The Necessary Desert: Dune in Islamic Metaphysics

Frank Herbert’s celebrated literary hexology Dune is hailed by many as the most visible adoption of religious motifs in a literary saga. Focusing on the figure of the mahdi (The Rightly Guided One), also called lisan al-ghayb (Tongue of the Unseen) — at least in the latest movie, are all indications that Herbert, and the film adaptations of his world, pay tribute to deep spiritual motifs from the Islamic — read Sufi — tradition.

I must admit, humbly, that I am a late comer to this wonderful world of Herbert. As I write this blog, I have the firmest of intentions to read the books and watch the early cinematic adaptations, those released prior to the latest production, which I have recently watched and about which I will share a few thoughts here.

As I mentioned in the first paragraph above, there is much that can be written about the spiritual motifs floating on the surface of Dune, including most auspiciously the figure of Paul Atreides as the mahdi or lisan al-ghayb. But I find myself asking a necessary question: what would be the point for me to write about the obvious? Why should I not delve into those movements of meaning under the waves on the surface?

Even here, at a deeper level, there is much that can be spoken about, both in words and silence. In such cases, as a poet and writer, I find myself listening and awaiting for an idea to emerge from behind the ghayb (unseen). The only recurring image that turns and returns back to me in this nexus is that of the sahra’ (desert), that endless dune of sand, and its importance in the hero’s journey.

Some time ago, I witnessed a conversation between the Qur’an, Khalil Gibran and the video game Uncharted: Drake’s Deception. I had read Gibran’s short play of fiction Iram of the Lofty Pillars, which the author had begun with a cryptic reference to a prophetic hadith that I had not been able to find in the sources: “Some of my community shall enter it”, in reference to the enigmatic city of Iram.

Gibran’s play tells the story of a lady saint, Amina al-Alawiya, who traveled, as a child, with her father’s trading caravan into the rub’ al-khali (empty quarter), an unforgiving desert in the southern Arabian Peninsula. She is lost in the desert and enters the city of Iram, only to emerge decades later as a lady-saint who speaks of the unseen to two interlocutors, one Christian and the other Muslim.

At the same time of reading this play, I was playing the third entry in the Uncharted series, an action adventure experience telling the story of Nathan Drake, the descendant of Sir Francis Drake, who goes searching for the lost treasures left behind by his ancestor, along with clues, maps and all sorts of difficulties.

In this third iteration, Drake finds himself traveling — ironically — to the rub’ al-khali to find the city of Iram, also known in the biblical tradition as Ur. As he finds himself in the unforgiving desert, after his plane crashes, the heat and his thirst cause him to hallucinate and imagine water in a distant mirage. Eventually, however, one of his hallucinations materializes and he finds himself at the ancient doorstep of Iram.

Both of these creative mediums, a play by Khalil Gibran and Uncharted, emerged for me as a new tafsir (exegesis) of the Qur’an, particularly the verses concerning the city of Iram: “Have you not seen how Your Lord has done with ‘Ad? Iram of the Lofty Pillars” (89:7)

I often wondered about the wisdom of the divine response to the question mentioned here. If God is rhetorically asking what was the ultimate fate of ‘Ad, the tribe that lived in the rub’ al-khali, then a logical response would be the mention of punishment, as is the case in many other verses of the Qur’an. However, here we find something different, the divine response comes as the name of a city, Iram of the Lofty Pillars.

It is only after reading Gibran’s play and playing Uncharted that I began to wonder whether the divine question here is not ‘how’ God treated ‘Ad, but rather ‘what’ He did through them? And the answer comes unequivocally: He built — through them — Iram of the Lofty Pillars, a magical city that became the stuff of legend, to where saints travel, in the realm of imagination.

In the very mirage that Nathan Drake follows, in his own journey, in the steps of his ancestor is another divine affirmation in the Qur’an: “Or like a mirage in the desert, which the thirsty one assumes is water. Then, when he comes, he will find it to be nothing. Rather, he will find God there.” (24:39) The famed Muslim saint Ibn al-Arabi relies on this verse to insist that all things in this universe are ultimately a mirage in the desert of imagination, when approached, one finds them not to be things, rather only God behind the veil.

All of this provides us with the foundation to return to Denis Villeneuve’s most recent cinematic adaptation of Dune. Why must Paul Atreides travel to Arrakis, another unforgiving desert planet, in order to discover his destiny? He had already learned how to fight at home, and the visions had already inundated his nights. Yet, his journey is incomplete until he reaches the desert.

The desert, like its counterpart the ocean, is endless. Moreover, in this very endlessness lies both the jamal (beauty) and jalal (majesty) of both sand and water. They crush in their resoluteness and embrace, and both these emotions meet in the sand and water’s ability to lower our defenses. They overwhelm us into submission, to accept that we are in need of a higher power to guide us through such terrains, ones that only seem to culminate at the event horizon.

In “The Ship of Stone”, Claude Addas translates a fascinating excerpt from Ibn al-’Arabi’s Meccan Openings, where the Muslim saint describes his visions whilst visiting ard al-haqiqa (the land of [imaginal] reality). Therein, he saw:

A sea of sand as fluid as water; I saw stones, both large and small, that attracted one another like iron and a magnet. When they came together, they could not come apart without someone intervening, just as when one takes the iron away from the magnet without the magnet being able to hold on. But if one fails to separate them, these stones continue to stick to one another at a set distance; when they are all joined, they have the form of a ship. I myself saw a small vessel with two hulls. When a boat is thus constructed, its passengers jump into the sea, and then they embark for wherever they wish. The deck of the vessel is made of grains of sand or of dust, soldered together in a special way. I have never seen anything so marvellous as these stone vessels floating on an ocean of sand!

Perhaps more spiritual in its direction than Uncharted is the video game Journey by Thatgamecompany. This is truly a journey of spirit in Ibn al-’Arabi’s land of reality. You play as a character from the ether who surfs the waves of sand and gathers figments of luminous fabric in order to fly higher and higher. Traversing both sand and — actual — water, you eventually reach the summit, a mountain from which flows the water of life and light, where you at last disappear into enlightenment.

Paul Atreides could not proceed in his own journey until he entered his land of reality, where every speck of sand would assist him towards his destiny, despite all the difficulties and enemies that abound. Even the massive sand worms, that devour all in their path, stand as a sage to communicate wisdom to our protagonist.

The mystery of life isn’t a problem to solve, but a reality to experience. A process that cannot be understood by stopping it. We must move with the flow of the process. We must join it. We must flow with it.

Says the voice in one of Paul’s visions, and he comes to understand this through the unrelenting beauty and majesty of Arrakis. As I had written in my previous blog on Loki, this is the prerogative of tashbih (immanence) in the land of culture and the arts. It is as the divine says in a statement transmitted by Sufi saints: “My Servant, you want and I want, and it will only be what I want. So be for Me as I want, and I will be for you as you want.”

The desert of Arrakis, as God mentions in the Qur’an, is nothing but a mirage in the land of reality. As a formidable veil of tashbih, it is ultimately nothing but divine manifestations unfolding in intimate conversations with whoever is destined and chooses to step foot in it.

When you find your Arrakis, your rub’ al-khali and Iram of the Lofty Pillars, be ready to give yourself in its embrace, only then will it give you itself as eternal life.

“Whoever loves Me, I love them. Whomever I love, I kill. Whomever I kill, I am their Ransom.

Creative writer, aspiring musician and educator on the sacred dimensions of the creative process