Arabic and Islamic themes in Frank Herbert's "Dune"

Those who are familiar with Frank Herbert's famous novel Dune will notice his analogy for the spice, and the surrounding struggle for it, with the crude oil of the Middle East. The novel is symbolic about the dependence of the West on the oil, and the power struggles to control this valuable resource.

But what is not so obvious to the average Western reader, is the sheer quantity of terms that Herbert borrowed from Arabic and Islamic culture, old and new, and incorporated them into his novels.

My first introduction to the Dune Universe was through the 1992 game: Dune II: The Building Of a Dynasty, sometime in 1993 or thereabouts. Later in 2000, I watched teh miniseries on TV, and rented the 1984 David Lynch movie. Much later, in 2017 or so, I watched a documentary about Alejandro Jodorowsky's attempt to make Dune into a movie, which never came to fruition, but was visionary for its time.

You will really enjoy this article whether you have read the novels, or summaries of them, or just watched 1984 David Lynch Dune movie, and/or the Dune TV Mini-series, or even played any of the Dune games.

In this article, I try to explain in detail where Frank Herbert got his names, concepts, and words from. This article is not meant to be a literary nor an exhaustive topical critique of the novels, which I am cannot fully do, because simply, I did not read the original novels. I have watched and enjoyed the movie and the mini-series, and read summaries of the novels. Instead, this article is a linguistic and etymological study of the major aspects of Dune as they pertain to Middle East, Arabic, and Islam.

I should note here that not everything in Dune is derived from Arabic or is of Islamic origin. There are other influences for sure. For example, Atreides is directly taken from Homer's Iliad, and is hence of Greek mythological origin. Vladimir is a Slavic name, and common in Russia, which was the Evil Empire during the Cold War era. The terms Tleilaxu and Axolotl seem to be from Meso-American origin (Aztec?). The Kwisatz Haderach is a Hebrew term. Also names such as Vladimir and Atreides are from Slavic and Ancient Greek cultures. Although these and others have different origin, it can be conceded that Islamic and Arabic themes are the ones that Frank Herbert used the most in his Dune series.

Also, Dune is not the only example of Islam and Arab culture in Western Sci Fi. Other examples of Islam in Sci Fi Literature are collected by Muhammad Aurangazeb Ahmed.


For those who are unfamiliar with the novels or the movie or the mini-series, here is a quick briefing of the setting: On the planet Arrakis, there is a very precious commodity, called Melange, or the spice. This commodity is only found on this desert inhospitable planet. The spice is necessary for intergalactic space travel. The powerful merchant guild requires it. An emperor controls the mining of the spice through two warring houses, the Atreides and the Harkonen. The native inhabitants of the planet are the Fremen, tribal desert nomadic people who know how to survive there. The emperor sides with the Harkonen against the Atreides, and Duke Leto Atreides, Paul's father is assassinated. Paul is exiled, then works up an alliance with the Fremen, and becomes their leader. He then leads the resistance movement against the Harkonen and the emperor, reclaiming his family's heritage as just rulers. There are many other details that I skimmed over (e.g. the worm, Shai Hulud, ...etc.)


Those who want to read more on Frank Herbert and/or his Dune novels can peruse the following links:

Islamic and Arabic Themes in Dune

What is not well known are the various Islamic undertones, and Arabic etymologies that Frank Herbert put in Dune. The purpose of this article is to try to list these themes, and trace them back to whatever Islamic concept there is (if any).

The following list is derived from the above linked Lexicon, with some of my own addition. I try to explain what the term means in Herbert's novel, and what possible Arabic or Islamic terms it was derived from, and their original meaning.

As per the request of a visitor, I added the possible Arabic origin, in Arabic text next to each title.

