsh and uninviting sands of the planet Arrakis, the object of political and economic intrigue for all parties, dynasties, businesses, and authorities in the universe.  

Hostile and barren though it is, Arrakis is the solely arable world in which the universe’s most vital resource can grow: the spice Melange. It’s a substance of various properties, a drug that can induce or enhance psychic powers, as well as the fuel making interstellar travel possible. An allusion, one might deduce, to the discovery of oil in the Arabian Gulf.

The book follows Paul, the adolescent scion of the noble House Atreides who, at the bequest of the Padishah Emperor, are given fiefdom over Arrakis. From early on in the novel, it is revealed that Paul has abnormal qualities and abilities, and that he will be an historic catalyst in the novel. His mother, Lady Jessica, is a member of the Bene Gesserit, a matriarchal order of assassins, spies, and nuns with empathic and psychic abilities who seek to exact control over the trajectory of humanity through political meddling and matchmaking (imagine a league of super aunties). The Bene Gesserit have for years attempted to cultivate the conditions in order to bring about the Kwisatz Haderach, a male superhuman bearing the same abilities as them. Paul is seen as fulfilling this ambition, bred and trained by various mentors to eventually fulfill a messianic role for various factions. Paul’s father, Duke Leto Atreides, is the patriarch of the house who, prior to this new appointment, had lost power over his previous planet and is predicted to do so again on Arrakis.

This happens very soon into the novel. The reign of the House ends almost as soon as it begins as the plot by Baron Harkonnen, the former vassal of Arrakis, unfolds. 

With the aid of the House’s personal physician, the Harkonnens successfully overthrow the Atreides, assassinating Leto, and leaving Paul and his mother, still pregnant with Leto’s second child, stranded in the middle of the desert having to fend for themselves. They eventually find themselves in company of a group of Fremen, the natives of Arrakis, who soon recognise Paul as their own messiah, referred to as Mahdi or Lisan-al-Gaib. 

Years later, having grown into adulthood among the Fremen, learning their customs, marrying their chieftain’s daughter, and earning their loyalty, Paul goes to war with the Harkonnen House and seizes the capital of Arrakis. The conflict eventually leads to the overthrowing of the Padishah Emperor himself, who Paul goes on to succeed. Paul, by the third volume of the novel, having gained the ability to see past, present and future simultaneously, is disillusioned with his position as a religious and political leader, realising that no matter his efforts to curb the violence ahead of him, the course of history is unavoidable. Needless to say it’s not the most uplifting way to end a coming of age saga.

The Islamic influences in Dune are most apparent in the language and cultural symbolism within its lore. The name Mahdi as a glaring example, is an eschatological reference to the prophesied Imam who will precede the second coming of Jesus (A.S). Likewise Paul’s nickname Muad’dib can be roughly translated as “one who teaches adab (moral conduct)”. Usul, Fiqh, Jihad, and a myriad of other Islamic terminologies fill the Arrakeen tradition, albeit often misused and given odd meanings within the context of the novel (Muad’dib is strangely used as the name of a small mouse).

Beyond the matter of language, other symbols are borrowed from historically Muslim cultures. The Fremen, for instance, are quite plainly inspired by the bedouin Arabs not only in their stereotypical ruggedness but in their austere spirituality, romanticism, and discipline. Herbert also drew inspiration from the Caucassian Muslims, imbuing his Fremen with the same culture of valorous warfare. He makes this clear in his numerous allusions to Lesley Blanche’s Sabres of Paradise, a biography of the Dagestani leader Imam Shamil. [3] Some of the qualities of the Fremen and many other musings in the novel are direct references to Shamil’s society, such as the culture of reverie the Fremen have for their Kinjal knives, as well as quotes practically lifted from Blanche’s own book. There are such throwaway lines that refer to the style of fighting among Dagestani warriors: “Killing with the point lacks artistry”.

Dune is by no means an attempt at representing Islam in particular. Indeed there are numerous other cultures, traditions and civilizations from which Herbert borrowed in the construction of his world. The name Atreides is a reference to the Greek king Atreus, father of Agamemnon from Homer’s Iliad. Additionally, Kwisatz Haderach is borrowed from Hebrew, Christianity is referred to in the book’s history and Zen Buddhism also plays a significant role in the makeup of the Fremen religion. 

That said, many of the themes in the book rest heavily on Islamic ideas. The execution of these ideas, however, might prove a point of serious contention among Muslim readers. For some, Herbert’s use of Islamic symbolism might seem condescending and insulting, especially given instances of the misuse of Islamic terminology. An example of where this becomes problematic is in the use of “Auliya”. The term is translated in the book as “a handmaiden of God”, a sacrilegious mistranslation of the term used to describe the people most beloved to God (akin to “saints”). Likewise, the Fremen religion being a mixture of Islam, Budhism, and Animism could be taken as further insult as it dilutes/corrupts the source of influence.

