Johns Hopkins University Press

Art never exists within a vacuum: it is always embedded within a broader historical context and political interpretations. Frank Herbert's 1965 science-fiction epic Dune, currently in the midst of a two-part film adaption, exemplifies this dynamic.2 Dune narrates the story of a humanity dispersed across the stars 20,000 years into the future. It focuses on the young nobleman Paul Atreides as he acts upon a prophecy to control the planet Arrakis and its valuable spice—which makes space-travel possible—with the messianic command of Arrakis' indigenous Fremen people. Far more than a pulpy adventure tale, Herbert incorporated environmental science, history, religious thought, and political philosophy from the nearly two-hundred books he consulted to write Dune, resulting in a rich tome with commentary on religious and cultural synthesis, resource-based geopolitics, and colonialism and anti-colonial resistance.3 In this interview, GJIA covers these themes and more with Haris Durrani, a Ph.D. candidate in history at Princeton University who is also dubbed, the "leading post-colonial Dune scholar of our time."4

You have written extensively about what you have called the "Muslimness" of Dune.5 Would you mind explaining what you mean by that?


By Muslimness of Dune, I was responding to something that I saw in a lot of discourse surrounding Dune: both from people who were critiquing it and those who loved it. The tendency is to say what makes Dune so interesting is that Frank Herbert is referencing Arab and Islamic history and terms. Sometimes there is a tendency to say that is the limit of Herbert's engagement with Islam, and the Middle East and North Africa more broadly, in the Dune novels. What I was trying to say there is that the engagement with Islam isn't just a purely a linguistic or aesthetic surface-level engagement, but something much deeper that goes beyond all these cool languages and references. He is having a conversation within Islam and within these various cultures that goes to a much more profound level.

How commonplace do you see discussions about the Islamic inspirations of Dune (book and movie) outside of the United States, especially among Muslim communities worldwide such as within Southwest Asia and North Africa where many of Herbert's inspirations originated?


I can speak more about what the reception has been of the novels, which has been pretty positive. I think it's a little bit of self-selection because the people who are going to read Dune are going to be science-fiction geeks and nerds like me, so they'll like it anyway! When the Arabic translator of Dune, Mohamed Salama Al-Masry, was doing the translation, he had to engage with the fact that Herbert is using all of these Arabic terms, but he is also translating the novel from a presumably English text. Some readers who are native Arabic speakers and read it in Arabic didn't even realize until they went and looked up the original English how much of it was influenced by the Arabic language. It's an interesting translation problem. I will say that a lot of people from the Middle East and North Africa, and Muslims in general—my dad is from Pakistan and my mom is from the Dominican [End Page 78] Republic—have felt a connection to Dune even if they've had qualms about some issues, which we could get into.

People were upset with, obviously, the lack of Arab and Muslim representation in the film. That's kind of a moot point. Some of the accent work was very frustrating in the pronunciation of the Arabic terms and even characters' accents when they spoke in English. But I've also heard that a lot of people didn't have that critique and just really loved the movie and felt they were represented. There is a broad swath of opinion, but also, I would say that I'm not really an authority—this is more something I heard down the grapevine.

Islamic and Southwest Asian and North African influences predominate throughout the series. Could you please bring up some examples of these influences as well as other cultural, religious, or historical inspirations that stand out in Dune?


