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Evidence of Muslim Influence in Ancient Viking Culture Found in Sweden

The discovery of Muslim artifacts in Viking graves raises questions about white supremacy, then and now.

The discovery of artifacts that bear Islamic imagery is raising questions in the archaeological world. Findings in ancient gravesites have raised the question: Did Vikings who raided Muslim communities bring home a new religion, or are modern archeologists seeing interfaith connections as a way to counteract white supremacy?

Researchers at Uppsala, Sweden’s oldest university, claim to have found Islamic symbols woven into clothing artifacts found at 9th century Viking burial sites in Birka and Gamla Uppsala in Sweden. An ornate pattern woven into bands of silk on a buried outfit bears a resemblance to the geometric Kufic text spelling out the words “Allah.” Textile archaeology researcher Annika Larsson said at first she could not make sense of the symbols, but then, “I remembered where I had seen similar designs: in Spain, on Moorish textiles.”

The Muslim words for God, Allah and Ali, appear to be woven both forwards and backwards in the decorative woven fabric. Larsson said that Viking burial clothes were selected from the finest and most important items available, rather than everyday fashions, just as modern era people are typically buried in formal clothes. “Presumably, Viking age burial customs were influenced by Islam and the idea of an eternal life in paradise after death.”

The Vikings had extensive contact with the Muslim world, as they traveled widely on their raids and expeditions. Other graves and caches of Viking treasure have yielded over 100,000 Islamic silver coins known as dirhams, jewelry bearing Islamic symbols, and bodies bearing DNA from Persia, suggesting intermarriage and immigration (voluntary or otherwise). In 2015, a Viking woman’s glass ring was discovered bearing the inscription “for Allah” or “to Allah.” Religious objects have been found in Viking graves that represent seven languages and three belief systems, Christianity, Islam, and the worship of Thor, a key figure in Norse mythology.

However, other researchers are unconvinced that these artifacts are meaningful. “The use of Ali does suggest a Shia connection,” says Amir De Martino, programme leader of Islamic studies at the Islamic College in London. “But without the phrase ‘waly Allah’ accompanying the name – meaning ‘friend of Allah’ – this would not be from mainstream Shia culture and might just have been copied wrongly from something that was,” adds De Martino, who is also the chief editor of Islam Today, a British Shia magazine.

The debate has become more heated due to modern political divisions. The white supremacist movement has adopted symbols from the Viking tradition, revering a faux-medieval culture as an example of perfect white purity. The white supremacists who marched in Charlottesville carried equipment bearing Viking imagery. (One popular white supremacist symbol, the Black Eagle of the Holy Roman Germanic Empire, is strongly associated with its patron saint, Saint Maurice, who was actually black.)

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