Muslim Travellers: Ibn Fadlan
Allah has instructed us to seek knowledge, wherever that may be and it is a blessing for us to be able to do as such, looking to the inspirational travellers of the past for their wisdom. Today, we would like to find insight from Ibn Fadlan, a 10th century Muslim Traveller. As an Arab missionary, he travelled from Baghdad to Central Asia and more, where he documented the tribes and their customs. His brilliant works fascinated historians and sparked discussions, making him one of the greatest medieval travellers of the time. Read on and find inspiration in Ibn Fadlan’s life and travels.
About Ibn Fadlan
Aḥmad ibn Faḍlān ibn al-ʿAbbās ibn Rāšid ibn Ḥammād, was born in Baghdad in 879. Little is known about his private life, origins, ethnicity and education. Many assume Ibn Fadlan to have been of Arab ethnicity due to his birthplace and his name but even this is not certain.
Ibn Fadlan was known to be a ‘Faqih’ - an expert in Islamic jurisprudence under the Abbasid Caliph Al-Muqtadir who ruled from 908 to 932 CE. From 921, his work consisted of travelling as a member of the embassy of Baghdad. One of these tasks included working as a secretary of delegation to the king of Bulgars who requested not only help building a mosque, but also teaching the practice of Islam. At the time, the Muslim world was thriving and was well-known by many. Anyone who passed through a Muslim-ruled land would be able to notice its distinct optics and atmosphere; from the craftsmen, the demeanour and mannerisms of the people, buildings and even books and textiles that were deemed to be ‘Islamic’ in style.
His first task was to travel as an ambassador to the Volga Bulgarians, a Turkic warrior tribe which at the time was ruled by its first Muslim ruler, Almış iltäbär. The tribe existed in what is now European Russia. Initially the diplomatic party left Baghdad with the aim of spreading the teachings of Islam to the recently converted Volga Bulgarians, explaining the Islamic law and fiqh. However, the embassy was also required by request of the king of the Volga Bulgarians, in order to combat their enemies, the Khazars, another semi-nomadic Turkic tribe. At this time, Ibn Fadlan took the role of religious advisor and lead counsellor.
Travelling a total of 4000 kilometres and taking almost a year to reach Bolgar, the Volga Bulgar capital, the envoy travelled through many different areas and caravan routes, which he famously documented.
Ibn Fadlan chronicled his journey and today it stands as a legacy and an ode to his travels. His journey and his findings were documented on his return to Baghdad in his Risala. The anthropology consists of the rituals, diet, tradition and culture of the people he met along the way to the Volga Bulgarians, but mainly of the Volga Vikings. Whilst there are mostly factual and unbiased accounts from Ibn Fadlan in the Risala, some argue that he may have exaggerated in some places, particularly in regards to hygiene as the Islamic world at the time had necessarily very high standards of hygiene and cleanliness. His Risala are renowned for being one of the earliest narratives of ancient Russia, and have inspired many historians and even works of entertainment such as novels and films. With this in mind, we hope to provide some inspiration and knowledge about some of the places he mentions.
At the time of Ibn Fadlan, the Vikings were referred to as ‘Rus’, which can be seen in the Risala, and then went on to form the modern word ‘Russian’. The most memorable of passages in the Risala, focuses on the Varangians, with whom the Volga Bulgars traded. Ibn Fadlan took particular interest in the blonde-haired and blue-eyed ethnicity who settled in the region, and studied them with fascination - noted in his eyewitness accounts. The highly educated Ibn Fadlan came from a time when the Arabs were perhaps the world's most advanced civilisation, and the ways of the Varangians captivated him but also repelled him at times. One of the most notable instances was the burial of a Viking chief, where his belongings were divided into three parts: for his wife and daughters, for clothing for the corpse, and the remaining for the provision of abundant amounts of alcohol for the 10-day long funeral. The burial consisted of placing the deceased on a boat, as well as a sacrifice of one of the deceased’s female slaves. The boat was then set on fire and sent on the river. The tribe believed that upon setting the boat on sea, if the fire was strengthened, the deceased would be heading to Paradise. Other recollections of the Vikings appear in the Risala including the reputed sightings of Gog and Magog, in which Ibn Fadlan took more of a sceptical tone reporting them as merely legends.