Term Arabic Etymology Comments
ABA عبا Loose robe worn by Fremen women: usually black. The term seems to be a direct derivation from the modern day term: "Abaya" عباية, which has been the Muslim female dress for centuries. The original term عبا or عباء is how it is referred to in the classical Arabic sources.
ADAB أدب The demanding memory that comes upon you of itself. In Arabic, Adab means "manners" and also "literature".
ALIA عالية علياء علية Alia is the name of Paul's little sister. Alia was the name of one of the many queens of Jordan under King Hussein. The name is the feminine form of "High above". Note that Tim O'Reilly states that Alia was a member of the prophet's family. He seems to mean Ali (masculine). Either he is mistaken, or Herbert was confused. Or perhaps Herbert meant it as word play.
AL-LAT اللات Mankind's original sun; by usage: any planet's primary. Al-Lat was a principle pre-Islamic goddess, equated with the Greek Venus.
ALAM AL-MITHAL عالم المثال The mystical world of similitudes where all physical limitations are removed. The term seems to be derived from mystic Sufi traditions. In Arabic it means "World of Similitudes".
AMTAL or AMTAL RULE أمثال A common rule an primitive worlds under which something is tested to determine its limits or defects. Commonly: testing to destruction. This could be derived from أمثال (Amthal) which in Arabic means "Proverbs", among other things.
AQL عقل The test of reason. Originally, the 'Seven Mystic Questions' beginning: 'Who is it that thinks ?' The Arabic word means many things, such as "mind", "logic", "reason".
ARRAKIS الراقص The planet known as Dune; third planet of Canopus. It seems to be derived from the Arabic word for "dancer", which derives from Raqs رقص with "the" prepended, making it ar-rakis الراقص. It seems that Herbert got the name from the star (not planet) Mu Draconis, which means a trotting camel, as well as dancer (masculine form).
AULIYA أولياء In the Zensunni Wanderer's religion, the female at the left hand of God: God's handmaiden. In Arabic, Auliya أولياء is the plural for Wali ولي which means 'an ally', and in some Islamic traditions means 'an ally of god', roughly translating to 'saint'.
AXOLOTL - Axolotl tanks are used by the Tleilaxu to breed Gholas. The name is for a salamanger, and is from the Aztec Nahuatl language, from "atl" meaning water, and "xolotl" meaning dog. It also derives its name from the Aztec God of Death Xolotl, who - according to myth - assumed the amphibian's form in an effort to escape exile, and was killed while such. See the Axolotl article in Wikipedia.
AYAT آيات The signs of life. This is the same meaning in Arabic, and used in the Quran often.
BAKKA بكاء In fremen legend, the weeper who mourns for all mankind. In Arabic, this means someone who weeps often, and in early Islam, it referred to those who cried out of piety, and fear/respect of God.
BAKLAWA بقلاوة Heavy pastry made with date syrup. In the modern Middle East, there is a pastry that is made with syrup, but only with sugar (no dates involved). It is made as far north as Turkey, the Levant, Egypt, and the Arabian peninsula.
BARAKA بركة A living holy man of magical powers. In Arabic, this word means 'blessings'. It can be used as an adjective for people who are pious, considered blessed, or can bestow blessings on others.
BASHAR بشار (Often Colonel Bashar): an officer of the Sardaukar a fractional point above Colonel in the standardized military classification. Rank created for military ruler of a planetary sub-district (Bashar of the Corps is a title reserved strictly for military use.) Also, one character in Chapterhouse Dune is Bashar Miles Teg. Bashar is an ancient Arab name that was in use at least since the first Hegira century. It is still in use today (e.g. Bashar is the first name of the current Syrian President).
BENE GESSERIT بني جزيرة The witch sisterhood, or class that Paul's mother belonged to are called Bene Gesserit. The phrase in Arabic means "Sons of the Island/Peninsula". The Arabian peninsula is often called "Al Jazirah" (The Peninsula). Also, the term "Beni" can mean descent from, or a village/town originally inhabited by a tribe/clan. However, an alternative explanation is possible, that the origin is Latin, and means "he/she will do well", or "it will have been well borne". Perhaps Herbert was playing with words, and intended dual meaning here, although I doubt it, since the Bene Tleilaxu share the same prefix "Bene", but seems to be inspired by Central and South American history.
BI-LA KAIFA بلا كيف Amen. (Literally: 'Nothing further need be explained.'). In Islamic theological discourse, it refers to an ancient dispute on the attributes of God (e.g. face, hand, ...etc.), and how different groups interpreted them. The traditionalists chose to accept them as is, 'without how'. The rationalists (e.g. Mu'tazili) chose to interpret them allegorically. The phrase Bi-La Kaifa means "without a how". This term is not used often in modern times, except in theological circles. It is amazing that Frank Herbert would be exposed to this term, and make use of it.
BLED بلاد flat, open desert. Could be derived from بلاد (Belad), meaning "countries".
BOURKA برقع Insulated mantle worn by Fremen in the open desert. In classical Arabic, Burqu' is any face cover, whether used for males or females, or even on animals (e.g. in some battles, the Persians used elephants. The Arabs used face covers on the camels so they would not be startled by them). In modern times it refers to women's dress. In Egypt, the Burqu' used to refer to a face mask wore by women when they are out in public. In other countries, such as Afghanistan (spelled Burqa in English), it refers to an all covering dress for women, with a net like area for sight.
BURHAN برهان The proofs of life. (Commonly: the ayat and burhan of life.) In Arabic, Burhan is 'proof', and was used by logicians and philosophers in dialectical debates to mean just that.
CAID قائد Sardaukar officer rank given to a military official whose duties call mostly for dealings with civilians; a military governorship over a full planetary district; above the rank of Bashar but not equal to a Burseg. The Arabic word means "commander" or "chief".
CRYSKNIFE - The sacred knife of the Fremen on Arrakis. It is manufactured in two forms from teeth taken from dead sandwolms. The two forms am 'fixed' and 'unfixed.' An unfixed knife requires proximity to a human body's electrical field to prevent disintegration. Fixed knives are treated for storage. All are about 20 centimetres long. In Malaysia, there is a ceremonial dagger called Krys with a wavy blade.
DAR AL-HIKMAN دار الحكمة School of religious translation or interpretation. In the 9th century, the Abbasid Caliph, al-Mamun established an academy for translation, and teaching and called it Dar al-Hikma, meaning House of Wisdom.
EL-SAYAL السيال The 'rain of sand.' A fall of dust which has been carried to medium altitude (around 2,000 metres) by a coriolis storm. El-sayals frequently bring moisture to ground level. The preposition "El" in Arabic means "The". Sayal is derived from the root, "to flow"