Non-Islamic and non-Arabic Middle Eastern references—there are a lot. Herbert was thinking about decolonization across the world, not just in the Middle East and North Africa. The most prominent group for inspiration outside of the Middle East and North Africa would be the Indigenous experiences within the United States, especially the Quileute tribe, about which scholar Daniel Immerwahr has written great stuff.6 But beyond even that, he also engages with some Navajo traditions. There are references in the later novels to the Mura and Arawak peoples from what's now Brazil and the Caribbean.7 For me, being Dominican—I'm like "Yeah!" regarding the Arawak. There are also references to Southeast Asia, and then, of course, with Buddhism, to East Asia.8 And then there's a huge Russian and Ottoman influence, especially with Herbert bringing in narratives from Lesley Blanch's book The Sabres of Paradise on the story of the Caucasian Muslims in Central Asia.9 Of course, as a Pakistani, I also have to shout out the Tleilaxu, which is another group in the Dune universe—they are based on the peoples of what's called the Northwest Frontier region between Afghanistan and Pakistan.10 So there are a lot of Pakistani/Afghan references, and some Indian stuff comes in as well. Dune is probably drawing on a lot of black experiences, especially in Africa, even in North Africa, complicating the ways we think about North Africa and the rest of Africa. And some of the later novels are clearly talking about Christian-Jewish-Muslim relations in Ethiopia and Yemen. He talks about the Kalahari people in southern Africa.11 I could go on forever.

While the United States has had an intense involvement with Middle Eastern oil since the 1920s, a deep association between oil and the Middle East appeared to increase among the American public around the 1970s, when OPEC imposed an embargo against the United States.12 Later U.S. interventions, especially the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003, have deepened this connection. The author Frank Herbert himself stated that the scarcity and control over water and spice in Dune are analogous to real-world oil scarcity.13 What do you think Dune says about imperialism and how its extractive geopolitics operate?


That's a complicated question. What does it say broadly about imperialism? It's often read as this anti-imperial tome, the whole series. And one could have a debate, which we may not have time for, about how anti-imperial it really it is. It is really clear to me that he is thinking about decolonization and anti-imperial movements. That plays into how he thinks about jihad—although we can talk about this later. The depiction of jihad even goes beyond the idea of it referencing the Sufi anti-imperial jihadist movements. I think it goes beyond that, but that is one thing that Herbert is definitely talking about. He also says that CHOAM is the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC). CHOAM is the corporation in Dune that wants to control the spice industry on the planet. You can go endlessly into all the ways that he thinks about imperialism. But I think there are other ways that one could complicate and critique how anti-imperial Herbert was, especially in the way he understood agency and power structures. [End Page 79]

In your Washington Post article published after the release of Dune's recent movie adaptation, you mentioned how the "film is both more orientalist and less daring than its source material."14 One aspect that you and others have criticized about Dune (2021) is its portrayal of "jihad" or rather its lack thereof. While jihad is an essential concept within the universe of the original book, the movie sticks instead to the term "crusade."15 Does erasing this particular Islamic inspiration leave harmful interpretations of Islamic concepts to dominate U.S. popular media and political discourse?


In the film, they got rid of "jihad," because—it's pretty obvious, from the interviews with the film's creators—they think "jihad" has some association with Islamic terrorism, at least in the public eye. Therefore, it's better to just delete the reference, rather than risk having this potentially problematic association that will stir up Islamophobia. This is a laudable goal, but you don't fix a race problem or a representation problem by deleting the people who are being represented. You deal with it. You say, "Okay, this is the problem. How do we deal with it?" I think what is so great about Dune, is that Herbert is thinking about jihad in very complicated ways. I think that avoiding the problem just leaves the status quo as it is. There are three levels of thinking about jihad in the novels. I think of it as the "exploding brain meme." The first tier of the brain meme is: "jihad is terrorism," which is not really what the books are doing. The second tier is: "jihad is this anti-colonial Sufi revolution," which is sort of what the book is doing. But the third tier, if you read the book carefully, is that jihad doesn't come directly from the Fremen, the Indigenous people. It partly does. But it's also almost explicitly described as a result of pseudo-Christian missionary imperialist forces (the Bene Gesserit order) coming in and influencing the Fremen. It's partly that the Fremen are prone to fanaticism, but it's a little bit more nuanced, because it doesn't come from Fremen tradition, per se. "Jihad" is exchanged with "holy war" and "crusade" throughout the novels. But, in the first novel, the beginning of the change in the Fremen that leads to the jihad in the later books is when they begin to become modernized because the imperialists bring in reforms to their customs. And it is the change in their customs that results in the jihad.

