The analysis is about two Arab travelers who go to the “Land of Darkness” (the upper reaches of the Volga River) and assess the transformation in the region between 922 AD and 1161 AD. The story is about Ibn Fadlān’s journey from Baghdad, the “Land of Darkness” following the orders of the Abbasid caliph Muqtadir, who had directed them to take gifts and a message to a recently converted khan. The convert desired that his people were taught religious matters and to form a partnership with the Abbasids for protection against the Khazars, his strong Jewish overlords. During their journey, the authors encountered numerous things about the people’s culture and religion in the “Land or Darkness.” The authors had done with a different mission. Still, they learned a lot about the Arab culture and other changes, such as political and economic that happed during the roughly two centuries due to interactions with different people, including visitors.
The Author’s Perception of the People
During the journey, the author encountered different people he described as pagans and noted the differences in their customs, dress, and religious beliefs. The authors provided a detailed and objective description of the “customs, dress, table manners, religion and sexual practices” of the victims as the only eyewitness description of Viking’s way of life, especially death and cremation (Penguin). Ibn Fadlān described the way the Rus’ ways of life differed from their and other groups, especially Muslims, who lived in the region during the time. For example, in Bulghār encampment, he met the Rus, whose “dress, looks, sexual behavior, customs, hygiene – or lack of it – and religious practices,” he described vividly. He describes uncommon rituals, such as that of fornication on behalf of a dead person, with the sacrificed victim ready for her death. However, the author reveals some possible changes in the culture because the Rus has interacted with people from Baltic, Slavic and Finnish lands and had borrowed and integrated some of the local cultural practices into theirs.
Although the authors were shocked by the beliefs and practices of the people they encountered during the journey, they tried to understand their beliefs and culture. They acknowledged changes in the Arab culture in the course of the two centuries. Their view about the culture and its people was almost scientific due to the objective description of “food, drink, dress, manners, beliefs, customs, laws, taxes and burial rites” of the people. For example, Ibn Fadlān must have been shocked by Viking group sex and mixed bathing, but he recorded everything as he saw. He tried as much as possible to understand that the culture had changed, and it was important to refrain from things, such as getting Muslim women to veil. The Arab world and culture became a ground for major changes due to the interactions between the Vikings and Muslims.
Thoughts on the Religion, Politics, and Warfare of the Rus
The interactions between different groups that Ibn Fadlān had resulted in complex religious and political changes for the people during the time and long before. For example, when the Viking met with Muslims, two very different worlds, the outcome was multifaceted religious, political, and economic changes that led to the Islamic empire’s building. The authors indicate that the Rus were pagans with shocking beliefs and practices, mostly because they had not yet converted to the Islamic faith. Political relationships during the two centuries were characterized by warfare and conflict between different interacting groups. For example, Sviatoslov of Kiev destroyed Itil between the time of Ibn Fadlān and Abū Hāmid. Some of the Rus and Muslims’ interactions also resulted in armed conflict amid the struggle to control business routes. Besides, most Islamic empires emerged out of warfare and battles because Muslims believed in their God-given role to spread the religion across the Arab world and eventually the entire world. Regardless of the entitlement in the region, the authors avoided any subjective view of opinion about religion, politics, and warfare of the Rus and others.
Observation Regarding Economic Matters
The journey reveals a reality of economic activities in the region through which Ibn Fadlān passed. For example, he encountered earlier trade routes the Russian rivers, which he witnessed in Bulghār. In 922, the convoy met a Viking ship with traders, who were going on with their usual business operations, implying that at the time, trade was an important economic activity in the region. Any changes in their economic practices and way of life emanated from their contact with various other people from different regions that they interacted with and learned significant lessons from. For instance, by the time the convoy came across the Vikings, they had been in “contact with the Muslim world, both as raiders and traders, for more than a century” (Penguin). They had access to the Russian river systems’ markets, “opening routes from the Baltic to the Black and Caspian Seas and ultimately to the two richest markets for slaves and furs in the world, Christian Constantinople and Muslim Baghdad” (Penguin). The accounts reveal the existence of organized long-distance trade, such as in slave girls and boys, as well as in brocades, furs, and swords. The traders left the Islamic empire with eastern spices and aromatics, which they brought back home after trading their merchandise. The authors describe the existence of trade operation between Europe and the east, which traded mostly in Islamic silver that was exchanged for “furs, slaves, honey, wax, and amber.” (Penguin). However, by the time of Abū Hāmid, the currency had changed to the base metal.
Another important account of economic matters during the time was agriculture. The authors provide evidence of the fact that the people of the east engaged in agriculture, which provided the aromatics and spices that the Rus brought back home after trading with people for fur. They could access “pepper, ginger, cloves, nard, costus and galingale”, which became important commodities for an exchange through trade. Trade played a critical role in political and economic benefits because it enabled significant interactions between the different groups, learning and integrating cultural elements, such as dress and other beliefs.
Relationship between Different Groups
Various groups met during the two centuries and interacted greatly, leading to complex systems and ways of life for each. One of the interesting relationships in the encounter was based on gender, men, and women. The Muslims and others in the region were complicated, with evident subjugation of women. For example, women slaves received inferior treatment to men, including being used for the fornication sacrifice the ended in the death of the sacrificial person. The Rus practiced open “sexual congress of the Rūs with their slave-girls”, revealing a complex relationship between members of the two genders. The social status of women during the time was lower than those of men. Travelers targeted women for slavery and social subjugation because they considered them to be inferior to men. Men had the power and assumed the leadership of various aspects of society, including religious and political institutions.
During the travel to “Land of Darkness” (the upper reaches of the Volga River), Ibn Fadlān and, later, Abū Hāmid, encountered and wrote about what they among different groups of people, such as Muslims and the Rus, whom they described as pagans. The Abbasid caliph Muqtadir had sent a convoy to the “Land of Darkness” for the sake of a new convert, khan, who requested help with information on religious matters and to protect them from the Khazars. The authors witnessed weird cultures in the Arab World but regarded it objectively in their writing. Ibn Fadlān divorced his feelings or views from what he witnessed and wrote about, making is account almost very scientific. They respected the religious and political practices of the Muslims and the Rus. The events also include warfare and violence amid the struggle for power and influence in the region. Ibn Fadlān observed economic activities, including trade and agriculture, changes in a currency used during the time in exchange for various items, such as fur and spices. Finally, the account includes a complex relationship between men and women. The author learned about Arab culture and other changes, such as political and economic that happed during the roughly two centuries due to interactions between different groups.
Fadlān, I. (2012). Ibn Fadlān and the Land of Darkness: Arab Travellers in the Far North. Penguin