The Muslimness of Dune: A Close Reading of “Appendix II: The Religion of Dune”

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It is common knowledge that Frank Herbert’s classic Dune novels are chock-full of Islamic and MENA (Middle Eastern and North African) references.  However, as a Muslim reader, I have long maintained that the Muslim influences go deeper than many may have realized. I am of the theory that if one is Muslim, or otherwise intimately aware of Muslim traditions, that person’s experience of Dune differs vastly from any other reader’s encounter with the saga.

While many embrace Dune’s Muslim influences, there is a strong contingent of readers who, I believe, have misunderstood them as linguistic costumery or, at most, intriguing non sequiturs largely irrelevant to the series’ substance. From this perspective, they are seen as orientalist garnishes. For instance, one of the 2021 film’s screenwriters, Jon Spaihts, stated that Herbert’s use of such terms was little more than exotic corsage.  Similarly, a conlanger for the film, David J. Peterson, wrote that the novels’ Islamic terms are simply pulled verbatim from Arabic, without accounting for inevitable changes thousands of years into the future.  As I will discuss in this essay’s conclusion, these perspectives seem to have influenced the disconcerting absence of MENA or Muslim creatives both before and, perhaps more importantly, behind the cameras of the latest adaptation. Meanwhile, even positive interpretations of the novels tend to focus on the origins of particular words and passages rather than their relevance to the saga’s deeper meanings.

Comments and interpretations like these conflict with my experiences. I find the books’ engagement with Islam to transcend linguistic wordplay and obscure intertextuality. After all, Herbert was fascinated by linguistics and believed words shape substantive meaning. The use of “Voice” by the Bene Gesserit, an order of imperialist superhuman female breeders, is a prime example of this, as is the saga’s running obsession with symbols and myths. As these semiotic tools wield tremendous power within the Dune universe, Herbert’s references likewise generate a profound “Muslimness” that goes beyond mere orientalist aesthetics. (This is not to say that the Dune novels are not orientalist in other ways, which I have detailed elsewhere.) Dune does not cheaply plagiarize from Muslim histories, ideas, and practices, but actively engages with them.

Scholars have used “Muslimness” to describe the influence and fluidity of Muslim ideas and experiences in Urdu literature and Hindi cinema which might otherwise be considered non-Muslim by virtue of the artist, audience, or subject matter.  Likewise, the Dune novels have always felt profoundly Muslim to me, despite its White non-Muslim author and its influences from various other religions and histories. The saga’s Muslimness is embedded in its underlying structure and themes, and not relegated to the surface of the text. I might venture to say that Muslim readers’ experiences of the novels, or at least mine, may be singular. It may be that these readers see the Dune novels in a way that others do not. As much as the saga examines tensions between east/west, colonized/colonizer, and Brown (or Black)/White, it also interrogates questions internal to Islam.

Dune is orientalist and conservative, but also, and sometimes frustratingly at the same time, thoroughly Muslim. Its Muslimness is not only a function of its Arabic words; its quotations and paraphrases from the Qur’an, prophetic teachings, or Muslim authors; or its references to Muslim histories. More so, its Muslimness reflects a serious engagement with those sources and histories, a conversation with their underlying ideas and affects that surpasses exotic aesthetics, easy plagiarism, cheap appropriation, the assumption of unchanging religion or language, and even scintillating references. Certainly, readers don’t level the same critiques at Herbert, let alone other science fiction writers, when he uses the English, French, or Latin language, or references so-called Western philosophy in far future settings. Ultimately, it is through, and not apart from, the engagement with Islam and Muslims that the Dune novels explore their central themes about the relationship between religion, ecology, technology, capitalism, and anti/colonialism. 

One of Dune’s overarching concerns is to locate and explore a “Muslimness in time.”  The novels fixate on change across time and space: How does a tradition adapt, or not, across centuries, environments, and societies? The novels interrogate this question through a range of Muslim approaches to it. They look to Muslim scholarly traditions, historical interpretations, and experiences as they shift from place to place and generation to generation. The saga finds answers in Muslim beliefs in the sanctity of the Qur’an and the Prophet Muhammad’s teachings; in Muslim practices of mysticism and experience as a response to legalism and scientism, or to the (orientalist) binary of reason against unthinking following; in a respect for other traditions that nevertheless preserves a unique commitment to the bespoke quality of Islam; and in Muslim narratives of political succession and revolutionary power.

In exploring changes to tradition over time, the saga does not only preserve Muslim ideas and the Arabic language in Islamic contexts, but also offers both complex allegories and thoughtful speculations about its in-world histories. It is about Muslim futures as much as an analogue for Muslim pasts. Dune does not use its Muslimness, as Spaihts stated, for an “exotic” purpose which “doesn’t work today” when “Islam is a part of our world.” It is not clear whose world Spaihts meant, nor the time at which Muslims, in his view, became part of “our” world. Perhaps he meant 2001. Certainly, whether Spaihts intended it or not, popular discourses often commit the error of assuming 9/11 was a historical rupture in the west’s relationship to Muslims. At any rate, regardless of what Spaihts meant, Muslims have always been a part of the world. In fact, Dune’s project is precisely to imagine a universe which is as thoroughly Muslim as it is a synthesis of many religions. Dune takes the bold position that our world (its past) and our future (its present) is and will be resolutely Muslim in its worldview and essential character.

