Reading Children of Dune, Entry 1: Qur’anic Passages; Race & Fremen Customs; Tradition & Change (pp. 1–29)

Over the coming weeks, I will post reading journal entries as I revisit Children of Dune (CoD). I remember next to nothing of the plot and themes (beyond the overall trajectory, core characters, and general vibe), so this is a delight.

These entries will be relatively scattershot. Some will cover longer portions of the book than others, and I’ll mainly raise questions/thoughts that interest me, rather than summarize plot. If I find that any overarching themes emerge, I may synthesize them into thought pieces which I’ll post in parallel.

This is the first entry. For more, see the Table of Contents to the essay series. Next: Entry 2.

I welcome anyone to respond with enthusiasm, critique, or dialogue. I would love to gather your insights.

Note: Page numbers refer to the 1987 Ace edition.

Opening with Passages from the Qur’an

In Ch. 1, Herbert verbatim quotes not once but twice from AJ Arberry’s 1955 translation of the Qur’an. This is wild:

Surah (Chapter) An-Nahl (The Bee), Ayat (Verses) 1 & 9 / CoD, p. 5:

God’s command comes; so seek not to hasten it… God’s it is to show the way; and some do swerve from it. If He willed, He would have guided you all together.

Surah Ya-Sin, Ayat 8–9 / CoD, p. 6:

Surely We have put on their necks fetters up to the chin, so their heads are raised; and We have put before them a barrier and behind them a barrier; and We have covered them, so they do not see.

My thoughts:

(1) It’s interesting that Herbert describes the recollection of these verses as Stilgar “revert[ing] to primary Fremen beliefs,” yet suggests this is not a bad but a good thing, contrasting such beliefs to “the religion of Muad’Dib,” which led to the deification of man and the bureaucratization of religion. This aligns with “The Religion of Dune” (Appendix II in Dune), where Herbert contrasts the later adaptations of religion in the Orange-Catholic Bible and in Muad’Dib’s religion with Islam, Judaism, Christianity, and Buddhism as they were prior to the later attempts to innovate upon the word of God. We know of course that the “primary Fremen belief” was a mainly a mixture (melange?!) of Islam and Buddhism.

(2) The fact that Herbert is verbatim quoting from the Arberry translation is very useful. I’ve always wondered what translation he used, and, at least by CoD, now we know — the 1955 Arberry translation. The alternative explanation is that he was reading commentary on Islam or religion in general, in which Arberry was quoted. But my guess is Herbert simply read the whole translation and marked the passages he liked, since some of these quotes are deep cuts — it doesn’t seem like he’s just cribbing from a secondary source. Seems more like he highlighted lines he thought were cool (ha).

It’s funny, when I first read these lines, I said to myself, “Oh wait this is SO familiar, I KNOW this is from the Qur’an.” And then I Googled it, and some the first links are about Dune, not Islam. (There goes the algorithm… where’s the Butlerian Jihad when you need it!)

(3) I love the emphasis on Stilgar in the start of the book. At a young age, Herbert befriended Henry Martin of the Hoh Tribe, on which Stilgar appears roughly based. I really hope Stilgar continues as the heart of this book. From these rereads and my recollection of the books, Stilgar (next to maybe Duncan Idaho and the Fremen in general) appears to be one of the very few characters Herbert loves almost unreservedly.

It will be useful to think about the romanticization of Stilgar, and of indigenous cultures and Islam, through the portrayal of this character. The opening scene ends with Stilgar deciding to stick by the “old virtue” of “loyalty” (p6) —which reeks of the “noble savage” archetype, and gives me pause. But I also wonder whether it’s only that. Herbert’s referring to something else in addition to the noble savagery — some form of political conservativism (in the lower case sense, although perhaps in caps, too, given Herbert’s Republican affiliations and leanings): “Better the complexities one thought he knew than the complexities which deified understanding. Better the now than the future of the dream.” It’s not just that he’s loyal because he’s the noble savage, but also (or maybe this is what makes him the noble savage) because he’s wary of radical change and the counterrevolutions that might accompany it (just as Muad’Dib’s revolution brought the counterrevolution of the new empire), specifically that he’s refusing to be subject to his id, to unthinking fanaticism, to uncritically following a messiah figure.

