Wednesday, August 24, 2016

Muslims vs Vikings

muslims v vikings

Muslims vs Vikings

“And were it not for Allāh’s repelling some men with others, the earth would certainly be in a state of disorder; but Allāh is Gracious to the creatures”[1]

The Ummah of the best of the Messengers, the imam of the messengers, most beloved of the Messengers, Muhammad (sallAllāhu ‘alayhi wasallam) is one which is raised in distinction by Allāh as the greatest Ummah. Such an honour is granted upon this Ummah for many reasons but one is certainly the honour, courage and valour shown by its adherents. Arguably, there is not a group of any significance whom you can think of from history but that you will find that the Muslims had challenged them or had been challenged by them and that the Muslims were victorious. More than a millennium ago fleets of Viking raiders were striking fear into the hearts of coast and river-dwellers throughout Europe. Many such foes have come and gone be it the Romans, the Persians, the Crusaders, the Mongols and so on. So too you will find that the Muslims also encountered the much feared Vikings.

These two worlds were of course very different. One was a red-headed pagan tribe that wore horned helmets and pillaged for a living; the other a cosmopolitan, sophisticated civilisation that spanned continents and, at whose table, the rest of Europe picked up the crumbs. The Vikings were at the height of their power and influence between the late 8th and early 11th centuries known as the ‘Viking Age’. During this period, Islām was entering its golden age, with a renaissance of unprecedented intellectual and economic heights that would eventually reach from China to what is now modern-day Spain.

Who were the Vikings?

The Vikings’ homeland was Scandinavia: modern-day Norway, Sweden and Denmark. From here they travelled great distances, mainly by sea and river – as far as North America to the west, Russia to the east, Lapland to the north and North Africa and Iraq to the south. They were skilled craftsmen and boat-builders, adventurous explorers and wide-ranging traders.

The Clash

When most people think of the history of Spain, rarely are discussions of the Vikings evoked. Yet when the two cultures first met, it was in battle in Al-Andalus, modern-day Spain.
What is interesting is that whilst the Muslims in the Middle East referred to the Vikings as ‘Rüs’, which was the term they were also know by to the Byzantine Romans, the Muslims in Europe in al-Andalus referred to them as ‘Mâjus’, ‘Fire Worshippers’ – a pejorative reference to their paganism and a label which Muslims also used for the fire worshipping Persians.

Fresh from their conquests round that basin of the Mediterranean, the Vikings sought to measure their strength against the military might of the Muslims. In 844 (230AH), a letter arrived in the capital, Qurtuba (Cordoba) from the governor of Lisbon, Burtùqaāl (Portugal, which finds its root in the Arabic word for orange), Wahballah ibn Hazm to the emir of the Umayyad Emirate of al-Andalus, ‘Abd ar-Rahman ibn al-Hakam II, warning him that approximately 70-100 Viking ships had been sighted around the coast of his province. In other accounts, the ships were seen as so numerous that they were described as filling the sea with dark red birds, whilst filling the hearts of men with fear and trembling. After landing in Lisbon with their iron horned helmets, chain mail, wooden shields, spears, bows, axes and swords, they caused havoc terrorising the inhabitants. They then did the same in Cadiz and Sidona, before striking the large city of Ishbiliyya (Seville) which they besieged and took by storm and laid fire to the largest Mosque there. They remained there for 7 days and, in other accounts, for 14 days.

It is said that the Vikings were uncommonly brave and therefore ‘Abd ar-Rahman wanted to ensure all the reinforcements had arrived before mounting a challenge. When all the soldiers from the borders had arrived and gathered under one banner, the Muslims hastened and took their position under the cover of night at a high point on the south east of Seville at a place called Moron to lie in wait for the enemy. They used a large tower of a Church in the town as a watch tower to observe the movement of the Vikings. Just after the time of Fajr (the prayer at dawn) had passed, the guard on the watch tower sent a signal that the Mâjus Vikings were on the move numbering around 16,000. The Muslims let them pass and then set upon them in ambush cutting them off from the city of Seville where they were encamped and set about cutting them down. This attack was carried out with great success.