A close reading of a sliver of the first novel provides a glimpse of the Muslimness of the Dune saga. In this essay, I carefully examine “Appendix II: The Religion of Dune,” which appears at the end of the novel. This appendix offers perhaps the best and most concise site for illustrating what I mean by the Muslimness of Dune.

The appendix traces the origins of the Orange Catholic Bible (OCB), the dominant religious text of the Dune universe, and the religion of the Fremen, the people indigenous to the eponymous planet, formally known as Arrakis. While the appendix incorporates a variety of religious and philosophical references—including to Christianity, Buddhism, Hinduism, Judaism, Navajo traditions, Roman paganism, and even Nietzsche—the thrust of the historical narrative is overwhelmingly Muslim, and perhaps specifically Shi‘i.

I will walk through a few of the appendix’s underlying Muslim themes.

 

Change Over Time

The appendix narrates a history in which religions respond to technological change. The advent of spaceflight and of artificial intelligence induces dramatic shifts in religious attitudes due to the mystical implications of spaceflight and the destructive effects of thinking machines. This leads to bloody wars, and people come to realize that, in seeking these technological developments, they lost touch with their shared religious commandment to “not disfigure the soul” (633). Amidst this uncertainty, industry (the Spacing Guild, which aims to control Arrakis’s valuable resource, the spice) and the Bene Gesserit (who harbor similar goals) encourage religious leaders to form the Commission of Ecumenical Translators (CET), an essentially perennialist project—in other words, one which sees every faith as an expression of the same universal truth. The Commission is founded on the principle that all religions share a belief in a “Divine Essence” and that no religion “possess[es]… the one and only revelation” (633). The result is the OCB.

The appendix depicts the OCB as an attempt to use perennialism and rationality to impose a strict legal order upon the universe and dilute the experiential, less scientistic traditions of ancient religions. The appendix states that the OCB’s “Liturgical Manual and Commentaries” begins with an “obvious appeal to the agnostic rulers” (636). The Commentaries’ opening passage reads:

Men, finding no answers to the sunnan [the ten thousand religious questions from the Shari-ah] now apply their own reasoning. All men seek to be enlightened. Religion is but the most ancient and honorable way in which men have striven to make sense out of God’s universe. Scientists seek the lawfulness of events. It is the task of Religion to fit man into this lawfulness. (636)

While the problem of reform and rationality appears in many religious traditions, the CET’s Commentaries use specifically Islamic approaches, describing a tension within one idea of the Islamic tradition: that between sources of divine revelation and the practices of the Prophet Muhammad and his companions and community, as against the need to reason beyond what is provided in those original sources. For Muslims, the sources of revelation include the Qur’an, the Torah, the Gospel, the Psalms of David, and the Scrolls of Abraham (perhaps akin to the OCB’s plurality), and the practices of the Prophet are known as the sunnah—plural sunan, as in the appendix: “finding no answers to the sunnan…” For Muslims, those original sources provide some rules (what the appendix describes as the “questions of the shariah”), but more may be required to operate in new contexts. In this context, fiqh (“jurisprudence”) employs ijtihad (“individual reasoning”) to build on shari’a (“governance”) principles derived from the Qur’an and sunnah. In Dune, the CET’s solution is to use reason, applying a scientistic approach to create new law.

But the appendix goes on to excerpt the Commentaries’ conclusion, which retrospectively slights the CET’s rational, scientistic, and legalistic approach to religion:

Much that was called religion has carried an unconscious attitude of hostility toward life. True religion must teach that life is filled with joys pleasing to the eye of God, that knowledge without action is empty. All men must see that the teaching of religion by rules and rote is largely a hoax. The proper teaching is recognized with ease. You can know it without fail because it awakens within you that sensation which tells you this is something you’ve always known. (636)

The conclusion seems to draw on the Muslim idea that God only asks what is easy and does not forbid material pleasures, demand strict asceticism, or require adherence to a rigid legal order. In fact, the passage appears to riff on the following popular hadith (a story of the Prophet, often considered when determining the sunnah):

Bukhâri narrated in his book Ṣaḥîḥ Al-Bukhâri on the authority of Abû Hurayrah that the Prophet (Peace Be Upon Him) said: “Indeed, the Religion is easy. And none tries to overtake it except that it overcomes him. So try to hit the mark and seek to come close and receive glad tidings. And use the early morning, the afternoon, and part of nightfall [for prayer].”

Moreover, the Commentaries’ conclusion also evokes Muslim critiques of taqlid, sometimes thought of as “unthinking imitation” of past practices which fails to grasp either their rationale or deeper spiritual meaning. Taqlid has several connotations. In some instances, the concept is used to describe the practices of the pre-Islamic Arabs, particularly the governing Quraish tribe, whose members the Prophet aimed to reform because they unthinkingly followed their idols and practiced various kinds of immoral habits (e.g. infanticide, “eye-for-eye” violence, unjust rules on divorce and property, treatment of women, etc.) simply because their forebears had done so. In other instances, Muslims may also append taqlid to the habits performed by other Muslims who lifelessly parrot the claims of past jurists or customs, or who perform prayers routinely without genuine spiritual engagement.

