Day 6

Frank Herbert's Dune novels were heavily influenced by Middle Eastern, Islamic cultures, says scholar

The main character in Frank Herbert's seminal 1965 science fiction classic Dune is named after a mythological Greek figure. But some readers might be surprised to learn the book contains ample references to Middle Eastern and Islamic culture.

While set thousands of years in the future, Islam is 'part and parcel' to Dune, says Ali Karjoo-Ravary

Timothee Chalamet appears as Paul Atreidis in this still from Dennis Villineuve's upcoming adaptation of the Frank Herbert novel Dune. (Warner Bros. Entertainment)

Frank Herbert's seminal classic Dune has been a science fiction mainstay since it was published in 1965. 

Set thousands of years in humanity's future, it tells an epic, galaxy-scale story full of warring aristocratic houses, messianic chosen ones and a mysterious substance known as Spice that can grant mystical powers. 

The original novel spawned a long-running series set in the Dune universe, as well as several adaptations including a new film directed by Denis Villeneuve and starring Timothée Chalamet.

Chalamet plays the main character Paul Atreides, whose name is a reference to the mythological Greek House of Atreus.

Ali Karjoo-Ravary is an assistant professor of Islamic Studies at Bucknell University in Lewisburg, Pa. He says the references to Middle Eastern and Islamic culture in Frank Herbert's Dune are intentional and deliberate. (Gordon R. Wenzel)

But Ali Karjoo-Ravary says some readers might be surprised to learn that the book also contains ample references to Middle Eastern and Islamic culture.

Karjoo-Ravary, an assistant professor of Islamic studies at Bucknell University in Lewisburg, Pa., spoke with Day 6 host Peter Armstrong about the connections between Dune and the Middle East, and why Herbert drew on these traditions in his writings.

Here is part of their conversation. 

What are some of the examples of how Islam appears in Frank Herbert's Dune books? 

Islam is pretty pervasive throughout the books, and it's something that was always noticed both by his editors as well as audiences. The most obvious place is obviously the Fremen people themselves, who seem to be sort of inspired by Bedouin, by a lot of the indigenous peoples of northern Africa and the Middle East.

Though Paul Atreidis is typically portrayed by white actors, his character eventually grows into a messianic figure for the Fremen — the humans who inhabit the story's eponymous desert planet Dune. (Chia Bella James/Warner Bros. Entertainment/The Associated Press)

But if you linguistically look at it, and if you look at sort of how he describes religion in this place over 20,000 years in the future, Islam is basically part and parcel of the way everything is sort of articulated without being the Islam of today. But clearly its presence and influence is everywhere. And Herbert himself was actually very upfront about it.

In science fiction, you sometimes go in assuming that there will be something you don't understand and you just sort of adopt it and walk through it and absorb it as you go. You don't even notice you're picking up on this stuff. For somebody who isn't as well-versed in the languages of Arabic or Farsi or Turkish or in just the culture, broadly speaking, how obvious are these references?

You know, I've had a chance to go through a lot of [Herbert's] notes, a lot of his letters to his editors, a lot of his fan mail and almost all of the editors picked up on it. So when he talks about religion, I mean, it uses the word Islam. But of course, like I said, Herbert is interesting in terms of sci-fi authors because I think he's one of the most sophisticated when it comes to thinking about religion.

Obviously, none of the religions [in Dune] are the religions of today. But just like how languages develop over time, he sees religion changing like languages. But if you read the books and you know, the bare minimum about, you know, Islam or the Arab or Islamic world, you're going to get it.

These books were written in 1965. Frank Herbert's a pretty white American. Do we have a sense of why he chose to include these specific references in his books?

One of the things that I realized in my research was that, even in the 1960s, English had been so intertwined with the Muslim world because of British colonialism, because the world was already pretty globalized. Herbert constantly said that he had Arab friends. He said he had Semitic friends, which I'm not sure what he meant by that, who helped him.

Part of it was also me thinking, why are we so surprised? The world was actually already pretty globalized and pretty interconnected. So him just knowing English and French and having these friends was able to really dove deeply into the history of Islam and the Islamic world. 

You mentioned that it sort of slips by some readers, but his editors certainly picked up on it. I'm assuming they weren't exactly keen on it.

They weren't. One of them said, "You need to give us an explanation as to why there's so much Muslim flavour," in the editor's words. I think another editor also said, "What's up with all the Islam?"

But also ... his book, at first, it didn't do that well. And part of it was this insistence on the use of language, of using a lot of foreign words, not just Arabic. He's taking from a lot of different languages ... and he was very adamant on using language to signify that you're not [in the present].

And he also really believed in slow build up and experimenting with different types of narrative and different types of sentence structure to give a slower pace than was usual in science fiction at that time.

So for a lot of people, they felt like it dragged on and it was too foreign. His editors eventually were just like, "Make a glossary." So he made a glossary. 

In modern North American culture, there's still a kind of ignorance and fear when it comes to the Middle East. Were Frank Herbert's uses of these references, generally speaking, positive or negative or just kind of neutral in the fact that they were just there? 

I wouldn't push it either positive or negative, and I think that's what's interesting about him. He just dealt with Islam as a natural part of the human heritage. He saw Islam as a natural part of the future. And I think a lot of the way that his text was received over the decades has signaled that society at large, or the American mainstream, has not been comfortable with that. And this is before Sept. 11, 2001.

WATCH | Director Denis Villeneuve and actor Rebecca Ferguson talk about adapting Dune to film:

The dream comes alive - stepping into the world of Dune

10 months ago
Duration 5:54
Director Denis Villeneuve and actor Rebecca Ferguson talk about bringing the epic sci-fi novel Dune to life and gambling on a sequel.

There's this sort of Islam as the perpetual, eternal newcomer that sort of exists outside of time. But the more you study, for instance, the history of Islam in America, which I think this text is intertwined with the history of Islam in America, you see that Muslims have always been there. Muslims have always been part of the story.

What do you think modern science fiction writers can learn from the ways that Frank Herbert relied on and characterized these cultures that he had learned so much about, in the way that modern authors take on writings today?

There are some really good sci-fi authors out right now who I think are taking it even beyond Herbert. But I teach a course on religion and science fiction and fantasy. And part of the course has this creative writing component where we read a talk given by Frank Herbert in which he told aspiring science fiction authors to stop thinking of the same mythic paradigms and to stop thinking of time in the same way. To not just go take things from world mythology, but also question the very structure of how we approach time and space.

And I think that was what was so exciting for me about him. He's not just using foreign words to pepper what is uniquely a western story. He is trying to actually complicate the temporality of his work. He was very adamant on really taking a broad human perspective towards all global mythology, about storytelling, to tell a broadly human story. And in so doing, he was very comfortable with breaking some of the foundational myths of his own background.


Written and produced by Sameer Chhabra.

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