So it's really the way in which the Fremen become western that leads to the jihad. This has problems in itself, but that is such a more interesting way to grapple with jihad. Even a lot of historians who study jihad have talked about how contemporary jihadist movements exercise what's called, in Islam, ijtihad, a sort of independent reasoning that has a particular place in the history of Islamic law and Shari'a.16 But the way contemporary jihadists use it is often disconnected from that legal tradition. That is because they're prioritizing reason in a way that was disconnected from traditional Islamic legal customs. Reason was becoming such an ideal to strive toward in part because of missionaries who were promoting this idea that, "You, your tradition is a stagnant tradition, you need to apply to reason," when there was already reason within the Islamic tradition. What we call the "violent jihadists that we don't like" are in some ways just as Western and modern as the missionaries. I think people like to focus on jihad in Dune because it is such a sexy, hot-button issue in the film, and there are all those nuances that you lose—but there are so many terms like that in the novels. Jihad is just a term that exists in the Dune universe that's not meant to be this huge thing that's going to hit you over the head. There are so many terms like that throughout the novels, which they just cut out in the film, and each of those terms has those kinds of layers that you could bring in.

For The New York Review of Science Fiction in 2012, you wrote about "the failure of post-9/11 science fiction" and how it reaffirmed U.S. bigotry against Muslims.17 Much of the literature you came across reinforced Islamophobia and jingoistic rhetoric that exploded during and since the early 2000s. However, a decade later, do you still observe the same harmful tropes in American science fiction? Is xenophobia just as commonplace or has the decreasing U.S. government and media [End Page 80] publicity about Muslim-majority regions possibly impacted any changes?18


I don't fully endorse everything in that piece since I wrote it a long time ago, but I do think that the seed of the argument still holds, sadly. I haven't been as attentive in reading contemporary science fiction in the ten years since that was published, but in my 2012 piece, I looked at American science fiction about the quote-unquote "Muslim world," very broadly construed (it can be a problematic term, but take it as it is), before and after 9/11. I don't think 9/11 was a turning point for Islamophobia. Maybe 1979 is better. You can have all these debates about the long history of the surveillance state and racial profiling and all these things. But I think it is a turning point in some cultural understandings of Islam. In my argument in the 2012 piece about American science fiction dealing with the Muslim world, science fiction began to think of Muslims, Islam, and Muslim cultures in a very pure religious sense as "they are a threat to our freedom" or "Muslims are religious fanatics," etc. Whereas beforehand, even in the problematic depictions of the Muslim world, religious aspects were wrapped up with the politics and culture of these places.

For example, I rewatched Lawrence of Arabia after watching the recent Dune film. Lawrence of Arabia is a great film, one of my favorite films actually—it is also pretty orientalist. But I will say it is less orientalist than the 2021 movie. First of all, there is more representation—not a lot, but there's more, sadly. The screenwriters of the 2021 film said, "Arabs aren't a part of 'our world,'" "our world" quoted-unquote of the 1950s and 1960s when Herbert wrote Dune. But Lawrence of Arabia came out in the 60s and it had Arab actors, so what are the Dune screenwriters talking about? Also, Lawrence of Arabia is dealing with specific historical events. I think what is so great about the book Dune is Herbert isn't just analogizing to Lawrence of Arabia and so much else. He's also projecting—he's doing speculation: What would Bedouin mixed with Mura people, with Quileute people, with people from Pakistan and Afghanistan—what would they look like if they all mixed and dispersed and had all these diverse cultures 20,000 years in the future. It's an exercise in projection. The religious aspects are wrapped up in the culture and the politics. It doesn't treat religion as this pure abstraction. Whereas the 2021 film exactly illustrates what I called the "failure of post-9/11 science fiction," which is that Islam and Muslims become this sort of abstract, in this case, almost unnamed entity. For example, commentators call the music and singing in the film Arabic ululation, but it's not.19 Maybe the filmmakers wanted it to sound like that, but it's based on South Indian, Jewish, and Celtic influences. Now, the Jewish influences—that's great. Herbert was drawing on Judaism—yes, horrah! But not those other two elements. Sometimes we want to have "rosy eyes" and see what we want to see in the film, and see the representation we want. But if you actually look at the inspiration behind the film and all the interviews of how the filmmakers designed the fashion, music, and architecture in the film, barely any of it is based on any idea of this projection into the future of what these cultures and religions would look like. It's all basically, "We're 20,000 years in the future. What would a city in a very hot, sandy planet look like? Okay, brutalist architecture with 20-foot-deep walls, with some vague ruminations about ancient Egypt" (which doesn't come into the Dune novels until the third book). That's how you get the film's interpretation of Arrakeen (the capital of Arrakis). So, the movie is this white person's abstract idea of what the future is supposed to be, rather than doing what Herbert did, which was to project into the future, draw on the cultural specificity, and play with it.

