Ibn Fadlan’s ‘Mission to the Volga’: An Extraordinary Narrative by a Not-so-extraordinary Writer

In a new volume from the Library of Arabic Literature, James E. Montgomery re-translates the extraordinary story of Ibn Faḍlān’s Mission to the Volga:

The singular narrative shares space with Tim Mackintosh-Smith’s translation of Abū Zayd al-Sīrāfī’s Accounts of China and India.

Montgomery, the Sir Thomas Adams’s Professor of Arabic at the University of Cambridge and Fellow of Trinity Hall, stumbled upon his relationship with Ibn Faḍlān while teaching at the University of Oslo two decades ago. Montgomery’s scholarly focus is classical Arabic poetry and writings by al-Jāḥiẓ. But when he translated a passage of Ibn Faḍlān’s text Risālat Ibn Faḍlān (which has been published under the title Mission to the Volga), it proved so popular that he became instantly in demand for talks and interviews, and he became part of the discussion around Arab encounters with the Vikings.

In an interview that also appears on the Library of Arabic Literature website, Montgomery talks about why this incredible text exists “in a vacuum,” how his opinion of Ibn Faḍlān has changed over the years, and the unexplored role of the translator—or translators—in the text.

ArabLit: Ibn Faḍlān’s Mission to the Volga stands out as an extraordinary narrative, but it seemingly wasn’t composed by an extraordinary writer. Where did he get the idea of composing such a text? What texts or other modes of expression is he in conversation with?

James E. Montgomery: The way I look at it now is that Ibn Faḍlān’s text is an instance of private writing from the great mass of educated non-scholars. These are the people who ran the empire, who acted as bureaucrats, who we never get to read at all. We only get to read the elite, the scholars, the people who are very self-conscious in their articulation, who are very self-conscious in their references and in their frame of reference. Ibn Faḍlān just doesn’t belong to that world at all.

I have tried to locate one or two key passages in comparison with other texts—when Ibn Faḍlān describes the rhinoceros, or when he describes the aurora borealis—and I tried to see if I could find any instances of other texts like it. The closest I could come was a translation of Aristotle’s Meteorology for some of the celestial phenomena.

But what’s interesting is that he has the interests of an average sort of functionary. So he’s very interested in prayer times, and how you work out prayer times. He’s very interested in realia, in the stuff of life that he comes across.

So this text really exists in a vacuum, not because he wrote it in a vacuum or intended it to be read in a vacuum, but because he is one of the rare instances of the non-scholarly literate society whose writings haven’t really survived. Or if they have survived, they’ve survived in the form of diaries. It was a very literate world, so we know that people must have kept private records and kept notes, but none of them seem to have been thought worthy of preserving.

There’s really nothing we can triangulate Ibn Faḍlān against, which makes it in a sense all the more important as an early historical document from the 920s.

AL: After Ibn Faḍlān finished writing his manuscript, what happened to it then?

JEM: It’s clear to me that his text really never made it back to Baghdad. There’s no evidence whatsoever, for instance, when al-Masʿūdī discusses the same regions and peoples in the Murūj al-dhahab, that he has any knowledge whatsoever of Ibn Faḍlān.

So I think Ibn Faḍlān’s text circulated in the east: in Khwarazm, in Bukhara, those sorts of areas. But never in Baghdad.

AL: Why does it end up there?

JEM: There’s no record of the embassy getting back to Baghdad. But in his entry on the Volga Yaqut says that he saw a number of copies and though he does not specify where he probably means in Khwarazm.

AL: Yes, he said the account is “well known and popular with people. I saw many copies of it.”

JEM: But we’re in the east of the Empire, we’re not in Iraq, we’re not in Baghdad.

AL: So it may well have been widely read, just not in the center.

JEM: Yes. There’s been lots of speculation that this version of the work is the unofficial version, and there was an official version submitted to the court. For a while I speculated on thinking of it as a guidebook for anyone interested in trade with the north. If you’re a merchant who wants to travel from Bukhara to Itil, then Ibn Faḍlān’s work would be the one you’d look at. But really it’s all just speculation.

AL: So what do we know about Ibn Faḍlān?

JEM: Absolutely nothing. If it weren’t for Yaqut and the copy of the manuscript which survives, we wouldn’t know of him at all, and Yaqut basically recycles the information in the preamble to the text as his summary of Ibn Faḍlān. The only thing that Yaqut adds is the mention of a return. But we don’t know anything about Ibn Faḍlān at all. Everything is conjecture.

AL: How do you see him?

JEM: I’ve experimented with all sorts of different personalities in the course of reading it. I suppose when I first started reading it, I saw him as everyone else did, as a slightly prim and prissy Muslim jurist who is taken reluctantly on this expedition. Then for a while I thought he was some form of a soldier, possibly a senior member of the War Office, or a high-ranking soldier, one who was literate enough and well-versed enough in details of Islamic ritual practice.

