Author: walrondl (Page 2 of 2)

Ibn Fadlan and the Land of Darkness: The Rus

While Ibn Fadlan is in Saqaliba, he comes across a people camped by the Itil river called the Rus. In Saqaliba for trade, the Rus appear to be from the North. Fadlan first recalls their “beauty,” describing their appearance. Here he mentions race for one of the only times in his travel narrative. He says they are “fair and ruddy.” Then he talks about their dress, specifically their weapons, and then he mentions that they have tattoos and how their women wear expensive jewelry. After he is done talking about their “beauty,” he talks about their “uncleanliness.” From literal dirtiness to “disgusting habits,” Fadlan spends pages ranting about the Rus and their inferiority. He belittles their religious practices, describing Rus rituals revolving around slavery and money. He focuses on practices, true or not, that the Islamic world would consider immoral. For example, abandoning sick people, cruel and unusual punishment, sex-slavery, and especially sacrilegious burials.  

In Islam, burning bodies is considered mutilation and is forbidden, so Fadlan is extremely disturbed by this. He talks in-depth about the Ritual, about slaves and animals buried with their masters and about the burning of boats. He recalls that, when a man dies, an enslaved girl and all the man’s horses must be sacrificed with him, then they are burned together.  

Fadlan’s account of the Rus is most peculiar because of his contradictions. First, he says he “has never seen bodies more perfect than theirs,” then he calls them, “the filthiest of God’s creatures.” It is almost as if he wrote the former one day, and the latter, unfavorable entries, after he had learned of the practices and culture of the Rus. Sacrilege practices like tattoos or the indulgence of jewelry does not bother Fadlan until he learns that they burn their dead. Also, Fadlan is not bothered by the treatment of enslaved people or slavery itself, until he meets the Rus.  

The day-to-night-like switch of Fadlan’s stance on the Rus suggests that his opinions on peoples and cultures are heavily dependent on how they align with his own religious culture and values. Furthermore, how he portrays a group of people is reflective of how he wants other people to think about said group of people. Here with the Rus, he wants his audience to fear and dehumanizes the Rus –to “other” them. Fadlan does not want his audience to believe that the Rus are a civilized culture worthy to interact with, to trade with, etc. 

Ibn Fadlan and the Land of Darkness: The Ghuzz

Situated between the river Yanghindi and the city Jit, Ibn Fadlan encounters “The Ghuzz Turks.” He calls them nomads, rightly so considering he does not give the location where he meets them a name. He is mainly focused on culture and practices, rather than the people themselves or the environment and buildings. He mentions that the Ghuzz live in tents, but only when he explained the nomad way of life. One of the first insights on the Ghuzz Fadlan gives is their lack of God. Fadlan reports, “they live in poverty, like wandering asses. They do not worship God, nor do they have recourse to reason.” From the start of his account of the Ghuzz, Fadlan’s distain for the culture is obvious and centered around their lack of worship.  

Despite his disdain for their Godlessness, Fadlan regards the Turks as having very good hospitality. He says that “no Muslim can cross their country without having made friends with one of them with whom he stays and to whom he brings gifts from Islam.” He even reports that the Turks value their hospitality so much so that if a guest dies their host, is subsequently responsible for their death. It is interesting how Fadlan emphasizes that the Ghuzz, who are apparently Godless, favor specifically Muslims who “cross their country.” Fadlan is a devote Muslim and notorious for attempting to convert those he meets on his travels. This emphasis of the kindness of Muslim guests who bring their hosts “gifts from the lands of Islam,” is most likely an exaggerated interpretation of Fadlan’s to paint those who worship Islam in a good light and highlight the areas susceptibility to conversion for his audience. 

While Fadlan describes the Ghuzz Turks as hospitable people, he does not negate accounting all their ‘unfavorable’ customs. He highlights many customs that would be considered ‘sinful’ or ‘unclean’ by Fadlan’s readers. For example, the “taboo on washing,” “filth and immodesty,” “horse sacrifices,” and plucked “facial hair.” Not only does Fadlan highlight the customs that oppose Islam ones, but he also addresses the faulty of their legal system. He explains that when “pederasty” is committed both parties must be put to death or the perpetrating party must pay a ransom. Highlighting he inequity of the two punishments for the same crime and the arbitrariness of deciding between the two, reinforces Fadlan’s idea that the Ghuzz people are uncivilized and in need of conversion. 