Accordingly, the appendix depicts the aftermath of the OCB’s publication as bearing out the inadequacy of a rational approach to religion and of perennialism itself. The OCB is “denounced as a work produced by ‘the hubris of reason’” and “filled with a seductive interest in logic” (637). Its legal order amounts to little more than “Galactophasic Determinism” (637), an attempt to use religion to subdue the masses. Moreover, “the ancient superstitions and beliefs” are not ultimately “absorbed into the ecumenism,” since people begin to publish “revisions” of the OCB that “leaned on accepted symbolisms (Cross, Crescent, Feather, Rattle, the Twelve Saints [likely a reference to Twelver Shi‘ism], the thin Buddha, and the like)” (637).

The appendix then quotes at length the confessions of the CET Chairman, Toure Bomoko. Bomoko admits that the OCB was a mistake:

We shouldn’t have tried to create new symbols… We should’ve realized we weren’t supposed to introduce uncertainties into accepted belief, that we weren’t supposed to stir up curiosity about God. We are daily confronted by the terrifying instability of all things human, yet we permit our religions to grow more rigid and controlled, more conforming and oppressive. What is this shadow across the highway of Divine Command? It is a warning that institutions endure, that symbols endure when their meaning is lost, that there is no summa of all attainable knowledge…

Religion must remain an outlet for people who say to themselves, “I am not the kind of person I want to be.” It must never sink into an assemblage of the self-satisfied. (637)

In one sense, Bomoko is forwarding what may be a conservative Muslim position that religion should not be subject to innovation. On the other hand, Bomoko reproaches his participation in the rise of a type of religious orthodoxy, the orthodoxy of reason. In either case, his words hew closely to what many Muslims would consider a commonplace understanding of their traditions. Principally, Bomoko’s critique of symbols mirrors Muslims’ skepticism of idol worship. As hinted above, many Muslims understand idol worship as not limited to mere worship of an actual, tangible idol; it also includes worship of the self, of other human beings, or of “received wisdom” absent its deeper meaning. This is sometimes understood as a critique of institutional religion: Thoughtlessly following an institution can be a form of taqlid. From this perspective, Islam does not demand institutions, and even imams are not required as a conduit to God. One’s relationship to God is personal, and, while it may be communal, it does not need an institutional gatekeeper or other such intermediary. Here, the OCB endures as an institution.

Moreover, it is significant that taqlid is often contrasted with ijtihad (individual reasoning). However, Bomoko’s claim is that reason, and not only unthinking imitation, leads to religious stagnation. Stated alternatively, one can read him as arguing that reason itself becomes a conduit for taqlid: Rationality is subject to the dogmas of rigid scientism and staid legalism. Instead, Bomoko, like the rest of the appendix, suggests that religions can adapt to future change not through reason or past practices but by engaging with one’s conscience or experiential knowledge (Muslims sometimes refer to this as dhawq—literally “taste,” a profound, fruitional experience with the divine). Bomoko wants to use conscience as a means to retain the meaning and sanctity of revelation (“old symbols”). In fact, scholars have long suggested that the taqlid/ijtihad binary may itself be an artefact of orientalist scholarship and colonial practices, and Bomoko’s train of thought performs similar work in muddying this type of distinction within Muslim traditions.

Indeed, the appendix later quotes “Bomoko’s Legacy” (as recounted by the protagonist Paul Atreides, later known as Muad’Dib among the Fremen) to a similar effect:

You who have defeated us say to yourselves that Babylon is fallen and its works have been overturned. I say to you still that man remains on trial, each man in his own dock. Each man is a little war. (638)

The reference to the “little war” is quite similar to the Muslim notion of jihad al-nafs, or the struggle with/in the self.

What is remarkable about Bomoko’s reproach of the OCB is how it grapples with the question of religious change thousands of years into the future. It offers what, to my mind, is a thoroughly Muslim answer. The CET attempts to create a new religion in the face of massive technological change, as a way to wring order from chaos. In turn, Bomoko laments the CET’s creation of new symbols, new idols. This is comparable to most Muslims’ belief in the sanctity of revelations and the sunnah of the prophets: The Qur’an is the actual word of God as told by the angel Jibril to the Prophet Muhammad, and the Prophet is, as in the crucial Qur’anic phrase, the “Seal of the Prophets” (the “Seal” is usually understood to mean there will be no further prophets until the apocalypse). Inventing or revising revelation flies in the face of these core tenets. And that is what the CET did in producing the OCB. The sanctity of original revelation is underscored as a Muslim principle in Dune when the appendix notes that Fremen beliefs partly derive from “the Muadh Quran with its pure Ilm and Fiqh,” an allusion to Muadh Ibn Jabal, a scribe and companion of the Prophet who compiled the Qur’an during the Prophet’s lifetime. (In Islam, ‘ilm refers to knowledge in a broad sense, including both rational inquiry and experiential knowledge.)

