The Life of a Medieval Envoy Illuminates Forgotten Histories

Ahmad ibn Fadlan traveled far and, like the man who found his works centuries later, shone a light on the world he found

The Life of a Medieval Envoy Illuminates Forgotten Histories
Illustrated by Joanna Andreasson for New Lines

I came across Ahmad ibn Fadlan around 2006 while I was in Halbuni, Damascus, an area famous for books and pirated DVDs. It was among the wares of one such hawker that I came across the film “The 13th Warrior,” featuring the Muslim Arab character, Ibn Fadlan, played by none other than Antonio Banderas.

According to the film, Ibn Fadlan was a cultured Abbasid poet exiled from the empire because of his liaison with a noblewoman and was sent as an envoy to the Bulgar king in Russia. The Bulgars were Turkic peoples who lived in the Volga region. On the way, Banderas and his friend Melchisidek, played by screen legend Omar Sharif, are saved by some Vikings when they are attacked by Tatars. This encounter leads them to strike up an unlikely friendship with the Norsemen, who are plagued by a man-eating tribe reminiscent of the Gog and Magog story.

Watching a Hollywood film with an Arab hero was surreal, considering that I was in Syria, one of those countries considered to be part of then-President George W. Bush’s “axis of evil.” Iraq and Afghanistan had been invaded because of his war on terror, and the best American cultural output depicting Arabs at the time was “24,” with Kiefer Sutherland hunting terror sleeper cells and normalizing torture. To see Banderas, a non-Arab playing a character who was not a stereotyped caricature, was an incredible find. (The experience was later dampened by the discovery that the film had been made before the war on terror, in 1999. Nonetheless, it showed the possibilities that existed before that period.)

Although the film bombed, “The 13th Warrior” became a favorite among many of us Western Muslim expats in Damascus. There were, of course, many things wrong with the film, not least that an Arab character was played by a white man. But there were other obvious flaws. Banderas, playing an observant Muslim character, refers to God as the Father when offering his prayers, something a Muslim would never do. Clearly, they didn’t employ a specialist consultant who could have rectified such an elementary error.

And yet the Hollywood-produced film was such an inversion of the usual tropes about the Arab and Islamic worlds that one excused the mistakes. To our minds, Banderas had already been elevated from smoldering action hero to honorary Arab simply for taking on the role.

After I returned to London and was pursuing my postgraduate studies, I was pleasantly surprised when I came across an Arabic account of Ibn Fadlan. That’s when I realized that Ibn Fadlan’s fictitious life was far less interesting than his real one, and even more extraordinary was the life of Zeki Velidi Togan, the man who rediscovered him. Togan’s rediscovery of Ibn Fadlan influenced him in remarkable ways as he witnessed the Bolshevik Revolution, socialized with Lenin and befriended Russia’s erudite laureate Maxim Gorky. Both Ibn Fadlan’s and Togan’s lives and endeavors were so important that they affected not only how their societies understood themselves but also how we understood ourselves in the West.

It turned out that Ibn Fadlan was neither an Arab poet nor a warrior but an Islamic jurist who served the Abbasid caliph Al-Muqtadir in the 10th century. Insofar as the film was correct, Ibn Fadlan had been sent to the newly converted Bulgars, but he was there to instruct them in the Islamic faith and provide them with money to build a fort against the Bulgar king’s rival, the Jewish Khazar kings who controlled the Volga region.

Like the Bulgars, the Khazars were of Turkic origin and lived near the mouth of the Volga River. They ran trading hubs that satisfied the Abbasid’s appetite for furs, amber and slaves, which the Vikings or the Rus’ brought down from Kyiv in exchange for the precious silver provided by the Abbasid caliphs in Baghdad.

It’s clear that Ibn Fadlan inhabited a cosmopolitan world and came from a society that was familiar with distant cultures. Baghdad and Córdoba were clearinghouses of learning and had trade networks that crisscrossed all over Europe, Central Asia, India and China.

