The Desert of Faith

It’s strange how deserts turn us into believers. I believe in walking in a landscape of mirages, because you learn humility. I believe in living in a land of little water because life is drawn together. And I believe in the gathering of bones as a testament to spirits that have moved on. If the desert is holy, it is because it is a forgotten place that allows us to remember the sacred. Perhaps that is why every pilgrimage to the desert is a pilgrimage to the self.—Terry Tempest Williams, Refuge

Somehow, I managed to make it through both an awkward teenage phase and a college wanna-be-intellectual phase without reading Frank Herbert’s Dune. I read all the other required books: The Lord of the Rings, Stranger in a Strange Land, Slaughterhouse-Five, Siddhartha. And I owned Dune–all three of the original trilogy. I displayed them proudly, and never got past a few pages. I knew it was about sand.

So, last week, when I was taking the requisite vacation time at the end of the fiscal year, I watched the newish Dune movie. And, since the movie was only the first half of the story, I finally read the book. It wasn’t about what I thought it was going to be about. Rather, to a very large degree, it was about religion. Specifically, it was about the way that a major religion arises in a desert landscape.

The most obvious major religion that Dune represents, of course, is Islam. Most of its names are Arabic, and the basic story arc of Paul Atreides parallels, in a number of significant ways, the narrative of Muhammad: a minor aristocrat in a barren desert is forced from his home, spends time among native people, becomes a ruler, gains a substantial following, and unlocks the immense power of a people who had traditionally spent so much of their effort surviving in a desert landscape that they never realized their potential.

At the end of the novel, Paul, like Muhammad, brings an irresistible force to the city that once forced him out and captures it with minimal bloodshed. He becomes both the political and the religious leader of a force that instantly becomes a major power. And the name that the Duneians give to Paul, Mahdi, comes directly from the name of a major eschatological figure of Muslim prophecy.

But the religious symbolism goes deeper. Dune is about desert religions, and Islam is only one of the major world religions that emerged in an inhospitable region. Zoroastrianism, Judaism, Buddhism, and Christianity are all faiths that were forged in the deserts of the ancient world. All of these faiths bear the marks of the harsh landscapes of their origins.

We can see the marks of the desert in some of the harsh laws that come from our ancient religions—laws that reflect the fact that everybody’s survival depends on trust, integrity, and a high degree of conformity. But we also see it in the value that these spiritual codes place on creating communities and caring for the most vulnerable members of the communities that they create. People can go one of two ways in the desert: they can become weak and selfish as they compete with each other for the basic resources of life, or they can come together and discover the strength that they possess when united by a common cause.

Mormonism, too, is a religion of the desert. Not in its earliest days, which occurred in forests and farms, but after the Latter-day Saints were exiled from Nauvoo, they, like the Israelites and the followers of Muhammad, took refuge in the desert. At the same time that the Latter-day Saint movement was making its most crucial transition—changing from followers of a charismatic prophet to members of an organized religious institution—its people had to learn how to survive in a desert.

Notice that I don’t use words like “conquer the desert” or “make the desert blossom.” Such language, as common as it is, immediately casts the desert as something that must quickly be changed into a non-desert thing before it can be useful. When we try to make the desert something else—when, say, we dam the great rivers and divert billions of gallons of water to create lush green lawns and recreational spaces—we are saying that the desert is not good enough as a desert. This, I think, is bad theology.

Mormons, Jews, Muslims, and Christians have all, at important times in their development, found refuge in the desert: Moses and the Children of Israel in Sinai, Muhammad and his followers in Medina, the Desert Fathers (and Mothers) in Scetis, and the Latter-day Saints in the Great Basin. These areas provided safety, usually because nobody else wanted to live there.

But deserts are more than just places of refuge. They have also been major creative forces for some of the world’s most important religious ideas. The religions that survived and thrived in harsh desert landscapes did so by compelling people to unite under a vision that unlocked their potential. The quest to immediately turn the thing that gave us life into something else seems, at best, counterproductive. At worst, it is a severe blasphemy.

The great test of a desert religion, I think, lies in how its people act when they encounter abundance. What lessons do they bring from the desert? Do they retain the humility born of scarcity and the communities built by hunger and thirst? Or do they—as so many do—keep the harsh law codes intact while forgetting about the need to protect the vulnerable? And do they still retain a theological respect for the desert and a profound sense of awe and wonder at the earth’s wild places and untamed hearts?


  1. Antonio Parr says:


  2. steffel says:

    It also fits that the 10 tribes that later became the Kingdom of Israel kept falling into idolatry in their fertile land, while the tribe of Judah, in its desert-like territory, did not.
    Marin Buber elaborates: Yahweh is a God of the desert. Unlike him, the local spring and fertility gods know how the land works. And they have to be made merciful, too, but without giving up Yahweh. (Martin Buber: Der Glaube der Propheten)

  3. Thanks. I’m sitting with this. From books and stories I recognize the idea of a group identity forged in the desert. However, and this is probably my idiosyncratic temperament, lessons learned in the desert feel like mine to hold close, not to talk about or form a group around.

  4. I really enjoyed he ideas that you were expressing and the concepts you are discussing. one thought that comes to mind is that in all of the stories your are describing, the one other thing that connects these stories, is that over time, things start to happen that cause a lot problems for those movements.

  5. “The great test of a desert religion, I think, lies in how its people act when they encounter abundance.”
    Ursula LeGuin’s book The Dispossessed, addresses a utopian desert society vs. a utopian opulent society, both have plusses and minuses. Not necessarily religious, but shows the contrast and interaction as it follows a character who visits the opulent from the desert. Good book – time to read it again!

  6. Natalie Brown says:

    I love this. I’ve been having similar thoughts about how wildfires near me compel coming together.

  7. Chadwick says:

    I recently watched the National Geographic Series “One Strange Rock” with Will Smith. It discusses on the show how the Saharan desert sands travel across the Atlantic to feed the plant life in the Amazon. So truly every ecosystem matters, even the seemingly dormant desert!

    So expanding your thought, so too can theses desert cultures/religions provide sustenance to other parts of the world. Should they approach this in the right manner. Unfortunately, it seems we often do not. We can do better.

  8. Not a Cougar says:

    Michael, what do you make of the apparent inclination of these desert religions towards mass violence and forced conversion once they leave their arid cribs (whether that be the likely mythical invasion of Canaan or the solid facts of the invasion of the Middle East and North Africa and the invasion and colonization of Africa, the Americas, and Australasia)? Did all of them simply fail the test? Or am I pushing the conceit past the point of utility?

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