When Arab Met Rus: Decoding the 10th Century Rus Vikings Through a Muslim Lens

Luke Daly

‘They are the filthiest of all God’s creatures.'

"They are the filthiest of all God’s creatures. They have no modesty when it comes to defecating or urinating and do not wash themselves when intercourse puts them in a state of ritual impurity. They do not even wash their hands after eating. Indeed, they are like roaming asses. They arrive, moor their boats by the Itil, and build large wooden houses on its banks. They share a house, in groups of ten and twenty, sometimes more, sometimes fewer. Each reclines on a couch.They are accompanied by beautiful female slaves for trade with the merchants. They have intercourse with their female slaves in full view of their companions. Sometimes they gather in a group and do this in front of each other." Written in the 920s by Muslim-Abbasid traveller Ahmad Ibn Fadlan, the above passage is taken from his Risala and is a first-hand account of his experiences along the Silk Road as a member of the Abbasid Caliph embassy of Baghdad travelling to the King of the Volga Bolgars. Whilst by Itil, Fadlan encounters the Rus Vikings, an ethnic group originating in modern-day Ukraine in the upper Volga region. In the ninth and tenth centuries, the Volga River was key to Rus traders exchanging furs and slaves for silk, silver, and other commodities available to the east and south. Thus, what can be identified from the passage is an insight into eastern Viking trade, society, and culture through a Muslim scope which is unique in comparison to the typical Christian contemporary sources of western Vikings.
When Arab Met Rus: Decoding the 10th Century Rus Vikings Through a Muslim Lens
Medieval Rus Objects

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When Arab Met Rus: Decoding the 10th Century Rus Vikings Through a Muslim Lens
Norwegian Silver Hoard including Arabic Silver

Ibn Fadlan’s account of his encounter provides a distinctive understanding into eastern Rus Vikings.

Ibn Fadlan’s account of his encounter provides a distinctive understanding into eastern Rus Vikings, and represents the prominence of trade in their culture. Archaeological evidence of Arabic silver hoards in Scandinavia demonstrates the extent of long-distance foreign trade in the east. Over 93,000 Arabic coins from the tenth century, for example, have been discovered in Scandinavia. Moreover, this evidence supports the acclaimed size of the trading parties Ibn Fadlan describes when he states there were several ‘groups of ten and twenty’. Large cemeteries surrounding trading settlements demonstrate the degree of mercantile populations. A prominent example of this is Birka which had a population in the tenth century of 500-1000 based on grave finds, meaning that Fadlan’s claim that there could have been up to 100 traders is highly plausible. Ibn Fadlan also writes that the Rus live together in a microcosm which does not seem to contain a social hierarchy: he does not specify any distinction between the houses erected by the Rus. In a later passage, he writes about a chieftain who is there with the merchants. If all the Rus sleep together, this suggests a degree of social equality within mercantile groups.
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Further cultural differences are expressed by Faldan when he notes the Rus Vikings as ‘the filthiest of all Allah’s creatures’

Further cultural differences are expressed by Faldan when he notes the Rus Vikings as ‘the filthiest of all Allah’s creatures’ regarding their lack of modesty when urinating, defecating, or having intercourse. Archaeological evidence in Anglo-Scandinavian York has demonstrated that Viking communities did live in unhygienic conditions which was the norm of Viking culture. This contrasts with Fadlan’s Abbasid culture of being a devout Muslim as he would have to wash before each of his five daily prayers, marry before having intercourse, and have modesty when urinating and defecating. It is noteworthy that unlike Christian sources, Ibn Fadlan does not use the term ‘pagan’ or ‘heathen’ to describe the Rus. Historically the Rus shared the same Norse faith as Scandinavia and would later adopt Christianity in 988 from Constantinople, therefore they do not share religious affinity with Fadlan. The difference between Christianity in the west and Islam in the east is distinguished by the importance of trade. Christianity primarily experienced pirates and raiding parties, whilst in the east, there was an economic and political advantage in trading along the Silk Road with the Rus. This meant there was a degree of mitigation regarding opposing religions, which is why ‘pagan’ and ‘heathen’ have not been used. This passage prompts the question whether Ibn Fadlan’s account is the most accurate source in understanding Rus culture, because of its lack of emotive bias, and due to the cultural differences expressed? In contrast to comparative Christian sources, Fadlan’s discussion of the cultural traditions, trading processes, and religious practices of the Rus is far more insightful in understanding Viking society than the ‘pillaging pirates’ the Danes are represented as in the west.
When Arab Met Rus: Decoding the 10th Century Rus Vikings Through a Muslim Lens

Luke Daly

I am Luke Daly, a Medieval Historian who specialises in religion and saints of the 1000-1300s. I am due to start my PhD in October but in the meantime am writing a book with Pen and Sword Publishing called ‘Sainthood: A New History of the Middle Ages through Saints and their Stories.’ I am also host of The Daly Medieval Podcast as well as being a sub-editor for The Historians Magazine.
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