A Textual Analysis of Mission to the Volga

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Sandra Wallman’s Introduction: The Scope for Ethnicity describes the “transactional” relationship shared between “us” and “them.” As Wallman states: “Ethnicity can only happen at the boundary of us,” in other words, groups are defined by their relationship to others, not as independent entities. This distinct notion of identity and ethnicity propagates itself throughout  Aḥmad Ibn Faḍlān’s Mission to the Volga. Faḍlān, the narrator and author of his story, continually interacts and comes into contact with unique Turkish tribes throughout his three-hundred and twenty-five-day journey into the Volga region north of the Caspian Sea. Faḍlān captured this transcendent journey in ninety brief passages. Despite Faḍlān’s concise rendition, he successfully presents an internal ideological clash between Islam’s “barbaric” other and the “civilized” Muslim self. Faḍlān’s Tolkien-esque story structure does not directly define or separate the “civilized” from the “barbaric”; however, he alludes to a set of priorities based on the notion of Islam and by extension monotheism as the key distinguishing factors. Ultimately, through an examination of the Faḍlān’s rhetorical techniques and an interpretation of “othering,” it becomes clear that Islam/monotheism represented the most significant factor dividing “us” from “them”; “civilized” from “barbaric” to educated Muslims in the 10th Century.

In order to fully understand the pervasive role of Faḍlān’s perspective and Islamic-worldview, it is crucial to acknowledge his personal beliefs and origins and their influence on his writing. As James Montgomery, the translator and reconstructor of Faḍlān’s Mission to the Volga, notes Faḍlān was an unlikely character even in his own story. While he was an educated Muslim, who garnered some form of political success during the expansive Abbassid Caliphate, his status as a non-Arab Muslim prompts his Islamic dominated perspective demonstrated in Mission to the Volga. For example, Faḍlān measures the amount of time he spent chatting with the Bulghār King’s tailor via the Qur’an: “We were chatting but did not chat for long–less time than it takes you to read halfway through one-seventh of the Qur’an.” This specific anecdote is one of many similar experiences found throughout Faḍlān’s writing that works to funnel his narrative and his audiences’ experience through his Islamic morals. Faḍlān’s distinct non-Arab Muslim voice and set of morals are directly projected onto the Ghuzziyyah tribe.

Furthermore, the actions of the Ghuzziyyah captured by Faḍlān are funneled through his moral compass. The established relationship between a Ghuzziyyah action and Faḍlān’s perspective influences the audience's interpretation of the tribe. Additionally, it serves as the nexus between barbarians and Islam. Moreover, it is not the inherent qualities that define the Ghuzziyyah as barbaric, but those actions, at the boundary of Islam, categorizes them as barbarians.

A clear example of Faḍlān interpreting the actions of the Ghuzziyyah through his Muslim lens occurs during his second direct interaction with Ghuzziyyah people. Faḍlān recounts a scene as he is joined with other members of the envoy in the tent of a Ghuzziyyah man and his wife. As Faḍlān and his peers remain seated, the woman proceeds to uncover her vulva, in full display of the room, and scratch her itch. Faḍlān and his fellow Muslims instinctively shield their eyes, cover their faces, and call to God calling for forgiveness all to the great amusement of her husband. The husband attempts to explain to Faḍlān that his wife’s public exposure does not condone any form of “illicit intercourse.”

Furthermore, within the context of the Ghuzziyyah culture, these concepts on public nudity do not constitute impious or wrong acts. However, within the context of Faḍlān’s Islamic perspective, these actions, accepted as the standard to the Ghuzziyyah, are obtuse, ungodly, and justifiably defined by Faḍlān as barbaric. The repeating template of tribal action followed by Faḍlān abhorrence perpetuates and ingrains the forced association of tribal actions through an Islamic context, thereby marginalizing unique cultural practices as alien and, therefore, “barbaric” to 10th century Muslims.