I think the way I look at it now is I see it really as a set of voices. The more I’ve worked on Ibn Faḍlān, especially on this last project for [the Library of Arabic Literature] LAL, the harder I have found it to develop a clear picture of him in my mind. I’m really fascinated by the range of emotions that he seems to express. But it’s the fact that he is so careful an observer and so basically non-judgmental that’s led me, in the end, to think of him as someone very human.

AL: One of the things that appears on the LAL website is a fascinating reconstruction of what Ibn Faḍlān’s logbook could have looked like. So you imagine that he retired to his yurt in the evenings and wrote down a few lines each day about the journey?

JEM: I imagine that he would have kept notes of all the places that he stopped, and written about the distance between them, and how many days it was from here to there. [James E.] McKeithen for example, in his dissertation, does an excellent job working out the distances and really establishes the plausibility of events in the narrative.

But there are two extended stays, one for the winter in Jurjaniyyah and then the other over the spring and the summer in Bulghar. And I guess that’s when Ibn Faḍlān would’ve fleshed it out.

AL: He would’ve written down events or dictated them to someone else?

JEM: I imagine that he wrote. By the time the embassy is ready to leave Jurjan after the winter, there’s very few members of the embassy who carry on, and the other guys seem to be professional soldiers in addition to the ambassador himself. So I think Ibn Faḍlān is the literate member of the mission. It’s his job, after all, to read out the letters.

So I think that he would’ve scribbled down what he saw and the stopping places and the distances between them. I don’t imagine that he would’ve been that keen to burden himself with too much paper and ink instead of food and other essentials. So I think the bare-bones nature of it will be because of the bare-bones nature of the writing materials that he had to hand.

AL: And you don’t think that he would’ve written or edited much after he returned.

JEM: I’ve no idea. But if I’m right in thinking that this was done in a type of informal Arabic, which is not normally used for public written expression, then that would tend to suggest that he didn’t.

I expect that when he returned, possibly to Bukhara, the work was made available to anyone who was planning to engage in the silver and fur trade with the north. It was an everyday, practical book. It’s only really at the end with the list of the Bulghar marvels, of which the Vikings are one, that it turns to unusual observations. Up to that point, it’s pretty much what you might find in the “Rough Guide to Anywhere.”

I suspect that anyone traveling up to the north would’ve wanted to know: What are the dress codes, what are the eating codes, what are the moral codes of the places that you’re going to visit?

AL: Was Ibn Faḍlān a reliable observer?

JEM: Well, yes. When you’ve lived with Ibn Faḍlān for as long as I have, and you’ve seen all the theories from Ibn Faḍlān’s influence on Beowulf to [novelist] Michael Crichton’s version of it in Eaters of the Dead to those who say that it’s just outright science fantasy, you get used to entertaining all these possibilities. But I see no reason to doubt him. Until someone shows that it’s not true, I’m perfectly happy to live with it.

My own pet theory is that the psychological pressure of being so far away from home, so far north, at the mercy of the Bulghar king, in danger of losing his life, hijacks the narrative, forcing Ibn Faḍlān to be much more receptive to the wondrous and the miraculous and the strange.

AL: As I understand it, LAL generally doesn’t do retranslations. Haven’t there already been three English versions of the Ibn Faḍlān?

JEM: Actually, there have been four. McKeithen’s PhD dissertation was the first one. And then I circulated one freely on the internet, which was courtesy of the School of Abbasid Studies website. It’s no longer posted, but some people still have copies and use it for teaching. Then I always meant to do something with it, but [Richard N.] Frye published his translation (2005) and then [Paul] Lunde and [Caroline] Stone published theirs (2012), and I just put mine in a drawer and forgot about it.

And then when Tim [Mackintosh-Smith] said he was going to do the Akhbār al-Ṣīn wa-l-Hind, we knew that it wouldn’t be big enough for a stand-alone volume, or it would be a very, very slim volume. And the editors suggested we combine it with Ibn Faḍlān. Both works are from roughly the same time, early tenth century, and we thought it would make quite an interesting combination: One text heading east and the other heading north.

Throughout it all, I was very conscious of the fact that there had to be value added. This was a translation of something that has appeared twice in the last eight years or so. So I was very, very keen that there be lots of value-added things that would make this different or useful as well as just being a companion piece to go along with Akhbār al-Ṣīn wa-l-Hind.

AL: But this is also the first facing-page bilingual edition?

JEM: It is that, yes.

In fact, I think the biggest departure is the edition. Because previously, scholars have tended to look at the manuscript as vastly inferior to the quotations of Ibn Faḍlān by Yaqut. So whenever the manuscript says one thing, and the Yaqut quotation says something different, they edit in favor of Yaqut. My edition is the closest that we have tried to come to a version of the manuscript that doesn’t rely on Yaqut. So what’s really new there is actually the Arabic text, and the insight that came to me as I worked very closely on the text.

The manuscript has been widely available since the 1930s. It really became evident to me that the manuscript wasn’t written in formal Arabic, but in some variety of educated informal, possibly Middle Arabic. If I’m right, then that makes it one of the earliest instances of Middle Arabic that have survived.

AL: Could you point to any significant differences in the English, between the translations?