By comparing Herbert's vision of Dune to that of director Denis Villeneuve, it appears that Herbert approached his cultural inspirations with significant consideration and attention to detail. However, what do you believe are the greatest limitations of his original work?


It's hard to engage in critique of the novels because, every time I have a question about Dune or a critique of it, I find myself questioning my own questions. There are a lot of reasons for that. Partly, it's because it's very hard to talk [End Page 81] about the novels in the abstract because even every thirty pages, there are so many references, themes, and ideas that to tease out those thirty pages can take forever, and you won't come to an answer. Partly it's because Herbert did not quite know what he was saying, because he was figuring things out along the way, and he was even questioning himself. For example, a position you might find in one place in the novels may not be in another place. The other complicated issue is that the book is not only intertextual, but what I call intratextual. Herbert was reading history books; he knew the idea of including footnotes, annotations, appendices, and commentaries. All the Dune books have little epigraphs before each chapter, as well as some appendices in the first book, and a glossary. Dune fans will thus debate endlessly about which narrative is actually the authoritative narrative and which did Herbert mean to be the "imperial narrative" or the "Fremen narrative"? And then Herbert himself says, "I like debating, and I like to take positions that I don't agree with." So characters will take positions, but who exactly is Herbert agreeing with, here? Herbert even names this at one point. In the later novels, one of the characters, Leto II, the God Emperor of Dune, says that he practices "taquiyya." In Islam, that can mean that if you're in an oppressed situation, you can be deceitful or not forthright about your Muslimness or do something necessary to protect yourself. This character says, "I practice taquiyya," meaning that he'll write fake history books and pretend like the book is a narrative by some real historical figure within the Dune chronology and then everyone believes it. That's kind of what the Dune novels are but for the future. So I wanted to preface my answer with this comment, that it's very hard to say anything direct.

For me, the biggest problem isn't quite the White savior aspect. Partly it's a problem of Fremen agency, but I think there's a difference between the agency of the Fremen and how much "screentime" or "pagetime" the Fremen get, and there's a way to tell a story in which characters have agency even if they're not on the page as much (although not being on the page is its own problem). For me, the two biggest issues are: one, the books aren't very inter-sectional. For example, the Bene Gesserit get a lot of play. The Bene Gesserit may be brown and black as well, but I think that the Fremen women, who are more strongly coded as nonwhite, especially Chani, do not get much play at all in the books and are really downplayed in their role. That, to me, is a big problem. The second, and deeper problem is that Herbert's worldview, which was right-leaning politically, is a very individual-centered worldview. Even though his central theme is about community, his idea of community development and empowerment is through each individual's sacrifice to the community. So, when Paul Atreides and the Bene Gesserit come to reform the Fremen, those imperialists, in Herbert's mind, are just as at fault as the Fremen are in accepting the imperial implantations. There is some truth in that—in colonial projects, it's never just the white people against the brown people and the black people. There are always mixtures, creole elites, people who become part of the system, like Kynes in the novel. But ultimately Herbert sees that relationship between the colonizer and the colonized as a symmetry. Whereas in reality I think there are clear power structures and Paul, the colonizer, has a lot of power. There's a sense that Herbert's individualist idea of agency gives the Fremen a lot of power, because it says that they're not subservient to a power structure, they're not slaves to the system. But I think, on the other hand, there's a way in which Herbert's approach to agency also elides that there is a difference between the White outsider and the Black and Brown Indigenous peoples.