The last part of the Risala has been lost and has been assumed to document his journey back to Baghdad and his later life. Portions of the Risala have been translated into English such as in the book ‘Ibn Fadlan and The Land of Darkness’, but not the whole Risala. The book serves today as an invaluable source of information about Central Asia and Eastern Europe.
Places Ibn Fadlan Visited
Following in the footsteps of Ibn Faldan will take you off the beaten track to places you’ve never even considered as a halal holiday destination. Though many of the places today are perhaps not the obvious top halal-holiday destinations, we can still take inspiration from his travels and explore different cultures.
Explore the Muslim-friendly holiday destination of Uzbekistan. Ibn Fadlan utilised the caravan routes from Baghdad to the ancient city of Bukhara. Bukhara was an important stop on the Silk Road for trade between the East and the West. Over 2,500 years old, the city has a lot to show for its once-known status as the ‘intellectual centre of the Islamic world’. The blue-tiled mosques, silk-road bazaars, and ancient caravanserais date as far back as the 9th century and still stand today for all to see and appreciate. The sacred atmosphere of Bukhara with its mix of cultures and civilisations has made it one of the most intriguing places of Islamic history today. Its historic center, containing many mosques and madrasas, is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. This, combined with an average warm temperature all year round, makes it the perfect halal holiday destination. Full of Islamic history and culture, Bukhara is just one of the cities in Uzbekistan with amazing sites to see.
The envoy reached northeastern Iran, which was a pivotal point from where they changed direction and continued northward along their journey, bordering the Caspian Sea to the Volga Bulgars. Iran is a religious and spiritual halal haven for many Muslims around the world due to its Mediterranean hot summer climate combined with the religious hotspots. The North of Iran borders the Caspian Sea and the beautiful Alborz Mountains where Ibn Fadlan and the embassy took route. The other parts of Iran are just as beautiful, with the majestic palaces of Isfahan, the intricately built mosaic-like mosques of Shiraz, and the modern capital and ancient history of Tehran. The most popular attractions in Iran are the mosques, ruins, and bazaars, whose history and culture are reflected in the architecture.
Russia is the location in which Ibn Fadlan became accustomed to the Khazars and the Volga Bulgars. At the end-point of the journey, Ibn Fadlan and the envoy taught the Volga Bulgars the principles of Islam and the correct rules and fiqh. Russia, particularly Central Russia, is popular with tourists from all over the world, who come to learn about ancient Russia and Russian history. The climate varies across the country, but on average the region is known to have hot summers but very cold winters. Central Russia is the most populated area of the country, home to the capital Moscow and is the best area in Russia for your halal-friendly holiday.
Whilst Russia may not immediately appear to be the most Muslim-friendly holiday destination, the Muslim population is growing in the capital Moscow. Though there are not many halal eateries, more and more are popping up around Moscow. Russia is even home to one of Europe’s largest mosques, the Moscow Cathedral Mosque - the intricately detailed mosque and its ornate design should not be missed.
There is even Islamic history to be seen in as small detail as the names of the streets in Russia, which go back to the times of the Golden Horde - when Islam was recognised as the official state religion in 1312.
Whilst Ibn Fadlan is not reported to have visited Turkey, he met many Turkish tribes along the way. Turkey is the perfect halal-holiday destination, attracting many Muslim tourists from all over the world every year. The combination of halal food, mosques, tourist sites and shopping makes the beautiful cities of Turkey, the ideal location for a getaway. Historic sites from the time of the Ottoman Empire and before stand tall, for you to explore and discover the spread of Islam across the world.
Be inspired and travel to an undiscovered, off-the-beaten-track destination for your next holiday. Follow in the footsteps of Ibn Fadlan to the countries steeped rich in history and culture, that will add a spark to your holiday like no other.