Islamic calligraphy & Viking heritage: why shouldn’t you be surprised

Another episode of Viking discovery is yet again at the forefront of the media. This time it all surfaced with a piece of cloth that some experts claim to have written the words “Allah” and “Ali”. The news of 9th century Viking burial cloth was mainstreamed by outlets such as the New York Times, BBC, The Guardian and others. The story went viral facing sharp criticism from white supremacists and even from academia. A heated debate followed this and the arguers debated on the extant Islamic civilisation had impacted Vikings. And some also mentioned that they were Muslims? And most of us, both Muslims and Islamophobes alike, on the internet more specifically on social media became experts overnight, concluding the extent to which the Muslim civilisation had influenced Vikings. I decided to dig a bit deeper and found every reason not to be surprised by the news, regardless of whether the art found in the Viking cloths are Islamic or not.

Let us understand a bit more about Vikings before we go into the critical analysis. There are various theories about Vikings, and all of those arguments relate them to Scandinavia. Vikings were known to be brutal seafarers who raided and traded across almost all the parts of Europe. They invaded Britain in the late 8th century and ruled till the Norman conquest of England in the mid 11th century. They even reached North Africa and some parts of Asia. In old English literature Vikings are referred to as pirates, which could be the reason why we understand them as barbaric pirates today. Viking era is the period between 8th and 11th century in the historical analysis. Now, why shouldn’t you be surprised if or when the Muslim calligraphy is found among Viking heritage?

1.Islamic golden age overlaps with Vikings era

If you reflect deeply on the Vikings age, the period overlaps with the what is known as Islamic golden age. Muslims were the mightiest civilisation on earth for over a millennium from the mid 7th century to early 19th century.

Purple-stone-found-in 9th century-Viking-grave

Purple stone found in 9th century Viking grave / Photo: Dailymail.co.uk

Muslims ruled the whole Arabia, the majority of Asia and Africa and even the Iberian peninsula during the time. The Islamic golden age where art, cultural work and science flourished spanned from the 8th to 13th century. It’s not alien to find random traces of mighty civilisations even if it’s located in faraway lands if that fits into their period. Therefore you shouldn’t be surprised if Muslim calligraphy is found on the 9th or even 8th century Viking burial cloths. And this leads to our second reason.

2. Others always adopt various aspects of mighty civilisations

Others always adopt the Art, fashion, style, garment, culture and other aspects of mighty civilisations. Even today Asia and Africa keep on adapting to the western way of life even after the colonial era for many different reasons. There are plenty of documentary and archaeological evidence that Europeans imported Islamic decorative arts to the Europe during the Islamic golden age. Anglo-Saxons who ruled Britain before Vikings even copied the Islamic dinar coins in the early middle ages. And it is still there in the British Museum with clear Arabic words. Therefore you should not be astounded by the news of Islamic traces found on the materials that belong Vikings.


3. Vikings raided Muslim lands

Vikings were a nation of robbers and pirates. It is common sense that they would possess world’s most luxurious things. Further, there are plenty of documentary evidence in the Muslim literature about encounters with the Vikings during the 9th century. The main critique of the claims that the calligraphy belongs to Islamic art also acknowledged this fact. The Persian geographer and personal spymaster to Abbasids, Abdallah ibn Khordadbeh who lived 90 years from 820 wrote in his book The Book of Roads and Kingdoms about Vikings. Many other Muslim writers mentioned Vikings in their writings since the 9th century which proves the fact that Vikings encountered Muslims since then.


4. Muslim explorers travelled to Viking lands 

Ahmed ibn Fadlan's manuscript on his visit to Viking land

Ahmed ibn Fadlan’s manuscript on his visit to Viking land / Photo: wikipidia.org

Muslim travellers and explorers are known for their explorations around the world. In fact, they introduced Islam to the faraway lands on many occasions. Although we don’t have documented evidence that Muslims travelled to Viking lands before the 9th century, it is highly probable that Muslims paid occasional visits to Scandinavia during or before the 9th century, given the political and economic realities of that age. The most popular Islamic writing about Vikings, which is the richest in content, dates back to 10th century. It is an account written by Ahmed ibn Fadlan who paid a diplomatic visit to Scandinavian Vikings. It could be the earliest eyewitness account of the famous ship burial.

Reflecting on the above reasons you should not be shocked if or when someone tells you that Islamic traces are found in the Viking heritage which dates back to 9th or even 8th century. However, the business of proving it lies entirely on experts and it should be left to academia, not to the media. It’s also worth mentioning that numerous writings are found in Islamic literature after the 10th century. The books mainly describe on two principal activities. The Vikings were attacking the Muslim lands in North Africa, central Asia and Europe, and established trade ties between Vikings and Muslims. By the 16th century, a community of Vikings converted to Islam, and this was recorded by the author of Haft iqlim, Amin Razi, a Persian author.

Islamic traces in ancient Europe happens to be a kind of weird thing for two main reasons. Number one, during the colonial era Europeans, for political reasons, wiped out fairly a large part of their history to disown any links that had been connecting their ancestors to the Islamic heritage. The most prominent example of this could be the neglected history of 500 years of Muslim rule in Spain. The second reason is valuable Islamic sources have been overlooked in the historical analysis in modern academia for several reasons such as language barriers.



3 thoughts on “Islamic calligraphy & Viking heritage: why shouldn’t you be surprised

  1. Candia says:

    Thanks for following my posts. Yours look to be of interest!

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