How can speculative fiction advance beyond the limitations of world-building in Dune? More specifically, how can the "Western Gaze" be separated from such a diverse field of literature and popular culture on depictions of Islam? For example, your novella, Technologies of the Self, incorporates a very personalized and spiritual jihad into a coming-of-age narrative across time.20


I actually totally forgot, even as I've been writing this Dune stuff, that the main character of my novel, Technologies of the Self—his name is Jihad. And there are Dune metaphors [End Page 82] in that book as well. I think the sort of simple answer that everyone's been throwing around in response to the issues with the novel Dune and its film adaptations is we need more Black and Brown writers. Not that we need more, but we need to amplify—they're already there, but we need to amplify their voices, as you're doing here, thank you! Read Technologies of the Self! But I think it's a little bit more than that. I agree, representation is important, and there is a way in which someone speaking from their own point of view—you can't replace that. But I think, on the other hand, what I love so much about Herbert is that he just did a lot of work, researched it. There are letters where apparently, he mentions Semitic and Arab friends. And he doesn't seem to say it in the way people say, "I have black friends." He's just saying it casually. When I'm reading his books, even when I have issues, I can tell that there was someone there with him. Someone was telling him stuff. Representation is important, but it's also a matter of being respectful, doing the research, doing the work, and taking your characters seriously. That's something else I would add: there is a tendency to separate telling a good story from the politics. I even tend to separate them, and it is true, sometimes—Lawrence of Arabia, I love the film, even though it has so many problems. But I think a good story is also good politics. Herbert, for all his problems, when he does take his Fremen characters seriously, like Stilgar, for example, it's interesting. Stilgar is one of the most interesting characters in the whole series, especially in the first three Dune novels. His whole arc actually mirrors Paul's arc.21 Even though there are ways in which Stilgar definitely lacks agency in the narrative, he's still this fully realized, internally complicated, changing person. He's a real person that exists in the world. And Herbert took him seriously as a real person. For all of Herbert's problems, I think that one solution to the problems of science fiction, speculative fiction, and the Western gaze is to just take the characters seriously. If you just take the characters seriously, their world seriously, and their Muslimness, their brownness, their blackness seriously as part of who they are, and as having internal contradictions within them, I think that it is a perfect recipe for producing great political, speculative fiction with rich character work.

Speaking of "problematic favorites" such as Lawrence of Arabia, I've always been fascinated with depictions of imperialism within Western media because when you engage with texts, such as Heart of Darkness or its relocated film adaptation Apocalypse Now, you open a fascinating dialogue about not just imperialism itself, but how it's perceived.


The two works of fiction that I find often compared to Dune, in public and in my head, are Heart of Darkness and Aladdin. There's a sense in which, with Aladdin, you're throwing together this hodgepodge of cultures, an ambiguous Middle Eastern, South Asian-ish place (perhaps like in Dune). But I think Dune is still different. It's still problematic, in the ways we've talked about, but it's still very different from those works. It's different from Aladdin because of the specificity, like I already spoke about. And it's different even from Conrad. It has that similarity of the narrative of the White man who goes into the African place and has a crisis of conscience. There's that similarity, but I think it stops there. In high school, I was always extremely frustrated with everything we read and how racist it was. But I never felt that with Dune. I had problems with Dune, but I didn't feel that level of visceral reaction that I felt when I read Heart of Darkness in high school. I just really hated that book. It's a great read, but this is where the political issues and storytelling come together. The character work in Heart of Darkness is lacking. For example, Kurtz's fiancé at the end gets short shrift, and, especially, the Congolese peoples—Conrad, I think, literally describes them at some point as aliens or Martians. You could tell Heart of Darkness in any location, and it works. You can do the Vietnam version of it with Apocalypse Now, and it works—great film, right? You can set it on Mars, and it would be the same story. You have Ad Astra, the Brad Pitt film, as the same thing and it didn't even have any aliens—there are no indigenous people. That's what I'm talking [End Page 83] about, this abstract idea of the Other. Whereas Herbert's idea of the Other is problematic, but it's not abstract; it's very particular. They have lives. They have storylines. Not as much as I would like, but they do have stories. You have people like Stilgar, who are these rich characters. On a prose level, Conrad is way above Herbert, but I think on the level of drawing out a rich tapestry of different characters and a world, Herbert is way, way beyond him. Another thing I'd just add: I agree that you need to go beyond the colonial gaze. But also, I think Succession is a great show. I don't think it's celebrating those characters, those crazy rich white people. We need to have room for all kinds of stories. We do need to make space, for sure—structurally—in terms of the stories we support, for stories which are not from that White colonizer perspective, even if they are critical. But I would say there's always value in engaging critically from all directions.