ERG عرق An extensive dune area, a sea of sand. In the Arab peninsula dialects, the ق letter is pronounced as a G (like in Game). The meaning is the same, and the plural is عروق.
FAI فئ The water tribute, a kind of tax. In Muslim law, فئ means land revenue from agriculture.
FEDAYKIN فدائيين Fremen death commandos: historically: a group formed and pledged to give their lives to right a wrong. They are special strike forces of the Fremen under the command of Paul Atrides. They are kind of kamikaze like force who know they can sacrifice themselves in their mission. I think this term is taken from the Arabic "Feda'yin", which in the 1960s was used for the Palestinian guerillas. The same term was used for Saddam Hussein's special guerilla type forces.
Note that the "k" is not the correct sound here, but rather the Arabic "hamza". Certain cultures do transform the hamza to a "k", at least when written, for example, in Indonesia, Mu'min (believer, faithful) can be written as Mukmin. Could this be another clue of where Frank Herbert got his terms from?
FIQH فقه Knowledge, religious law; one of the half-legendary origins of the Zensunni Wanderers' religion. The term is a purely Islamic one. It originated from "understanding".
FREMEN - The Fremen were modeled by Herbert after desert nomad warriors. This is evident in their tribalism, knowledge of the desert, code of honor, and more.
GHAFLA غفلة Giving oneself up to gadfly distractions. Thus: a changeable person, one not to be trusted. In Arabic, it means lack of alertness.
GHANIMA غنيمة something acquired in battle or single combat. Commonly, a memento of combat kept only to stir the memory. Ghanima in Arabic comes from the root GH-N-M, which means "to win", "to gain". Many Arabic proper names use this root, as in "Ghanem", "Ghannaam". If pronounced with a long "i" vowel, Ghanima could mean war booty. With a short "i" sound, it would mean "one who gained".
GHOLA غول These are manufactured clones of other people using genetic engineering techniques by the Bene Tleilaxu. The word seems to be derived from the Arabic mythical creature "ghoul" غول.
GOM JABBAR جبار The high-handed enemy; that specific poison needle tipped with meta-cyanide used by Bene Gesserit Proctors in the death-alternative test of human awareness. The Bene Gesserit witch threatens Paul with, when he is put to the test. Also, Alia uses a Gom Jabbar to kill her grandfather, Baron Vladimir Harkonnen. "Jabar" could be a variation of "Jabbar" جبّار, which in Arabic means "mighty" or "powerful", and in the form "Al Jabbar" is a name of God.
GHUFRAN غفران In the Tleilaxu culture members must be "cleansed" of all communicable sins and ideas after contact with non-believers (powindah). Ghufran designates a rite of purification. Ghufran is definitely Arabic. It means "forgivness" or "absolution". If a Muslim commits a sin, he asks for forgiveness from God, which can be called Ghufran (there are other terms, such as Tawbah توبة, ...etc.) One of God's name in Islam is "Al Ghafur الغفور" (The Forgiver). It is interesting that the term Sukuk Al Ghufran صكوك الغفران is the Arabic name for the Papal Indulgences in the 1500s whereby the pope "sold" absolution certificates for money to the rich.
HABBANYA ERG الحبانية A place name that Paul refers to. Habbaneyya is the name of a real district in Baghdad, Iraq.
HAJJ حج Holy journey. In Islam, this exact term refers to a religious obligation on every Muslim who is physically and financially able to visit Mecca once in his lifetime, and participate in the rituals with millions of other Muslims.
HAJRA هجرة Journey of seeking for the ZenSunni. In Arabic, Hijra it means immigration. In Islam, it refers specifically to the incident when prophet Muhammad immigrated from oppression in his native Mecca north to Madina. It marks the beginning of the Islamic calendar.
HAL YAWM ها اليوم 'Now! At last!' A Fremen exclamation. This term is used in many Arab countries today to mean "today".
HARJ هرج Desert journey, migration. In Arabic, this term means "confusion", referring to people running around aimlessly when a disaster strikes.
IBAD, EYES OF عباد Characteristic effect of a diet high in melange wherein the whites and pupils of the eyes turn a deep blue (indicative of deep melange addiction). Ibad could be derived from the Arabic word عباد which is plural for عبد meaning slave, or just person.
IBN QIRTAIBA إبن قرتيبة "Thus go the holy words..." Formal beginning to Fremen religious incantation (derived from panoplia propheticus). Ibn means "son of", so this could refer to a person who is the son of another person called Qirtaiba, author of these texts. Qirtaiba could derive from قتيبة a known author, or قرطبة referring to Cordova. Many authors in Arabic and Islamic matters hailed from this city, and had the title قرطبي or Qurtubi.
ICHWAN BEDWINE إخوان بدو The brotherhood of all Fremen on Arrakis. Ikhwan means brotherhood, and has been used in ancient times, such as Ikhwan al-Safa إخوان الصفا and in modern times as well, such as the Muslim Brotherhood political organization الإخوان المسلمون. Bedwine could be derived from Bedouin or بدويين meaning just that.
IJAZ إعجاز Prophecy that by its very nature cannot be denied; immutable prophecy. The Arabic term refers to a miraclous thing that cannot be immitated by a non-prophet.
ILM علم Theology; science of religious tradition, one of the halflegendary origins of the Zensunni Wanderers' faith. The Arabic word means "science" and "knowledge".
ISTISLAH إستصلاح A rule for the general welfare; usually a preface to brutal necessity. The word is used in modern Arabic (specifically Egypt) to mean land reclamation. It could also mean reform.
JIHAD جهاد 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 ofthe concept.
JUBBA CLOAK جبة The all-purpose cloak (it can he set to reflect or admit radiant heat, converts to a hammock or shelter) commonly worn over a stillsuit on Arrakis. In Arabic it refers to a flowing robe type of clothing, worn in many countries, such as Egypt, specially by graduates of Al Azhar university.
KARAMA كرامة A miracle; an action initiated by the spirit world. In Islam, it refers to a semi-miraclous act performed by a pious person who is not a prophet. If a prophet is involved, then it is a miracle.
KHALA خلاء Traditional invocation to still the angry spirits of a place whose name you mention. In Arabic, this word refers to empty spaces, void, ...etc.
KINDJAL خنجر Double-bladed short sword (or long knife) with about 20 centimetres of slightly curved blade. The term in Arabic means dagger, but spelled as Khinjar. The Kindjal spelling is used in the Indian subcontinent to refer to some types of short swords.
KHASADAR خاصة دار Quote : "The khasadars who policed all Tleilaxu frontiers and guarded the selamliks of the women". Khasadar seems like derived from Turkish. The suffix -dar means "in charge of ..." or "of the occupation ...". For example Selahdar سلاحدار means in charge of arms, khazendar خازندار means in charge of treasury, ....etc. Khasa خاصة means "private" in Arabic, so Khasdar means "in charge of privacy", alluding to "in charge of women in the family".

