Charles Center Research #1: Muslim Futurism and Dune

The Dune Problem

A central figure in my series of interviews on Muslim Futurism is the creator and head contributor of the aptly named Muslim Futurism blog, an individual who has chosen to remain anonymous and stay under the screename “Hijabi Mentat,” a reference to Frank Herbert’s deeply influential Dune series. Therein, a Mentat was an individual trained to act as a living computer after the Butlerian Jihad, which in the lore of the series placed a strict ban on the creation of machines that emulated humans. This, even by itself echoes deeply Frank Herbert’s drawing from Islam and Muslim culture in the envisionment of his world. The similarities between the ban on the creation of artificial intelligence by the Imperium and the forbiddance of art depicting animate beings in Islam draw from ideals of banning the emulation of actions and beings for religious reasons, while the structure and rite of passage by which one enters into a Mentat order is mirrored in many Sufi groups and practices. Even the name Butlerian Jihad is drawn from Islamic ideas of struggle. 

This is all to say that Dune, as one of the best-selling science-fiction books of all-time and nearly singular work in the genre that holds Islamic influences on its sleeve (to say this, I mean to focus on works that have had deep-running cultural impacts even outside of their genre, not to say that many other works have not focused on Islam or the Middle East, otherwise this project would unto itself be a worthless venture), has an immense sway over how we in the modern day envision Islam’s interactions with Futurism and science-fiction. Though the way in which Herbert incorporated themes from Islamic philosophy, theology, and mysticism is endlessly engrossing and often even beautiful, it does become near-hegemonic in several often harmful ways as Muslim artists attempt to break from his modes of expression. 

An Islamic future among the stars is now envisioned with little variance as a theocratic venture full of reclusive sects, inaccessible guidance by an enlightened few mystics, and the colonization of far-flung desert worlds. Even as some of these trends could simply be drawn from a parallel issue of identity centralization (an issue that will doubtlessly be focused on in a subsequent post), it is hard to deny that the specific expressions of religion-restricted technology for the particularly high-ranking devout, or mystical/Sufi experiences engineered through the intake of some sort of alien drug lend heavy credence to the theory of Dune’s predominance. It should also be made note of that none of this is to particularly indict Dune or Frank Herbert in proclamations that they are in some way problematic in regards to their usage of Islamic ideals (much can be said as to their role in influencing and inspiring countless Muslim artists in the status quo), but rather to reaffirm another problem in the genre that begs to be explored: We continue to rely on old modes of storytelling, of worldbuilding, of envisionment and aspiration. To break free from this is to free one’s art, one’s lived expression. Dune is to be remembered, yes, but it is also to be cast off, in a desire to grow new worlds, away from the Imperium and Melange.