‘Dune’ Centers Islamic Imagery. These Muslim-World Novels Center Christ.


Can you imagine if Dune took place in the ocean instead of the desert? One Christian novel does.

With Dune: Part Two now in theaters, moviegoers are once again treated to the cinematic spectacle of Frank Herbert’s popular sci-fi epic. Less known is how his 1965 novel bears witness to the influence of Muhammad.

And even less known are the efforts of Christians to translate their Muslim world experience into novels that communicate the gospel.

“We tend … not to recognize how much Islam has contributed to our culture,” stated Herbert in a 1976 radio interview. “But we owe Islam enormous debts of gratitude.”

The American author blended many religious themes into his six-volume series but deliberately filled his sand-infused apocalyptic landscape with tribal conflicts, Shiite concepts, and Bedouin-inspired characters. Hero Paul Atreides becomes the Mahdi, mirroring the Muslim messiah-like figure anticipated at the end of the world. And as he wins acceptance among the nomadic Fremen people, he takes the name Muad’Dib, adapted from an Arabic word for “teacher.”

Their desert religion is called Zensunni , mixing Islam with the Buddhism Herbert eventually adopted.

Dune is often credited as an inspiration for Star Wars and its Eastern cosmology. But there’s similar world-creating literature by three Muslim-world Christian workers writing in the genres of sci-fi, contemporary thriller, and young adult fiction.

Each bears witness to the love of Jesus.

“As far as I am aware, this is the first time that violent Islamists, followers of Jesus from Muslim backgrounds, and science fiction have been combined,” said Steve Holloway, author of Pelagia. “Conveying an Islamic story arc is one of the key motivations for writing the book.”

Set 40 years in the future, Pelagia tells the story of Ben Holden, a special forces agent turned professor of particle physics, and Suliman Battuta, a medical doctor and leader of a clan of nomadic “seasteaders” who herd tuna in the South Pacific Gyre, stretching from the coastlines of Chile to the Micronesian islands.

Holden’s scientist wife is murdered by the New Caliphate, a coalition of land-based Middle Eastern nations who want her project data for their jihadist aims. After surviving a later attack, Holden takes refuge with Battuta’s floating community of third-generation Yemeni followers of Isa al Masih, the Quranic name for Jesus the Messiah. Their status as apostates sets them in search of freedom of belief on the high seas.

Imagine the Wild West in submarines, with the fate of the world at stake.

The science of the novel is within humanity’s grasp today, said Holloway, whose book won the endorsement of Fish Farmer magazine, which called it a combination of films Captain Phillips and Minority Report. Currently overseeing a sea cucumber project in Indonesia, Holloway, senior strategy associate for Frontiers, served 12 years in a Southeast Asian nation where his team nurtured a small underground church as they researched ocean farming for the government, before expulsion from the country in 1998. A marine biologist, he read sci-fi as a kid and loved the world of Dune.

Motivated to show how followers of Jesus from Islamic communities flourish best in their original environment, he wrote Pelagia for a general global audience—including Muslims—and depicts austere jihadis with sympathy. There are no “cartoon bad guys” in his novel.

“It is more Tolkien than Lewis,” Holloway said. “Secular reviewers say it has a spiritual theme that doesn’t get in the way of a good story—I take this as a compliment.”

Yet it does have a conversion story, something missing from Someone Has to Die, book one in a trilogy written by Jim Baton, the pen name of a veteran Christian teacher serving in Indonesia. But whereas the futuristic setting of Pelagia is a step removed from Holloway’s ministry, Baton is still involved in the nitty-gritty of peacemaking.

His nom de plume means “bridge” in Indonesian.

“A thriller novel is perfect for our modern world of terrorism,” Baton said. “But I describe jihadists as human beings who have suffered, long for justice, and want the world to be a better place—and, that God loves them.”

In Someone Has to Die, Abdullah is a former terrorist seeking to atone for his past deeds by defending the Christians who live in his neighborhood. During an arson attack on their church, he saves Kris, mother to Sari, which bonds their families together. But contra his father, Abdullah’s son is increasingly drawn toward extremism, later storming an interfaith peacemaking conference in Jakarta as a suicide bomber.

Just before the explosion, Kris runs toward the son and embraces him, pleading that he rethink and relent. Though failing, her sacrifice absorbs the blast and spares the lives of all others present. Abdullah, who remains a faithful Muslim, feels tremendous debt and takes in Sari as his daughter.

The gospel is woven throughout the story, as characters contemplate God’s compassion—a central theme for Muslims—and true peace, which, per the novel’s title, somehow requires the shedding of blood.

Baton did not originally intend to write a trilogy. But Abdullah and Sari’s story continued as current events drove him onward. In A Way Out of Hell, written after ISIS established itself in Indonesia, Abdullah searches for the terrorist cell targeting Sari and tries to nonviolently turn its members by sharing his own testimony. A Violent Light then follows Sari to the US, where she comes face to face with a version of Christian extremism set on eye-for-eye terrorism in response to a truncated understanding of Islam.