Selamlik is actually the men's quarters in Turkish/Ottoman cutlure and those affected by it. Selam is Turkish for Salam (سلام Peace, which is the Islamic greeting and Arabic word), and -lik is a suffix in Turkish meaning "of ...". The women's quarters would be called Haramlik, were the word Harem in Western languages were derived.

There are palaces in Egypt that still have the name Salamlek and Haramlek derived from the ex-Royal family (who were of Turkish culture, but Albanian ancestry).

KISWA كسوة Any figure or design from Fremen mythology. The Arabic word could refer to كسوة (kiswa) meaning "cover", referring to clothing for children, or covering for a religious building. It could also be derived from قصة (qissa) meaning story.
KITAB AL-IBAR كتاب العبر The combined survival handbook-religious manual developed by the Fremen on Arrakis. Kitab means book. Ibar means stories with a moral meaning.
KULL WAHAD! كل واحد "I am profoundly stirred!" A sincere exclamation of surprise common in the Imperium. Strict interpretation depends on context. (It is said of Muad'Dib that once he watched a desert hawk chick emerge from its shell and whispered: 'Kull wahad!'). The literal Arabic meaning means "every one".
KWISATZ HADERACH قفزة الطريق 'Shortening of the Way.' This is the label applied by the Bene Gesserit to the unknown for which they sought a genetic solution: a male Bene Gesserit whose organic mental powers would bridge space and time. Paul Atrides says that he is the Kwisatz Haderach, a super being. Several visitors to this site indicated that this term means "shortening of the way" in Hebrew, with possibly Kabbalistic roots, from "Kfitsat or Kfitzat Haderch". Kfitz means "jump", as in the Arabic root Q-F-Z قفز. So it would be قفزة الطريق in Arabic.
LA, LA, LA لا لا لا Fremen cry of grief. (La translates as ultimate denial, a 'no' from which you cannot appeal.) The Arabic word لا (La) means 'no'.
LASHKAR عسكر From Heretics of Dune : "Every time he left the inner worlds of the Bene Tleilax, Waff felt himself to be on lashkar, a war party seeking that ultimate revenge which his people named secretly as Bodal". Lashkar is a corruption of an Arabic word "Al 'Askar العسكر" meaning "the soldiers" or "a group of soldiers", and came to mean "army". It is corrupted in Hindi/Urdu to Lashkar. Here is a dictionary entry on etymology of Lashkar. Also compare to Laskhar-e-Toiba that came to media attention in Kashmir in recent years.
LIBAN لبان Fremen liban is spice water infused with yucca flour. Originally a sour milk drink. In Arabic, Liban is a gum from a certain tree that has aromatic and medicinal qualities.
LISAN AL-GAIB لسان الغيب "The Voice from the Outer World." In Fremen messianic legends, an off-world prophet. The term in Arabic is composed of two words. Lisan means literally "Tongue", and means "speaker". Ghaib (a more phonetic version of Gaib) means "Unknown" or "that which is not revealed", or "things that will come in the future, unknown to us know". One of the basic tenets of the Muslim faith, is the belief that God alone knows what is hidden in the future.
MAHDI مهدي in the Fremen messianic legend, 'The One Who Will Lead Us to Paradise.' Paul Atreides, the central figure in the Dune novel is the son of the murdered Duke, he is exiled with his mother, manages to escape, and after a confrontation with the Fremen, gains their respect, and becomes their leader in their struggle against the evil Harkonen. He is called the Mahdi. In Islam, the Mahdi ("The Rightly Guided One") is an all human Messianic figure, who comes to "fill the world with justice" after much of the opposite. The views of Sunni Islam differ quite a bit from Shia Islam on this, but they both at least agree on this part. Mahdi si a much more central figure in Shia Islam than it is in Sunni Islam, where the concept is often denied and attributed to legends and myths.
MAULA مولي Slave.
MIHNA محنة The season for testing Fremen youths who wish admittance to manhood. In Arabic it means "test" or "ordeal".
MISH-MISH مشمش Apricots.
MISR مصر The historical Zensunni (Fremen) term for themselves: 'The People.' The Arabic word means "Egypt", as well as "country", "land".
MU ZEIN WALLAH! مو زين و الله In this traditional opening for a Fremen curse against an enemy, Wallah turns the emphasis back upon the words Mu zein, producing the meaning: 'Nothing good, never good, good for nothing.' In Arabic, Mu zein literally means 'not good,' and wallah is a reflexive terminal exclamation, meaning "I swear by Allah". This term is used in slang modern day Arabic in some countries (Arabia and the Levant).
MUAD'DIB مؤدب The nickname that Paul chooses in the story is Muad'dib, and is the name of the desert mouse who comes at night in the moon light. Stilgar, the Fremen tribe leader says "Teacher of Boys". The Arabic term (Mu'adib), means "private tutor" or "teacher". It used to be that the Caliphs, the rulers of the Muslim world, would hire one or more Mu'adibs to teach their children various subjects. The practice seemed to be common for other strata of society as well. Although the English pronounciation of this word calls for a long "i", the Arabic word sounds like a short "e".
