When people typically think about interactions the vikings had with non-vikings, they think of what Christian monks wrote about the “godless” heathens and their spiky “horned hats” (vikings didn’t wear horned hats).
In this year dire forewarnings came over the land of the Northumbrians, and miserably terrified the people: these were extraordinary whirlwinds and lightnings, and fiery dragons were seen flying in the air. A great famine soon followed these omens; and soon after that, in the same year, on the sixth of the ides of Ianr, the havoc of heathen men miserably destroyed God’s church on Lindisfarne, through rapine and slaughter. (The incident is dramatically recorded in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles in the year of the Lord 793 AD: Source)
Fiery dragons eh? That’s some good historical accuracy right there.
But not all cultures and civilizations had the same reaction to the vikings.
The Norsemen during the “Viking Age” (the period between the 8th century to the 11th century) were a fairly sophisticated, sea-fairing people. While they did participate in raids, they also farmed, explored and engaged in commerce. They were prolific explorers for their time, exploring a vast region of territory, from the Americas to what is modern day Iraq.
In this incredibly prodigious age of exploration, the Norsemen met a variety of people (including Native Americans in what they called “Vinland”). And given that the Norsemen had trade routes in what we today know as Spain and Iraq, they had their fair share of encounters with Muslims. What is interesting is that the Viking Age (8th-11th century) also coincided with the Golden Age of Islam (8th-13th century.)
The Golden Age of Islam was a time when the Islamic world was ruled by various caliphates and science. This period is traditionally understood to have begun during the reign of the Abbasid caliph Harun al-Rashid (786 to 809) with the inauguration of the House of Wisdom in Baghdad, where scholars from various parts of the world with different cultural backgrounds were mandated to gather and translate all of the world’s classical knowledge into the Arabic language.
Unlike Western Europe during the dark ages, in the Near East, there was an explosion of science, scholarship, learning, philosophy, health care, poetry, cultural influence and wealth.
The Norsemen, who had a keen interest in trade, knowledge and exploration, had pretty active mercantile relations with Muslims during this era. In fact, aside from a few raids in Muslim Spain, a majority of Muslim-Viking interactions were dominated by commerce.
The proof of this is that Islamic goods have been found in ancient Scandinavian burial sites. A big find occurred in March, 2015, when a viking woman in a burial ground was found with a ring engraved with the inscription “For/To Allah.”
Why did she have this ring? Who knows. Perhaps she had no idea what the words meant, and it was merely a gift that ended up in her person as a result of trade relations with Muslim lands. Perhaps she herself was a Muslim. Maybe she just thought the ring was pretty. All we have is speculation. But the importance of the ring is that it shows that the Vikings were part of the Islamic trade network.
In fact, it is said that the Norsemen were obsessed with the silver dirham (Arabic coins). These were coins that had great value during the Viking Age. In Viking York and Dublin between the 10th-12th century, the dirham was used as a common currency (1001 Inventions).
This is highlighted by the discovery of King Offa’s (an Anglo-Saxxon King) coins in the British Museum engraved with ‘There is no other God but the one God. He has no equal,’ and on the outer margin of the coin “Mahommad is the Apostle of God, who sent him with the doctrine and true faith to prevail over every religion.” (Muslim Heritage)
(The Map above shows Viking and Muslim invasions in Europe. Source)
MUSLIM ACCOUNTS OF THE VIKINGS
So what did the Muslims think about their fair haired trade partners from the north? We can discover this in their writings.
The most famous account comes from Ahmad ibn Fadlān. In fact, the movie The 13th Warrior with Antonio Banderas is even based loosely on this historical account. Fadlān was a 10th century traveler who was a member of the embassy of the Abbasid Caliph of Baghdad. On his way to meet with the Volga Bulgars, he wrote an account of his visit with the Volga vikings, who he called the Rus.
He mainly described them as being good looking, but crazy and unsanitary.
I have never seen more perfect physiques than theirs – they are like palm trees, are fair and reddish, and do not wear the tunic or the caftan.
Ahmad ibn Fadlan describes funeral rites which generally conform to the Norse rituals of Scandinavia, but were very exotic for an Islamic intellectual:
In the case of a rich man, they gather together his possessions and divide them into three portions, one third for his household, one third with which to cut funeral garments for him, and one third with which they ferment alcohol which they drink on the day when his slave-girl kills herself and is burned together with her master.
An account of the men:
Each man has an axe, a sword, and a knife and keeps each by him at all times. The swords are broad and grooved, of Frankish sort. Every man is tatooed from finger nails to neck with dark green (or green or blue-black) trees, figures, etc.
An account of the women:
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, one for each 10,000 dirhems which her husband is worth; some women have many. Their most prized ornaments are beads of green glass of the same make as ceramic objects one finds on their ships. They trade beads among themselves and they pay an exaggerated price for them, for they buy them for a dirhem apiece. They string them as necklaces for their women.