Bomoko’s reproach also echoes the belief among some Muslims that, while Islam explicitly incorporates various other religions (principally but not only Judaism and Christianity), a blasé approach to perennialism can obscure the bespoke quality of each tradition’s relationship to one’s personal experiences. An example of this view can be found in the writings of the tenth/eleventh-century Arab polymath Abu Haiyan at-Tauhidi, who described the statement of a contemporary, the Persian scholar Abu Sulaiman. The latter was asked “why he believed in Islam when he claimed that religious groups were all equal in their ability to defend their positions.” Abu Sulaiman replied, in part:

I am in the situation of a man who has entered the courtyard of a caravansary by day to seek a moment’s shade, at a time when the sky was cloudless. The keeper of the caravansary brought him to an apartment without asking about his condition or health. In this situation he suddenly found that a cloud had blown up and released a downpour. The apartment leaked, so the occupant looked at the other apartments in the inn, and saw that they too were leaking. He saw mud in the courtyard of the building, and considered staying where he was and not moving to another apartment; [for, by remaining,] he could enjoy his ease and avoid getting his legs splattered by the thick mud and slime of the courtyard. [So] he was inclined to wait patiently in his apartment and stay in the situation in which he found himself. (excerpted in Roy Mottahedeh, Loyalty and Leadership in an Early Islamic Society, 30–31 [Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1980])

Historian Roy Mottahedeh describes this “wider, freer” theological discourse as producing “expressions of religious uncertainty” (Mottahedeh, 30).

All in all, it is a very Muslim answer (if not the only possible one) to say that reform should not involve the use of reason to modify revelation and to smooth over bespoke traditions. Indeed, Bomoko is described as an “Ulema” (from the Arabic for “scholar”) of the “Zensunnis” (a future religion that, at least by its name, syncretizes Sunni Islam and Buddhism) (637). The appendix states that he is “one of the fourteen delegates who never recanted” from their tradition when participating in the perennialist, rationalist agenda of the CET (637). Bomoko, while sympathetic to all religions, did not step into the muddy courtyard.

 

Allegories and In-World Histories

 In the appendix, Dune’s Muslimness performs a double function. Partly, the references and deeper themes act intertextually, alluding to Muslim ideas and practices as allegories. At the same time, they are also in-world references, showing that the Dune series is concurrently science fiction in the speculative sense, imagining a universe in which Muslims existed in the past and have continued to exist, through a variety of changes, into the far future.

Multivalent Allegories

Dune’s allusions confound simple allegories or analogies. The aforementioned tensions between reason, with its legalistic and scientistic traps, and experiential spirituality, with its untranslatability and profound connection with the divine, can be mapped onto any number of tensions familiar to Muslims.

In part, the creation of the OCB can be read as a colonial modernization project. The appendix’s skeptical genealogy of the OCB may be a critique of modern religion’s capacity to “partake[] of the myth of progress that shields us from the terrors of an uncertain future” (639, quoting Muad’Dib, who was quoting the CET Commentaries, which were paraphrasing from “Neshou,” i.e. how Herbert imagined Nietzsche would be spelled in the future). One might think of the various attempts by empires across modern history to impose their understanding of rationality, by way of science and law, on indigenous peoples, just as the Guild and Bene Gesserit pushed for the OCB. Perhaps the entirety of the Dune saga, as many readers have found, is an allegorical critique of such colonial modernization processes.

However, Dune’s allegories are not merely to the conflicts of colonizer/colonized, white/brown (or black), west/east, or, most crudely, modernity/Islam. The allegories contain numerous other valences that speak to tensions internal to Islam. It is no wonder that Herbert, in a seemingly offhand remark during a 1984 interview two years prior to his death, stated:

My Arab friends wonder why it’s called science fiction. Dune, they say, is religious commentary. The thing that has often been aimed at it is that it is philosophical fiction, rather than science fiction.

As mentioned, the tension in the appendix between reason and experiential knowledge can be read as an analogue for Muslims’ various treatments of the relationship between taqlid and ijtihad both among Muslims, and between Muslims and pre-Islamic Arabs during the Prophet’s time. Concurrently, the tension can be read as an allegory to the kalam (theology) debates between what are known as the Mu’tazili and Ash’ari traditions. The Ash’aris critiqued determinism and natural law, and their maxim, bi-la kayfa (“without form”), is a rebuff to the Mu’tazilis’ attempt to impose rational order on the cosmos and on Qur’anic exegesis. That maxim is also a Fremen proverb which appears in multiple Dune novels as “bi-la kaifa.” 

Perhaps most significantly, the tensions described in the appendix seem to also allude to the problem of succession to the Prophet Muhammad. While Bomoko is a Zensunni—a partial reference to Sunni Islam—he is also one of the aforementioned fourteen delegates or “Fourteen Sages” to the CET who did not recant from their tradition (637).  The Fourteen Sages is likely a reference to the “Fourteen Infallibles” in Twelver Shi‘i Islam, which is alluded to in the appendix as one of the beliefs by which people reject the OCB (the aforementioned “Twelve Saints”). The Infallibles include the Prophet Muhammad, his daughter Fatimah, and the Twelve Imams who succeeded them. It is important to note that Sunni and Shi‘a labels were retrospectively ascribed to these disputes. In standard narratives, Sunnis believe that particular caliphs were to succeed the Prophet’s political leadership, beginning with his companion Abu Bakr, and that the establishment of the Umayyad Dynasty was the end of a golden period of four “righteously-guided caliphs.” Meanwhile, Twelver Shi‘as believe that succession should have gone to the Infallibles. Disputes about succession resulted in the bloody massacre of the Prophet’s family by the Umayyad Caliph Yazid I in the Battle of Karbala, regarded as a tragedy in both Sunni and Shi‘a narratives.