Having decimated the Vikings in this attack, the Muslims advanced on to Seville – when the Mâjus army there saw the advancement of the Muslims and heard about the disaster that had befallen their detachment army in Moron at the hands of the Muslims, they began to retreat back to their ships and started sailing away. The Muslims pursued them and captured and burned four of their ships having already unloaded them of all their cargo.[2]
The Muslim historian, Ibn Adhari narrates the event of the victory as follows:
“God gave them to our swords and destroyed them, numerous as they were. Their general was killed. When they had been annihilated, the Government made this event known throughout the provinces to celebrate this event”.[3]
Terms following the battle and the intrigue of al-Gazzál

It was characteristic of the Vikings that trading often followed the raiding and the sword. After the battle, the envoys of the king of the Vikings came to ‘Abd ar-Rahman to ask for peace. ‘Abd ar-Rahman decided to reply accepting this request and an exchange of envoys took place. The man who was commissioned with this task from the Muslims was Yahya ibn-Hakam, better known as al-Ghazál (not to be mistaken for the Muslim sage, al-Ghazzali) who was the leading diplomat in al-Andalus and who possessed keenness of mind, quickness of wit, skill in repartee, courage and perseverance, and knew his way in and out of every door. He, together with a companion of his made the perilous voyage to the kingdom of the Vikings in the Atlantic North.[4]

Two days after arriving to a great island in the ocean, the king of the Vikings summoned al-Ghazál to his presence. Al-Ghazál stipulated that he would not be made to kneel to him and that he and his companions would not be required to do anything contrary to their faith. The King agreed to this, however, when they went to him, he sat before them in magnificent guise, and ordered an entrance, through which he must be approached, to be made so low that one could only enter kneeling. Al-Ghazál being the wise man that he was, sat on the ground, stretched forth his two legs, and dragged himself through on his rear. And when he had passed through the doorway, he stood erect. 

The king had prepared himself for him, with many arms and great pomp. But al-Ghazál was not overawed by this, nor did it frighten him. He stood erect before him, and said: Assalam Alaikum, Peace be with you, O king, and with those whom your assembly hall contains, and respectful greetings to you!. Al-Ghazál sensed that the King wished for him to be impressed by the splendour of his palace and power which he perceived he held and as such, al- Ghazál took this opportunity in also reminding the King what his true reality by reciting a verse from the Glorious Qur’an carefully, selected from Surah al-Qasas, the chapter which recounts the story of Musa (ʿalayhi al-Salām) and Pharoah:
“And call not with Allāh any other god; there is no god but He, everything is perishable but He; His is the judgment, and to Him you shall be brought back. [5]
The King then said: “this is one of the wise men of his nation, we wished to humiliate him but he outwitted me by showing me the soles of his feet first sitting on the ground as he entered (rather than bowing to me)”. Al- Ghazál read out ‘Abd ar-Rahman’s letter to the King and presented the gifts which he had given him which pleased him much. From the various chronicles where this story is found, it states that the Queen took a real interest in Al- Ghazál and that he spent some time with her speaking to her about Islām and the Muslim world. Pausing here for a moment, it should be noted that earlier this year in March 2015, a ring adorned with a violet-coloured piece of glass was found at an excavation site at a Viking trading centre in Sweden. An inscription on the glass has been found to read either “for Allāh” or “to Allāh” in an ancient Arabic Kufic script. The ring was found in a grave north of Borg on the Björkö Island. Clothes and jewellery around the decomposed skeleton showed it to be a female burial dating back to 850 AD, which interestingly places it in the same period as al- Ghazál and the Viking queen.[6] Either way, the ring constitutes evidence for direct interactions between the Vikings and the Islamic world.

Al- Ghazál returned to al-Andalus more than 20 months after his departure. Although the Vikings would return once again to al-Andalus in or around 859-860 during the reign of Emir Muhammad, this time they were dealt with far more swiftly and set to flight immediately as the previous attack some 29 years earlier had caused ‘Abd ar-Rahman to militarise more aggressively which included him building an arsenal in Seville, ordering many ships to be built and developing the navy who guarded the frontiers of the country and thus, fulfilling the task which the Messenger of Allāh (sallAllāhu ‘alayhi wasallam) described as follows:
“Guarding the frontier for a day in the path of Allāh is better than fasting and prayer of a month.” [7]
Further Encounter

The most important eye witness account of the Vikings that the world has to learn from today is from the works of a Muslim faqih, an expert in Islamic jurisprudence and faith, in the court of the Abbasid Caliph, Al-Muqtadir, Ahmad ibn Fadlanas – it was his account that inspired author Michael Crichton’s 1976 novel ‘Eaters’ and the film called the ‘13th Warrior’ starring Antonio Banderas.