Haris Durrani

Haris Durrani is a Ph.D. candidate in history at Princeton University studying the histories of law, technology, and extraterritoriality in the twentieth century. He is currently composing a dissertation on the legal disputes over the first communication satellites in the 1960s. To read more of Durrani's insights and commentary on the Dune series, check out his profile on Medium.1


1. "Haris Durrani," Medium,

2. Frank Herbert, Dune (Boston, MA: Chilton Books, 1965); Brent Lang and Ellise Shafer, "'Dune: Part 2' Officially Greenlit, Release Date Set for 2023," Variety, October 26, 2021,

3. Don Riggs, "Frank Herbert's Dune and the Dune Series," Oxford Bibliographies, January 7, 2022,

4. Thom Dunn, "A fascinating in-depth analysis of the Muslim-ness of Dune," Boing Boing, October 24, 2021,

5. Haris Durrani, "The Muslimness of Dune: A Close Reading of 'Appendix II: The Religion of Dune,'", October 18, 2021,

6. Daniel Immerwahr, "The Quileute Dune: Frank Herbert, Indigeneity, and Empire," Journal of American Studies 56, no. 2 (2022): 191-216.

7. Haris Durrani, "Reading Children of Dune, Entry 2: Law & Modernity; Biblical Beasts & Jacurutu Origins; Herbert, Republican? (pp. 29–66)," Medium, June 6, 2021,

8. Haris Durrani and Ramtin Arablouei, "Bonus: The Deep History of Dune," npr Throughline, November 9, 2021,

9. Will Collins, "The Secret History of Dune," Los Angeles Review of Books, September 16, 2017,

10. Durrani and Arablouei, "Bonus: The Deep History of Dune."

11. Haris Durrani, "Frank Herbert, the Republican Salafist," New Lines Magazine, December 31, 2021,

12. Gregory Brew, "OPEC, International Oil, and the United States," Oxford Research Encyclopedia of American History, May 23, 2019,

13. Frank Herbert, "Dune Genesis," Omni Magazine (June 1980),, 2.

14. Haris Durrani, "The novel 'Dune' had deep Islamic influences. The movie erases them," Washington Post, October 28, 2021,

15. Ali Karjoo-Ravary, "In Dune, Paul Atreides led a jihad, not a crusade," Al Jazeera, October 11, 2020,

16. "Indira Falk Gesink, "'Chaos on the Earth': Subjective Truths versus Communal Unity in Islamic Law and the Rise of Militant Islam," American Journal of Ophthalmology 108, no. 3 (2003): 710-733.

17. Haris Durrani, "The Failure of Post-9/11 Science Fiction," The New York Review of Science Fiction 25, no. 1 (2012): 8.

18. Sara Fischer, "Why Afghanistan fell off of the media's radar," Axios, August 31, 2021,

19. Haris Durrani, "The novel 'Dune.'"

20. Haris Durrani, Technologies of the Self (Green Bay, WI: Brain Mill Press, 2016).

21. Haris Durrani, "Dune's Not a White Savior Narrative. But It's Complicated.," Medium, September 11, 2020,