Understanding 'Jihad' in Frank Herbert's 'Dune'

Dueling blades in 'Dune.' Universal Pictures

Frank Herbert's 1965 sci-fi novel "Dune" contains quite a few Islamic themes, most notably that of "jihad," from the Butlarian Jihad against thinking machines to Muad'Dib's own interplanetary jihad.

But as pointed out in the excellent CBC "Ideas with Paul Kennedy" episode "The Struggle Over Jihad," this is a muddied concept in our modern age. The Arabic word itself means "struggle," and does not inherently imply violence. Certainly, notions of both defensive and (rarely) offensive jihad exist in Islamic tradition, but extremist groups such as ISIS -- and Western coverage of their exploits -- have ushered a narrow, radicalized notion of jihad into the global mindset.

As the Ideas episode explores, the jihad issue illustrates an ongoing disconnect in the Islamic world -- an Internet-age conflict between learned, institutional clerics and self-appointed religious leaders. At the time of Herbert's writing, however, "jihad" had yet to become so twisted. This was the 1960s, before Guerrilla jihadism sprouted from the Soviet War in Afghanistan, so Herbert's usage of the term would seem to imply a more genuine struggle for human improvement and, in its more combative elements, an armed resistance against oppression.

Khalid Baheyeldin assembled a wonderful dictionary of Islamic terms in Frank Herbert's "Dune," which you can find right here. Specifically, however, he shares the following about jihad:

"In Dune, Jihad is described as Holy War. The contemporary stereotype of Jihad in Western media conjures images of planes crashing in buildings, or young men in suicide bombing missions. However, in Dune, Jihad is given more of a realistic meaning: struggle for justice against oppression, a fight against evil by the masses, even by rebellion or armed resistance. The Harkonen and the Emperor's Sardukar are seen as oppressors, and the Fremen (especially the Fedaykin), use armed resistance against them. This is labelled by Frank Herbert as Jihad, and is very close to the real meaning of the concept."

Consider it just another rich layer of meaning in one of science fiction's most tantalizing tomes. The struggle against thinking machines, for instance, was surely meant to be as much a spiritual movement as it was an act of armed rebellion -- and likewise with the galactic rise of Muad'Dib.

About the Author: Robert Lamb spent his childhood reading books and staring into the woods — first in Newfoundland, Canada and then in rural Tennessee. There was also a long stretch in which he was terrified of alien abduction. He earned a degree in creative writing. He taught high school and then attended journalism school. He wrote for the smallest of small-town newspapers before finally becoming a full-time science writer and podcaster. He’s currently a senior writer at HowStuffWorks and has co-hosted the science podcast Stuff to Blow Your Mind since its inception in 2010. In his spare time, he enjoys traveling with his wife Bonnie, discussing dinosaurs with his son Bastian and crafting the occasional work of fiction.