Arabic Language Blog

Ibn Fadlān: Meet a World-Class International Arab Man of Mystery Posted by on Jan 27, 2012 in Arabic Language, Culture, Vocabulary

Way before the world had the pleasure of being introduced to Google Earth, the iPhone, Wikipedia, the GPS, and other technological niceties, people’s best shot at learning about far away nations was through the dispatch of intrepid explorers, who would then pave the way to diplomatic special envoys, ultimately followed by full-fledged ambassadors.

Today, you’ll be pleased to meet Mister Ibn Fadlān (ابن فَضْـــــــــــــــلان), an “International Man of Mystery” in his own right, who combined the rare qualities of being both رَحَّـــــــــــــــــــالةٌ جَــــــــــرِيء (an intrepid traveler) and “دبلوماســـــــــــي مُحَنَّـــــــــك” (a skillful diplomat.)

His larger-than-life adventures left a score of European and American scholars utterly speechless with admiration, and were among many other things the inspirational basis for a Michael Crichton best-seller and an epic Hollywood motion picture starring Antonio Banderas (as “The 13th Warrior.“)

The Oriental-style مُوسِيقَــــــــــى تَصْوِيرِيــــــــــة (soundtrack) of “The 13th Warrior” was composed by the late Jerry Goldsmith (also known for his work in the “Rambo” trilogy and the “Star Trek” films, among countless box-office hits.) The theme was to be featured again in Ridley Scott’s “Kindom of Heaven“—Two movies which remarkably broke with the age-old Hollywood tradition of portraying purely stereotypical images of Arabs (the “reel bad Arabs“, as coined by Professor Jack Shaheen)    

To have some kind of idea about this “International Arab Man of Mystery”, and the era he enjoyed living in, let us jump counterclockwise in time.

Let us roll back some 11 centuries in the past.

The time when the Arab Abbasid Caliphate (الخِـــــــــــــــــلافة العَبَّــــــــــــــــاسِيــــــــــــــــة) still reigned supreme over a large part of the world.

Baghdad, the capital city founded by the Abassids in a hot Summer day of the year 762 AD, quickly grew into the epicenter of الثَّقَــــــــــافَـــــــــــة والحَضــــــــــــــارة العَربِيَّتَيــــــــــــــن (Arabic culture and civilization.)

In spite of a rather bloody inception of their Caliphate (some would say “precisely because” of it) at the expense of their Umayyad predecessors, the Abbasid leaders came to appreciate the utmost importance of diplomacy in the conduct of world affairs:

  • On the East, they established several strategic alliances with الصِّــــــــــــــــــــين (China), which proved crucially decisive in China’s own domestic issues (as with the An Lushan 8-year major revolt, defeated thanks to the support of the Abbasids.)
  • On the West, Hārūn al-Rashīd, the legendary Caliph immortalized in  ألف ليلـــــــــــــــــــــــــة وليلـــــــــــــــــــــــــة  (“The One Thousand and One Nights”, aka the Arabian Nights), concluded equally important treaties of friendship and alliance with Charlemagne, whose Holy-Empire at the time had very little to envy the current European Union… Such strategic treaties sealed between the Muslim Caliph and the French Emperor preempted any wild ideas of launching any “War on Terror-type” Crusades for at least 200 years, as they safeguarded Christians hailing from the four corners of Europe in their trade with (and travels to) the Holy Land.

Although details of his life remain shrouded in mystery, we know that young Ibn Fadlan “cut his teeth” in one of those Arab military expeditions sent by the Abbasids in support of their allies, the Chinese Tang Dynasty.

His intellectual and diplomatic acumen earned him the respect and admiration of the Caliph Al-Muqtadir, who made him a personal protégé.

In comparison to the previous Abbassid rulers, the Caliph Dja’far (the name “Muqtadir“, or “Mighty by the help of the Lord”, being only his title, as “The Great” in “Peter the Great”, or “The Sun King” for Louis XIV) was a rather weak leader.

His rulership was in fact نُقطةٌ حَرِجَــــــة (“a critical point”, as in the mathematical sense of derivatives) in the history of the Abbasids.   

He easily fell prey to the deceptive intrigues of foreign elements within his court, and ignored at his own peril the contemporary works of brilliant intellectuals living in the Caliphate, such as الفــــــــــــارابــــــــي‎‎ ‎‎ (Al-Farabi), the world-renown mathematician who authored “آراء أهل المديـــــــــــــــنة الفاضلــــــــــة ومضاداتهـــــــــــــا“, translated in English as “The Virtuous City“, widely perceived as an Islamic equivalent of Plato’s Republic.

At any rate, diplomacy became increasingly vital of an instrument to check the Bulgars in the north. That is how it was decided that Ibn Fadlan would take part in the diplomatic mission headed by the Abbasid ambassador نذيــــــر الحُرَمــــــي (Nadhir Al-Hurami) to the State of Volga Bulgaria, in what is today the southeastern part of European Russia, which would embrace Islam around the same time. 

