Muslim Vikings? Northmen in the Islamic World.

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There are many documented encounters between the Muslim World and the Viking World.

Although recent events has left many Scandinavians with mixed feelings about their relationship with the Islamic world; the relationship between the Nordic world and the Islamic world goes way back further than most would expect. Far enough back that their histories are actually intermingled with one another.

In March of 2015, news regarding the discovery of a ring found on a Viking woman in an ancient burial ground with the inscription ‘For/To Allah’ erupted in mainstream media everywhere.
The ring itself wasn’t a new discovery, it was originally discovered during a late 19th century grave excavation in the town of Birka, on Björkö island, about 19 miles (30 kilometers) from Stockholm.

Birka was a key trading center during the Viking Age.

The ring is part of the Swedish History Museum’s collection, originally cataloged as being made of gilded silver and violet amethyst, bearing the inscription “Allah.”

Researchers say it is the only ring with an Arabic inscription ever found at a Scandinavian archaeological site.

The non-gilded silver alloy ring was found in a 9th century woman’s grave at the Viking trading centre in Birka, Sweden.

The owner of the ring was found wearing traditional Scandinavian clothing, but the researchers said it was impossible to determine her ethnicity due to the decomposed state of the bones in the grave. However, researchers say, “It is not impossible that the woman herself, or someone close to her, might have visited — or even originate from — the Caliphate (which then stretched from Tunisia to the borders of India) or its surrounding regions.”

The ring is set with a violet glass stone inscribed with Arabic Kufic writing, interpreted as reading “il-la-lah” (for/to Allah”).

Kufic is the oldest calligraphic form of the various Arabic scripts and consists of a modified form of the old Nabataean script.

Arabic Kufic writing developed around the end of the 7th century in Kufa, Iraq, and used by the Abbasid Caliphate to the 10th century until the Turko-Persian Seljuk Empire controlled the region.

Location of Abbasid Caliphate and Oseberg Ship discovery
Location of Abbasid Caliphate and ring discovery in Birka, Sweden.

The Arabic Kufic written language developed around the end of the 7th century in Kufa, Iraq, and used by the Abbasid Caliphate to the 10th century until the Turko-Persian Seljuk Empire controlled the region.

Location of Seljuk Empire
Location of Seljuk Empire

When we look at the trade routes used during this time period, we can see how deep Norse trade routes go into the Islamic regions of the world.

Map showing the major Varangian trade routes: the Volga trade route (in red) and the Trade Route from the Varangians to the Greeks (in purple). Other trade routes of the eighth-eleventh centuries shown in orange.
Map showing the major Varangian trade routes: the Volga trade route (in red) and the Trade Route from the Varangians to the Greeks (in purple). Other trade routes of the eighth-eleventh centuries shown in orange.

When you compare the map above showing the Volga Trade Route and compare it with the map below which shows the Sunni Muslim Khazar controlled lands; there is a vast reach that goes deep into Muslim lands. There were many settlements along this route as trade was conducted on a regular and daily basis.  This is where the two cultures, that of the Vikings and that of the Muslims, converged and interacted.

The two cultures got to know each other and each other’s ways really well.

It is not just possible, but most likely probably that there was also regular cultural conversions between the two peoples. Norse Rus converting to Islam and permanently settling in the region and some converts that returned back to their homelands North.  This also goes for many Muslims of a variety of origins, ranging from Turk or Persian or Arab or Khazar, that embraced the Norse culture and returned home or relocated North.

Map showing extent of Khazar lands
Map showing extent of Khazar lands

These cultural interactions took place during the same time period that we hear from Ahmad ibn Rustah, a 10th-century Persian explorer and geographer. He tried to describe the Northmen that had, not just regular, but career contact with Muslims in and out of Islamic lands:

“They sail their ships to ravage as-Saqaliba [the surrounding Slavs], and bring back captives whom they sell at Khazaran and Bolghar… They have no estates, villages, or fields; their only business is to trade in sable, squirrel, and other furs, and the money they take in these transactions they stow in their belts. Their clothes are clean and the men decorate themselves with gold armlets. They treat their slaves well, and they wear exquisite clothes since they pursue trade with great energy.”

He also stated:

“They carry clean clothes and the men adorn themselves with bracelets and gold. They treat their slaves well and also they carry exquisite clothes, because they put great effort in trade. They have many towns. They have a most friendly attitude towards foreigners and strangers who seek refuge.”

This shows how friendly the Norsemen were towards foreigners and even offered hospitality towards them as they would their own kindred. This friendliness went to the point that the Islamic observer even noticed how well the Northmen treated their slaves (thralls). He was so marvelled at it, that he mentioned it twice – along with their cleanliness.

Slaves that are treated well often gain favor and sometimes get their freedom.