It is quite possible that the religious changes contemplated in the appendix, and in the Dune saga as a whole, are allegories to these ideas and historical narratives. The strict adherence to law in the OCB might be read as the rigid orthodoxy which Bomoko and the other Fourteen Sages rejected, akin to questions about succession and orthodoxy in early Muslim history. The allegory to Shi‘i narratives is particularly redolent in Bomoko’s above-quoted line (“You who have defeated us say to yourselves that Babylon is fallen and its works have been overturned.”), which may evoke the tragedy of Karbala. Certainly, Karbala was not a “Sunni-Shi‘a” conflict, as it has sometimes been retrospectively narrated, and whether or how it had to do with orthodoxy is disputed—but, if Herbert was thinking of Karbala, he may not have grasped the ahistoricity of such categories. That said, the fact that Bomoko was both a Zensunni and, apparently, one of (or an allegory to) the Twelve Imams, indicates that, whether Herbert realized it or not, the appendix concurrently challenges clean labels. Moreover, Twelver Shi‘as believe that the last of the Infallibles, the Twelfth Imam, is the Mahdi (“The Rightly Guided One”), who has already been born and will emerge during the apocalypse (Sunnis also believe in the Mahdi but believe him not yet born). Of course, Paul becomes known as the Mahdi in the course of the first novel (the Fremen translate it as “The One Who Will Lead Us Into Paradise”).

Lastly, the appendix’s description of the Bene Gesserit’s “Azhar Book” seems to contain several of these possible allegories. The description likely refers to Al-Azhar University, which was founded in Egypt in 972. The university initially taught multiple traditions within Islam, much like the Azhar Book in Dune indexes multiple religions, a “bibliographical marvel that preserves the great secrets of the most ancient faiths” (635). The reference to Al-Azhar University may be an allegory for the influence of modernization on Al-Azhar during colonization, where the above debates about taqlid and ijtihad have been a subject of much discussion among historians.

On the other hand, and probably more likely, the reference to Al-Azhar is an allegory for the abovementioned rifts within Islam. This is because Al-Azhar was founded by the Fatimid Caliphate, which followed the Ismaili tradition within Shi‘i Islam (in part, they differ from Twelver Shi‘as as to succession within the aforementioned Twelve Imams). In fact, the Islamic theologian James W. Morris, in the Introduction to his translation of Yemeni author J’afar Ibn Mansur al-Yaman’s tenth-century work The Book of the Master and the Disciple, states that Dune readers probably experience the books

without ever realizing that they were actually encountering a powerful, imaginative recreation in a “science-fiction” setting of this formative period of Ismaili and Islamic history.

Morris’s quotations around “science fiction” suggest an attitude similar to that of Herbert’s “Arab friends” who (according to Herbert, at least), regarded the books as “philosophical fiction” rather than “science fiction.”

Additionally, Morris suggests that Herbert used Ibn Khaldun’s account of the Ismaili Fatimids, which itself ultimately derived from Ibn Mansur’s narrative (Morris, 13).  This is probably right, since, as I will discuss in just a moment, the appendix directly refers to Ibn Khaldun. However, as I have shown in this section, Dune’s allegories are multivalent. Ismaili history is crucial to Dune, but it remains one of many intersecting and contradictory allegorical referents.

In-World Histories: Speculating from the Past

While the multivalence of the appendix’s allegories plays on a complex understanding of Muslims in history, the appendix does not treat its Muslimness solely as a referent but also as a real object. Islam exists in the Dune universe as a variegated tradition in the past that continues, in numerous ways and in conjunction with numerous other traditions, into the distant future.

As a threshold matter, readers of Dune are familiar with the fact that the saga as a whole is fixated on the cyclical nature of history. Thus, that the text refers to Muslim pasts and ideas may not be an allegory at all but, rather, an indication of history repeating itself. After all, the appendix refers to the “Kitab al-Ibar” (“Book of Lessons”) as a religious text of the Fremen (631). This is the title of Ibn Khaldun’s expansive historical and proto-sociological opus, in which the fourteenth-century Egyptian polymath asserted the cyclical nature of social groups, from tribes to civilizations. The appendix describes the Kitab al-Ibar as containing “profound points of accord… [with] the teachings of the Bible, Ilm, and Fiqh” (631). 

Perhaps the most exciting in-world history within the appendix is its description of how the Fremen place Paul within their tradition:

The Fremen said of Muad’Dib that he was like Abu Zide whose frigate defied the Guild and rode one day there and back. There used in this way translates directly from the Fremen mythology as the land of the ruh-spirit, the alam al-mithal where all limitations are removed. (638)

The passage is a description of how Muslims, thousands of years from today, might understand one of the most important events in Islam, al-’Isra’ wal-Mi‘raj (“The Night Journey and the Ascension”). The Qur’an and hadith describe how the Prophet Muhammad travelled from Mecca to the Al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem, and then from Jerusalem to Heaven, where he met with the Prophets Adam, Jesus, John the Baptist, Joseph, Enoch, Aaron, Moses, and Abraham. A significant aspect of the story includes a series of exchanges in which Moses encourages Muhammad to ask God to reduce the amount of daily prayers required of his people from 50 to five. The Prophet did all of this in the period of a single night by riding on the Buraq (literally, “lightning”), a mystical creature akin to a flying mule or donkey. This experience allowed him to overcome persecution by the governing tribe of Mecca, the Quraish.

