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What does DUNE have to do with Islam?

Most sci-fi geeks and seasonal moviegoers know that DUNE, Part 1 was recently released into local theatres and will soon be on HBO Max. The movie is based on Frank Herbert's book, Dune, published in 1965. Dune1984, a 2-hour and 17 minute blockbuster movie, carried the entire storyline, while Dune2021 will be broken into two parts. Part 1 is out now and Part 2 will be out in 2022. There was a Dune mini-series filmed in 2000, and starting in 1992, there were a series of adventure strategy video games to get you involved.

The original novel was followed by five sequels, each authored by Frank Herbert, and an additional dozen sequels written by Herberts's son after his father died. The original storyline is described as the world's best-selling science fiction novel.

Much of the plot is colored by Islamic words, concepts, colors, and themes. Where did this overlap come from, and what does it mean? Credit for Herbert's use of Islamic symbolism is given to Lesley Blanch's book, The Sabres of Paradise (1960). Sabres is a narrative history of the conflict in the Caucasus between rugged Islamic tribes and the Russian Tzar's army. While the Islamic tribes in Central Asia represented the Fremen, the nomadic desert dwellers in Herbert's book, from where did the desert backdrop come? The desert was a local phenomenon that Herbert experienced while working for the US Department of Agriculture in Oregon. The USDA attempted to use grass that grows in sandy soil to stabilize the dunes in the Oregon desert. Herbert's experience was successful, and his research in that area sparked an interest in ecology, particularly in desert regions. When most of us see the desert geography in the movie, we immediately think of Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and even Iraq, with areas of immense desert acreage.

The movie takes place on the planet Arrakis, the galaxy's only spice producer, a natural resource needed for space travel. No spice, no space travel. Do you see the resemblance that the spice has to oil? No oil: no industry; no transportation. The galaxy is ruled by the Padishah Empire who can assign any number of subservient royal houses to govern the planet and assure spice mining. Of course, the Emperor will give his best bud the no-bid contract to this lucrative source of wealth, the Baron Harkonnen. The Harkonnens use brutal methods to mine the spice and mercilessly exploit the Fremen. This authoritative behavior is like what the French, Portuguese, British, and Germans did to Africa and the Middle East during the late nineteenth and early twentieth century during their colonial phase.

As House Harkonnen loses its ability to deliver the required spice due to Fremen terrorism, the franchise to mine the spice is given to House Atreides. The Atreides fight the Harkonnen for possession of the planet. The Fremen find Paul Atreides to be their prophesied leader, the "Maidi," who is also an eschatological figure in Islam. Paul Atreides could be based on the real-life T.E. Lawrence (aka Lawrence of Arabia), British Army officer and adviser to the Arabs during the Arab revolt against the Ottoman Empire.

Much of the language used by the Fremen in the book and movies are actual words representing an Islamic heritage. Words such as jihad, holy war, Mahdi, Padishah, and Sunni are all terms Herbert uses throughout Dune. Other symbolisms are: the Fremen represent nomadic Bedouins; the Harkonnens are the Turks; the Emperor's troops, the Sardaukar, are German troops; and the Padishah Emperor Shaddam IV represents both the German Kaiser and the Ottoman Empire.

There is some color symbology. Herbert acknowledged that he used colors in association with the Qur'an. For example, in the Qur'an, green is associated with healthy growing plants that have plenty of water, so it's good. Even today, Muhammad's descendants wear green turbans. Yellow is associated with plants withering from lack of water, so it isn't good. Red represents danger, and blue represents air and space. Thus, look for these combinations: the Harkonnens – yellow/red; the Fremen – green; the Emperor and his Imperium – blue.

The book was written in the 1960s, before the era of the "war on terror." If it had been written after the rise of al-Qaida and the Islamic State, there is no doubt the book would have been banned from Amazon, and Frank Herbert would probably be in jail as a terrorist. We just can't have Muslims on a galactic jihad.

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