Ahmad ibn Fadlān ibn al-Abbās ibn Rāšid ibn Hammād (Arabic: أحمد بن فضلان بن العباس بن راشد بن حماد‎) was a 10th-century Arab traveler, famous for his account of his travels as a member of an embassy of the Abbasid Caliph of Baghdad to the king of the Volga Bulgars. His account is most known for providing a description of the Volga Vikings, including an eyewitness account of a ship burial.

Manuscript tradition

For a long time, only an incomplete version of the account was known, as transmitted in the geographical dictionary of Yāqūt (under the headings Atil, Bashgird, Bulghār, Khazar, Khwārizm, Rūs), published in 1823 by Fraehn. Only in 1923 was a manuscript discovered by the Turkic scholar of Bashkir origin Zeki Validi Togan in the Astane Quds Museum, Mashhad, Persia. The manuscript, Ridawiya Library, MS 5229, dates from the 13th century (7th century Hijra) and consists of 420 pages (210 folia). Besides other geographical treatises, it contains a fuller version of Ibn Fadlan's text (pp. 390–420). Additional passages not preserved in MS 5229 are quoted in the work of the 16th century Persian geographer Amīn Rāzī called Haft Iqlīm ("Seven Climes").


Primary sources documents and historical texts reveal that Ahmad Ibn Fadlan was a “faqih”, an expert in Islamic jurisprudence and faith, in the court of the Abbasid Caliph Al-Muqtadir.[1] It appears certain from his writing that prior to his departure on his historic mission, he had already been serving for some time in the court of al-Muqtadir. Other than the fact that he was both a traveler and a theologian in service of the Abbasid Caliphate, little is known about Ahmad Ibn Fadlan prior to 921 and his self-reported travels. One subject in question is his racial and ethnic identity. Both traditional historians and conventional knowledge have assumed Ahmad Ibn Fadlan to be Arab. However, based on certain aspects of his writing style, scholars have surmised that he may not have been Arab.[2] Unfortunately, there is no certainty on this point, and the writing stylistics theory is still currently hypothetical.

The embassy

Ibn Fadlan was sent from Baghdad in 921 to serve as the secretary to an ambassador from the Abbasid Caliph al-Muqtadir to the iltäbär (vassal-king under the Khazars) of the Volga Bulgaria, Almış.

On June 21, 921, a diplomatic party led by Susan al-Rassi, a eunuch in the caliph's court, left Baghdad.[3] Primarily, the purpose of their mission was to explain Islamic law to the recently converted Bulgar peoples living on the eastern bank of the Volga River in what is now Russia. (These were the Volga Bulgars; another group of Bulgars had moved westward in the 6th century, invading the country that today bears their name, and became Christians.). Additionally, the embassy was sent in response to a request by the king of the Volga Bulgars to help them against their enemies, the Khazars. Ibn Fadlan served as the group's religious advisor and lead counselor for Islamic religious doctrine and law.[4]

Ahmad Ibn Fadlan and the diplomatic party utilized established caravan routes toward Bukhara, now part of Uzbekistan, but instead of following that route all the way to the east, they turned northward in what is now northeastern Iran. Leaving the city of Gurgan near the Caspian Sea, they crossed lands belonging to a variety of Turkic peoples. One notable group he encountered were the Khazars, a uniquely religious khanate that was one of the few peoples to adopt Judaism amidst the surrounding Christian and Muslim spheres of influences. He also recorded his encounters with the Oghuz on the east coast of the Caspian, the Pechenegs on the Ural River, and the Bashkirs in what is now central Russia. All told, the delegation covered some 4000 kilometers (2500 mi).[5]

Ibn Fadlan’s envoy reached the Volga Bulgars’ capital on May 12, 922. When they arrived, Ibn Fadlan read aloud a letter from the Caliph to the Bulgar Khan, and presented him with gifts from the caliphate. The meeting with the Bulgar ruler, “a man of striking appearance and dignity, stout and broad, who sounded as though he were speaking from inside a large barrel,” left Ibn Fadlan “frightened and distressed,” since he was blamed for not bringing with him the promised money from the caliph to build a fortress as defense against enemies of the Bulgars.[6]

Volga Bulgars

One noteworthy aspect of the Volga Bulgars that Ibn Fadlan focused on was their religion and the institution of Islam in these territories. During Ibn Fadlan’s era, the Islamic religion had not yet been codified or frozen into formal modes of law, “…and the seal of finality had not been set upon further thought and development in theology or philosophy”.[7] As a result, many of these newly converted peoples in the Central Eurasian lands did not fully integrate or implement Islam to the letter or code to which Ibn Fadlan specialized in as a “faqih”. For example, Ibn Fadlan details in his encounter that the Volga Bulgar Khan commits an error in his prayer exhortations by repeating the prayer twice. One scholar calls it an “illuminating episode” in the text where Ibn Fadlan expresses his great anger and disgust over the fact that the Khan and the Volga Bulgars in general are practicing some form of imperfect and doctrinally unsound Islam.[8] In general, Ibn Fadlan recognized and judged the peoples of central Eurasia he encountered by the possession and practice of Islam, along with their efforts put forth to utilize, implement, and foster Islamic faith and social practice in their respective society. Consequently, many of the peoples and societies to Ibn Fadlan were “…like asses gone astray. They have no religious bonds with God, nor do they have recourse to reason”.[9]


Further information: Rus' people

I have seen the Rus as they came on their merchant journeys and encamped by the Itil. I have never seen more perfect physical specimens, tall as date palms, blond and ruddy; they wear neither tunics nor kaftans, 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. Each woman wears on either breast a box of iron, silver, copper, or gold; the value of the box indicates the wealth of the husband. Each box has a ring from which depends a knife. The women wear neck-rings of gold and silver. Their most prized ornaments are green glass beads. They string them as necklaces for their women.