According to Norse Law, it was possible for a thrall (slave) to purchase their freedom and become a “freedman.”  This made it very possible for Muslim thralls to become freed and able to live their lives amongst the Norse. Their descendants would eventually became freemen (Karls) and considered native Norse by the Norse around them. Muslims that were once slaves (thralls) that became fully assimilated into Norse culture.
This is very possible and very probable, as Norse law allowed for this.

<Read about Norse Society: The Social Class System of the Viking Age>

These interactions made it possible by distant foreigners to merge into Norse society, even imported Muslims that were once slaves.

This map of Europe and the Near East, 800 AD, shows the proximities of Viking, Christian, and Muslim territories.

Map of Europe and the Near East, 800 AD.
Map of Europe and the Near East, 800 AD.

The most well known interaction between Muslims and Northmen comes from ibn Fadlan.

In 921-922, ibn Fadlan was a member of a diplomatic delegation sent from Baghdad to Volga Bulgars, and he left an account of his personal observations about the Rus of the Volga region, who dealt in furs and slaves. This is the same “Arab” referred to in the film, “The 13th Warrior” based on the novel, “Eaters of the Dead by Michael Crichton.”

Johannes Brøndsted interpreted ibn Fadlan’s commentary as indicating that these Rus (Northmen) were in Islamic lands, they retained their Scandinavian customs regarding weapons, punishments, ship-burials, and religious sacrifices.  Ibn Fadlan’s account includes a detailed description of the Rus praying and making sacrifices for success in trade:

“On anchoring their vessels, each man goes ashore carrying bread, meat, onions, milk, and nabid [possibly, beer], and these he takes to a large wooden stake with a face like that of a human being, surrounded by smaller figures, and behind them tall poles in the ground. Each man prostrates himself before the large post and recites: ‘O Lord, I have come from distant parts with so many girls, so many sable furs (and whatever other commodities he is carrying). I now bring you this offering.’ He then presents his gift and continues ‘Please send me a merchant who has many dinars and dirhems (silver coins issued in Islamic countries), and who will trade favourably with me without too much bartering.’ Then he retires.

If, after this, business does not pick up quickly and go well, he returns to the statue to present further gifts. If results continue slow, he then presents gifts to the minor figures and begs their intercession, saying, ‘These are our Lord’s wives, daughters, and sons.’ Then he pleads before each figure in turn, begging them to intercede for him and humbling himself before them. Often trade picks up, and he says ‘My Lord has required my needs, and now it is my duty to repay him.’ Whereupon he sacrifices goats or cattle, some of which he distributes as alms. The rest he lays before the statues, large and small, and the heads of the beasts he plants upon the poles. After dark, of course, the dogs come and devour the lot -and the successful trader says, ‘My Lord is pleased with me, and has eaten my offerings.”

This shows a tolerance of different religions at these trading areas and made integration into each other’s society much easier. When there is tolerance for each other’s beliefs, customs, and religious practices, then each culture learns from each other and there is an exchange ideas. Whenever one culture mingles with another culture, that culture cannot help but to absorb some of the other’s culture, beliefs, and practices.

The Norse have long ‘mingled’ with the Muslim world and have had very long trade relationship.

There are many other accounts of Norse and Muslim interactions.

There are many other scholars that have recorded interactions between the Norse world and the Muslim world, such as:

  • Muhammad al-Idrisi (1100-1165),
  • Ibn Khurradadhbih / Ibn Khordadbeh (820-910),
  • al-Tartushi (1059-1127),
  • al-Mas’udi (896-956),
  • al-Muqaddasi (940-991),
  • Ibn Rustah (10th Century) ,
  • Miskawayh (932-1030),
  • Ibn Hawqal (10th Century),
  • Ahmad al-Ya’qubi (897-898),
  • Ibn Qutiya (10th Century),
  • Yaqut al-Rumi (1179-1229),
  • Yahya Ibn Hakam al-Bakri (772 – 866),
  • al-Maqqari (1578-1632), and
  • Ibn al-Athir (1160-1233).


They also share their observations of these “saqalibah“, a term first employed in the 10th century translated as “fair-haired, ruddy-complexioned population of Central, Eastern and North-Eastern Europe”

Regular contact between Muslim and Norse cultures has occurred for centuries, mostly by means of trade, but also by invasions, conquests, and wars between the various cultures as they clashed into each other from every direction. Many times, the conquered people of one culture retained much of their original culture and practices as they become part of the new culture that now dominated. The previous culture mixed with the new one and often creating a new culture from the blend. Usually this new culture had a new sense of national identity, like suddenly becoming Franks, Danes, Caliphates, or Magyars with their religion chosen for them.

