zenpundit.com » Blog Archive » Dune, Islam, Jihad, and the perennially missing Mahdi

Dune, Islam, Jihad, and the perennially missing Mahdi

[ by Charles Cameron — on the proleptic brilliance of Frank Herbert’s 1965 novel, Dune ]

who's your mahdi
image via Ian Rountree


In Arabic and Islamic themes in Frank Herbert’s “Dune”, the writer Khalid admits “I did not read the original novels. I have watched and enjoyed the movie and the mini-series, and read summaries of the novels” — but he’s an Arabic speaker, and offers us an annotated list of Arabic bterms and phrases he encountered in his necessarily limited exposure to the Dune novels. One term which he does annotate is “Mahdi” — about which he has this to say:

In the Fremen messianic legend, ‘The One Who Will Lead Us to Paradise.’ Paul Atreides, the central figure in the Dune novel is the son of the murdered Duke, he is exiled with his mother, manages to escape, and after a confrontation with the Fremen, gains their respect, and becomes their leader in their struggle against the evil Harkonen. He is called the Mahdi. In Islam, the Mahdi (“The Rightly Guided One”) is an all human Messianic figure, who comes to “fill the world with justice” after much of the opposite. The views of Sunni Islam differ quite a bit from Shia Islam on this, but they both at least agree on this part. Mahdi si a much more central figure in Shia Islam than it is in Sunni Islam, where the concept is often denied and attributed to legends and myths.

And that’s it.


lya Somin‘s Volokh Conspiracy piece, Radical Islamism and Frank Herbert’s Dune doesn’t mention Mahdism. Wikia’s Muad’Dib’s Jihad doesn’t either — but Wikia is a fan outlet, and fandom can be excused if it is only occasionally scholarly, it’s a form of devotion, and worthy in its own right. There’s no mention of the Mahdi in Liel LeibovitzTablet review of Jodorowsky’s failed but fascinating attempt to film Dune, What science fiction tried to teach us about Jihad, and why no one listened.

Oy: my own equivalent would be titled What science fiction tried to teach us about Mahdism, and why no one listened!

Indeed, one might hope that Ashley Andrews Learn PhD, in her Jihad: Comparing the Fremen Revolt to Contemporary Islamic State, would at least briefly mention the Mahdi, given that IS refers to the Mahdi by name in their magazine Dabiq issue 3:

And he [the Prophet] (sallallahu ‘alayhi wa sallam) linked this blessed land with many of the events related to al-Masih, al-Mahdi, and the Dajjal.

and featured a hadith expressly about the Mahdi, though it does not name him, on the final page of issue #5:

Ibn Mas’ud (radiyallahu ‘anh) narrated that Rasulullah (sallallahu ‘alayhi wa sallam) said, “If there were not left except a day from the dunya, Allah would lengthen that day to send forth on it a man from my family whose name matches my name [Muhammad] and whose father’s name matches my father’s name [‘Abdullah]. He will fill the Earth with justice and fairness as it was filled with oppression and tyranny.” [Sahih: Reported by Abu Dawud]

But no.


Why do we so often miss the Mahdi?

There’s space available for a serious look at Dune in light of today’s jihadism and Mahdism, and I’d fill it if I could find the time. I thought space-time was supposed to be a single continuum, though — how come there’s space but no time?

You’ll seldom find time with no space, except when attempting to park a car..

6 Responses to “Dune, Islam, Jihad, and the perennially missing Mahdi”

  1. Timothy Furnish Says:

    I have an entry on this topic in “Ten Years’ Captivation with the Mahdi’s Camps.” And I have started compiling info for a (Journal of Tolkien Studies?) article comparing and contrasting eschatology in the Duniverse with that of Arda (Tolkien’s world).

  2. Charles Cameron Says:

    I’ll look forward to that Duniverse / Arda piece, Tim.
    I wish your two recent books had indices, but since you drew on your own postings for them, I located two references:
    From 2007: http://www.mahdiwatch.org/2007.12.01_arch.html#1197835052910
    with this illustration, now only available from the Archive:
    mahdi cartoon
    and from 2011: http://www.mahdiwatch.org/2011.10.01_arch.html#1320033722624
    with this one:
    dune mahdi
    Great stuff!

  3. Painedumonde Says:

    Isn’t the story of the Atreides and the Fremen just the snake eating its own tale? Paul goes native when in severe distress (a trope so elegantly played out by Lawrence) and co-opts the Fremen for his own ends. Yet the Fremen listen, learn, and eventually co-opt the Atreides for their galactic jihad.
    And then Paul has his “motorcycle accident” and then the real story begins. So my theory, or really just a spitball, is Herbert was only a bit prophetic, having just retold the early and mid-twentieth century. The new caliphates, whichever one you decide to call The Caliphate, being his prophecy. Hopefully Leto’s Jihad doesn’t follow. Bonne chance !

  4. Charles Cameron Says:

    And why does he call the jihad against AI the Butlerian Jihad, anyway?
    I guess it’s time I reread the Six Books.

  5. Dan Bassill Says:

    Fascinating. I read all of the Dune books about 3 years ago. Your article opens some interesting perspective.

  6. Charles Cameron Says:

    I must have read Dune in the late sixties or early seventies, and while I was fascinated by the religious angle, and the Bene Gesserit prophecies in particular, I didn’t have much interest in jihad or Mahdism at the time — topics that really became a focus for me after 1998, and even more so after 9/11.
    I wonder what I’d have made of the books if I’d read them first in 2004, say.

Switch to our mobile site