In Dune, Paul Atreides led a jihad, not a crusade

Here is why that matters.

The first and only trailer of Denis Villeneuve's much-anticipated film adaptation of Dune was released on September 9, 2020 [Screen grab/Warner Bros Pictures/Youtube]

Fans of Frank Herbert’s 1965 novel, Dune, were disappointed to learn this week that the release of Denis Villeneuve’s much-anticipated film adaptation of the book has been pushed back to October 2021, almost a year later than expected.

Dune is a foundational classic of science fiction and marks, in many ways, the popularisation of the genre. In the hands of Villeneuve, the film is poised to be a blockbuster, and the buzz that emanated from its first and only trailer, released on September 9, 2020, is still palpable.

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But fans familiar with the books noticed a major omission in its promotional materials: any reference to the Islam-inspired framing of the novel. In fact, the trailer uses the words, “a crusade is coming”, using the Christian term for holy war – something that occurs a mere three times in the six books of the original series. The word they were looking for was “jihad”, a foundational term and an essential concept in the series. But jihad is bad branding, and in Hollywood, Islam does not sell unless it is being shot at.

Dune is the second film adaptation of the popular 1965 science fiction novel by Frank Herbert. Set approximately 20,000 years in the future on the desert planet Arrakis, it tells the story of a war for control of its major export: the mind-altering spice melange that allows for instantaneous space travel. The Indigenous people of this planet, the Fremen, are oppressed for access to this spice. The story begins when a new aristocratic house takes over the planet, centring the narrative on the Duke’s son Paul.

The trailer’s use of “crusade” obscures the fact that the series is full of vocabularies of Islam, drawn from Arabic, Persian, and Turkish. Words like “Mahdi”, “Shai-Hulud”, “noukker”, and “ya hya chouhada” are commonly used throughout the story. To quote Herbert himself, from an unpublished 1978 interview with Tim O’Reilly, he used this vocabulary, partly derived from “colloquial Arabic”, to signal to the reader that they are “not here and now, but that something of here and now has been carried to that faraway place and time”. Language, he remarks, “is mind-shaping as well as used by mind”, mediating our experience of place and time. And he uses the language of Dune to show how, 20,000 years in the future, when all religion and language has fundamentally changed, there are still threads of continuity with the Arabic and Islam of our world because they are inextricable from humanity’s past, present, and future.

A quick look at Frank Herbert’s appendix to Dune, “the Religion of Dune”, reveals that of the “ten ancient teachings”, half are overtly Islamic. And outside of the religious realm, he filled the terminology of Dune’s universe with words related to Islamic sovereignty. The Emperors are called “Padishahs”, from Persian, their audience chamber is called the “selamlik”, Turkish for the Ottoman court’s reception hall and their troops have titles with Turco-Persian or Arabic roots, such as “Sardaukar”, “caid”, and “bashar”. Herbert’s future is one where “Islam” is not a separate unchanging element belonging to the past, but a part of the future universe at every level. The world of Dune cannot be separated from its language, and as reactions on Twitter have shown, the absence of that language in the movie’s promotional material is a disappointment. Even jihad, a complex, foundational principle of Herbert’s universe, is flattened – and Christianised – to crusade.

To be sure, Herbert himself defines jihad using the term “crusade”, twice in the narrative as a synonym for jihad and once in the glossary as part of his definition of jihad, perhaps reaching for a simple conceptual parallel that may have been familiar to his readership. But while he clearly subsumed crusade under jihad, much of his readership did the reverse.

One can understand why. Even before the War on Terror, jihad was what the bad guys do. Yet as Herbert understood, the term is a complicated one in the Muslim tradition; at root, it means to struggle or exert oneself. It can take many forms: internally against one’s own evil, externally against oppression, or even intellectually in the search for beneficial knowledge. And in the 14 centuries of Islam’s history, like any aspect of human history, the term jihad has been used and abused. Having studied Frank Herbert’s notes and papers in the archives of California State University, Fullerton, I have found that Herbert’s understanding of Islam, jihad, and humanity’s future is much more complex than that of his interpreters. His use of jihad grapples with this complicated tradition, both as a power to fight against the odds (whether against sentient AI or against the Empire itself), but also something that defies any attempt at control.