Someone Has to Die has been translated into Indonesian and has received the endorsement of several top Muslim leaders. Baton’s local reputation has been bolstered through his partnership with interfaith educators in teaching a peace curriculum to over 10,000 students.

“God’s desire is to heal Abraham’s broken family,” Baton said. “It is subtle in my writing, but I try to give Muslims a spiritual map to follow.”

But if Holloway channels Tolkien and Baton resembles Ted Dekker, Melinda Lewis was inspired by her namesake author of The Chronicles of Narnia, in hope that readers will find God in her writings. Her trilogy is an analogy of Jesus first in his pre-incarnate form, then in his death and resurrection, and concluded by his return at the end of the world.

All three volumes are set in Muslim-inspired landscapes.

Beginning her ministry at a Christian hospital in Bahrain, Lewis and her husband served in Afghanistan for ten years, interrupted by an expulsion by the Taliban in 2001. Her husband directed the nation’s eye hospitals, while she raised their four children and befriended local Muslim women. They now reside in Tucson, Arizona.

“When you live in the world of a desert, you long to see it revived and flourishing,” said Lewis. “Driven by the vision of Isaiah with the wilderness in bloom, my novels present the question, Who is God?

Written for older youth, The Queen of Bustaan tells how 17-year-old crown princess Yasneen fears the loss of her throne and is kidnapped while crossing the desert seeking an alliance from a neighboring kingdom. Through messages sent to her by ambassadors of a distant “Overking,” she finds her way only after an encounter with a mysterious gardener at an oasis, and eventually falls in love with the prince and unites their two lands.

The subsequent book Darzarada deals with racial tension amid palace intrigue, while The Book of the King witnesses the desire for love supplanted by royal restoration in an apocalyptic transformation, in which faithful communities revive by taking refuge in the desert.

Lewis’s main goal is to counter the themes of American culture. Each book, in turn, subverts the ideas of redemptive rebellion, assumed superiority, and romantic engagement. Jesus, in her allegory, forces no one to believe and stands ready to rescue all who call for his help.

But while Islam is absent from her trilogy, its ethos permeates the literary reflection of her positive cultural experience abroad. Lewis returned to America to find that Christians were slipping toward the same ideological tensions she and her husband faced among Muslims, yet without the redeeming social values that bind people together.

Her novels blend Christ with Afghanistan and Arabia.

“There are challenges in the Muslim world, but there is much good,” said Lewis. “We can learn a lot from them; I hope this carries through.”

Each author, in their unique way, is living out the advice offered by a grandfather of the genre. Born a Muslim in 1935, Mazhar Mallouhi believed in Jesus in 1959 as an accomplished Syrian poet and short story novelist. His reading of Tolstoy and Dostoevsky primed him for the message of the gospel, and, already adept at writing of human suffering, he thereafter found Christ present in the ordinary people he continued to chronicle.

Art must imitate life, he believes.

“Live with the people, learn their lives, and write what you feel,” said Mallouhi. “Then people will grasp the value of your book.”

Mallouhi eventually became a controversial figure for efforts to make the gospel culturally sensible for Muslims. Having once been counseled by missionaries to adopt a Christian name, he credited Frontiers founder Greg Livingstone with helping him discover winsome ways to honor both Christ and his inherited religious culture.

Mallouhi now counsels Muslim-background believers to remain in their sectarian community as they live wisely and witness to their orthodox theology. His Arabic books An Eastern Reading of the Gospel of Luke and A Sufi Reading of the Gospel of John represent an example, presented in classic calligraphy to draw in curious Muslims through familiar norms.

But earlier, his literary output included the Arabic titles The Traveller, weaving a fictional story to tell his own journey to God; Lost in the City, recasting the sinful woman saved by Jesus in John 8; and The Long Night, of freedom fighters during the Syrian struggle against colonialism to reflect the difference between an inherited and personal faith.

Published in Lebanon, his books are popular especially in Syria and Tunisia.

“Arabs tell stories to convey a point,” Mallouhi said. “My characters are Muslims, and some follow Christ.”

But in Dune, Herbert’s message presents religion largely as a dangerous sham. The Bene Gesserit are a female order of Jesuit-like spiritists who implant messianic myths among the peoples of the empire. Atreides plays into their prophetic expectations of the Mahdi to strengthen his position against his foes. And once he assumes the position of emperor, sequels reveal his struggle against the religious fervency he once cultivated now that he has become an autocratic king.

Lewis instead gives readers a “Gardener King”; Baton, a sacrificial peacemaker. And the hero of Holloway’s novel is less the swashbuckling American soldier and more the persecuted sea farmer whose only ambition, per 1 Thessalonians 4:11, is to lead a quiet life.

And these are lessons that speak to all.

“My book addresses the question of identity,” said Holloway. “That everyone needs Jesus—Muslims, Buddhists, and especially Christians.”





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