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Dune is clearly inspired by the middle east — a barren, desert area controlling the one most important commodity in the world (spice/oil) without which all guild navigation/transportation cannot function. Ideas of resource scarcity also appear prevalent, according to Frank Herbert, "The scarce water of Dune is an exact analog of oil scarcity. CHOAM is OPEC."

There are also similarities in the language, e.g., in Fremen Sayyadina refers to a wise woman who is also the spiritual leader of the tribe. In Arabic it refers to "master" and often used in a religious context such as saying ala Sayyidina Muhammad. Paul also refers to his global conquest as a religious Jihad.

Did Frank Herbert intend Dune to be a critique or allegory of the Middle East?

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    Read the Wikipedia article. Herbert started pulling together the threads of Dune in the late 1950s (the sea of sand, the ecology parts, spice) and OPEC wasn't founded until 1960 and didn't become an economic force until the 1970s when they started to get better control of the production agreements. Dune was serialized 1963-1965, so no, OPEC is not an inspiration, and the idea that the desert countries control production of a critical resource was not contemporaneous.
    – DavidW
    Nov 1, 2023 at 13:54
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    Ecology - sinanvural.com/seksek/inien/tvd/tvd2.htm
    – Valorum
    Nov 1, 2023 at 14:14
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    I'm used to allegory relating to past events. If you read the dedication in the first book, he claimed to write it for the "dry-land ecologists" of the future. He perhaps saw the way things were going and made an allegorical prediction you might say. Nov 1, 2023 at 14:27
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    Surely if it were an allegory the main planet would be named something obvious like Iraq-is. Nov 1, 2023 at 17:18
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    Note that the parallels, while present, aren't particularly exact. CHOAM controls all trade in the Imperium, not just (or even mainly) Spice. And it isn't in any way associated with the Fremen in the way that OPEC is mainly associated with Arabs. Nov 1, 2023 at 18:39

2 Answers 2

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This post here deals with the same question as OP:

Frank Herbert’s Dune Explained and Reviewed

Here goes. The first thing I thought was that Dune was a metaphor for the Middle East.

But I don't think this is it. I believe answer is in the Herbert's own words:

It began with a concept: to do a long novel about the messianic convulsions which periodically inflict themselves on human societies. I had this theory that superheroes were disastrous for humans, that even if you postulated an infallible hero, the things this hero set in motion fell into the hands of fallible mortals. What better way to destroy a civilization, society, or a race than to set people into the wild oscillations which follow their turning over their judgment and decision-making faculties to a superhero?

Timothy O'Reilly writes that Herbert looked into Islam and Judaism for inspiration and, when one analyzes the words, names, titles etc., it shows words inspired by Arabic and Hebrew mostly (Jihad, Kefitzat Haderech). In fact, Herbert chose Arabic mostly for the superficial reasons:

If you want to give the reader the solid impression that he is not here and now, but that something of here and now has been carried to that faraway place and time, what better way to say to our culture that this is so than to give him the language of that place.... That oral tool - it has its own inertial forces; it's mind-shaping as well as used by mind.

O'Reilly also mentions that Herbert's research concluded that Islam fits best into the "periodic messianic convulsions" requirement. I personally see the logic, (albeit only because I remembered how I saw Islam, before I educated myself on it thoroughly), but I disagree thoroughly with these conclusions. Nevertheless, the Islamic inspirations are there, but mostly superficial - far more important to the plot is the society, which, as described by the book, matches more closely with European Feudalism than any other socio-political system, for example.

Regardless of my opinion, however, the Islam setting for Dune - for what it's worth - is a deliberate choice due to the history of this specific religion and region it is associated with - desert - but most of all, for language and association it will create in readers' minds. But Fremen religion is also deeply steeped in ecology and it's science, which offers many possibilities for the story:

I decided to put the two together because I don't think any story should have only one thread. I build on a layer technique, and of course putting in religion and religious ideas with ecological ideas you can play one against the other.

It is difficult to not see how this approach may split the reader audience on the opinion on how to interpret this elements of the story. And while it is entirely understandable to be confused by it and assume it's an allegory of the Middle East, the basic story presented in the book can be found all over the planet...

It is interesting to realize how many similarities there are between Dune and Hamlet, for example. But that's just one of many. The story of a Hero's rise and downfall, as well as his legacy's, can be found in every period and/or civilization, making it just a plot vehicle best suited to achieving Author's goal.