But for me, Ibn Fadlan was special, because unlike other travelers and geographers such as Ibn Battuta, who didn’t mind stretching the truth and mixing his stories with the fantastic, Ibn Fadlan did no such thing. His account was sober, matter of fact, honest and immensely valuable to scholars precisely because of his dispassionate approach. As a jurist from an Islamic legal tradition who was obsessed with the veracity of eyewitness and oral testimony, Ibn Fadlan seemed to exemplify those values, even when they went against him. When the Bulgar king sarcastically called him “Abu Bakr the Truthful” after the first caliph, Ibn Fadlan could have omitted the exchange; his decision to record it reflected his character and values.

His account has provided Western and indeed Slavonic scholarship with detailed descriptions of Viking society, including its burial rituals, behavior, sexual mores and power hierarchies. It is not an exaggeration to say that his account serves as a cornerstone for those studying the Vikings. It is easy to imagine these Norsemen whose bodies were like palm trees “fair and ruddy” with dark green tattoos of various designs “from the tips of his toes to his neck.” There is nothing salacious in his description of the killing of a slave so that she would join her master in the afterlife. Ibn Fadlan’s approach is one of astonishment and curiosity even as the woman is stabbed and killed after having sex with one of the nobleman’s friends. There is also the sense that the jurist was a man of wry humor. When he asked a Bashkir (another Turkic ethnic group living around the Volga) about the practice of kissing the phallic amulets worn around his neck, he replied that this is where Bashkirs came from, and as such, the phallus deserved veneration.

But perhaps more important for Turkic scholarship, Ibn Fadlan provides one of the earliest eyewitness accounts of Turkic Tatar peoples before the advent of Islam. Admittedly they aren’t the most flattering, such as Ibn Fadlan’s description of a newly converted Bashkir: The servant took “a flea from his clothes and, after having crushed it with his fingernail, he devoured it and, on noticing me, said: ‘Delicious!’” But when information is rare, even the few observations become important.

Ibn Fadlan’s accounts revealed how Turkic peoples like the Khazars, Bulgars, Pechenegs, Oguz and Bashkirs, some of whom went on to play major roles in the formation of Russia, interacted with one another. Moreover, it provided a snapshot of the ad hoc way that conversion to Islam progressed on the outskirts of the world. For instance, Ibn Fadlan recalls how he met one community who had built a mosque but barely knew how to pray, while another family converted to Islam and every one of them — man, woman and child — called themselves Muhammad. So important were these descriptions that through Togan’s stewardship, they played a small part in the evolution of Turkish ethno-nationalists as well, who were now able to go beyond Ottoman Muslim identity in the 20th century.

The sizable Muslim presence in Russia is indigenous — the fruit of Mongol invasions and the khanates that sprung up after Genghis Khan’s death, many of which converted to Islam. Long before Russia was even an idea, the Volga and the Urals had a Muslim presence that was not an aberration or alien element in Russia but an integral part of it. In fact, for a long time it was they who lorded it over the Russian princes. It wasn’t until the 15th century that the Russian princes grew in power and Muslims were subordinated.

By the time Russia had become an empire, its relationship to its Muslim population was an uncomfortable one. But tsarist Russia was still far more familiar with Islam than Europe because of its close contact with its Muslim subjects in Central Asia and through trade with the Ottoman Empire during times of peace and war. This is why it’s unsurprising to find well-rounded Muslim characters popping up in 19th-century Russian literature, from Chechens in Dostoyevsky’s “House of the Dead” to Tolstoy’s novel about a Chechen warrior, “Hadji Murat.” But that does not exclude the fact that Muslims were exoticized and often misunderstood, as Togan notes in his memoirs.

And it did not mean that the ethnic minority Muslim population didn’t have to fight for its place in Russia. One such person was Togan, who was born in modern-day Bashkortostan in 1891 in the Volga region of the Russian empire. He belonged to the Bashkir people, a subgroup of the Turkic Tatar peoples, which by that time had become distinct and separate from the rest of the Volga Tatars.

Togan acquired his intellectual endeavor and culture from his uncle, father and mother who came from a prominent Bashkir family. According to his memoirs, Togan learned Arabic, Persian and various Turkish dialects. His intellectual brilliance meant that the young Togan also learned Russian, German, Latin, French and English. By the time he was in his late teens, he recalls reading medieval theologians like Abu Hamid al-Ghazali, Abbasid-era poets like Abolqasem Ferdawsi and Abu Muhammad al-Hariri, 19th-century Muslim thinkers like Muhammad Abduh and European philosophers like Arthur Schopenhauer, all the while urging his father to bring him books from Istanbul.