Ibn Fadlan, on the Rus merchants at Itil, 922.

A substantial portion of Ibn Fadlan's account is dedicated to the description of a people he called the Rūs روس or Rūsiyyah. Most scholars identify them with the Rus' or Varangians, which would make Ibn Fadlan's account one of the earliest portrayals of Vikings.

The Rūs appear as traders who set up shop on the river banks nearby the Bolğar camp. They are described as having bodies tall as (date) palm-trees, with blond hair and ruddy skin. They are tattooed from "fingernails to neck" with dark blue or dark green "tree patterns" and other "figures" and that all men are armed with an axe and a long knife.

Ibn Fadlan describes the Rus as "perfect physical specimens" and the hygiene of the Rūsiyyah as disgusting (while also noting with some astonishment that they comb their hair every day) and considers them vulgar and unsophisticated. In that, his account contrasts with that of the Persian traveler Ibn Rustah, whose impressions of the Rus were more favourable. He also describes in great detail the funeral of one of their chieftains (a ship burial involving human sacrifice). Some scholars believe that it took place in the modern Balymer complex.[10]

World historical context

Ibn Fadlan’s journey and especially his accompanying recorded accounts of it, which were rooted in a mission of conversion and advisement, and highlighted by an adventure of exploration, has “left a unique geo-historical and ethnographic record of the northern fringes of 10th-century Eurasia”.[11] It serves both as a historical and ethnographical document that has been declared unparalleled in description and depth to which it explores the customs, societies, places, and peoples of Central Eurasia beyond the outposts of the Muslim world. Centuries before Rubruck, Polo, Ibn-Battuta, and Clavijo, his account surpasses theirs in his descriptions of the peoples and places of Central Eurasia, particularly his accounts of the Bulgars, the Khazars, and the Rus.[12] As a result, his accounts have been indispensable in the investigation and analysis of the history of the Vikings and the Rus, helping historians, archeologists and linguists clarify a traditionally unclear and gapped history. In fact, one historian who specializes in the history of Central Asia and Russia thanked such contributors and historians like Ibn Fadlan, who “"on (his) way (through Central Eurasia), let us hear and see and sense what once happened—and was past, otherwise irretrievably lost."[13]


There is some controversy with regards to the impact of Ahmad Ibn Fadlan’s journey to Central Eurasia and his recorded accounts. Some scholars contend that Ibn Fadlan’s journey and effort to establish and solidify Islamic law and religion in that region of Central Eurasia was a precursor to the theories about the “clash of civilizations”.[14] During this historical period, two new religious faiths emerged in the same region of Central Eurasia (present-day Russia)—Orthodox Christianity and Islam, which are two opposing religions and/or religious societies that conflicted with one another, and scholars suggest that because Ibn Fadlan was a main proponent of both the installation and development of Islam in that region, he is partially responsible for the subsequent religious conflict and tension that followed. However, opposing scholars characterize this theory as contentious, saying that it reduces complex histories into simplistic and antagonistic categories. Furthermore they state that Ibn Fadlan worked to counter any conflict or clash between two societies of peoples by foregrounding the ongoing and necessary negotiation and exchange of culture, ethnicity, language, and religion.[15] In effect, Ibn Fadlan was making cross-cultural connections, integrating those who were considered different or “barbarian” into the wider global world, ushering in a stronger political, economic, and social interconnectedness that broke down traditional borders and lines of distinction that would have otherwise fostered conflict, nationalism, etc.


Elements of Ibn Fadlan's account are used in the novel Eaters of the Dead by Michael Crichton (adapted to film in The 13th Warrior with Antonio Banderas as Ibn Fadlan), in which the Arab ambassador is taken even further north and is involved in adventures inspired by the Old English epic Beowulf.

A major Arabic TV series, The Roof of the World or Saqf al-Alam, (Arabic: سقف العالم‎), was produced in 2007 charting Ibn Fadlan's journey from a contemporary perspective. The 30 one-hour episodes tackle the relations between Islam and Europe at two moments: the time of Ibn Fadlan and the present. The motivation for the series was the 2005 Jyllands-Posten Muhammad cartoons controversy in Denmark.

See also



Further reading

  • Frye, Richard N. Ibn Fadlan’s Journey to Russia: A Tenth-Century Traveler from Baghdad to the Volga River. Princeton: Marcus Weiner Publishers. 2005.

External links

  • 3 (2000), containing "Ibn Fadlan and the Rūsiyyah", by James E. Montgomery, with an annotated translation of the part of the account pertaining to the Rus.
  • , 1990, Saudi Aramco World
  • Muslim heritage
  • Kroraina (in Bulgarian)
  • Richard N. Frye, "Ibn Fadlan’s Journey to Russia: A Tenth‐Century Traveler from Baghdad to the Volga River"

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