Volga Bulgaria: How Islam Spread throughout the Territory of Tatarstan

20 May 2021


Next year marks the 1100th anniversary of the adoption of Islam as the state religion by Volga Bulgaria. How did Islam emerge on these lands? Why did it become widespread and an integral part of the Tatar people? We are beginning a series of materials dedicated to the history of Volga Bulgaria and the spread of Islam throughout the Volga region.


922: Ibn Fadlan and Khan Almush


The year 922 is the year when Ibn Fadlan’s embassy first set foot of the land of Volga Bulgaria. At that time the state was ruled by Khan Almush, whose subjects would soon accept Islam as the state religion and the only religion of their people. This is where a new milestone in the history of the Volga region and the spread of the Islamic creed here began.


From this year, 21 May went down in history forever, not only for the Tatar people, but also for the entire Volga region, becoming the starting point of Islam’s penetration into the local lands and forever uniting with the culture of the local peoples.


Despite the important mission of Ibn Fadlan and his probably one of the main, if not the most significant, roles in the spread of Islam in the Volga region, little information can be found about him, which is even more valuable.


Ahmad ibn al-Abbas Ibn Fadlan is an Arab traveler and missionary who visited the banks of the Volga River in 921-922 and left ‘Notes’(Risala) about his interesting and rich in new information journey. All that is known for certain is that he was a senior official scribe and was under the patronage of military commander Muhammed ibn Suleiman, who conquered Egypt in 904-905 for the Caliph of Baghdad.


This is all credible information about the personality of this man, who not only came to tell the Bulgars about Islam and was present at the official adoption of Islam, but also introduced the Arab world to the culture and history of our ancestors.


The Arab Traveler and the ‘Slavic State’

Let us return to remote 921 year, when from Baghdad (which then by right was considered to be the capital of the world) the religious and political embassy went to the center of Asia with the educational mission under the assignment of Abbasid Caliph Al-Muqtadir. The team that set out for Volga Bulgaria consisted of different people from the fields of jurisprudence, politics and history. It was headed by Ahmed Ibn Fadlan who is considered to be the first Arab ambassador to Russia. That journey became the key one in further consolidation of religious, cultural and historical ties between the peoples of the two states.


The embassy was officially headed by the Caliph’s eunuch, Susan al-Rassi, but it was Ibn Fadlan who was made get appointed as the secretary of the mission, which is a testament to his high status and widespread authority: it was the secretary’s duty to deal with all rough work and be responsible for conduct of affairs and the very outcome of the venture.


On reaching his destination, Ibn Fadlan was to read the Caliph’s letter to the ruler of Volga Bulgaria, to present him and his entourage with gifts, and to tell about Islam, its beauty and simplicity.


The embassy left Baghdad on 21 June 921, and its way lay through Ray, Nishapur to Bukhara, from there back to Amu Darya, and then down the river to the capital of Khwarazm, Kath. Further there was a wintering in Konye-Urgench and seventy day’s journey to the North to the banks of the Volga. On 12 May, 922 the Caliph’s embassy arrived in the ‘country of the Slavs’, where the state of Volga Bulgaria was located.


When the caravan’s final destination was one day’s journey away, the embassy was met by four princes subordinate to Almush Eltabar, as well as his brothers and sons. ‘They met us’, Ibn Fadlan writes, ‘holding bread, meat and millet in their hands, and rode with us. The tsar himself met us at the distance of two parasangs (12 kilometers) from his headquarters. When he saw us, he got down from his horse and fell down, worshipping and giving thanks to great and mighty Allah’.


Before the letter that was the main purpose of that long, dangerous and exhausting journey was read, the two banners being brought with had been unfurled and the horse being given as a present had been saddled. Almush Eltabar himself was dressed in black, as the highest dignitary of the lord of faith’s court, and a turban was carefully placed on his head. After that, Ibn Fadlan, who was in charge of conducting the ceremony, took out the Caliph’s letter and began to read it. ‘The interpreter was accurately translating the letter. When we finished reading, they shouted ‘Allah is the greatest!’ so strong that it made the ground tremble’, Ibn Fadlan left notes about it.


It was from that moment that Volga Bulgaria, together with all its inhabitants, recognized Islam as the state religion, thus becoming an integral part of the Islamic world. It was from this land that the Islamic faith began to spread throughout the Volga region, becoming one with the culture and traditions of many local peoples.


‘Notes’ that Told the World about the Peoples of the Volga Region


Upon his return to his native Baghdad, Ahmad Ibn Fadlan immediately sat down to write ‘Notes’(‘Risala’), which were composed in the format of travel notes and soon became one of the most important sources on the medieval history of the Volga region, Transvolga region and Central Asia. The final part of the ‘Notes’, unfortunately, has not reached our times, so we can only imagine Fadlan’s way back and put forward various theories and suppositions.


In his work, the traveler tried to describe in detail everything he had managed to find out and see from the moment his horse was beyond the territory of Baghdad until the gates of the house slammed behind his back. Among geographical and historical summaries one can even find northern legendary stories, including the one about a tremendous fish.


According to historians and ethnographers ‘Notes’ is a vivid monument of Arabic geographical literature, which was a characteristic and integral element of Arab-Muslim culture. In his notes he chronicled the history of ordinary people, their everyday life, culture and beliefs. In so doing, he left little information about himself, apart from a few scraps which can be found in the ‘Notes’.


It was Ibn Fadlan who first described the life of one of trade routes, which served as the main channel for dissemination of culture and customs of different peoples, symbolizing the unity of East and West. His ‘Notes’ are unparalleled in the richness of ethnographic observations about tribes and peoples who lived thousands of years ago o the territory of Russia. It can be said that Ibn Fadlan was a literary pioneer of the lands which, although were previously visited by Muslim merchants, remained largely unknown to Arab geography of the X century.

Today, for us and for experts in various fields, ‘Risala’ (‘Notes’) is one of the most important sources on the medieval history of the peoples of the Volga region, Transvolga region and Central Asia. Of course, Ibn Fadlan was not a discoverer, but he became the first traveler in the whole world, whose documentary and diverse information about the northern Caspian areas and the Volga region has survived up to the present day. It was him who gave the first correct list of rivers crossing the Caspian lowlands. For all these rivers, Ibn Fadlan provided names that coincide or overlap with present-day names.


To our great regret, the original text of the book has been lost. The available fragments have reached us in the Geographical Dictionary by the XIII century Arab encyclopaedist Yaqut al-Rumi. The work was first published in this form in 1823 in the German language by Russian academician Fren. The only known copy of the ‘Notes’ was discovered by orientalist Ahmet-Zaki Validov in 1923 in the library at the tomb of Imam Ali ibn Riza in Mashhad in Iran.


In 1923, a photocopy of the document was given by the Iranian government to the USSR Academy of Sciences. It was the basis for a translation of the monument, published in 1939 under the editorship of I. Krachkovsky. In the same year, the German translation by A.Z.V. Togan was published. The second revised edition of Kovalevsky’s translation was published in 1956.



Ilmira Gafiyatullina