Togan’s intellectual life coincided with the fate of tsarist Russia when, in the beginning of the 20th century, the empire was in a state of flux. The world’s largest autocracy was woefully behind Britain, France, Germany and the United States. It had lost to an “Oriental” power in the Russo-Japanese war, and a consequence of the 1905 revolution, which was a dress rehearsal for the Bolshevik one in 1917, led Tsar Nicholas II to grudgingly grant the political classes a legislature (the Duma), a multiparty system and a constitution that seemed to be in constant conflict with his autocratic sensibilities. The 1905 reforms created a space for ethnic minorities who resented Russification to develop their own political ambitions.

Togan recalls in his memoirs that he, too, faced a dilemma over whether he should study at the American University of Beirut or Kazan Imperial University (now Kazan Federal University), where Tolstoy had once studied Arabic. (Tolstoy had been required to learn Persian, Turkish and Arabic, which he couldn’t manage; he was expelled for poor academic performance.) Togan chose the latter, and by the time he was in his 20s, he had published a critically acclaimed book on Turkish Tatar history. His book was so well received that he was inducted into the Kazan University Archaeology and History Society. By this time he was a respected subject specialist and manuscript collector, and throughout his life he traveled to far-flung places such as Khiva, Bukhara, Baku and Kabul.

But the intellectual atmosphere of Kazan also drew him toward politics. His own Bashkir community expected him to enter the Duma at some point and represent their interests. His own politics, which he outlines in his memoirs, leaned toward the Socialist Revolutionaries (SRs), an agrarian populist movement born out of 19th-century Russian thinkers Alexander Herzen and Nikolay Chernyshevsky. By the beginning of the 20th century, the SRs had been influenced by Marxist thought and found themselves taking part in the February revolution of 1917. Some SRs, depending on their politics, worked with the Bolsheviks, some joined the more moderate wing — the Mensheviks — and others joined the Provisional Government. Like the SRs, Togan believed in leaving the peasant’s land alone and focusing on improving the lot of those in heavy industry and transport. But it was really in terms of aspirations for minorities where his focus lay; he believed that the Bashkirs should be given greater autonomy within the empire. As such, following the February revolution of 1917 that overthrew Nicholas II, Togan says he joined the SR party briefly and participated in the first General Congress of Russian Muslims in Moscow that pushed for federalism within Russia.

Togan was increasingly drawn toward the centers of power in St. Petersburg and Moscow. In St. Petersburg, he became friends with Maxim Gorky, the famous writer and thinker who asked him to write papers for the newly emerging Marxists. Togan also worked closely with the Muslim factions in the Duma and alongside the leader of the Provisional Government, Alexander Kerensky, who grew up in Tashkent, Uzbekistan. Togan recalls that whenever “Kerensky saw me, his memories of Turkistan were renewed, and he called the ‘ezan’ (sic) in the manner of an ‘Ozbek’ (sic) reciter while we were eating at the library’s cafeteria.”

By the time the Bolsheviks came to power in October 1917, the young academic was thrust into the politics of his own people. Having read Lenin, Togan believed Lenin viewed Bashkir autonomy favorably. Many nationalities including the Don Cossacks, Ukrainians and Finns had expressed the same desire, and so in 1918, Togan, now one of the main leaders of the Bashkirs, declared Bashkurdistan independent and became the country’s first president and commander-in-chief. He immediately sent out delegations to like-minded movements across the empire and began organizing an army for the civil war that was brewing. He wanted to take on the Bolsheviks, who were facing various counterrevolutionary forces led by others including Gen. Anton Denikin and Adm. Alexander Kolchak, both of whom remained loyal to the old order. Togan allied himself with a Czech contingent to fight the Bolsheviks, and just as the current conflict in Ukraine has seen various ethnic groups siding with either Russia or Ukraine to serve their own political or national interests, it was common to find communist Muslim battalions fighting Cossacks or an opposing Muslim Bashkir battalion fighting against the Bolsheviks and then switching sides. It was only when Kolchak declared himself supreme leader and would not consider autonomy for the Bashkir Republic that Togan says he switched sides to the Red Army and played a critical role in defeating Kolchak’s White Army.