In the appendix, the traveler is described as “Abu Zide,” which means “father of Zide,” probably a modification of “Zayd.” The reference is evidently to Zayd ibn Harithah, the adopted son of the Prophet—which means “Abu Zide” is Abu Zayd, the Prophet himself.  Moreover, ruh translates to “soul” or the “spiritual self,” while alam al-mythal is the “world of similitudes,” which is sometimes thought of as a separate metaphysical realm.  In Dune, Muad’Dib’s journey into the alam al-mythal is a mystical one that allows him, as the Kwisatz Haderach (a superhuman created by the Bene Gesserit breeding program), to access the entirety of his “Other Memories,” the past consciousness of his ancestors. Perhaps this is akin to the Prophet Muhammad’s meetings with his prophetic forebears. Moreover, the story of the reduction of prayers from 50 to five resonates with the aforementioned CET Commentaries’ paraphrase of the hadith about “true religion” as that of “ease.”

While one might read the above passage as a simple allegory for al-’Isra’ wal-Mi‘raj, it is more likely an in-world reference, an exercise of speculation. In the far future, Muslims, or their descendants as practitioners of a mixture of several religions, may not retain all the details of their Muslim traditions, and the way they express those traditions may change while certain core ideas remain. Here, the Prophet Muhammad becomes known as the father of his adopted son; the Buraq becomes a space frigate; and the Quraish become the Guild, the industrial overlords of Dune’s precious spice. The appendix’s description of Abu Zide mixes technological change (the frigate) with future developments in capitalist imperialism (the Guild) to imagine how Muslims might retain and alter the story of al-’Isra’ wal-Mi‘raj in their collective memory, despite thousands of years of change, oppression, and resistance.

 

The Revolutionary Potential of Muslim Traditions

The appendix also shows that the spiritual teachings and revolutionary feats of Paul’s ascension as Muad’Dib, the leader of the Fremen, is more a result of the Fremen’s Muslimness than of Paul himself.

The appendix provides that “Muad’Dib’s own commentaries in ‘The Pillars of the Universe’” show “his real debt to CET and Fremen-Zensunni” (638). The title of Muad’Dib’s commentaries, “The Pillars of the Universe,” is an obvious reference to T.E. Lawrence’s Seven Pillars of Wisdom. However, the suggestion that Muad’Dib owes a “real debt” to the CET (with its paradoxical blend of rational interference with religion, Zensunni tradition, Shi‘i Islam), as well as to the Fremen’s approach to the Zensunni tradition, is clearly a critique of hagiographies of Lawrence depicting him as central in the history of Islam and MENA. In fact, while Herbert’s personal library contained Seven Pillars, it also contained an English translation of Jordanian author Suleiman Mousa’s T.E. Lawrence: An Arab View.  Mousa’s book directly critiqued Lawrence’s, arguing that it overplayed his significance in the Arab Revolt and downplayed the agency of the Arabs themselves.

Mousa’s ideas (however problematic in other ways) echo in the message of this portion of the appendix. The appendix excerpts various proverbs from Muad’Dib and demonstrates that, in each instance, Paul was simply quoting or paraphrasing bits of the OCB or CET Commentaries which could be traced (often through the Azhar Book’s bibliography) to “Revelations” (probably the Book of Revelations in the Bible), the “ancient Semitic Tawra” (i.e. the Torah), “Neshou” (i.e. Nietzsche), and multiple Muslim sources (638–39).

The Muslim sources suggest how Muslims may have adapted to political, technological, and ecological changes over thousands of years. Prominently, these sources emerge from two of Muad’Dib’s derivative proverbs:

Proverb 1:

Muad’Dib: “Reach forth thy hand and eat what God as provided thee; and when thou are replenished, praise the Lord” (639). The appendix describes this as a paraphrase from the OCB, and the Azhar Book traces this paraphrase “in slightly different form to First Islam” (639).

The proverb seems to paraphrase Qur’an 2:172:

O believers, eat of the good things wherewith We have provided you, and give thanks to God, if it be Him that you serve. (trans. AJ Arberry)

The alteration of the Qur’anic verse—as it travelled from First Islam, into the OCB, and finally out of Muad’Dib’s mouth—suggests the Dune universe is one in which the Qur’an’s original revelations existed in the past (perhaps this is what “First Islam” signifies) but then shifted over millennia.