Some might read the narrative structure itself in an orientalist light, viewing Paul’s arc as a white saviour narrative, with the overtly western protagonist civilising and liberating the natives from a colonial enterprise. One might read Dune in the same light as Lawrence of Arabia or Dances with Wolves. 

I do sympathise and agree with the problematic misuse of terminology, and acknowledge that, given the multiplicity of its influences, representing Islam in particular might not have been Herbert’s sole focus. That said, I still believe there is more to the novel’s use of Islam than aesthetic and linguistic features, moreso than some readers may consider. 

There are numerous musings in the book which I’d argue Muslim readers can relate to, and which demonstrate a deeper reading of Islam in the novel than one might initially consider. These strike through most emphatically in the quotes opening each chapter, which make up a collection of Paul’s meditations, as well as in the short adages and reflections of various other characters. The various reflections upon hardship and austerity in developing emotional resilience and wisdom might resonate with a lot of readers. Take for instance lines such as “Polish comes from the cities; wisdom from the desert” or the eerily Khaldunic observation “There should be a science of discontent. People need hard times and oppression to develop psychic muscles.”

The austere discipline of the Fremen can also be read through the lens of Tazkiya, as their culture champions delayed gratification and self restraint, principles held within the science of Tasawwuf. “The Fremen were supreme in… the self imposed delay between desire for a thing and the act of reaching out to grasp that thing.”

Furthermore, there are adages in the book pertaining to the idea of leadership that, on a personal note, I find myself returning to quite a bit. I find they reflect the attributes and virtues held in high esteem in our tradition. Most notably,

“A world is supported by four things … the learning of the wise, the justice of the great, the prayers of the righteous and the valor of the brave… make that the science of your tradition!”

It cannot, of course, be denied that Herbert’s overall presentation of religion in the novel is bleak and nihilistic, but ironically even in that aspect there are Islamic lessons one could sensibly derive. In the context of Dune, the struggles that permeate humanity can be summated as the contestation between two ideological forces; the Bene Gesserit and the Mentats. The Mentats are a group who, like the Bene Gesserit, try to maintain and manage power across the universe. Their approach differs however in that the Mentats try to predict the future through mathematics and logical deduction, and thus manage decisions according to their careful calculations. Both forces vey for influence through numerous means. The Fremen religion is claimed to have been devised by the Bene Gesserit for the purposes of propaganda, anticipating that their Kwisatz Haderach would be supported by them. While one might stop here and conclude that Herbert’s view of religion is entirely artificial and cynical, the dramatic irony in the novel could suggest there’s more to it than simply that. 

Paul recognises that he is deemed a pawn in a wider political game, but in his visions of the future comes to realise the hubris of the forces which seek to define him. “You’re thinking I’m the Kwisatz Haderach… Put that out of your mind. I’m something unexpected.” All the factions plot and plan, but Herbert persistently introduces foils to each faction’s plots. Paul’s Jihad and uncontrollable ascent is perhaps the greatest example, something beyond the expectations of those who groomed him for “terrible purpose.” 

One could take this as a profound lesson in Qadr (predestination), albeit a bleak one. Herbert expresses that while Man might try to seize control over the outcome of things, destiny is ultimately out of his control. To use his own words, “Western man has assumed… that all you need for any problem is enough force, power, and that there is no problem which won’t submit to this approach, even the problem of our own ignorance.”

It’s important to note that for Herbert this idea of destiny isn’t so much a supernatural one as it is wedded to nature and ecology. The book carries with it a critique of man from an environmentalist standpoint. “Man, [that is Western Man] inflicts himself upon his environment […] we tend to think we can overcome nature by mathematical means.” [2]

That being said, this aspect of the novel opens itself up to such a reading. All in all, the role of Islam in Dune is a perplexing one. Dune is what you make of it. As with any form of fiction, irrespective of it bearing Islamic motifs, it is down to the reader to derive benefit from it according to their understanding of their tradition, and critique it in kind. I don’t see this debate being put to rest any time soon, but maybe that’s a good thing. Maybe we should invite more discussion in this arena; invite more critical thought when it comes to fiction. Maybe, InshaAllah, such discussions inspire the creativity needed to imagine an alternative form of genre fiction that celebrates our values and faith.

Works Cited:

[1] Dune, Frank Herbert, (1965)
[2] Willis E. McNelly interview with Frank Herbert on February 3, (1969)
[3] The Secret History of Dune, Will Collins, LA Review of Books (2017) 

Photo via Wolfgang Hasselmann


About the Author: Ibraheem Ali is a graduate of English from the UK. His interests include literature, film, and Islamic history.

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