MUDIR NAHYA مدير ناحية The Fremen name for Beast Rabban. The name is often translated as 'Demon Ruler.' The term Mudir in modern Arabic means "manager", and is possibly derived from Turkish, and Nahya means district or place. The term is still in use verbatim in modern Iraq.
MUSHTAMAL مشتمل A small garden annex or garden courtyard. The Arabic terms means complex or compound.
NAIB نايب Paul meets with representatives of Fremen tribes. They are called Naibs. They are ones who have sworn never to be taken alive by the enemy; making that the traditional oath of a Fremen leader. This is an Arabic word نايب meaning deputy. The word is used today for members of parliament in Arab countries.
ONSAR AKHAKA ZELIMAN AW MASLUMEN! أنصر اخاك ظالما او مظلوما Better transliteration would be: Unsur Akhaka Zaliman Aw Mazlooman. In Children of Dune, Lady Jessica quotes this when a Fremen complains about the changing ecology of their planet, against her own daughter Aliya. The original is a saying of prophet Muhammad, meaning "Support your brother whether he is a oppressor or oppressed". When his companions say: we know how to support him when he is oppressed, what about when he is an oppresser? He replies: by stopping his oppression.
NAYLA نائلة Nayla is the name of one of the female Fish Speakers body guard of the God Emperor Leto II. The name is an ancient Arab female name, and also the name of a pre-Islamic Goddess in Arabia. In contemporary Arabic societies, both the masculine نائل and the feminine نائلة names are used, with the ئ sound made into a ي sound, and hence identical to the Nayla name.
OTHEYM عثيم This is the name of one of the Naibs. His name is derived from an ancient Arabic name, عثمان, a companion and third successor to prophet Muhammad, in its diminutive form.
PADISHAH بادشاه Emperor Shaddam IV has the title of Padishah. Both the Ottoman Sultan of Turkey, and the Shah of Iran used to have the Persian title Padishah, which means : "Chief ruler; monarch; sovereign".
PORTYGULS برتقال Oranges. In Arabic, oranges are known as "bortoqal". The name is derived from the ancient name of the country of Portugal which was Roman for Porto Callis.
POWINDAH - The Tleilax culture calls strangers Powindah. The name is derived from what Afghan unsettled nomads are called
QANAT قناة In Children of Dune, Qanat is an open canal for carrying irrigation water under controlled conditions through the desert. The is the same as the Arabic word meaning "Canal", e.g. as in Suez Canal قناة السويس. The origin of the word Qanat in Arabic is the straight shaft of a spear.
QUIZARA TAFWID ؟ تفويض Fremen priests (after Muad'Dib). The Arabic term Tafwid means "to delegate".
RABBAN ربان The word Rabban ربان is contemporary Arabic for a ship's pilot.
RAMADHAN رمضان Ancient religious period marked by fasting and prayer; traditionally, the ninth month of the solar-lunar calendar. Fremen mark the observance according to the ninth meridian-crossing cycle of the first moon. In the Muslim Lunar calendar, the ninth month is the month of fasting by the name Ramadan.
RAZZIA A semipiratical guerrilla raid. I have seen that term used to refer to the early Muslim battles in modern discourse. The word is said to have Arabic roots, from Ghazwa غزوة meaning a small scale military campaign or battle. In modern Italian, the meaning is "warrior expedition in strange territory for plunder" (thanks to Marco Calvani).
RUH-SPIRIT روح In Fremen belief, that part of the individual which is always rooted in (and capable of sensing) the metaphysical world. The word Ruh means soul or spirit in Arabic.
SARFA صرفة The act of turning away from God. The term is Arabic for "leaving" or "abandoning".
SAYYADINA سيدنا Feminine acolyte in the Fremen religious hierarchy. The title given to Paul's mother among the Fremen is "Sayyedina". It is said to mean "the friend of God". This is clearly derived from "Sayyed سيد", meaning "master" in Arabic, and a title bestowed on various classes of people, from noble descent, to religious clerics, to the so-called saints and holy men. The term as used in the novel is more masculine though!
SELAMLIK سلامليك Imperial audience chamber. The term was used for the part in a palace that can be frequented by visitors. It was used in Turkey and Egypt. The word seems to be Turkish in origin.
SHAH-NAMA شاه نامة The half-legendary First Book of the Zensunni Wanderers. There are real chronicle books by that name about the lives and deeds of Persian kings, most famously, that of al-Firdawsi.
SHAI-HULUD شئ خلود Sandworm of Arrakis, the 'Old Man of the Desert','Old Father Eternity' and 'Grandfather of the Desert.' Significantly, this name, when referred to in a certain tone or written with capital letters, designates the earth deity of Fremen hearth superstitions. Sandworms grow to enormous size (specimens longer than 400 metres have been seen in the deep desert) and live to great age unless slain by one of their fellows or drowned in water, which is poisonous to them. Most of the sand on Arrakis is credited to sandworm action. In Arabic, the name can be split into "Shai" ("thing") and "Hulud" ("eternal" or "eternity").
