Perception of the Vikings from Ibn Fadlan's glance in al-Risala

"Ahmad Ibn Fadlan met with Vikings in Volga Bulgaria. His chronicle called Risala includes detailed information and observation about them..."

Perception of the Vikings from Ibn Fadlan's glance in al-Risala

World Bulletin - Hafsa Orhan Aström

It is difficult to know exactly when the first encounter between the Northmen and the Muslims took place but the first well-documented contacts between them date back to the ninth and tenth centuries. One of the most famous providers of these written documents is Ahmad Ibn Fadlan.

Ahmad Ibn Fadlan was a tenth century traveller and chronicler from the Abbasid Caliphate. Furthermore, he was an expert in Islamic jurisprudence in the court of the Abbasid caliph, al-Muqtadir. It is known that in 921, with a group of officials, he started to travel to Volga Bulgaria. This was a Bulgar state which had control over the eastern shores of Volga River from the seventh to the thirteenth century. Islam was accepted by the Volga Bulgarians as the state religion in the early tenth century. This was also the main reason behind Ibn Fadlan's journey to the region - to assist this newly converted area.

Vikings were called “Rus”

Meanwhile, in the late ninth century, a group of Vikings from Scandinavia sailed across Eastern Europe. The basic motive which attracted them was the material wealth of the region. There, they founded the city of Novgorod and took control over Kiev. These Vikings were known as “Rus” by the Slavic people. The expedition of the Vikings did not stop at Kiev. They reached the Black Sea and Constantinople via the Dnieper River and then to Constantinople. A group among them formed the famous Varangian Guard of the Byzantine Emperors.

Ahmad Ibn Fadlan met with the Vikings in Volga Bulgaria. His chronicle called Risala includes detailed information and observations about them. The travel book of Ibn Fadlan became known first via quotations in al-Tusi’s book and then in Yaqut al-Hamawi’s book Mujam al-udaba (Dictionary of Writers). The most detailed version of his travel book was discovered by Zeki Velidi Togan in the Masshad Imam Reza Library in Iran in the twentieth century. The first Turkish translation of the book was done by Lütfi Doğan in 1954, whereas the newest version of the translation was done by Ramazan Şeşen under the title of Ibni Fadlan Seyahatnamesi (The Travel Book of Ibn Fadlan). If the translation of Doğan is taken into account, nearly one sixth of Risala is dedicated to the subject of the “Rus” people. Below, we will share some parts regarding the “Rus” from the English translation of Ibn Fadlan’s Risala. Our own assessments will accompany these passages.

Most important eye-catchers: apparent differences

It is important to indicate before anything else that Ibn Fadlan's immediate attention regarding these people with whom he had newly become acquainted mostly focused on distinct differences between their religion and culture and his own. This is no surprise since these differences are more eye-catching.

It is a fact that appearance is the first thing which draws the attention of a person about the other. Ibn Fadlan is not an exception in that regard. This is why his first sentences in regards to the “Rus” are dedicated to how they looked:

I have seen the Rus as they came on their merchant journeys and encamped by the Volga. I have never seen more perfect physical specimens, tall as date palms, blonde and ruddy... Each man has an axe, a sword, and a knife and keeps each by him at all times. The swords are broad and grooved, of Frankish sort. Every man is tattooed from finger nails to neck with dark green (or green or blue-black) trees, figures, etc.

These descriptions pertaining to the appearance of the Rus are followed by how the women look and what they wear, especially in terms of jewellery. Then the interest of the author shifts towards another direction: how these people live, especially in terms of hygiene. It should be reminded here that the point of view of the author regarding hygiene depends pretty much on Islamic teachings in which daily routines of ablution and shower after certain actions are necessary. This can explain the harshness of the following sentences written about them:

They are the filthiest of God’s creatures. They have no modesty in defecation and urination, nor do they wash after pollution, nor do they wash their hands after eating. Thus they are like wild asses. When they have come from their land and anchored on, or ties up at the shore of the Volga, which is a great river, they build big houses of wood on the shore, each holding ten to twenty persons more or less...

Ibn Fadlan's impression about the hygiene of the Rus depends on the circumstances of that time. The expressions regarding their general way of living end by touching on the issue of slave girls and how they are treated. It is possible that the situation of the slave girls triggered a comparison in his mind since women in similar positions in the Muslim world are referred to as those who are ‘owned by the right hand,’ meaning that they should be married.

Idolatry in Vikings depicted by Ibn Fadlan

Another issue which draws the attention of Ibn Fadlan is the rituals of the Rus performed after their conquest of a new land:

When the ships come to this mooring place, everybody goes ashore with bread, meat, onions, milk and intoxicating drink and betakes himself to a long upright piece of wood that has a face like a man’s and is surrounded by little figures, behind which are long stakes in the ground. The Rus prostrates himself before the big carving and says, ‘O my Lord, I have come from a far land and have with me such and such a number of girls and such and such a number of sables’, and he proceeds to enumerate all his other wares. Then he says, ‘I have brought you these gifts,’ and lays down what he has brought with him, and continues, ‘I wish that you would send me a merchant with many dinars and dirhams, who will buy from me whatever I wish and will not dispute anything I say.’ Then he goes away...

The description of such a ritual implies the non-pursuance of a monotheistic religion by the Rus. It must have been an interesting experience for the author to see it as a believer of a monotheistic religion which puts its main emphasis upon the worshipping of a sole non-material god, Allah.

Bury or burn the dead: the hottest issue in Vikings’ perception of Muslims

On the other hand, the longest and most detailed subject of Risala is how a funeral service, especially for the highest authority, is conducted among the Rus. This is also another aspect of a daily life where Muslims follow different conducts. Thus, Ibn Fadlan himself narrates a conversation highlighting the main difference regarding this specific issue:

One of the Rus was at my side and I heard him speak to the interpreter, who was present. I asked the interpreter what he said. He answered, ‘He said, You Arabs are fools.’ ‘Why?’ I asked him. He said, ‘You take the people who are most dear to you and whom you honour most and put them into the ground where insects and worms devour them. We burn him in a moment, so that he enters paradise at once.’...

In the end, Ibn Fadlan's Risala is an important source as one of the earliest written documents regarding the encounter of Muslims with Vikings in Volga Bulgaria. Based on the Risala, Michael Crichton wrote a fiction book called Easters of the Dead. The book was later filmed under the title of 13th Warrior. As a small note here, it is argued that Ibn Fadlan met with Vikings called Varangians in Constantinople and among them there were Muslim converts. However, there is no direct mention of such a group in Risala.

Last Mod: 18 Ağustos 2013, 14:29
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