A Viking-era ring unravels anti-Islamic narratives

Artefacts prove that the Muslim world has always been connected to the West and the East, writes Shelina Janmohamed

Muslims influenced the new world even before Christopher Columbus made it there Universal History Archive / UIG via Getty Images
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Artefacts prove that the Muslim world has always been connected to the West and East

A small silver ring with a dark red gem found in a Viking-era grave in Scandinavia may hold superpowers.

The story of this ring – and many others artefacts like it – could be today’s political and cultural saviours.

A team of scientists at Stockholm University recently examined the ring, which was found in the late 19th century in a Viking woman’s grave. Engraved with the word “Allah”, the gem was thought to be an amethyst. It turned out to be coloured glass – very exotic in the Viking world. Its mint condition means it was most likely not an heirloom but was brought directly from the Muslim world.

The ring is evidence of the belief that there was direct contact between Viking-era Scandinavia and the Muslim world.

The story of the ring is in many ways the story of the founding of the modern world, whose urban patterns, cultures and languages have been intimately shaped by migration.

This ring’s story has a more specific power, of course, due to its Muslim heritage. It shines a light in the ugly face of Muslim bans, the rising far right and growing anti-Muslim hatred. By keeping us ignorant of our shared histories, those narratives want to engulf us in darkness by hoisting up the drawbridges and harking to a past greatness that is defined by isolation and difference. It’s a past conjured up in opposition to the facts. Such an isolationist monocultural past never existed.

It’s vital to assert this, especially with regard to western interactions with Muslim populations.

For nearly one-and-a-half millennia, the exchange of people, goods and ideas with the Muslim world was part of the global marketplace. And the reverse is also true.

There is evidence of Muslim interactions with the new world well before Columbus arrived on the soil of today’s United States. Much has been written about the interplay of ideas when Muslim scholars translated forgotten ancient Greek works.

The interactions were also eastward – and this is important to remember, too, because the rejection of the idea of Muslim presence and contribution is gaining traction in these regions.

From the earliest days of the Muslim world, Muslim culture and ideas were exchanged all the way to China as quickly as 20 years after the death of the Prophet Mohammed.

Some early developments around the creation of the compass in the 15th century suggest there was interaction between the Chinese and Muslim worlds. Thus it’s another superpower artefact that binds us together.

Muslims arrived and shared in the development of the Indian subcontinent too, as early as the 8th century.

These facts are important because their denial is used to harrass Muslims today. This has fatal consequences. Just ask the Rohingya Muslims of Myanmar, who are called the most persecuted minority on Earth and are rejected as being part of their nation.

Populist ideas of making a country great again, of returning it to an idealised past – for which read, no Muslims, no Islam, no immigrants – deliberately stokes hate based on a wilful denial of history.

George Orwell wrote in 1984 that if you tell the lies often enough, they get written down in history as the truth.

The small stories, like the Viking-era ring, are the truth, and they really do hold power. When they are revived and shared to reframe our understanding, they can change the way we see our past – and therefore both our present and our future.

Shelina Janmohamed is the author of the books Generation M: Young Muslims Changing the World and Love in a Headscarf

On Twitter: @loveinheadscarf