However, Togan was not a communist; his alliance was purely pragmatic. Despite “comrade” Togan being courted by Lenin and Stalin, he believed that Lenin, though sincere, did not understand the issue of the minorities. Lenin’s attitude was in fact condescending: “In Russia, there are no Bushmen or Hotanto. But there are Baskurt, Kirgiz and other tribal units, and we are obliged to treat them gently. We are obligated to grant them their national rights. Perhaps someday they can raise a mature, organized proletariat. Perhaps they can conduct their own revolution in their own countries as we are doing today. But, now, we must manage with what we have.”

Togan concluded that Lenin saw the Bashkir leadership as temporary and that the Bashkirs were at a lower state of development and needed time to develop a proletarian consciousness to overthrow the bourgeois class. Stalin, on the other hand, was immensely manipulative and attempted to defang the Bashkir army. In the end, the Bashkir Republic was shut down, and the Reds reverted back to the Russian way of doing things during the time of the tsars — that is, Russians were given all the positions of power and the Bashkirs were marginalized; Togan left the Bolsheviks extremely disillusioned and with a rebelliousness in his heart. He went to Bukhara, in present-day Uzbekistan.

It was in Bukhara that Togan met Enver Pasha, one of the leaders of the Young Turk Revolution in 1908. Pasha had been the Turkish minister for war and was instrumental in the Armenian genocide during World War I. Now disgraced for losing the war, Pasha fled to Central Asia and decided to throw his lot in with the Basmachs as a Turkish nationalist. Circumstances had turned Togan from a bookish scholar into a politician, military commander and then a rebel leader as he joined Pasha and the Basmach uprising against the Bolsheviks. The term “Basmach” was a pejorative for bandits and highwaymen, but the Basmachi Rebellion, as it became known, was an umbrella union of Muslim ethnic minorities with various political stances united by a deep hatred of the Bolsheviks. Some Basmachis were motivated by tribal instincts, others were ethno-nationalists; some were Islamists, some modernists, and some believed that it was their religious duty to fight the godless Bolsheviks. But the rebellion’s momentum was stifled after Pasha was killed in Tajikistan in the summer of 1922. Togan, for the second time in his life, went into exile and headed toward Persia and Afghanistan in 1923.

It was in this spirit of exile that he came to Tus and passed by the graves of Ghazali and Ferdawsi, where he wistfully reflected on his own position in the wilderness: “The ruined buildings,” he writes in his memoirs, “on their burial sites could not be called mausoleums. They were so modest; it was sufficient to look at their burial sites … to understand these two grandees were not fully appreciated in their own country.” Togan would never return to his country of birth.

However, it was in Mashhad, Iran, that Togan’s life changed when he discovered something that secured his scholarly reputation. He had been working among the thousands of books in the Rawza library at the shrine complex of the eighth Shiite imam, Ali ibn Musa al-Ridha, when he came across the works of several Arab geographers; Ibn Fadlan’s account was among them. It was a eureka moment for Togan because Ibn Fadlan had traveled through the lands of various Turkic peoples, including the Bashkirs, before meeting the king of the Bulgars. Togan writes in his memoirs about finding Ibn Fadlan’s account of his people before their conversion to Islam:

Since I did not have a photograph camera, it became necessary to work day and night to copy it by hand. There was no end to my happiness when I found that work. I had a strange dream when I was a child. Ostensibly, the Tsar Nikolai (sic) had gathered several people around him, and addressing me he stated: “These golden leaves are my present to you.” Those leaves constituted an Arabic work on the history of the Bulgars and the Baskurt. At that time, my father opined: “Perhaps you will find an important work on the history of the Bulgars and the Baskurts.” Now, I remembered my fathers’ words … perhaps … Ibn-I Fadlan (sic) will provide a new direction to my life.

Of course, Togan discovered that Ibn Fadlan’s eyewitness account of Oguz Turks before their conversion to Islam and his own people, the Bashkirs, was not always flattering. “We took,” writes Ibn Fadlan, “every possible precaution against them, for they are the worst of the Turks, the dirtiest and the readiest to kill. When one of them meets another, he cuts off his head and carries it off with him, leaving the body.” However unflattering, through Ibn Fadlan’s writings, Togan was able to see with great clarity, and perhaps with a degree of healthy disgust, the past of his own people. Togan gained insights into their metaphysical world that consisted of twelve deities with a sky god sitting at its apex, controlling summer and winter. Togan also learned of their religious practices such as fish, crane and snake worship.