SHAITAN شيطان In Heretics of Dune, Sheeana insists on calling the sandworms Shaitan. This is the Arabic word for "Satan" or "The Devil". It is also borrowed by Hindi for the same meaning.
SHARIA شريعة That part of the panoplia propheticus which sets forth the superstitious ritual. In Islam, this refers to religious laws.
SIETCH سيق Fremen:'Place of assembly in time of danger.' Because the Fremen lived so long in peril, the term came by general usage to designate any cave warreninhabited by one of their tribal communities. It is worth noting the similarity between Sietch and "Seeq", which is one of the Arabic names of the ancient desert town of Petra, accessible only via a narrow passage. Notice the similarities in the structure, and the name.
SIHAYA سياحة - صحة Fremen: the desert springtime with religious overtones implying the time of fruitfulness and 'the paradise to come.' The term seems to be Arabic in origin, although it is had to say. It could be سياحة siyaha (wandering, tourism), or صحة (health)
SIRAT صراط The passage in the O.C. Bible that describes human life as a journey across a narrow bridge (the Sirat) with 'Paradise on my right, Hell on my left, and the Angel of Death behind.' The term Sirat in Islam refers to a passage between Hell and Paradise that people would have to pass on the day of Judgement. The concept is not exclusive to Islam, it is found in Zoroaster's teaching as well.
SOO-SOO SOOK! سوق Water-seller's cry on Arrakis. Although the Arabic word for marketplace is "Suk" or "Sook", the origin of this phrase is most probably Turkish. Street vendors there will shout "Su, soğuk su", meaning "Water! Cold water". Others will shout 'Suyu', meaning drink or juice. Thanks for Sven Holmstrom from Sweden for his blog entry, and message on this.
SUBAKH UL KUHAR صباح الخير 'Are you well?' a Fremen greeting. In modern Egypt, this is the morning greeting, meaning: "Morning of good things". Its correct spelling should be "Sabah El Kheir".
SUBAKH UN NAR صباح النور 'I am well. And you?' traditional reply. In modern Egypt, this is the reply to a greeting, meaning: "Morning of light". Its correct spelling should be : "Sabah El Nour"
TAHADDI AL-BURHAN تحدي البرهان An ultimate test from which there can be no appeal (usually because it brings death or destruction). In Arabic this means: "Challenge of the Proof".
TAHADDI CHALLENGE تحدي Fremen challenge to mortal combat, usually to test some primal issue. The word Tahaddi is Arabic for challenge.
TAQWA تقوى Literally: 'The price of freedom.'.Something of great value. That which a diety demands of a mortal (and the fear provoked by the demand). In Arabic and Islam it means : piety.
THUFIR HAWAT ظفير حواط The name could have Arabic roots. Thufar ظفار is a place in Yemen. It could be from ظافر Thafir which means "victorious". Hawat can be حواط or of similar etymology.
ULEMA علماء A Zensunni doctor of theology. The Arabic word is plural meaning "scientists", as well as knowledgable people, in both matters of religion and in worldly affairs. Singular is ALEM عالم.
UMMA أمّة One of the brotherhood of prophets. (A term of scorn in the imperium, meaning any 'wild' person given to fanatical prediction.) In Arabic, this term means "nation" or "peoples".
USUL أصول Fremen: 'The base of the pillar.' This is the name given to Paul by the Fremem Chieftain Stilgar. The Arabic root A-S-L أصل means "base". Usul is the plural, and is used for "basis", "principles", "methods" as well, like in Usul Al Fiqh أصول الفقه which is the science of principles of jurisprudence.
WALI ولي An untried Fremen youth. In Arabic this is the singular for Auliya (see above).
YA HYA CHOUHADA يحيا (يا حي) الشهداء In Children of Dune, Lady Jessica declares this call to a Fremen leader. It means 'Long live the Fighters!', the Fedaykin battle cry. Ya (now) in this cry is augmented by the hya form (the ever-extended now). Chouhada in Dune is fighters, and carries the added meaning of those who died fighting against injustice. This is a straight borrowing from Islam in Arabic, Chouhada (or Shuhada) meaning martyrs.
YA! YA! YAWM! يا يا يوم Fremen chanting cadence used in time of deep ritual significance. Ya carries the root meaning of 'Now pay attention!' The yawm form is a modifiedterm calling for urgent immediacy. The chant is usually translated as'Now, hear this!' In Arabic, Ya is a preposition before calling someone, like "Hey John" in English. Yawm is "day". Ya Yawm can mean "Oh, what a day!"
ZENSUNNI سني Combination of two concepts, Zen, and Sunni سني, which is the larger sect in Islam (about 90%). In Dune, followers of a schismatic sect that broke away from the teachings of Maometh (the so-called 'Third Muhammed') about 1381 B.G. The Zensunni religion is noted chiefly for its emphasis on The mystical and a reversion to'the ways of the fathers.' Most scholars name Ah Ben Ohashi as leader of the original schism but there is some evidence that Ohashi may have been merely the male spokesman for his second wife, Nisai.