The mission eventually led Ibn Fadlan further up north, where he would meet and befriend people he called al-Rus’: Vikings who came all the way from Scandinavia and the Baltic region, and who started settling in the area some 50 years before Ibn Fadlan’s field trip would bring him there.

Those Norsemen are often referred to as the Varangians, who were to found a dynasty that was destined to last to almost the turn of the 17th century.

In a way, Ibn Fadlan had met the “founding fathers” of today’s Russia, and was the first to offer the world a historically accurate written account of them.

In “The 13th Warrior“, the 1999 Hollywood adaptation of Michael Crichton‘s bestseller “Eaters of the Dead“, itself a fiction novel based on Ibn Fadlan’s historical journey, John McTiernan (Director of “Predator”, “Die Hard”, “Last Action Hero”, “Rollerball”, etc., who recently got into some serious trouble in the Hollywood “Private Eyes” Anthony Pellicano affaire) suggests in this trailer that Ibn Fadlan was “summoned” to leave the court after he allegedly fell in love with the wife of the Caliph (It must also be noted that the Caliph was severely criticized by his people for his notorious philandering, as reported in many early history books)

Interestingly enough, Michael Crichton, the author of “Jurassic Park“, has famously lambasted the “man-made global warming” theory and the Green Environmentalist movement as it is today. In “Eaters of the Dead“, he depicts the villain “Wendols“, fiercely fought by Ibn Fadlan and his Viking buddies, as anthropophagic Shamans, a cohort of primitive “intra-terrestrials” who worshipped a “Mother Earth Goddess”

The account of Ibn Fadlan’s journey, more than being simply “ethnographic” in its most intricate details, turns out to be an invaluable source of information for the emergence of روسيـــــــــــــــــــــــــــــا (Russia) as a state.

It is also the earliest first-hand written description ever made in history and in any language of the Vikings, their customs, and their presence in northern and eastern Europe, in addition to other nations such as الصَّقــــــــــــــــــــــالِبَة (the Slavs) and the Khazars

In addition, some of النَّــــــــــــــــــــوادِر (the anecdotes) regarding his initial interaction with the Scandinavians can prove to be particularly colorful.

At first, the cultural gap between the Abbasid envoy and the Norsemen was, as one can imagine, quite huge:

According to one legend, drawing a cultural comparison between the Viking and the Islamic burials, a Norseman teasing Ibn Fadlan pretty much said:

You Arabs are stupid! You would take the most revered and beloved among your men, 
and cast him into the ground, only to be devoured by creeping creatures and worms. We, on the other hand, burn him in a twinkling, so that he instantly enters Valhala (Paradise.)
On the other hand, Ibn Fadlan, who as a Muslim was accustomed to washing himself at least five times a day by performing Woudou‘ (وُضُــــــــــوء), said of the Vikings he mixed up with:

I never saw people with such well-built bodies, as tall as towering palm trees [But…] I’ve never seen dirtier people either: They never wipe themselves after going to the toilette, and in fact don’t even 
wash themselves after that, anymore than if they were wild donkeys!
الوُضُــــــــــوء/Ablation“: Mandatory before each Muslim prayer
Despite their numerous cultural differences, however, the Risalat of Ibn Fadlan historically establishes that the Muslim Arab diplomat and the Norsemen did not “go medieval” on each other, but instead learned from each other.
They respected each other, and eventually learned to find several cultural common grounds.In doing so, they were comparatively more wise and, to use a modern term, much more “civilized” than, say, some of the Danish Neocons of the 21st century (involved in the unfortunate 2005 Jyllands-Posten Muhammad cartoons controversy), together with their “ideological counterparts” in the Muslim world, each from their own artificial side of the barricades would be so irresponsible as to call for the breakout of an all-out “صِـــــــــــــدَام الحَضَــــــــــارَات” (“Clash of the civilizations”.)The Ibn Fadlan journey of the early 10th century, throughout which the intrepid Arab traveler befriended Slavs, Khazars, and Vikings, serves as a reminder that “barbarians” were not necessarily the ones living in Medieval times—!بل على العَكــــــــــــــــــس (quite to the contrary!)

Just as Shakespeare‘s Hamlet proverbially “smelled something rotten in Denmark”, and in response to the 2005 Jyllands-Posten Muhammad cartoons controversy initiated by some Danish right-wingers, which then threatened to take international dimensions, both Danish and Arab intellectuals joined efforts to bridge the cultural gap between Scandiavians and Arab minorities. As a result, Syrian Director Najdat Ismail Anzour, previously famous in the Arab world for his two “epic” series “الجَـــــــــــــوَارِح/The Falconidae” and”الكَـــــــــــــواسِـــــــــــــــر/The Predators“, released his new “سَقـــــــــــــفُ العَــــــــــالَـــــــــــــــــــم” (“The Roof of the World“), a TV series based on the adventures of Ibn Fadlan, in which participated both Arab and Danish actors. The TV show premiered in the Ramadan season of 2007It yet remains to be available in English

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