Paul learns of the prophecies at the same time as the audience learns of the Bene Gesserit’s role in them. The order’s Missionaria Protectiva actively sows prophecy on far-flung worlds in order to pave the way for their activities and the coming of their Kwisatz Haderach. In the case of the Fremen on Arrakis, the plan works — albeit in a complex way. Following an attack by the Atreides’ rivals, Paul and Jessica are saved by a Fremen group led by Stilgar at the end of the 2021 film version, though it is worth noting that Paul’s ascent owes as much to Jessica’s willful disobedience of Bene Gesserit plans as to those plans themselves.
The prophecy of Muad’Dib isn’t the only one on Arrakis, however. In Denis Villeneuve’s film, Paul learns that a palm tree consumes more water than 10 humans. When he asks if they should be removed, he is told that they are sacred icons portraying a dream of a green Dune. The imperial planetologist, half-Fremen, confirms the narrative — a dream of a green Arrakis lives on among some of the Fremen, who have adapted to the desert in the meantime. In this sense, Muad’Dib, both the man and the jerboa for which he is named, is a site of both future and past; it is an ancient dream that exists only in the future. For some Fremen, the prophecy foretells a chance to break the cycle of imperial subjugation, to loosen the off-world grip on the spice and thus on Arrakis and the Fremen themselves.
Freezing the colonized in time and place is par for the course for empires on old Terra as well. Policies from redlining in the United States, to destabilizing regimes in Latin America, to supporting dictatorships in the Middle East continue to serve a political order suffused with imperial priorities. Buoyed by white supremacist beliefs in different people having different worth, the Black and Brown subject of empire is frozen, fossilized, and then mocked for being out of step. Movements from Black Power to Arab Spring represent similar attempts at writing one’s own history, or at writing oneself into history. To be sure, Herbert’s storytelling was influenced by other moments in Islamic history, such as Fatimid history (Carl Ernst, Haris A. Durrani). However, the modern colonial and postcolonial context colored even his reading of the medieval past. Genealogical purity was recast in terms of eugenics, proselytizing was shaped by the history of European missions, and imperial expansion was viewed from the vantage point of colonial expansion and exploitation.
In this context, it is particularly instructive to think about what it means for the Fremen — who are also modeled on other cultures and faiths — to be Muslim in particular. On the one hand, projecting Islam into the future seems to defy the colonial consignment of Islam and Muslims to being medieval subjects — people “who hate us” or who can only be part of this world as “our eyes […] on the front lines” or as prodigious scientists. In short, it allows Muslims to survive as more than a tool of imperial power (informants on their own), or as only accidentally Muslim (e.g., a scientist who happens to be Muslim through no fault of their own!). Of course, the Fremen can be read in multiple ways, and Herbert’s worldmaking is based on many influences, including Native American. But in a post-9/11 world, where jihad and madrasa are markers of war, and of threat and colonial violence, the Fremen’s Muslimness becomes even more symbolically laden.
On the other hand, the Fremen/Muslims are still trapped in a time play. Similar to how the Libyans driving the white van and attacking Doc Brown are stuck in a loop — trying to kill a man who would never die, failing in their terrorist plots and always using primitive and failing technology — the Fremen/Muslims are stuck in a desert loop, framed as primitive ritualists to be honored or as savage brutes in need of salvation. If Muslims are instead cast in the future, as part of a science-fictional imaginary, must they be cast as oil/spice keepers on a desert planet?
Yet, the power of Dune, of its Muslim Fremen, is rooted in the prophecy. Paul, whether living as white savior or reluctant messiah (or both), fears the jihad his rise to power will unleash on the universe even as he identifies increasingly with the Fremen in their sietches. What he slowly realizes is that Arrakis is bigger than he is, and bigger than the Atreides, and that he is but a tool, if not an impediment, to a Fremen future freed from the imperial demand for melange. The saga is one of breaking time loops, destroying prophecies and imperial doom. Whether the new revival of the series will be interested in its anti-imperial potential remains to be seen. In the meantime, we can all enjoy Boba Fett and Tuskens trying another approach on Tatooine.
Art by Kenneth Mills.
Ahmed Ragab is a historian of medicine at Johns Hopkins University. He is the author of The Medieval Islamic Hospital (Cambridge University Press, 2015), Piety and Patienthood in Medieval Islam (Routledge, 2018), and Science and Religion in the Life of an Ottoman Sheikh (Routledge, 2019).