The absolute importance of religions as a defining border between the “civilized” and the “barbaric” can be demonstrated through a direct comparison of the word count of two neighboring passages written by Faḍlān. The two passages in question focus specifically on the Bāshghird tribe. The notably wicked and ferocious Turkic tribe, according to Faḍlān’s description, prompt the narrator to be on high alert. The attentive state of the author would conventionally correlate to extensive detailed descriptions of the foreigners as he has done with previous tribes. However, Faḍlān sparingly documents the Bāshghird––mainly focusing on their lice eating habits. In total, Faḍlān dedicated 119 words to the imposing members of the Bāshghird. The following passage, paragraph thirty-eight, focuses almost entirely on the animistic and phallic religion of the Bāshghirds. The information presented by Faḍlān illustrates a significant level of interaction with the Bāshghird and reinforces the idea that the humane qualities are inconsequential when defining groups as “others.” The deference to religion displayed in Faḍlān’s writing unquestionably suggests the hierarchical importance of religion over other qualities as the defining barrier between “us” and “them,” “civilized,” and “barbarian” during the 10th Century.

Despite an unavoidable translation discrepancy, a simple ratio can mitigate the majority of any language bias. Paragraph thirty-seven, the person focused paragraph, contains 119 total words, while paragraph thirty-eight is comprised of 278 total words, 239 of which focus entirely on religion creating a nearly perfect two to one ratio between the paragraphs. While the ratio between religious and nonreligious paragraphs does not definitively explain the importance of religion, it does illuminate the observational priorities of Faḍlān as he attempts to decipher new groups and organize societies as a part of his us or as them.

In addition to the narrative attention and lenses utilized by Faḍlān, his malleable voice and tonal shifts in response to his environment acutely signal “barbaric” qualities. As James Montgomery notes in his introduction, Ibn Faḍlān writes as a series of voices:

“The voice of reason, when faced with his colleagues’ obduracy; the voice of decorum and dignity, and often prudery, when confronted by the wilder excesses of Turkic behavior; the voice of shock, when horrified by Rūs burial rite. Yet he is also the voice of curiosity, when exposed to the myriad of marvels he witnesses…”

This slight manipulation in how the writing interacts with the setting creates a cacophony of different reactionary perspectives. A holistic interpretation of Faḍlān’s varied voices emphasizes the defining role of religion to 10th Century educated Muslims. In the presence of Muslim Bulghārs, Faḍlān invokes a respectfully curious voice as he attempts to interpret their bathing practices and open nudity shared between men and women. The elongated clause sentence structure suggests an attempt by Faḍlān to understand these practices concerning their Muslim identity. In comparison, when Faḍlān was confronted with similar displays of public nudity practiced by the Guzziyyah, his short and brash written response to the situation indicates his reactionary “othering” of the Guzziyyah.

While the two naked environments Faḍlān was exposed to are contextually different they share key factors: both events take place in the presence of men and women, both cultures vehemently abstain from adultery and other forms of illicit intercourse despite their provocative behavior, and both Guzziyyah and Bulghārs are foreign people to Faḍlān. However, the two groups maintain different relationships with Islam/monotheism, which marks the crucial bifurcation and the decisive factor influencing Faḍlān’s reaction. From Faḍlān’s perspective, the Guzziyyah are a collection of religiously unenlightened individuals who live a condemned existence. Therefore, their actions are condemned, and a collection of condemned people classifies them as “barbaric.” Whereas the Bulghārs can exhibit similar habits to their Turkic neighbors, but their recognition of a singular God, and most importantly to Faḍlān, adherence to essential Muslim rituals, their actions are not constituted as “barbaric” instead they are uniquely “civilized.” 

Throughout Mission to the Volga, Faḍlān develops a straightforward thesis defining the relationship between a culture and its categorical distinction either as “barbaric” or “civilized.” Any given action (actions are defined as a unique cultural aspect of a specific ethnic group or tribe) is inherently neutral, but that action can be characterized as “barbaric” or “civilized” on the pretense of Islam/monotheism (see Figure 1). Through Faḍlān’s description of the Guzziyyah, he notes the brutal Turkic tribe lacks “monotheism,” not “Islam;” this is a crucial distinction that allows a civilized status to Christians and Jews. Furthermore, the “transactional” nature of ethnicity redefines itself depending on the definitions of “us” and “them,” allowing variability in distinctions. The stark “othering” captured in Mission to the Volga underlines a comprehensive motive of the Abbasid Caliphate to ideologically distinguish themselves as a tool to maintain and secure an expansive hegemonic power in the 10th century.