A Messiah without a God

I finally watched (on home Pay-Per-View) the new Dune movie. For the uninitiated, the original novel of that name by Frank Herbert came out in 1965 and is considered perhaps the greatest science-fiction novel of all time. Herbert published five more books set in that universe before his death in 1986, and 17 prequels and sequels penned by his son Brian Herbert and Kevin J. Anderson have also been published. (I have read all the Herbert ones, as well as most of the latter.) There was also David Lynch’s 1984 film version, as well as a miniseries in 2000.

The first book (which is the basis of the movies and TV series) is set over 10,000 years in the future (Herbert did not exactly specify), when humanity has spread throughout the galaxy. Unlike the vast majority of other sci-fi stories, there are no aliens at all. Herbert’s “Duniverse” has only one sentient species: humans. Well, there were sentient machines–but they almost wiped out their creators millennia before the events of the seminal novel. (This is why there are no computers or robots in Dune. And in fact why the Mentats exist: they are Men specially bred and trained to use their brains as calculating machines.) The Imperium is ruled by an Emperor, but there are two major balancing powers: the Lansraad, the Great Houses of the Nobility (who have their own planets and smaller military forces); and the Spacing Guild, whose Navigators are genetically-altered, allowing them to see enough into the future to “fold” space and move ships interstellar distances instantaneously. In order to do so, the Navigators must have “Spice:” the drug melange, which exists on the planet Arrakis, or Dune, thanks to the unique, giant sandworms there. (Humans did have interstellar travel prior to the Guild, but it was merely FTL–faster-than-light–not instantaneous.) There are other major political players, notably the Bene Gesserit. This all-female organization has existed for millennia, and its members have specially-developed powers of mind control–hence their reputations as “witches”–and the ability to call upon genetic memory of every preceding female member of the organization. But the Bene Gesserit have also been overseeing a secretive “breeding program” aimed at producing a “Kwisatz Haderach,” a “shortening of the way” in the fictional language Chakobsa. This would be a male who would be able to tap both female and male genetic memory–as well as see into the future. The goal is to produce a messianic figure who can lead humanity into a Golden Age. In addition, the Bene Gesserit have for centuries been seeding the thousands of planets in the Imperium with “prophecies” about the messiah-like Kwisatz Haderach, in order to prepare the way for his coming.

(Screenshot from Dune, directed by Denis Villeneuve, 2021.)

Arrakis is held as a fief from the Emperor, Shaddam IV, by the evil Harkonnens. He decides to transfer it to House Atreides, an upright and moral noble family. But this is actually a trap. Shaddam IV envies the widespread popularity of the Atreides Duke Leto II, and fears the military force the Duke has trained. So he helps the Harkonnens, with Imperial forces, to retake Arrakis and kill the Duke, as well as many of his men. Leto’s concubine Jessica (a member of the Bene Gesserit), and their son Paul, escape into the desert where they are taken in, after some complications and violence, by the Fremen–the planet’s hardy, mystical warriors who are at odds not just with the Harkonnens but the entire Imperium.

This is where the messianic element really kicks in. The Fremen are “Zensunni”–Herbert was big on religions fusing in the future–and based on their prominent beliefs the “Sunni” part of that would seem to predominate. The Fremen are Herbert’s stand-in for Arab Muslims, mutatis mutandis to account for the passing of millennia. They even look for the Mahdi, Islam’s “divinely-guided one.” Another term for the expected Fremen deliverer is Lisan al-Ghayb, “voice of the hidden.” Both of these terms are Arabic, although this construction is not found in Islamic theology. By whatever name, the oppressed masses of the planet Dune/Arrakis long for a superhuman warlord to deliver them from their enemies and to turn their desert planet into a garden.

And this is exactly what Paul Atreides, or Muad’dib as they call him, does. It turns out that Paul is indeed the Kwisatz Haderach that the Bene Gesserit had been hoping to breed–he just arrived one generation earlier than predicted. And in addition to his abilities to see into the future, Paul had been trained by his mother in Bene Gesserit mind-control; by his father in political intrigue; and by the likes of Gurney Halleck and Duncan Idaho, two of his father’s closest advisors, in hand-to-hand fighting, tactics and strategy. Once he is accepted as a Fremen, Paul leads them to take over Arrakis and exact revenge on the Harkonnens. The Fremen turn out to be even better warriors than the Emperor’s Sardaukar. Empowered by control of melange, the most important commodity in the galaxy, and motivated by their fanatical devotion to Paul as their Mahdi, they embark on a galactic jihad that makes Paul Emperor by the end of the book. (This latest movie stops well short of that, although there is another one coming out in 2023.)

Although Dune deals with interstellar travel, politics, warfare, ecology and a host of other topics, its central focus is religion–specifically, messianism. According to Herbert, however, while humanity in the far future has many religions, there really is no God. All religions are simply cultural mechanisms that allow people to deal with the vicissitudes of life, and/or rulers to manipulate the masses. If there is to be a messiah, mankind must create one itself. Or, in this case, one group–the Bene Gesserit–must do so. Humanity thus produces its own savior. (For the ultimate denouement of messianism, you need to read God Emperor of Dune.)

Paul Atreides as the Emperor/Kwisatz Haderach/Mahdi is very much in the Islamic theology and historical pattern of the last of those three roles. The Mahdi, predicted in Islamic traditions (but absent from the Qur’an), will be a desert warlord who eventually takes over the entire Earth by conquest. Paul Atreides, despite his best intentions, does the same thing, simply on a vaster scale–the entire galaxy. His jihad is said to cost the lives of billions. Actual Mahdis in Islamic history–Ibn Tumart of medieval North Africa and Muhammad Ahmad of 19th century Sudan the most successful–killed only tens of thousands. But these historical Mahdis had much in common with Dune‘s fictional one: fulfillment of prophecy via self-proclamation and -validation, military might unleashed, fervent devotees, and the seizing of political power as the solution to society’s problems. Muslim messianism does at least acknowledge a deity, unlike that of the far-future Fremen. But his “chosen one” is just another mass butcher, chopping up humanity to fit his dark designs–just as Paul Atreides does via his god-like, but human-created- powers.

Contrast that with the true once and future Messiah, Jesus Christ. He came not to kill, but to be killed. Salvation is thus made possible for every individual man and woman, not just the human collective. That’s because not only was Jesus sent by God. He was, and is, the Second Person of the Trinity. Not a desert warlord claiming to have Allah’s imprimatur. Nor a future political leader with godlike powers of prognostication but without a God. I love the story-telling in Dune and its many prequels and sequels. But that universe is ultimately a horrifyingly depressing one. Thank God we don’t, and won’t, live there.