JEM: They’re not ones that would leap out of the page and hit you in the eye. There are one or two key points in some of the important information, for example, about the Rus. So maybe the students of Viking studies will find them interesting.

AL: Who do you see as the readers of this new translation?

JEM: First and foremost, I had the classroom in mind. But it’s an odd classroom, because I depart quite wildly from the Arabic in some places. So it’s certainly not a classroom of beginners. Really what I like about the Arabic being against the English is you can see when the English departs quite significantly from the Arabic in order to keep the flow of the narrative.

Ideally, I’d love it to be people who are interested in travel writing. Past and present. Ibn Faḍlān’s text is somehow a very modern text—in a strange way that I’ve really never, ever, in the last twenty years of reading it, been able to quite put my finger on. But I would hope that the educated general reader out there could pick it up and read it and be carried along by the dramatic impetus of Ibn Faḍlān’s narrative. It was the narrative drive I was trying to capture.

AL: And this was different from your earlier translation.

JEM: In my earlier translation, I had stuck much closer to the Arabic.

What I wanted to do there was to convey the sense that there’s something in Ibn Faḍlān’s story that’s strange. And I felt that by keeping the English close to the Arabic I would be able to create a sense of that impending sense of threat that you can get from reading Ibn Faḍlān’s Arabic. This time around, because it was for LAL, I decided to try and capture the drive of his narrative, rather than make any point about encounters with the strange and the weird and the marvelous.

AL: How did that first translation come about?

JEM: I picked Ibn Faḍlān up when I was teaching in Oslo as a way of getting Norwegian students interested in reading classical Arabic. As part of the work I was doing for the class, I translated the famous passage on the Rus. A colleague at the University of Bergen, Joseph Bell, had set up the Journal of Arabic and Islamic Studies, one of the early attempts at an online journal, and I gave him the translation.

Within a couple weeks of posting it, it had had a phenomenal number of hits. And then it developed a life of its own, and I became known as the Arabist interested in Vikings and Ibn Faḍlān.

It was interesting work for a while. It allowed me to think about first-person narrative, about witness testimony, about autopsy. But then I felt that I’d done everything that I could do with Ibn Faḍlān, until that afternoon in Corsica with [Library of Arabic Literature General Editor] Phil Kennedy and [LAL Executive Editor] Shawkat Toorawa.

AL: Did you re-translate the text or did you go back and edit your earlier translation?

JEM: I went back to the earlier translation, and I didn’t like it, for LAL purposes. I had hoped that I’d be able to open the bottom drawer, take the translation out and send it off.

But when you’re doing a LAL translation, there are a lot of things that you have to bear in mind that in other types of translation, you don’t normally have to worry about.

In the end, I think the current one bears basically no relation to the earlier translation. Maybe I should put the earlier version up on my website.

AL: It would be interesting for students of translation.

JEM: Probably. The earlier one had lots of mistakes in it, though. I think there are fewer mistakes in this one. There were one or two passages that I just for the life of me couldn’t understand the first time around. Then I got help.

AL: There are a number of remarkable moments in the text, but what do you—having lived with it for some time—find the text’s most interesting facets, stylistically or content-wise?

JEM: I suppose the highlight of the book has to be the encounter with the Rus. It is so multifaceted and so complex and so challenging, and at times it’s both distorted and seemingly disarmingly honest, such that it continues to fascinate.

My favorite bit, though, is the argument between Ibn Faḍlān and the King of the Bulghar. Here is this sophisticated Muslim urbanite, secure in being a representative of the caliph, presumably trained to some extent in scholastic disputation. He’s brought before the king, asked a series of devastating questions, and leaves without an answer. I think that’s a wonderful encounter between two different personalities.

AL: And it’s remarkable that Ibn Faḍlān, the loser in this exchange, writes it down.

JEM: Ibn Faḍlān seems to be very honest. Whether he’s being honest because he didn’t think anyone was going to read him, or whether he was just an honest guy, I have no idea. But the fact that he even goes so far as to record the contempt that the Rus show for Muslim burial practices is quite an astonishing instance of frankness.

At one time in my life, I thought to myself, well of course he would write it down, because the mission was not a complete success, and there’s an element of self-exoneration in Ibn Faḍlān’s writing. I don’t see why I should be so cynical any more, to be honest. It’s a frank record of his experiences.

Of course, he’s completely at the mercy of the translator throughout. This is the most important actor in the text after Ibn Faḍlān, but barely visible at all. We don’t know whether there’s one or two or three or how many translators he has, or even what languages are being translated, but he’s completely at the mercy of the translator, both for the conversations that he has, but also for the cultural interpretations that he receives. So Ibn Faḍlān and the translator are the two protagonists in the text.

AL: The translator could’ve been lying or having Ibn Faḍlān on.

JEM: Yes, I’m quite prepared to believe that Ibn Faḍlān is being candid and honest and sincere, and the translator is being the exact opposite.

We’re dealing here with, in a sense, regional and imperial politics. There’s a lot of vested interests at stake. The king’s not secure in his own Islam, he’s not secure on his own border

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