Ibn Fadlān

My Muslim hero is Ibn Fadlān, a 10th-century travel writer from Baghdad. In June 921CE he set off as part of an embassy sent by the caliph Muqtadir to the Volga Bulghārs. This semi-nomadic Turkic speaking people were recent converts to Islam. Their leader had sent a request to the caliph for Islamic instruction and help building a Mosque.

Despite living so long ago, Ibn Fadlān’s account of his journey feels fresh and modern. I admire him because he made a great effort to understand what he saw and record it. His descriptions of those he met are a gift to us nearly a thousand years later. They remind us that wherever you go in the world, people are people. We are all part of one human race.

Ibn Fadlān’s journey took him to the point where the Volga and Kama rivers meet, a few hundred miles south west of the Ural mountains. On his way he passed through the land of the nomadic tent-dwelling Ghuzz Turks. This passage is typical of the level of detail he supplies about the peoples he met.

“No Muslim can cross their country without having made friends with one of them , with whom he stays and to whom he brings gifts from the lands of Islam – a robe, a veil for his wife, pepper, millet, raisins and walnuts. When he arrives at his friend’s house, the latter pitches a tent for him and brings as many sheep as his fortunes permit, so that the Muslim can take charge of slaughtering them, for the Turks do not cut the animal’s throats, they only hit the sheep on the head until it is dead.”

Readers with Northern European ancestry can only be fascinated by Ibn Fadlān’s description of one particular people. In the Volga Bulghār camp he met a group of Viking traders from Kiev. The writer thought they were very attractive, saying: “I have never seen bodies more perfect than theirs. They were like palm trees. They are fair and ruddy.” He was also appalled by their cultural and religious practices, commenting that: “They are the filthiest of God’s creatures. They do not clean themselves after urinating or defecating … They do not wash their hands after meals. They are like wandering asses.”

Interestingly enough, it is this traveller from Baghdad who leaves us with the only surviving eyewitness account of a Viking ship cremation. This is a form of funeral in which the deceased is placed in a ship and then cremated. Ibn Fadlān records the entire ritual, which includes the terrible death of a slave girl. The Vikings’ funeral customs were shocking to Ibn Fadlān but, most admirably, he gives them a chance to speak in his narrative. One Viking told him:

“You Arabs are fools! … Because you put the men you love most, (and the most noble among you,) into the earth, and the earth and the worms and insects eat them. But we burn them (in the fire) in an instant, so that at once and without delay they enter Paradise.”

The next time I meet people from another faith or culture, I will remember Ibn Fadlān and his objectivity.

Ibn Fadlān’s narrative is available in Ibn Fadlān and the Land of Darkness: Arab Travellers in the Far North, published by Penguin Classics.

Claire George
Media volunteer and originator of the ‘My Muslim Hero’ project

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