A Viking funeral on the Volga
Ahmad ibn Fadlan was a faqih, an expert in Islamic jurisprudence, who accompanied an embassy dispatched in 921 by the Abbasid caliph to the Bulgars who lived along the river Volga, in today’s Russia. The Volga Bulgars had only recently been converted to Islam and the purpose of the mission was to explain the tenets of the faith and to instruct them in the proper ritual. This was why Ibn Fadlan came along.
The embassy encountered many interesting peoples along the way, but it is Ibn Fadlan’s account of the Vikings which is most famous. In the tenth century, Vikings from today’s Sweden relied on the rivers of Russia to travel and to trade; their commercial contacts reached as far as Constantinople, Baghdad and the Silk Road. Ibn Fadlan was both fascinated and horrified by these people. “I have never seen more perfect physiques than theirs,” he insisted – they are “fair and reddish” and tall “like palm trees,” and tattooed “from the tip of his toes to his neck.” Yet they were also ignorant of God, disgusting in their habits and devoid of any sense of personal hygiene.
Ibn Fadlan went on to describe a Viking funeral which he personally had witnessed. First the dead chieftain was placed in a boat, together with his swords and possessions, then a number of cows, horses, dogs and cockerels were sacrificed. Finally, a slave girl was dressed up as his bride and ritually raped by all the warriors. She too was placed on the funeral pyre, while the members of the tribe banged on their shields so as to drown out her screams. The boat was then set alight.
In 2007, a Syrian TV station produced a drama series based on Ibn Fadlan’s account. The background was the controversy stirred up when Jyllands-Posten, a Danish newspaper, published cartoons of the prophet Muhammad which many Muslims regarded as offensive. The publication led to diplomatic protests, a boycott of Danish goods and to demonstrations and rioting in several Muslim countries in which some 200 people were killed. It is easy to see why Ibn Fadlan’s account might appeal to an Arab audience of TV viewers. He was a sophisticated intellectual, of urbane tastes and refined manners, and the Scandinavians he encountered were little more than savages. The task of today’s Muslims too is to explain the true meaning of Islam to Europeans, and perhaps to Scandinavians in particular.