He described “The Rus” as being hospitable.
The Rus are a great host, all of them red haired
But also filthy
They are the filthiest of God’s creatures. They have no modesty in defecation and urination, nor do they wash after pollution from orgasm, nor do they wash their hands after eating. Thus they are like wild asses. When they have come from their land and anchored on, or ties up at the shore of the Volga, which is a great river, they build big houses of wood on the shore, each holding ten to twenty persons more or less. Each man has a couch on which he sits. With them are pretty slave girls destines for sale to merchants: a man will have sexual intercourse with his slave girl while his companion looks on. Sometimes whole groups will come together in this fashion, each in the presence of others. A merchant who arrives to buy a slave girl from them may have to wait and look on while a Rus completes the act of intercourse with a slave girl.
Is this entirely accurate? We don’t know. Such writings of course are always subject to bias. Because of his Islamic concepts of ritual washing, perhaps the sanitary practices of The Rus were dirty in comparison. There is also reason to believe that the vikings were much more open about sexuality than their Christian and Islamic neighbors, so having sex to a live audience may not have been a big deal. It is also said that the Norsemen traded furs, honey and slaves in exchange for the valuable silver dirham.
When a great personage dies, the people of his family ask his young women and men slaves, “Who among you will die with him?” One answers, “I.” Once he or she has said that, the thing is obligatory: there is no backing out of it. Usually it is one of the girl slaves who do this.
The rest of the account can be found at Viking Answer Lady
Ibrahim ibn Ya`qûb (al-Tartushi), an Andalusian man who was born into the Jewish community of Tortosa (Turtush) said about the Viking women that “they part with their husbands whenever they like. They also have an artificial make-up for the eyes; when they use it their beauty never fades, but increases in both man and woman.”(Muslim Heritage)
Ibrahim was probably referring to the fact that Norse women were free to divorce their husbands whenever they liked. Whereas in the Islamic religion, while women can get a divorce, the procedure is much more complicated. It is also believed that Norse men and women wore dark makeup around their eyes to protect their eyes from their glare of the sun off snow and water, just as the Egyptians did in the desert.
According to 10th Century explorer and geographer Ibn Rustah, the Vikings were “handsome, clean and well-dressed” and he praised them even further.
They keep their clothes clean and the men adorn themselves with armbands of gold… They are generous to each other, honour their guests and treat well those who seek refuge with them, and all who come to visit them. They do not allow anyone to annoy or harm these. And whenever anyone dares to treat them unfairlythey help and defend them.” (1001 Inventions).
More quotes on Viking dress and the treatment of servants:
I have seen the Rus [Vikings] as they came on their merchant journeys and encamped by the Itil…” (Ibn Rustah) “They [Vikings] treat their servants well and dress exquisitely because they are such keen traders” (Ahmed Ibn Fadlan) (1001 Inventions).
Accounts of Vikings who converted to Islam:
The possibility of some vikings converting to Islam is not that far fetched, considering that some vikings traded and settled in Muslim lands. After all, this is similar to how many vikings converted to Christianity because of trade relations and surrounding cultures.
Evidence pertaining to the Vikings converting to Islam includes a memoir recorded by the 16th century geographer from Muslim Civilisation, Amin Razi who is reported to have stated that:
They [the Vikings] highly valued pork. Even those who had converted to Islam aspired to it and were very fond of pork.”
Another written account is by Omar Mubaidin, whi states: “Vikings would make numerous raids against both Muslim and Christian states in the Iberian Peninsula. Eventually, a community of settled Vikings, who converted to Islam in southeast Seville, would be famous for supplying cheese to Cordoba and Seville.”
From what I’ve read, it seems that the relationship that the Vikings had with Muslims during the Viking era was predominantly one of trade, while there were a few raids here and there. However it seems that there were less Viking raids against Muslim lands than Christian lands. One, this is probably because of geographic proximity. The Christians were located much closer to Scandinavian lands. Two, this is probably because during the Viking Ages, the Islamic Near East was far more developed than Western Europe. So it was more difficult to raid Islamic lands. The Viking attempts at invading the Iberian peninsula were not very successful.
From the written accounts that I’ve read, it seems that many of the Muslims who documented their encounters with the Rus found them hospitable, brave, and lively, but also unsanitary and a bit crazy.
Is this entirely accurate? Who knows. But at least these accounts didn’t include fire breathing dragons.
Risala: Ibn Fadlan’s Account of the Rus (Viking Answers Lady)
5 THINGS YOU DIDN’T KNOW ABOUT VIKINGS AND MUSLIM CIVILISATION (1001 Inventions)
A Tale of Two Civilisations: The Viking and the Muslim World (Muslim Heritage)
Old Arabic texts describe dirty Vikings (ScienceNordic)
Muslims vs Vikings (Islam21c)