Concubines and Polygamy

The ancient Semitic practice of concubines is used in the novel. Duke Leito Atrides has Jessica as a concubine, and Paul also has Shani as a concubine. Moreover, Paul marries Princess Irulan in addition to Shani as well.


Alia, Paul's younger sister is dressed in a head cover that is almost identical to the modern Hijab/Head scarf worn by Muslim women. In one scene, Shani wears an all covering veil reminiscent of what some Islamic societies usage to this day (e.g. Arabia).


Heath Sias, a visitor to this page, pointed out that Caladan, the original planet where the Atreides are from, may be taken from Kaledan, the legendary island where the Grimm brothers put Omar and Sheherazade in.

Heath further says:

It is interesting to note the similarities between the planet Caladan and the island Kaledan. Both are the names of their respective water-bound 'worlds', yet both stories take place in an unnamed castle within that 'world', located near a shoreline. There are also striking similarities between the characters of Paul Atreides and Prince Omar. Both are princes in their own right, coming of age, intelligent, and questioning. Both grow up in very similar environments and both then leave their homeland for a far-off world where they find true love (and a bit more in Paul's case).

I find myself intrigued. Was Frank Herbert's liberal use of historical, religious, and mythological reference purely intentional or the natural result of a well-cultured subconscious and a Shakespearean sense of plot device? I suppose, as you put it, "The final say is with Frank Herbert himself."

The inspiration of the Grimm brothers is clearly from the Arabian Nights, but this particular tale and this place is not mentioned in the Arabian Nights, and therefore, I cannot tell what the Arabic origin is. Perhaps Frank Herbert was exposed to this tale as a youngster, and this is where he got the Caladan metaphor from.

Translations of this article


This article has been plagiarised by some person in Utah's Indy Media web site. The URL is It was published on Monday May 31, 2004 at 11:23 PM. S/he even did a shameless copy/paste and left the original headings in there, like so:

Islamic themes in Frank Herbert's "Dune"
Submitted by Khalid on Thu, 2004/01/22 - 23:59. Culture | Literature 

Discussions on the web of this article

This page got on Google shortly after it was published here. Soon after, people started reading it and discussing it. Some have translated it too, as above. Here are some pages around the web that discussed this article:


Dune is the most prominent example of how Islam and Arab cultures are used in Western Sci-Fi books. As a closing note, it seems that Frank Herbert was familiar with the Middle Eastern cultures, and the religion of Islam. Most of the terminology he used is not in its proper place. This may be due to him not being thoroughly familiar with it, or due to poetic license and adaptation to suit his novel. I would also guess that he was exposed to Shia Islam, where the term Mahdi has much more weight than in Sunni Islam. One cannot rule out Sufi influence as well. Arabic terms are used in many places as well.

Please note that some of the above is not conclusive. It is mostly based on etymological analysis, and word/root similarities. The final say is with Frank Herbert himself, and since he is dead, we cannot know for sure what every word meant in his mind.




Thank you for your effort and a great article !

Thank you for your effort and a great article !
When I first read Dune I realised that most themes and names are derived from Arabic languague, although I don't know arabic, except few words like Shaitan, Jihad, Reis Ulema and Kitab

For example, in Bosnia common name for devil in is also "Šejtan" (Shaitan)...

But for the origin of "Gesserit" I also think that this has no etymological meaning, but just resembles the word "Jesuit", although as far as I know, Jesuits were a male order,
and its founder, Saint Ignatius of Loyola, was a soldier before he became a priest....
Well, reverend mothers are also some kind of soldiers..