It’s ironic that Stilgar ends the scene proclaiming the necessity of living in the now, not the dream, but starts the scene by declaring the pitfalls of believing in the dream of “our Messiah”; in other words, those to whom he pleads loyalty (the twins and perhaps the empire) are part of the world created out of the dream of the Mahdi. There’s a moment in the middle of the scene where Stilgar thinks: “If my knife liberated all of those people, would they make a messiah of me?” This is similar to Paul’s internal monologues toward the end of Dune — the inevitability of becoming a messiah isn’t only the domain of the white foreigner, for Stilgar here has similar thoughts. But, unlike Paul, Stilgar has the self-restraint (“the ayat and burhan of Life,” roughly “signs and proof of Life” in Arabic) to know the terrors which such violence might bring. The intricacy of Stilgar’s inner monologue, and the intimacy with which Herbert explores it, is on par with if not exceeding that of the other characters throughout the series.

I read Stilgar’s rumination as in line with the series’ skepticism — foreshadowed in Dune and played out in Dune Messiah — of prescience, of making radical claims about the future or the potential to shape it. One might also read the verse from An-Nahl (“God’s command comes; seek not to hasten it.”) in this way. Historically and today, some Islamic scholars have occasionally expressed views of this kind as a form of political quietism. Of course, this isn’t the only position in Islamic discourse. After all, the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH), to which the Qur’an was revealed, was also, as Herbert has explicitly stated in interviews, a radical reformer, like Jesus (PBUH), and Herbert saw the Dune books as a way to think about this relationship between stability and change. (I’m reminded of Foucault’s caution — “Is revolution really desirable?” — and his later acceptance of a form of spiritual, collective revolution, which he learned from his interactions with the Iranian Revolution, as described in Behrooz Ghamari-Tabrizi’s Foucault in Iran.)

Regardless, there is a lot of genuine love with respect to Stilgar and the Fremen, I think. More on that soon.

(4) Another thought on this scene: I’m getting major Abu Bakr vibes from Stilgar. As in the early days of Islam, he’s the friend of the prophetic figure, a friend who is also a major political leader, and he is also connected to the role of the family of the Prophet as his legacy continues after death. It seems almost too obvious in Ch. 1 here. I’m wondering how this will play into the Shi’i and possibly Isma’ili elements of the series.

(5) The specific Qur’anic references are super interesting and relate to questions about free will that thread throughout the Dune series, especially regarding bi-la kaifa and Paul’s prescience — here, there’s the prescience issue raised above, but I’m also thinking about the idea communicated throughout the Qur’an of barriers to the hearts of evildoers. Herbert’s clearly just using this to foreshadow, but he’s also getting at the intersection of the political and spiritual elements of his interrogation of power throughout the saga. I’m still not quite sure how to understand it yet.

(6) To point (4), there’s a clear sympathy here with the non-establishment Fremen: Not all the Fremen are among those fanatic masses that “unthinkingly” follow Muad’Dib in his conquest of the stars — the Fremen aren’t a monolith, a brown mob following the white prophet. Here the use of the Qur’anic passages is to suggest that those following “the religion of Muad’Dib” have strayed from God’s command, and that the rebels do not have the “barriers” to their hearts but follow God’s command beyond the “men who created these governmental edicts” of Muad’Dib’s religion. It’s like that famous line from Al-Ghazali’s Deliverance from Error, quoting Imam Ali: “Do not know the truth by men, but rather, know the truth and you will know its adherents.”

(7) Does Herbert’s skepticism of religious innovation make him a …. salafi!??!? This may get at his view of tradition, which I find sometimes seems rich, complex, changing, and discursive in the Asadian sense (see (8)), and at other times essentialist and romanticized. I might be wrong. I definitely don’t think Herbert is a hardline traditionalist. In my view, the challenge of reading the Dune books is that the entire series, at least as I’ve re/read it so far, is principally about the necessary relationship between reform and tradition, often trying to complicate that dialectic. Herbert has interviews where he almost explicitly says this. As I read it, almost every conflict in the series might be reduced to this relationship. (Maybe taqlid/ijtihad vibes, for those who are familiar with that — although, as I’ve noted, the taqlid/ijtihad conflict is perhaps much ado about nothing.)