 Muslim (Saracen), Magyar, and Viking Invasions of Europe during the Tenth Century
Muslim (Saracen), Magyar, and Viking Invasions of Europe during the Tenth Century

During this time period, captured slaves from all parts of the known world were a common sight everywhere. Muslims slaves brought into the North lands would have been as common as any other slave or item traded.

Besides the raids to the Muslim world to the South, southeast, and east of the Rus and other Northmen, Norse from the West sailed south and attacked the Muslim world.

The Vikings had set up a permanent base in the mouth of the Loire River in 842 AD where they could now strike at places as far as Spain. Muslim areas in Spain under Moorish control, such as Cádiz (Qādis) was attacked in 844 AD.

Vikings Spain

A viking fleet of 100 ships plundered up the Garonne river and attacked Toulouse and then sailed to Spain and attacked the Asturians and Gijón, on the coast of Asturias, was the first place they made landfall and they later attacked Muslim provinces in Spain.

In 844 AD, Vikings attacked Al-Andalus, the administrative area of the Iberian Peninsula ruled by Muslims. Many dozens of Dragon Ships (Drakkars) appeared in the mouth of the Tagus river, along the border of Portugal and Spain.  After a siege, the Vikings successfully conquered Lisbon (Al-Ushbuna), sacking it on the 20th of August. After that, Seville was sacked by Vikings on the 3rd of October.

The Norse invaders then left after 13 days, following a resistance led by Alah Ibn Hazm and the city’s Muslim inhabitants who defeated them. The Viking survivors fled and carried out further raids on Al-Andalus but the Muslims fought back effectively and thwarted their efforts.

The Vikings retreated and in the next weeks they looted Lisbon before advancing on the river Guadalquivir and occupying Sevilla for forty-two days. But the Blammen (“Black Men”, Arabs) defeated a large host (allegedly 16,000) at Moron and the Vikings retreated from Sevilla. Before retreating they ransomed their hostages, taking only clothes and food.

Aside from Viking raids in the Islamic Mediterranean, there were also sustained diplomatic relations between the Vikings (referred to as “Madjus” in Arabic sources) and the Islamic world. The Arab diplomat Al-Ghazal (“the gazelle”) was dispatched to the court of the Danish King Harek at Hleiðra in 844 AD (as recounted in Ibn-Dihya) to make peace with the Danes followed their defeat at Sevilla. 

But of course, the Viking raids didn’t stop.

The year 859 AD, Danish Vikings sailed through Gibraltar and raided the Moroccan state of Nekor. The king’s harem had to be ransomed back by the emir of Córdoba. These and other raids prompted a shipbuilding program at the dockyards of Seville. The Andalusian navy was thenceforth employed to patrol the Iberian coastline under the caliphs Abd-ar-Rahman III (912–961 AD) and Al-Hakam II (961–976 AD).

In 860 AD, a fleet of sixty-two Viking ships led by Hastein and Björn Ironside attacked Galicia (northwestern Spain), the Portuguese shores, and Sevilla. The fleet then crossed over to Africa and again sacked Moroccan state of Nekor. They then returned to the Iberia peninsula, stopping at the Balearic Islands and attacked Pamplona after crossing the Ebru river and capturing the king of Navarra, García Íñiguez.

They were paid a ransom for his release.

Another raid on Lisbon was attempted by Vikings in 966 AD, but was without any success when the Muslim defenders repelled them.

But the Vikings weren’t through with the Muslim controlled areas of Spain.

Cadiz, Medina, Sidonia, Niebla, and Beja were plundered. These accounts were written in Annales Bertiniani, one of whose authors was the Spanish Prudencio, the Bishop of Troyes and also written in the Crónica Albedense.

In some of the Viking raids on Spain, the Norsemen were crushed either by the Christian Kingdom of Asturias or by the Muslim Emirate armies. The Vikings who did stay and settle in these areas in Spain, such as in Al-Andalus, were eventually “Hispanized” into the culture, even though many of them kept their ethnic identity and culture. Many Norse converted to either Christianity or to Islam, depending on where they settled.

Evidence pertaining to the Vikings converting to Islam includes a memoir recorded by the 16th century Persian geographer, Amin Razi who 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 by Omar Mubaidin, 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.”

In Andrew Marr’s “History of the World,” he commented on how Vikings in Russia (the Rus) also came very close to converting to Islam with their king being unable to initially decide which of the world’s religions would suit them best.

It is also reported that there were forced baptisms of Muslims in Sweden in 1672 and again in 1695. Showing there were Muslims living deep in Norse homelands. This was also a time when many Heathens, Pagans, Jews, and Catholics were baptised and force converted into Protestantism.

Were there Muslim Vikings? It appears so.


by Njord Kane © 2016 Spangenhelm Publishing 


by Njord Kane © 2016 Spangenhelm Publishing 

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