Vladimir is indeed a very common slavic name, but his family name "Harkonnen" sounds very finnish to me, because many finnish names ends with -nnen...

And "Tleilaxu" and "Axelotl" sounds Astec, I agree...

Verses from the Quran and other Islamic and Iraqi references

I have had the pleasure of reading all the Dune novels. In the novel "Children of Dune" there is part where Stilgar, the guardian of Paul's children. He thinks of killing the children to stop people from worshipping the children. He feels afraid of being discovered. He quotes (with no reference from where the quote is taken) "And we put before them a barrier and behind them a barrier and covered them so they could not see" (the words are not exact. It has been such a long time since I have read the novel) This quotation is a translation from Surat Yaseen. It is recited by Muslims in exactly such circumstances.
I remember there was another quote from the sayings of the Prophet Mohammed (PBUHS)

There are many references that concern Iraq. The planet Arrakis is similar to Iraq. The Emperor Shaddam is similar to the former Iraqi pesident's name Saddam. Habbaniya is a place in Iraq. Also there is a dialogue buy Leto and Paul Atreides. The father, Paul, dissaproves his son's behaviour. He says "Moo zain" (not good). The son replies "Koolish zain" (very good). The words are in Iraqi local dialect.

I had a feeling that Mr. Herbert has written his novel for me.

Arrakis / Iraq

Arrakis is probably a phonetic variation on "Iraq". That would make sense, as it ties such an important location to the rest of the Middle Eastern theme, while disguising it enough to make it original. It also brings to mind the word "arid".


I just read your article and wanted to take the time to thank you for researching and posting this information.

Great article!

Aramaic, Hebrew, and early Arabic origins of Bene Gesserit

In Hebrew, 'bnay gesher' means 'children/sons of the bridge.' The BG serve as a liason or 'bridge' between one faction and another, and are most valued for their skills in politics and diplomacy just as the Spacing Guild is valued for travel and being a bridge from one point to another. The Arabic term 'jazirah' (especially close to Gesserit in its Egyptian pronounciation) shares much of the same meaning with the Hebrew term, serving as a land bridge. I think that the news network Al-Jazirah, while most likely making a geographical reference, could also mean a bridge between the news and the people (modern definition of media). Bother gesher and jazirah come from the Aramaic term 'gessar' meaning 'link'.



I found this page from Wikipedia. A very facinating and informative read!

I've always wondered what the Arabic sounding terms in the Dune books meant and if they had any basis in actual language. This page has made parts of the story alot clearer and given it all an even deeper meaning for me. Thanks!

It seems Frank Herbert made quite a few spelling mistakes, maybe some were done on purpose? The story is set in the far future and history has shown that languages often change subtly over the course of time.

Wow, great resource! Thanks

Wow, great resource!

Thanks for going into all of this!

I speak Hebrew, but unfortunately read Dune (for an English course in college) before taking any Arabic, so all I could recognize was Kwisatz Haderach קפיצת הדרך and a few of the Arabic-derived words with close Hebrew cognates. "Qefitzat Haderekh" is a term for a particular type of miracle -- when a journey that should take a certain amount of time miraculously takes much shorter, hence literally "a jump of the path".

In Hebrew there's a root רכש r-k-sh which has to do with 'property' and 'ownership', for instance רכוש "rekhush" is 'property' and the verb רכש "rakhash" means 'he acquired'. So I always assumed that, based on the fact that Hebrew ש sh is cognate with Arabic س s, Arrakis was meant to be something like الركس similar to Hebrew הרכש or הרכיש from רכש and signifying something like "the [place where the really valuable] property [that everyone wants is]", the property itself being of course the Spice.

Alam al Mithal

I first read the Dune books back in the '60s, and used to re-read them about as often as I did Tolkein.

Life lead me in many directions and I ended up studying Islamic, Central Asian and South Asian Philosophy (I'm now a doctoral candidate).

Going back to the Dune books, I was utterly amazed at how Herbert used "alam al mithal" to describe the transcendent realm where Paul goes to get his prophetic visions. "Alam al mithal" is a fundamental concept central to what is called the Ishraqi (illuminationist) tradition of philosophy in Islamic culture, including such pre-eminent names as Suhrawardi, Ibn Arabi and Mulla Sudra. Herbert's use of it is absolutely correct... but how did he know about it, and understand it so well to use it so accurately??? This is a fascinating question, because the illuminationist tradition is not very well known at all in the West, even in scholarly circles. In the West we know about Ibn Sina (Avicenna) and Ibn Rushd (Averroes) because they reawakened philosophy for Europe in the Middle Ages, but very few people are familiar with the names I listed above and their thought. Yet Herbert "got it right." So how did a San Francisco journalist know about the alam al mithal in 1965?


'Alia was one of the Prophet's wives. He married her when she was a young girl. If memory serves, her age was 12.


In the Zoroastrian 'Yasna', 'Padeesa' is used to describe a 'great ruler'. Also, as just about everyone knows, Shah means 'king.' Wonderful article, I've always sensed the Bedouin/Persian allegory, but this really spelled it out!