Herbert’s nuanced understanding of jihad shows in his narrative. He did not aim to present jihad as simply a “bad” or “good” thing. Instead, he uses it to show how the messianic impulse, together with the apocalyptic violence that sometimes accompanies it, changes the world in uncontrollable and unpredictable ways. And, of course, writing in the 1950s and 1960s, the jihad of Frank Herbert’s imagination was not the same as ours, but drew from the Sufi-led jihads against French, Russian, and English imperialism in the 19th and mid-20th century. The narrative exhibits this influence of Sufism and its reading of jihad, where, unlike in a crusade, a leader’s spiritual transformation determined the legitimacy of his war.

In Dune, Paul must drink the “water of life”, to enter (to quote Dune) the “alam al-mithal, the world of similitudes, the metaphysical realm where all physical limitations are removed,” and unlock a part of his consciousness to become the Mahdi, the messianic figure who will guide the jihad. The language of every aspect of this process is the technical language of Sufism.

Perhaps the trailer’s use of “crusade” is just an issue of marketing. Perhaps the film will embrace the characteristically Islam-inspired language and aesthetics of Frank Herbert’s universe. But if we trace the reception of “the strong Muslim flavour” in Dune, to echo an editor on one of Herbert’s early drafts, we are confronted with Islam’s unfavourable place in America’s popular imagination. In fact, many desire to interpret Dune through the past, hungering for a historic parallel to these future events because, in their minds, Islam belongs to the past. Yet who exists in the future tells us who matters in our present. NK Jemisin, the three-time Hugo award-winning author, writes: “The myth that Star Trek planted in my mind: people like me exist in the future, but there are only a few of us. Something’s obviously going to kill off a few billion people of colour and the majority of women in the next few centuries.”

Jemisin alerts us to the question: “Who gets to be a part of the future?”

When a director or writer casts people of colour out of the future, when a director casts Islam out of the future, they reveal their own expectations and anxieties. They reveal an imagination at ease with genocide, with mass death, and with a whitewashed future that does not have any of the “mess” of the contemporary world. That “mess” is other people, people who defy control.

Unlike many of his, or our, contemporaries, Herbert was willing to imagine a world that was not based on Western, Christian mythology. This was not just his own niche interest. Even in the middle of the 20th century, it was obvious that the future would be coloured by Islam based on demographics alone. This is clearer today as the global Muslim population nears a quarter of humanity. While this sounds like an alt-right nightmare/fantasy, Herbert did not think of Islam as the “borg”, an alien hive mind that allows for no dissent. Herbert’s Islam was the great, capacious, and often contradictory discourse recently expounded by Shahab Ahmed in his monumental book, What is Islam? Herbert understood that religions do not act. People act. Their religions change like their languages, slowly over time in response to the new challenges of time and place. Tens of thousands of years into the future, Herbert’s whole universe is full of future Islams, similar but different from the Islams of present and past.

Herbert countered a one-dimensional reading of Islam because he disavowed absolutes. In an essay titled: Science Fiction and a World in Crisis, he identified the belief in absolutes as a “characteristic of the West” that negatively influenced its approach to crisis. He wrote that it led the “Western tradition” to face problems “with the concept of absolute control”. This desire for absolute control is what leads to the hero-worship (or “messiah-building”) that defines our contemporary world. It is this impulse that he sought to tear down in Dune.

In another essay, Men on Other Planets, Herbert cautions against reproducing cliches, reminding writers to question their underlying assumptions about time, society, and religion. He encourages them to be subversive, because science fiction “permits you to go beyond those cultural norms that are prohibited by your society and enforced by conscious (and unconscious) literary censorship in the prestigious arenas of publication”.

We should recognise Herbert for exploring Islam and religion without essentialising them, without reducing them to a cliché grounded in a timeless original model or relegating them to the domain of superstitious humanoid aliens. But in the same essay, he warned that “if it becomes too prestigious, science fiction will encounter new restraints”, expressing worry about the looming power of self-censorship in the face of respectability. Unfortunately, he was right, and it seems like the subversive elements of his own work, embedded in his deep exploration of “jihad”, have been subsumed into the Christianising “crusade”, at least so far. Let’s hope this extra year allows the film to do better.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.