'Dune' Novels Draw on Islamic Motifs and Have in Turn Inspired Muslim Artists

Rebecca Ferguson as Lady Jessica Atreides, from left, Zendaya as Chani, Javier Bardem as Stilgar, and Timothée Chalamet as Paul Atreides in "Dune." Photo by Chiabella James/© 2020 Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc.

(RNS) — Islamic and Arabic themes were a key influence on the seminal sci-fi novel "Dune," which went on to influence many works in the genre — notably the most popular science fiction film franchise of all time, "Star Wars."

Oct. 22 will see the release of "Dune" to HBO Max, the second major motion picture adaptation of the 1965 sci-fi novel, which centers on the struggle for control of Arrakis, a desert planet that produces the galaxy's most valuable commodity: spice.

The original series of "Dune" novels by Frank Herbert is an exercise in building detailed fictional universes. The Duniverse, as some fans call it, is heavily influenced by ecology and sociology — as well as imagery from the Islamic world and the Middle East. Herbert also used Middle Eastern languages, in particular, Arabic, throughout his novels.

Whether — and how — the movie will draw on the Islamic motifs of the books remains to be seen. In the trailer, the word "jihad" — used repeatedly in the novels — is replaced by "crusade."

"The problem with using crusade, (it) is a very anti-Muslim term, and that is the stuff that becomes problematic," said Amir Hussain, a cultural critic and professor of theological studies at Loyola Marymount University.

Hussain says that, as a kid growing up in the 1970s, he was personally drawn to Dune's Islamic themes. "You have to understand, there weren't Muslim ideas and storylines on television or in movies. Then, there was this book of science fiction that for myself, as a Muslim minority, I was able to see my culture, Islamic culture, as one of the sources for inspiration and being represented in a positive way."

The central figure in the novel is Paul Atreides, the son of the murdered ruler of Arrakis. Atreides is adopted by the Fremen, a hostile tribe that lives in the planet's deserts. Soon he is leading a rebellion against the unjust and decadent Galactic Empire, which controls the planet. The Fremen refer to Atreides as the "Mahdi" or expected one. Though not mentioned in the Quran, the Mahdi in Islamic tradition is an eschatological figure and spiritual redeemer who many Muslims believe will unite the world before the return of Jesus at the end of times. However, the Mahdi role and identity differ slightly in Shia beliefs, and he also appears in the Baháʼí tradition.

Atreides also takes the name "Muad'Dib" in the novel, nearly identical to an Arabic word for "teacher." This again hints at the Sufi influence on the views of religion held by the Fremen in the book — though they are described as following the ZenSunni faith in the novels, an amalgamation of Zen Buddhism and Sunni Islam. Herbert was a convert to Buddhism from Christianity.

The plot itself recalls the ideas of Islamic philosopher Ibn Khaldun, whose work stressed the cyclical nature of government in North Africa, where decadent ruling regimes were overthrown at regular intervals by tribal groups. Over time these new ruling regimes would reflect the depravity of the regime they had displaced — sowing the seeds of future rebellions. In the novels, a similar cycle plays out — even the "good guys" and their successor regimes do not live up to their ideals. Herbert gives a direct nod to Ibn Khaldun in the books when he names the Fremen's religious text after one of Khaldun's works: Kitāb al-ʿibar, "The Book of Lessons."

The books were also influenced by the 1962 historical film "Lawrence of Arabia" and reportedly by the novel The Sabre of Paradise about Imam Shamyl, a 19th-century Sufi sheikh in Caucasus who led a rebellion against Imperial Russia.

In turn, the "Dune" novels have been influential on the creative works of Muslims, according to Jörg Matthias Determann, the author of the recent book "Islam, Science Fiction and Extraterrestrial Life." He mentions that Qatari-American futurist Sophia Al-Maria mentions the "Dune" novels several times in her 2012 memoir, "The Girl Who Fell to Earth." Azrul Jaini, from Malaysia, who maintains the Malay-language website "Islamic Sci-Fi," also had a positive impression from "Dune," Determann said.

But the novels' real influence, he said, came through the impact "Dune" had on the "Star Wars" series. The religious ideas of the Jedi order draw on the universalistic ideas of Sufi Islam found in "Dune." The original 1977 "Star Wars" film was partially shot in Tunisia, the birthplace of Ibn Khaldun, not far from the town of Tatooine, the namesake for the desert planet where the narrative begins.

"There are common themes in both works — the white savior, the noble savage, the desert environment, the use of Bedouin motifs in the case of "Star Wars'" 'Sand people' and of course similar views on religion and spirituality," Determann added.

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The opinions contained in this piece are solely the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the views of Interfaith Youth Core. Interfaith America encourages a wide range of views and strives to maintain a respectful tone with a goal of greater understanding and cooperation between people of different faiths, worldviews, and traditions.