Overall, Ibn Fadlan’s account of these Turkic peoples was immensely detailed. Historians believe he wrote the incomplete account in 921-22, based on notes or diaries he had kept during his mission to the Bulgar king. He reveals the complex political relationship between Baghdad and Central Asian emirs and touches on everything from coinage to local marriage customs. On the Turks he detailed theological discussions he had and described their legal, marriage and burial customs, even their hygiene practices. And though he could be repulsed at the sight of a woman baring herself to them as they were hosted in a yurt, he also added that adultery was virtually unknown among them, recounting matter-of-factly the punishment for adultery among the Turks: “They bend down the branches of two trees, tie [the adulterer] to the branches and let the trees spring back into their original position. Thus, the man who has been tied to the two trees is split in two.” You can’t help but admire the sheer spirit of a man used to the warmth of Baghdad enduring the cold and privation to reach such a hostile destination.

Even though Ibn Fadlan’s account ended quite abruptly, it changed Togan’s life. He used the travelogue for his doctoral dissertation at the University of Vienna and secured his academic reputation in the West when the translation was published in Leipzig in 1939, full of his copious annotations. And so began the second part of Togan’s life, when he met Sigmund Freud and the celebrated poet Muhammad Iqbal, established research institutes on Islam and attended conferences in Europe and Asia. His intellectual endeavors helped shape a Turkish nationalism that went beyond an Ottoman and Islamic identity. But it also caused him problems; the Turkish state, wishing to improve relations with Stalin’s Soviet Union, accused him of propagating pan-Turkism and causing discord within neighboring countries that had large Turkic minorities, such as the Turkic peoples living in the Volga region. As such he experienced several years of torture, prison and internal exile before being acquitted. Though he never returned to his homeland, in some odd ways his own vision was realized. After the fall of the Soviet Union, Bashkortostan was born as an autonomous republic within the Russian Federation.

Meanwhile, Togan’s accounts of Ibn Fadlan, the Abbasid ambassador, occupied a place in the libraries of SOAS University of London and Harvard University where a young Michael Crichton came across the text in the 1960s as an undergraduate. At the time, Crichton thought nothing of Ibn Fadlan and continued honing the art of writing bestsellers that became blockbusters films like “Jurassic Park,” “Rising Sun” and “Sphere.”

It was in the process of Crichton’s wrestling with a plot device that Ibn Fadlan returned to him. The author had attended a lecture given by his friend Kurt Villasden on the canons of Western civilization. Villasden was lukewarm about texts such as Beowulf and argued that the Old English epic poem was dull. Crichton disagreed: How can a tale about a warrior who goes to the aid of the Danish king and kills the monster who has been attacking him be dull? Beowulf was a great story, and it was all about its telling. Crichton made a bet with Villasden that it was possible to make the story exciting and accessible. But how? That was the question he was wrestling with when Ibn Fadlan entered: “Ibn Fadlan had a distinct voice and style. He was imitable. He was believable. He was unexpected. And after a thousand years, I felt that Ibn Fadlan would not mind being revived in a new role, as a witness to the events that led to the epic poem of Beowulf.”

And so Ibn Fadlan appeared in Crichton’s book “Eaters of the Dead” in 1976 (six years after Togan’s death) to mixed reviews. It only entered the realms of Hollywood when director John McTiernan read Crichton’s book and wanted to turn it into a movie. One might have expected it to be great considering that McTiernan made some of Hollywood’s all-time great blockbusters like “Die Hard” and “Predator,” but it didn’t. McTiernan left the movie before it was finished, and Crichton was left to salvage it. Thus, what could have been a fascinating movie featuring an Arab protagonist, flopped so badly that Omar Sharif went into temporary retirement and disowned the film. Nevertheless, Ibn Fadlan not only has that dubious honor of contributing to Hollywood film lore, but through the extraordinary life and work of Togan, also bequeathed a better understanding of Muslims’ past to Western and Turkic scholarship. As such, the endeavors of both men, although separated by centuries, gave us a better understanding of ourselves, and it doesn’t matter whether we were from the East or the West.

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