Fadlan talks little about specific people in the Ghuzz, however he does talk about a king named Inal the Younger. He aptly calls the section, “A fragile conversion.” When Inal the Younger converted, his people, according to Fadlan, said to him, “If you become Muslim, you will no longer be our leader.” So Inal the Younger renounced Islam. Upon Fadlan’s and Inal’s next encounter with each other, Fadlan showers Inal with gifts and Inal gets on the floor and “prostrated himself before” Fadlan. Also, in this section Fadlan notes that his caravan came across an “ugly man, wretched looking… really ignoble,” when they were leaving Inal the Younger. Fadlan accounts that he gave the man a piece of bread in order to curb the man’s “violent cloudburst.” Fadlan’s record of events portray Muslims as very generous and benevolent people, and the Ghuzz as well-meaning but unknowledgeable and pitiful. Regadless if the events are true or not, the picture Fadlan painted of the Ghuzz would prompt a readers to believe these people are in need of saving by way of religion, specifically Islam. 

Ibn Fadlan And the Land of Darkness: Bukhara

When Ibn Fadlan arrived in Bukhara, he went to the amir’s minister, Jayhani: who is also famously the author of the lost text, Book of Roads and Kingdoms. Jayhani provided them with lodging and appointed a servant to carry out any of their hospitable needs. After “several days waiting,” Jayhani was granted a meeting with the amir, Nasr ibn Ahmed: who was either sixteen or seventeen at the time. Upon meeting Nasr ibn Ahmed, Fadlan immediately notices his lack of facial hair and his young age. Fadlan also notes that they “greeted him with the title amir.” Once they had sat down, at the amir’s command, the amir asked Fadlan about the caliph Muqutadir’s well-being. Then the amir directed his attention to the letter which demanded three things: to transfer the Arthakhushmithan funds, two letters, one that would guarantee Fadlan’s safe passage through Khwarazm and one that would provide Fadlan with an escort through the Gate of the Turk. The amir asks of Ahmad ibn Musa, recipient of the Arthakhushmithan funds, to which Fadlan says, “we left him in [Baghdad]. He was supposed to set out five days after us.” The amir wished Ahmad ibn Musa safe travels and then the conversation appears to end according to Fadlan’s record. However, Fadlan does describe the series of events that led to Ahmad ibn Musa’s imprisonment and subsequently, their twenty-eight day stay in Bukhara. Fadlan also talks about the “coinage of Bukhara.” He writes about how the Bukhara worth of currency is categorized and determined, and about what the coins are spent on. Lastly, Fadlan writes about the threat of an approaching winter that would halt their travels and how they had to leave Bukhara without Ahmed ibn Musa. 

I found Fadlan’s relationship with the amir to be surprisingly ingenuine. When Fadlan first mentioned Jayhani, he includes his occupation and his nickname, “The Venerable Support.” Yet, Fadlan first directly mentions the amir casually by name, without title. He then writes about the amir’s lack of bear and young age, assumably with condescension, since facial hair is a symbol of masculinity in Islam. Also, when Fadlan describes the circumstances surrounding Ahmad ibn Musa’s tardiness, it is unclear if the amir was clued into this part of the story or when Fadlan was made aware. It is also notable that while Fadlan spent twenty-eight days in Bukhara, staying in the house Jayhani provided, there was only one conversation recorded. Whether it be the amir’s age or how he worships or something else, Fadlan appears to look down upon him behind his back, while maintaining decorum to his face. 

Fadlan’s desire to continue his travels with safe passage through boarders is reliant on the amir’s letters. The amir is instructed by the Muqutadir to write one letter and give it to Fadlan and write another that would be sent ahead of him. The letters from the amir act as medieval passport and are necessary for traveling through warring lands. 

When Fadlan writes about the “coinage of Bukhara,” he is surprised that the coins are not weighed to distinguish worth and instead counted. He then explains the difference by giving examples of the things that are bought with the which coins. To explain how larger purchases are paid, he gives marriage doweries, property, and slaves. This part does not seem to be surprising to Fadlan. 


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