Butlerian Jihad

The Butlerian Jihad is an event in the back-story of Frank Herbert’s fictional ‘Dune’ universe. Occurring over 11,000 years in the future (10,000 years before the events chronicled in ‘Dune’), this jihad leads to the outlawing of certain technologies, primarily ‘thinking machines,’ a collective term for computers and artificial intelligence of any kind.

This prohibition is a key influence on the nature of Herbert’s fictional setting. Herbert may have coined the name from 19th-century author Samuel Butler, who has the citizens of ‘Erewhon’ enact a prohibition on machines newer than 270 years fearing that, ‘it was the race of the intelligent machines and not the race of men which would be the next step in evolution.’

In ‘Terminology of the Imperium,’ the glossary of 1965’s ‘Dune,’ Herbert provides the following definition: ‘Jihad, Butlerian: (see also Great Revolt) — the crusade against computers, thinking machines, and conscious robots begun in 201 B.G. and concluded in 108 B.G. Its chief commandment remains in the O.C. Bible as ‘Thou shalt not make a machine in the likeness of a human mind.’ Herbert refers to the Jihad many times in the entire Dune series, but did not give much detail on how he imagined the actual conflict. In ‘God Emperor of Dune’ (1981), Leto Atreides II indicates that the Jihad had been a semi-religious social upheaval initiated by humans who felt repulsed by how guided and controlled they had become by machines: ‘The target of the Jihad was a machine-attitude as much as the machines,’ Leto said. ‘Humans had set those machines to usurp our sense of beauty, our necessary selfdom out of which we make living judgments. Naturally, the machines were destroyed.’

In the series, Herbert illustrates how the Jihad leads to many profound and long-lasting effects on the socio-political and technological development of humanity. The known universe is purged of all forms of thinking machines, resulting in not only a ban on the re-creation of similar devices (which remains in effect throughout the periods described in the original six Dune novels), but also a great technological reversal for humanity. The chief commandment from the Orange Catholic Bible holds sway, as do the anti-artificial intelligence laws in which the penalty for owning an AI device or developing technology resembling the human mind is immediate death. This leads to the rise of a new feudalistic galactic empire which lasts for over ten thousand years, until the rise of the God Emperor Leto II in 10,217 A.G.

To replace the analytical powers of computers without violating the commandment of the O.C. Bible, ‘human computers’ known as ‘Mentats’ are developed and perfected, their mental abilities ultimately honed to the point where they become superior to those of the ancient thinking machines. Similarly specialized groups of humans which arise after the Jihad include the ‘Bene Gesserit,’ a matriarchal order with advanced mental and physical abilities, and the ‘Spacing Guild,’ whose prescience makes safe, instantaneous space travel possible. Fringe societies such as the Ixians and Bene Tleilax eventually begin to develop mechanical and biological technology that, if not actually transgressing the commandments of the Jihad, at least come extremely close. Prohibitions spawned by the Jihad also include artificial insemination, as explained in ‘Dune Messiah’ (1969) when Paul Atreides negotiates with the Reverend Mother Gaius Helen Mohiam, who is appalled by Paul’s suggestion that he impregnate his consort Princess Irulan in this manner.

Herbert’s death in 1986 left his vision of the actual events of the Butlerian Jihad unexplored and open to speculation. ‘The Dune Encyclopedia’ (1984) by Willis E. McNelly presents an extended chronicle and analysis of the Butlerian Jihad. According to McNelly, Herbert and he were planning to expand this version into a prequel novel, but Herbert’s death two years later prevented the work from being completed. According to the Encyclopedia: ‘The name we use for the period implies an answer to the question: If we call those events ‘The Butlerian Jihad,’ we side with the historians who define as ‘great’ those individuals who move the mass of humankind in a new direction; if we use the term ‘The Great Revolt,’ we ally ourselves with those who see ‘leaders’ as simply the front rank of a humanity moving in the direction the masses determine.’

In this version, the Jihad is named for Jehanne Butler. Trained as both a priestess and a Bene Gesserit on the planet Komos, Jehanne marries Thet’r Butler late in life. Due to her Bene Gesserit training, a pregnant Jehanne is in contact with her developing fetus and knows the state of its health and development. After waking from the anesthesia given during delivery, she is shocked to be told that the fetus had been malformed and the infant therapeutically aborted. She later discovers through investigation that her child had in fact been healthy, but that the hospital director, the first self-programming computer on the planet, had been secretly carrying out a policy of unjustified abortions.

This discovery triggers further investigation into the extent to which such machines had been controlling society and altering the emotional and intellectual characteristics of planetary populations over a course of centuries. During the course of these investigations, the chief priestess of Komos, Urania, interrogates one of the chief computer engineers, Doctor G. Demlen. She observes that he is an arrogant and unrepentant man, and she is shocked to witness his pride in his machines. Urania tells him that his work violates the fundamental principles of respect for human life and is an offense to the worship of the Goddess.

‘At the mention of the Goddess, Demlen exploded in a fit of acid and honest outrage, and in his fury, after suggesting that there was more worth reverence in one of his machines than in the worship of ‘a supposed ‘goddess’ invented by a clutch of bucolic bumpkins on a pigsty of a planet,’ Demlen turned to the icon of Kubebe as if to spit on it. Before he could commit the act, Urania had killed him with her ceremonial knife.’ That moment of sacrilege was the beginning of the Jihad. The priestesses of the planet met that night, and the next day, the Jihad began to be preached to the faithful of Komos, against ‘the thinking machines and all who find their gods within them.’

Jehanne argues against it, knowing the horrors that a jihad would bring. In spite of this, she lets her name be used and serves as the jihad’s leader for its first twenty years. During this time, the battles are ‘planned and led by a tactical genius, whose concern for the lives of her soldiers and of her enemies is the dominant element.’ After her death, this element of the campaigns disappears. ‘The Dune Encyclopedia’ version was later declared non-canonical by the Herbert estate.

The ‘Legends of Dune’ prequel trilogy (2002–2004) by Brian Herbert and Kevin J. Anderson chronicles the struggle between humans and thinking machines that would eventually become known as the Butlerian Jihad. The series explains that mankind had become entirely complacent and dependent upon thinking machines; recognizing this weakness, a group of ambitious, militant humans calling themselves the Titans use this widespread reliance on machine intelligence to seize control of the entire universe. The Titans rapidly transition into cyborgs called cymeks; through the use of specialized interfaces, their brains are installed inside giant, mobile, mechanized ‘bodies.’ These fearsome, weaponized bodies make the Titans virtually immortal – and unstoppable. They later convert a number of subservient humans into an army of ‘neo-cymeks’ to enforce their rule over the universe, and this so-called ‘Time of Titans’ lasts for a century.

Eventually the Titan Xerxes lazily grants too much access and power to the AI program Omnius, which usurps control from the Titans themselves. Seeing no value in human life, the thinking machines – now including armies of robot soldiers and other aggressive machines, with the Titans as their commanders – dominate and enslave nearly all of humanity in the universe for 900 years, until a jihad is ignited by the independent robot Erasmus’s murder of Manion Butler, the young son of Serena Butler. This crusade against the machines lasts for nearly a century, with much loss of human life, ending in human victory at the Battle of Corrin. The Jihad also gives rise to the Bene Gesserit, the Spacing Guild, the Sardaukar army, the Landsraad, and even House Corrino, whose Padishah Emperors rule the universe for the next 10,000 years, until the events of ‘Dune’ and the ascension of Paul Atreides.

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