(8) I know I’ve said it before, but I think it’s hilarious and amazing that the guys doing the jihad/genocide across the universe and who are part of the counterrevolutionary establishment are actually the modernists, while the rebels fighting them are the traditionalists. Herbert almost all but says this when Stilgar contemplates his distaste for an inner urge, for “some greater power… [wherein] lay the magnet for dreams of grandeur… temporal riches, secular authority and that most powerful of all mystical talismans: the divine authenticity of Muad’Dib’s religious bequest” (p.2). Secularism, materialism (capitalism?), and religious fanaticism are equal players in the terrors of the empire. This approach to fanaticism upends a straight white savior narrative (despite other problems — e.g. the “loyalty”/quietism stuff above). In this chapter specifically, Herbert’s describing both the fanatic establishment and the rebels through the lens of those whose hearts are covered or not in the Qur’an… so the conflict isn’t merely a “white people v. brown people” conflict (although there’s no denying that, too), but also one framed within the lens of Qur’anic morality. Herbert’s describing the central drama of the story as a conflict within Islam or Islamic discourse, as much as it is between the “Islamic” Fremen and imperial/corporate/religious outsiders (the both/and aspect makes this fascinating to mull over). I see Hebert as playing with what the anthropologist Talal Asad calls “discursive tradition,” maybe, in that both sides correlate to a position within alternative ideas of Islamic tradition, or, applying the Ya-Sin quotation literally, to an Islamic idea of who is or isn’t on the straight path toward justice/truth. That said, I still find that Herbert has strong traditionalist tendencies; this is perhaps the greatest strength and flaw of Dune. More on that later…

Fremen Customs, Harah, Race, & the Meaning of “Children of Dune”

A few thoughts on the opening of Ch. 2 (p7), introducing us to Leto II & Ghanima — I love this single page for three reasons (the third the most):

(1) It opens with the “Fremen custom” of rising “an hour before dawn” — that’s a clear reference to the Islamic practice of waking up for fajr (morning prayer) at basically that time each morning.

(2) For breakfast, they eat “a simple gruel with dates and nuts blended in liquid skimmed from partially fermented spice” — this seems to reference majoun (in Arab/Persian cultures) or harira (in South Asia), basically what I call a “date milkshake” that’s pretty much as described here (throw dates + nuts + milk + maybe yoghurt and a banana in the blender). It’s delicious and my family usually has it to break fast during Ramadan. I drank it a few times this last Ramadan, as I do every Ramadan, and it’s SO GOOD. I love that this level of detail is in CoD. I think what Herbert’s describing here is less of a milkshake and a bit more of an oatmeal version of it, but it’s a similar thing, I suspect.

My guess is this is something unique to North Africa, perhaps, although I welcome others to chip in here as to the origins of this “gruel.” Any ideas?

With (1) and (2), I love that Herbert is establishing that the Atreides children are thoroughly Fremen (which is deeply tied with particular Muslim, and perhaps North African, practices), in their way of life.

(3) My favorite: I noticed a subtle and beautiful attention to race, culture, and class in the description of Harah’s exchange with the twins, which occurs right after they eat breakfast. I’m not sure if this is intentional or not. Herbert describes the twins donning their royal Atreides garb for their grandmother, Jessica. As Harah observes them dressing in these fancy clothes, Herbert makes sure to describe Harah’s face as “dark and wind-creased” — i.e. highlighting in that moment that she is brown or possibly black. She sarcastically chides the kids for “dress[ing] to honor your grandmother” and teases: “My eyes are just as blue as yours!”, meaning “You may be royalty, but we both bear the stigma of melange-addiction — eyes without whites. What Fremen needs more finery or more honor than that?”

My interpretation of what she’s saying in this context is: “You are as much if not more so Fremen as Atreides, as much dark-skinned and blue-eyed as a white foreigner, as much part of this sietch as you are of this ‘higher’ class of royal houses.” She’s essentially telling them to be proud of who they are, their eyes, their skin, their clothes, their customs and way of life, and not to be ashamed of these aspects of their identity and community. Tl;dr — “Don’t be cajoled by white grandma!”

An aside: This makes me especially upset about the whitewashed James McAvoy casting of Leto II in the Dune Miniseries (although I do think he was great in it).

