Welcome to the world of Dune.
Set in an intergalactic future, twenty thousand years forward, humanity is divided into interplanetary fiefdoms competing for control over the desert planet of Arrakis (known as Dune); for control over the ‘mélange’ – a special spice drug, which enhances human consciousness and cognitive capacities thus enabling them for space travel. And this special substance can only be found on Dune, guarded by gigantic sandworms roaming the desert like whales in an ocean. Naturally, there is competition among the Great Houses to take control of Arrakis in order to have monopoly over the spice trade. Currently Arrakis is being ruled by House Harkonnen who are hand-in-glove with the overarching authority, The Emperor, to unseat their mutual rival, House Atreides, in order to consolidate their control over Arrakis. It is in these circumstances, that the protagonist, young Paul Atreides arrives on the planet, having been meticulously trained his whole life for the sake of realizing a higher purpose. Paul embarks on an epic journey full of twists and turns to fulfill his own destiny as well as the hopes of the Fremen people (the locals of Arrakis) who see him as their ‘Mahdi’ i.e. their long prophesized hero who will lead them to a bright future. Will they succeed? Or will they fail?
Kitab Al- Ibrar. Alam Al-Mithal. Lisan Al-Gaib. Muad’dib. No, you are not reading an Islamic textbook but rather the world’s best-selling science fiction novel! The most unique aspect of Dune is the influence of Islam and Middle Eastern culture in its world-building. Many elements of the plot borrow profusely from the Islamic religious tradition- a messianic figure leading the people, his visions of the future, his personal transformation shaped by the trials he encounters, etc. Some of the quotations in the book are clearly inspired from Islamic philosophy (“There is in all things a pattern which is part of our universe…”) and even from verses of the Holy Quran itself (“From water does all life begin”)
An admirable aspect of the novel is the prominent place of well-rounded female characters in the plot, which sets it apart from most other works of science-fiction.
The creative technologies used by both the Fremen people as well as the “off-worlders” are especially interesting, given the novel was written in the 60s, well before the advent of the Internet, advanced travel technology and space exploration had only just begun.
The plot itself, although getting long-drawn out at times, has enough action and suspense to keep the reader entertained.
Is Dune Orientalist and is it a white savior story?
Critics have accused Dune of being Orientalist fiction as well as being a prime example of the white saviour trope.
Edward Said, a scholar of post-colonial theory is credited with exponding the concept of Orientalism. It is the idea that the East was weird, exotic, uncivilized and inferior whereas the West was in contrast, enlightened, rational, civilized and thus superior. The concept of the white man’s burden was a major factor in legitimizing European imperialism and colonization of Asia and Africa.
A classic trope in the Orientalist canon is the image of a person from the West taking up the burden of “civilizing” the “uncultured” people of the East who are in dire need of intervention to “civilize” them as they could not possibly do so on their own. Paul, an outsider is the messiah for the Fremen people who are referred to as “rogues” or “natives”. It is argued that he is portrayed as their saviour who elevates them from their primitive ways by virtue of his superior training and abilities while the Fremen (who are clearly inspired from Arab people) are portrayed as being in awe of Paul, accepting his leadership with reverence.
Another example of Dune’s Orientalism, is that while some of the Islamic terminologies are close to their original meaning, others are grossly distorted. For example, jihad is portrayed as an impending calamity which the uncivilized people of Arrakis might do and it is the responsibility of Paul, the civilized and enlightened hero to prevent it. Given the violent consequences of global Islamophobia perpetrated by the West, especially in the 21st century, this aspect becomes very problematic.
Others argue that the world of Dune is essentially a post-racial society and it is a place where there has been a mass amalgamation of languages, religions and cultures which explains the distortion of religious phrases. As for the saviourism, it is argued that Paul actually assimilates into Fremen culture and makes himself as one of them. The Fremen people are presented as innovative, courageous and independent, rather than in need of a savior. Yet another perspective is whether the protagonist is a hero or not, is something open to readers’ interpretation. The author said he wrote the book because he wanted people to realize the dangers of charismatic people in positions of power.
Why it is important to critically analyze literature
Art imitates life. The novel is considered by many as an allegory for the Middle East oil crisis and the competition among Western powers to establish themselves in the region for economic, military and geostrategic reasons to the detriment of the peace and safety of the people of those regions. It is a portrayal of how those in power weaponize religion and culture for their own nefarious aims and in doing so, cause great destruction to the lives of those considered as “the other”.
Common people, for the most part, hardly get their political consciousness from reading theoretical texts. Their political understanding is shaped by the media they consume, the books they read and the films and television series they watch. The ruling class in every society utilizes these very modes of communication to their advantage, in order to “manufacture consent” for upholding the status quo that is beneficial to them.
At the same time, art and literature can also be a means of awakening the political consciousness of people through satire, allegory, didactic etc. Science-fiction in particular is a genre which compels people to imagine their future in relation to their present state.
The fascinating thing about Dune is that it is the only Western science-fiction work that visualizes a human future where Islam and Muslims are an integral part. This is not the case in other works of sci-fi where all other cultures are omitted except White people. In today’s world of global Islamophobia which seems desperate to erase and invisibilize every possible trace of Muslimness from the present itself, leaving no place for them in their imagination of the future; Dune is a subtle reminder of the inextricability of Muslims from humanity at large, and in any imagination of humanity’s future.