Frank Herbert’s Dune stands tall as one of the most influential science fiction series in literature. Decades later, the impact of the series can still be felt. From the popularity of its film franchise to the various ways the novels have inspired science fiction going forward, it would be a grave mistake to underestimate the impact of Dune.
What many find alluring about Dune is its rich lore. While the idea of the lone hero and their close-knit peers fighting against a nigh-omnipotent empire is not the most original storyline, Dune provides readers and film audiences with epic world-building and an exciting tale about how various people and institutions in the known universe are forever affected by a messianic figure.
Despite the fantastical nature of the novel, Dune finds itself entrenched in reality with its various real-world influences. It is common knowledge that a large part of Dune‘s lore owes itself to existing Islamic, Buddhist, Catholic, and other religious teachings. While it does allow for the creation of a universe defined by its exceptionally brilliant world-building, it does bring forth genuine criticism regarding alleged orientalism and questionable portrayals of several characters and ethnicities.
Nevertheless, Dune can not be separated from its stylistic and cultural influences. To truly appreciate and understand Dune, it may be best to examine the various inspirations for the dynamic franchise.
Dune and Its Islamic Foundation
The most prolific aspect of Dune is its reliance on Islamic theology and cultural practices. For instance, The Butlerian Jihad is considered to be the most impactful event in the history of the Duniverse. During the Butlerian Jihad, humans revolted against the rapidly advancing technology around them. The revolution saw a collective appreciation of human potential and productivity at the expense of over-relying on computers, androids, and artificial intelligence technology for survival.
The word “jihad” comes from Arabic and translates to “struggle.” While there are verses in the Qu’ran that mention jihad in the context of self-defense, jihad typically refers to a personal battle between one and their impulses. As previously explained, the jihad in the Duniverse is a struggle to preserve human intellect and ingenuity against a complete technological takeover.
Dune Is a Spiritual Melting Pot
Despite the Islamic origin, one of the most recognizable lines when discussing the Butlerian Jihad echoes the 10 Commandments: “Thou shalt not make a machine in the likeness of a human mind.” The particular verse comes from the “Orange Catholic Bible,” which is considered to be the universe’s most sacred text. In addition to the obvious Abrahamic undertones, religious syncretism is largely present in the novels. “Zensunni Catholicism”, “Buddhislam”, and “Mahayana Christianity” are some of the many belief systems present in the Duniverse. The syncretism present has largely served the Imperium for the better.
The franchise provides the citizenry with diversity in thought. Furthermore, it presents the possibility of a future where personal beliefs are deemed similar enough to where massive communities can co-exist and even merge as one if desired. Furthermore, religions existing before the Butlerian Jihad, such as Judaism, are also present in the Imperium.
Regarding the lore of the Duniverse, the various imperial houses have ties to ancient aristocrats. For instance, House Atreides are canonically descendants of the mythical King Agamemnon. House Harkonnen are descendants of the Finnish, with their name being closely related to “härkä,” the Finnish term for “ox.”
For these reasons, Herbert’s son Brian has described Dune as a “spiritual melting pot” in an afterword of the novel. Immediately, the decision could be perceived as irresponsible by the many real-life religions the novel takes inspiration from. Digesting Dune as a spiritual melting pot could also be framed as speculative fiction, looking beyond and imagining a future where religious syncretism could become normalized given past and present examples on Earth. While that is a legitimate assessment, it does not refute the complicated discussions that should be held about the treatment of religions in the franchise and among the fans.
Arrakis Reimagines Earth
The various inspirations are notably present in the portrayal of the Fremen and the planet of Arrakis itself. Much like the imaginations of the Middle East, Arrakis is a desert planet rich in spice mélange, the resource that keeps the Imperium stable. The majority of media consumers are aware of the Muslim world’s reputation as the leading provider of oil, which has helped sustain the planet for decades.
At a glance, Arrakis may seem like a one-dimensional, racist depiction of the Middle East. There have been strong and legitimate critiques made about Arrakis. Nonetheless, the planet does serve a larger process than just being a rudimentary reference to the Arab world. Arrakis is included to frame the Dune series as a critique of our world, through an ecological and a historical perspective.
Much like the connections made between Arrakis and the Middle East, Paul Atreides himself has been likened to T.E. Lawrence and that is by design. These two decisions dispel the idea that Dune is simply a white savior film. Author and Princeton University professor Haris Duranni argues that Herbert intentionally created a “meta” narrative about a resource-rich desert planet to critique imperialism and colonialism in all facets. Herbert himself claimed in a 1969 interview that Paul’s characterization serves as a critique of men like T.E. Lawrence and the more nefarious intricacies of imperialism.
As Durrani states, “the series is centrally about imperialist manipulation of indigenous resistance.” Despite viewers’ inclination to support Paul’s path toward vengeance, his pursuit comes at the expense of the Fremen people and their culture. Paul has argued the same in the sequel Dune: Messiah, likening himself to Genghis Khan and Hitler.
Thus, it is glaringly obvious that Dune takes inspiration from Islam, ancient mythology, and other religions. However, the franchise uses religion to explore the impacts of imperialism on the colonizer and the colonized. More importantly, Dune investigates how religion has been manipulated to prop up messianic figures that may consider the plight of the colonized but ultimately prioritize their personal goals above all.