Proverb 2:

Muad’Dib: “Kindness is the beginning of cruelty.” The appendix describes this phrase as taken from the “Fremen Kitab al-Ibar” (likely Ibn Khaldun’s work, as mentioned), which states:

The weight of a kindly God is a fearful thing. Did not God give us the burning sun (Al-Lat)? Did not God give us the Mothers of Moisture (Reverend Mothers)? Did not God give us Shaitan (Iblis, Satan)? From Shaitan did we not get the hurtfulness of speed? (639)

This is likely a modified excerpt from Ibn Khaldun, suggesting that his Kitab al-Ibar has been altered over millennia. On the one hand, “Al-Lat” is a reference to the female goddess worshipped by pre-Islamic Arabs, and Shaitan is Arabic for “Satan,” who is named “Iblis” in Islam. On the other hand, the excerpt also references the “Reverend Mothers,” who are leaders of the Bene Gesserit. Here, the Dune universe speculates as to how a Muslim author’s canonical text may change across generations.

The appendix goes further to explain that the above passage from the Kitab al-Ibar is

the source of the Fremen saying: “Speed comes from Shaitan.” Consider: for every one hundred calories of heat generated by exercise [speed] the body evaporates about six ounces of perspiration. The Fremen word for perspiration is bakka or tears and, in one pronunciation, translates: “The life essence that Shaitan squeezes from your soul.” (639)

The idea of speed coming from Shaitan appears to derive from the following hadith:

Sahl ibn Sa’d reported: The Messenger of God, peace and blessings be upon him, said, “Clemency is from God and haste is from Satan.”

With this reference to a well-known hadith, a distinctly Muslim idea becomes the basis for the beliefs of the descendants of Muslims thousands of years into the future. And, again, Herbert speculates as to how that Muslimness may interact with future environments—here, the desert ecology of Arrakis.

Moreover, “bakka” is probably a future pronunciation of baqa (literally, “subsistence”), a term used to refer to an elevated spiritual state. After a Muslim annihilates the self (fana) in the presence of the divine, the Muslim can then reach a higher stage (baqa) in which the believer retains both self-awareness and awareness of God at the same time. Qur’an 55:26–27 is a common source of this spiritual schematic:

All that dwells upon the earth is perishing [fana], yet still abides [baqa] the Face of thy Lord, majestic, splendid. (trans. Arberry)

In Dune, the idea of Satan “squeezing” out “bakka” as a “life essence from your soul” seems to approximate the notion of fana as the annihilation of the self, a stage prior to achieving baqa.

Again, the appendix considers how Muslim spiritual concepts may be re-interpreted in a future ecological context. Baqa now means “tears,” which are deeply spiritual for the Fremen (due to the scarcity of water in their environment), or a “life essence” that the Devil attempts to eradicate (perhaps to annihilate, a la fana) from the self.

In these passages, Herbert is not merely copying-and-pasting from Muslim sources but actually engaging with how they might be reinterpreted and altered, while preserving their basic principles, across millennia.

Furthermore, as with Muad’Dib’s spiritual lessons, the appendix downplays his role in the Fremen’s political victory and instead emphasizes the power that derives from what might be described as their Muslimness. “Muad’Dib’s arrival,” the appendix argues, is not “religiously timely”: It does not occur according to a natural order in the universe, but, rather, is the happy coincidence of the Fremen’s revolutionary capacity with Muad’Dib just happening to show up. Their tradition’s ability to live in the moment, without the strings of rational thinking, and with an experiential belief in the divine, enables their success. The appendix sets their mysticism apart from the “ministrations” of the Bene Gesserit’s missionary attempts to install superstition among them (the “Missionaria Protectiva”) (640). Significantly, the appendix describes the Bene Gesserit as having “r[u]n afoul of the Fremen” (640)—not of Paul. It is the Fremen’s tradition, with its mysticism, ecological underpinnings, and political capacity, that allows “a living holy man (baraka [“blessing”])” to lead them to victory. That man, the appendix suggests, could have been anyone; or, to put it another way, if Paul came to any other colonized planet, he might not have instigated a successful revolution. In this context, it is hard not to think of Mousa’s critique of the so-called “Lawrence of Arabia.”

However, the appendix also contains contradictions as to Fremen traditions. On one hand, it describes the Fremen as inherently “brutal” due to their social and ecological conditions of “open hostility” in the desert of Arrakis (640). This description of their connection with nature is romantic in the orientalist sense. At the same time, the appendix situates their tradition as one that enables revolutionary politics through an anti-essentialist notion of tradition. For instance, in describing Fremen traditions, the appendix provides:

[T]he mystery of life isn’t a problem to solve but a reality to experience. Omens help you remember this. And because you are here, because you have the religion, victory cannot evade you in the end. (640)

This passage approaches the anthropologist Talal Asad’s remarks on the need to consider Muslims’ “ways of life” as grounded in “lived experience” rather than a rational, essentialized concept of tradition:

[I]t’s quite important to try and think of new forms of politics — rethinking that can draw from or borrow from other traditions. I am not worried about the purity of a tradition, by the way. There are ways of living a tradition practically, without intellectualizing it — and there the issue of how “pure” the tradition is doesn’t arise.

Readers have to wrestle with these contradictions within Dune’s Muslimness. As the appendix confesses, “Those were times of deep paradox” (635). 

 

Conclusion

“The Religion of Dune” is only nine pages out of Dune’s 675, itself a fraction of the entire saga’s thousands. Yet this morsel reveals so much of the Muslimness of Dune. I can say that it stands in for the whole of my reading experience across the series. It is possible to pick apart each book at this level of detail, culling out its many, sometimes contradictory, engagements with Islam and Muslims. (I have done some of this already, but it is only scratching at a mountain).