I don’t know how much Herbert intended here. He could just have created a world and characters who he took so seriously that he inadvertently stumbled into these sorts of moments. But regardless I think it’s beautiful. The entire scene, including the aspects noted above in (1) and (2), is establishing how ensconced the children are in the Fremen way of life, and then the scene is closed here in (3) with Harah reminding them that they belong to this culture and people (perhaps more so than the Atreides) and should honor and love who they are.

This throws a wrench in some of the critiques of Herbert on race/orientalism (although I do think they are valid in other respects, see “loyalty” above). And also complicates how someone might later view Leto II (the God Emperor) as a “white savior” (as the claim is made of his father Paul). But taking aside those tired debates, I am simply amazed by the subtlety, detail, and beauty of this entire passage (particularly for a white American dude writing in the mid-1970s). It is full of such love and generosity for the characters and the Fremen especially, and matches well with the introduction of Stilgar and the Qur’anic passages in Ch. 1.

Moreover, the opening scene with the twins and Harah is central to the title and core theme of this book, I suspect, because, in this sense, they truly are the titular “children of Dune “— to be children of Dune is to be Fremen, to wake up for morning prayers, drink majoun/harira, and take pride in the color of their skin, the blue of their eyes, the clothing they wear, and the sietch that is their home.

A Passage from the Preacher, & Chameleon Identities

An excerpt from the Preacher (p. 20):

The Fremen must return to his original faith, to his genius in forming human communities; he must return to the past, where that lesson of survival was learned in the struggle with Arrakis. The only business of the Fremen should be that of opening his soul to the inner teachings. The worlds of the Imperium, the Landsraad and the CHOAM Confederacy have no message to give him. They will only rob him of his soul.

This seems to confirm Herbert’s aforementioned traditionalist tendencies. Interesting to note the alignment of that traditionalism with what might be read as an anti-capitalist, anti-imperialist ideology. We’ll see… I’m cautious here about Herbert’s romanticization of tradition as a static, idealist object of the past. I think he also complicates tradition, too (as in the intricacies of Stilgar’s opening inner monologue), but the romance is there nonetheless.

Indeed, other epigraphs point to the ambiguities and paradoxes of tradition and identity, seeming to challenge dialectical relationships between tradition and reform:

Riddles of Arrakis, by Harq al-Ada, p. 7:

CHALLENGE: “Have you seen The Preacher?”
RESPONSE: “I have seen a sandworm.”
CHALLENGE: “What about that sandworm?”
RESPONSE: “It gives us the air we breathe.”
CHALLENGE: “Then why do we destroy its land?”
RESPONSE: “Because Shai-Hulud [sandworm defiled] orders it.”

Book of Diatribes, from the Hayt Chronicle, p. 28:

I give you the desert chameleon, whose ability to blend itself into the background tells you all you need to know about the roots of ecology and the foundations of a personal identity.

A Poem?

I’m curious about this “ancient” poem, which Leto sings (p. 29):

Nature’s beauteous form
contains a lovely essence
called by some — decay.
By this lovely presence
new life finds its way.
Tears shed silently
are but water of the soul:
they bring new life
to the pain of being —
a separation from that seeing
which makes death whole.

While Herbert does make up poems throughout the books, Leto describes the song as from “memory,” “ancient,” and “echo[ing] a Zensunni theme.” This leads me to wonder whether Herbert was riffing off of an actual poem.

My first guess might be Persian poetry (in Dune, Herbert quotes from the Shahnameh as an ancient text of the Fremen). But I know Herbert was into poetry, especially haiku (he said the Dune books were structured/plotted as a haiku but I have no idea what that means — someone please enlighten me!). So this could just be him writing his own work; I believe it’s actually included in the book Songs of Muad’Dib, presented there as an original poem by Herbert. But Herbert could’ve still riffed or plagiarized it from somewhere.

If anyone has any guesses, I’m all ears!

I planned on journaling the first 100 pages (which I’ve crossed by now), but this is already rather long. I’ll stop here.

Up next: I’ll reflect further on Fremen customs and ponder Herbert’s esoteric Biblical allusions…

Author, Technologies of the Self. | PhD student @Princeton. JD, BS @Columbia. Law, history, technology. Outer space. Postcolonialism. Modernity. Dune.