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    To be fair, educating oneself in Islam does not invalidate an allegory. It's fairly common for a religion's internal self-regard to be different from the way it manifest itself in real practice. As for the story being fairly common, I think that's where direct indicators (such as borrowed language) come into play. It would have been difficult for me to believe that FH did all that without intending or realizing that it would likely read as an unequivocal commentary on the Middle East.
    – Misha R
    Nov 3, 2023 at 16:56
  • Herbert also drew a lot on the book The Sabres of Paradise which was a Muslim leader in the Caucasus region, Imam Shamyl, whose warriors fought the Russian Empire (perhaps inspiring the Russian name of the villainous Harkonnens)--see this post for ways that Herbert was influenced by the book. This reddit post on books known to have been in his library lists a number of other books on Muslim history and religion.
    – Hypnosifl
    Nov 3, 2023 at 17:48
  • Another article on the influence of The Sabres of Paradise from the LA Review of books here, and some more examples of specific quotes in Dune borrowed from the book here. Also see this Tor.com article on "The Muslimness of Dune".
    – Hypnosifl
    Nov 3, 2023 at 17:53
  • @MishaR - No, you're right, and that's what my answer is about - the veneer of Islam in Dune is by design - to stir a controversy. No question about it. However, when I mentioned an education in Islam, it was in the context of the "periodic Messianic convulsions". If he meant by that a coming of another "Messiah" (as in "Prophet"), then Islam is a definite no-no. But then again, Butlerian Jihad, seeking to overthrow the machines and returning to "godly" ways, well... it is Islamic shariah in a nutshell. But that's another topic and I mentioned it to shore up my opinion with a generality.
    – AcePL
    Nov 3, 2023 at 23:02
  • Is there any evidence that Herbert chose the elements of Islamic history to "stir a controversy" as opposed to other reasons like finding Islamic history especially interesting or especially relevant to the type of story he wanted to tell? And I don't understand why you say "the society" (by which you just seem to mean the Great Houses/Imperium) is evidence the Islamic inspirations are superficial, the Fremen society is also fleshed out in great detail, and conflict bt. the Fremen/Imperium could parallel conflict between some historical Islamic societies and others (like the Russian Empire).
    – Hypnosifl
    Nov 4, 2023 at 4:09
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Dune is certainly inspired by the Middle East. As other answers have mentioned there are linguistic poachings from Arabic in Fremen language and their lifestyles reflect tribal and nomadic patterns. Arrakis is basically a single biome desert planet aside from the poles.

However, OPEC is too late an influence in terms of both themes and publication. OPEC was founded in the early 1960's but didn't really throw its weight around or gain much non-specialist Western attention until the 1970's oil embargo sparked by the Yom Kippur War. Dune was published in 1965.

Instead the situation in Dune of heroic arabic outsiders resisting a mercantile and imperial elite reflects the earlier monopoly of the European imperial nations in exporting oil and using it for their military and commercial aims while subduing or sidelining native interests.

Paul Atreides comes in as a 'Lawrence of Arabia' type of saviour who unites the tribes and helps them defeat their oppressors with his civilised weaponry, heritage/breeding and strategic talents (alongside a heavy dose of sci-fi 'chosen one' charisma'). He turns the Fremen against the evil Harkonnen/Corrino imperials and brings in a new system that further both his and their aims.

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  • This answer is one big opinion piece, and with the criteria applied, then Roman Empire and Jews fit even better, especially with the Roman strategy of depopulation of Palestine (remember, Rome ejected Jews from Jerusalem only; the reason why Palestine became Jew-free was genocide)... But the bottom line is that Paul Atreides came, gave them freedom and degenerated both Arrakis and Fremen... and then he went away and everything went downhill. But what to make of the Middle-Eastern uplift to civilization by Western powers in 1950s and 60s? What would be the paralell of that? Harkonnens?
    – AcePL
    Nov 3, 2023 at 23:15
  • @AcePL. Sure, any answer on influences is going to be opinionated - any seminal and historically-inspired work like this is going to draw on a number of sources. Nov 4, 2023 at 0:16
  • I don't think the Judea/Roman comparison works as well as Arab/Empire though. Following Roman invasion, the Judean people had an intermittently rebellious province or defensive status until the disintegration of the empire and later invasions. The Arabs, by contrast, had a vigorous expansionist period following the rise of Islam which mirrors the Dune jihad. Nov 4, 2023 at 0:27
  • But the alleged allegory is Arrakis and inhabitants and in that case, there is also the messianic element and struggle against the authority (generalizing here). I do not follow your logic on what in books you base your comparison. Is it the social order and structure?
    – AcePL
    Nov 5, 2023 at 12:19

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