With that said, I’d like to offer a few caveats. My emphasis on the Muslimness of Dune is not intended to reduce the significance of other influences but merely to highlight one reading of the saga, by way of one small portion of the first novel. Moreover, my descriptions of Muslim histories, practices, beliefs, and experiences are not intended to be all-encompassing. Many Muslims understand and practice their faith and histories in a variety of ways. I have only presented a few common approaches which were echoed in the text of the appendix. Lastly, this essay is not intended to absolve the Dune saga of its orientalism, but to situate its approach to Islam and Muslims. On this point, not all Muslims may appreciate Dune in the same way. This essay merely offers a window into my personal reaction to the novels. It is a reaction I have found among many other Muslim readers, but I know it may not be shared by all.

Dune’s Muslimness is attractive because it is an interrogation within Islam (what Asad might call its “discursive tradition”) at the same time as it is a critique, however limited, of colonialism and capitalism. Dune operates in its own world. The novels perform that delightfully powerful trick of refusing to cater to ideas of Islam in popular discourse. The saga is not reactionary but a conversation with itself about how Muslims have and will continue to interact with one another, other faiths, and their oppressors. It is that messy, obstruse, and uncertain realm, like the Other Memories of the Kwisatz Haderach’s alam al-mythal or Abu Suleiman’s muddy courtyard, which makes Dune’s Muslimness so enticing to readers like this one.

There has been much critique of the lack of MENA casting in each of the Dune adaptations, including the forthcoming film. I wholeheartedly agree. But just as egregious is the paucity of Muslim and MENA creatives behind the cameras. Spaihts, one of the 2021 film’s screenwriters, admitted that no such creatives participated in the making of the film.  As described at the start of this essay, Spaihts and one of the film’s conlangers, Peterson, have admitted that they sought to dilute the Islamic and MENA references in the film, in order to remove the novel’s purportedly orientalist aesthetics. This is overcompensating. The choice is about as misguided as the decision to cast Doctor Strange’s Ancient One as white in order to avoid the source material’s orientalism. Why attempt to eliminate a “race problem” by eliminating people of color from its cast, director’s chair, and writers’ room? It is wiser to include creatives who can draw on their subjectivities to generously mold a character or story relevant to their experiences. To choose otherwise is cowardice. And Dune fans know well that fear is the mind-killer.

With that said, who knows—maybe the film will ultimately avoid these missteps. One can hope.

As I’ve written elsewhere, director Denis Villeneuve’s first major film, Incendies, is a powerful account of MENA history and politics which he carefully crafted to critique and destabilize the western gaze. Moreover, a Tweet from screenwriter Dana Calvo hints that writers for the Dune spinoff show, The Sisterhood, are reading about Islam. However, the books on their reading list (Lesley Blanch’s Sabres of Paradise, upon which Herbert drew, James Fadiman and Robert Frager’s Essential Sufism, and Coleman Barks’s The Essential Rumi) are not historical and are written by either non-Muslims or White Muslims. Several of these books are commonly regarded as orientalist by scholars and Muslims, performing what some dub “White Sufism” or, as Rozina Ali puts it, “the erasure of Islam from the poetry of Rumi.” Aside from the troubling choice of books, the question is whether any reading is enough to substitute for the experience of Muslim readers and creatives. Perhaps it is only a first step.

Say what you will about Herbert’s politics and orientalism, but it’s clear that he put in the work. To strip out and downplay the Islamic and MENA references in Dune would be to deprive it of its very essence. I doubt many readers pick up on the thoroughly Muslim themes unless they are Muslim or are intimately familiar with Muslim histories, practices, and concepts. I did not catch all of the references when I first read Dune (and I have had to consult friends and colleagues on a few of those discussed in this essay), but I recognized them—their language, their phrasing, their ideas—at an almost subconscious level. Reading Dune, I usually find myself thinking, “I know that from somewhere…”

That is not to denigrate the impressions and insights of other readers but to point to the simple fact that experiences in life place a person in a particular position, like Abu Sulaiman being shown into the apartment outside the courtyard. After all, I would hazard that readers with experiences different from mine nonetheless absorbed Dune’s subliminal Muslimness, whether they realized it or not.

For me, reading the books is an eerily familiar experience of encountering a work which has absorbed and pieced together elements of my upbringing and community conversations and reframed them in exciting, strange, and different ways. Sometimes reading Dune feels as if I’m listening to an offbeat uncle in the late hours after a community gathering. He sips his tea and asks, eyes wild, hands whipping through the multiverse that is Muslim history: “What if Muslims were around 20,000 years from now—in SPACE?! And what if colonialism was still a thing? What would be different? What would stay the same? Imagine this…”

 

Haris A. Durrani (@hdernity) is a PhD student at Princeton University. His scholarship interrogates the junctures between histories of law, technology, and empire. Previously, he earned a JD and BS from Columbia University and an MPhil from the University of Cambridge. He also writes fiction: His debut book is Technologies of the Self, and his short fiction has appeared in The Gollancz Book of South Asian Science Fiction (Vol. 2), McSweeney’s, Analog, Lightspeed, and elsewhere. His other writing on Dune can be found on Medium.

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