Ibn Fadlan was sent from Baghdad in 921 to serve as the secretary to an ambassador from the Abbasid Caliph al-Muqtadir to the iltäbär (vassal-king under the Khazars) of the Volga Bulgaria, Almış. Primarily, the purpose of their mission was to explain Islamic law to the recently converted Bulgar peoples living on the eastern bank of the Volga River in what is now Russia
Whilst on his mission, he came across and encountered the Vikings whom he also spent some time with and whom he described as follows:
“I have seen the Rus as they came on their merchant journeys and encamped by the Vulgar River. I have never seen more perfect physical specimens, tall as date palms, blond and ruddy…Each man has an axe, a sword, and a knife, and keeps each by him at all times”.
He further commented on their hygiene customs when he recounted that: “They are the filthiest of God’s creatures,” and although he acknowledged that they washed their hands, faces and heads every day, he was appalled that they did so “in the dirtiest and filthiest fashion possible” in a communal basin of water, an ancient Germanic custom that caused understandable revulsion in a Muslim who typically performed ablutions only in poured or running water.[8]

This was a period which saw the Vikings making regular journeys all the way to Baghdad for trading. Hundreds of Viking Age graves and buried hoards, it turns out, contain caches of still-gleaming Arab dirhams, “the coin that helped fuel the Viking Age,” according to Thomas S. Noonan of the University of Minnesota. Noonan is one of the world’s leading experts on medieval Scandinavian ties with the Muslim world, and a specialist in Viking numismatic history.

Points to note:

When researchers consider the history of the Vikings today, they are heavily reliant on Muslim chroniclers because, unlike Europeans, the Arab Muslims reports are considered to be far more objective and, in the eyes of many scholars today, more credible. Most experts acknowledge that the Vikings were, in general, victims of a medieval “bad press” by many European nations because of the defeats the Vikings exacted on them.

It is also easy to forget in today’s times when Muslims have become comparatively weak, that it was not always like this. It shows us that there was once a time when there was a flourishing field of Islamic geography, a response to the thirst for knowledge about the vast Islamic world and the regions beyond it. We also learn how Muslims conducted themselves, being proud of their faith and not being overawed by a dominant surrounding as we saw with the example of Al-Ghazál.

It is important for us to reconnect with our history and heritage to learn about our rich tradition of innovation, culture, honour and courage, planning and foresight and read about when the Ummah was great so that the Ummah may become great once more inshaAllāh.



For references on the battle, please see: Al-Kutia, translated by David James, “Early Islamic Spain”; And,
Ibn-Adhari, translated in Stefansson, Jon, “The Vikings in Spain. From Arabic (Moorish) and Spanish Sources”. In Saga-Book of the Viking Club: Vol. VI Proceedings. University of London King’s College, 1909, pp. 35-36.

For references on al-Ghazál, please see: “The Poet and the Spae-Wife, An Attempt to Reconstruct Al-Ghazal’s Embassy to the Vikings”, By W.E.D Allen.
[1] Al-Qur’ān 2:254
[2] Al-Kutia, translated by David James, “Early Islamic Spain”.
[3] Ibn-Adhari, translated in Stefansson, Jon, “The Vikings in Spain. From Arabic (Moorish) and Spanish Sources”. In Saga-Book of the Viking Club: Vol. VI Proceedings. University of London King’s College, 1909, pp. 35-36.
[4] “The Poet and the Spae-Wife, An Attempt to Reconstruct Al-Ghazal’s Embassy to the Vikings”, By W.E.D Allen.
[5] Al-Qur’ān, 28:88 
[7] Muslim
[8] “Among the Norse Tribes, The Remarkable Account of Ibn Fadlan”, By Judith Gabriel

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