How Cultural Differences Led to Outrage between the Arabs and the Vikings

Jax Hudur

When the king of Volga Bulgaria converted to Islam to receive military aid from the Abbasid Caliphate of Baghdad, the Caliph (monarch) of Baghdad despatched a diplomatic envoy to explain and teach Islam to the new converts. The Volga Bulgaria were involved in a military conflict with the Khazars.

At the head of this diplomatic mission was a eunuch by the name of Susan Al Rassi. However, the group’s religious advisor and lead counselor for Islamic Jurisprudence was Ahmed Ibn Fadlan, a famous Muslim traveler and a member of the Caliph’s court as a diplomat and a Jurisprudence scholar.

Little is known about Ahmed Ibn Fadlan’s biography apart from being a famous tenth-century traveler and a member of the Caliph’s embassy. Nonetheless, in his chronicles, Ibn Fadlan provides one of the first and most detailed descriptions of the Volga Vikings (also known as Varangians) he met while on the way to his diplomatic mission to the Volga Bulgars.

From his account of the Vikings, he presents an intriguing insight into the Viking culture and beliefs. Ibn Fadlan was not only impressed by the Volga Vikings whom he had met but was also shocked by their culture and daily habits. Ibn Fadlan refers to the Volga Vikings as the Rus in his chronicles.

Ibn Fadlan was fascinated by the Vikings’ strength and physical appearance. He stated, “I have seen the Rus (Vikings) 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; they wear neither tunics nor caftans, but the men wear a garment which covers one side of the body and leaves a hand free. 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 fingernails to neck with dark green (or green or blue-black) trees, figures, etc.”

While it must have been quite a sight to see the Vikings, our Arab narrator was also dismayed by the Viking culture and how they conducted themselves. He narrated the Vikings’ total disregard for personal hygiene to his horror. He said, “They are the most unclean of all God’s creatures: they do not purify themselves after excreting or urinating or wash themselves when in a state of ritual impurity after coitus and do not even wash their hands after food..”

Ibn Fadlan was fortunate enough to witness the burial of a Viking Chief. Still, while it’s too graphic to relay how the Vikings prepared their dead Chief for the afterlife, Ibn Fadlan recounts an amusing cultural difference that didn’t make sense to the Vikings at all. He narrated how the Vikings regarded the Arabs as fools when burying their dead. Ibn Fadlan says, “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.’’’

While Ahmed Ibn Fadlan’s account of the Volga Vikings has inspired movies and novels, his description of the Vikings and the Viking culture remains an eyewitness first-hand account for academics and historians alike.

Do you think some aspects of our culture and daily habits would be shocking to people of other cultures? What are your thoughts?

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I write about history, politics and true crime. Not to mention anything else that takes my fancy or newsworthy. "No special talents. Only passionately curious." Albert Einstein

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