For a long time, only an incomplete version of the account was known, as transmitted in the geographical dictionary of Yāqūt (under the headings Atil, Bashgird, Bulghār, Khazar, Khwārizm, Rūs), published in 1823 by Christian Martin Frähn.
Only in 1923 was a manuscript discovered by Zeki Validi Togan in the Astane Quds Museum, Mashhad, Iran. The manuscript, Razawi Library MS 5229, dates from the 13th century (7th century Hijra) and consists of 420 pages (210 folia). Besides other geographical treatises, it contains a fuller version of Ibn Fadlan's text (pp. 390–420). Additional passages not preserved in MS 5229 are quoted in the work of the 16th century Persian geographer Amīn Rāzī called Haft Iqlīm ("Seven Climes").
Ibn Fadlan was sent from Baghdad in 921 to serve as the secretary to an ambassador from the Abbasid Caliph al-Muqtadir to the iltäbär (vassal-king under the Khazars) of the Volga Bulgaria, Almış.
On 21 June 921 (11 safar AH 309), a diplomatic party led by Susan al-Rassi, a eunuch in the caliph's court, left Baghdad. Primarily, the purpose of their mission was to explain Islamic law to the recently converted Bulgar peoples living on the eastern bank of the Volga River in what is now Russia. (These were the Volga Bulgars; another group of Bulgars had moved westward in the 6th century, invading the country that today bears their name, and became Christians.) Additionally, the embassy was sent in response to a request by the king of the Volga Bulgars to help them against their enemies, the Khazars. Ibn Fadlan served as the group's religious advisor and lead counselor for Islamic religious doctrine and law.
Ahmad Ibn Fadlan and the diplomatic party utilized established caravan routes toward Bukhara, now part of Uzbekistan, but instead of following that route all the way to the east, they turned northward in what is now northeastern Iran. Leaving the city of Gurgan near the Caspian Sea, they crossed lands belonging to a variety of Turkic peoples, notably the Khazar Khaganate, Oghuz Turks on the east coast of the Caspian, the Pechenegs on the Ural River, and the Bashkirs in what is now central Russia, but the largest portion of his account is dedicated to the Rus, i.e. the Varangians (Vikings) on the Volga trade route. All told, the delegation covered some 4000 kilometers (2500 mi).
Ibn Fadlan’s envoy reached the Volga Bulgar capital on 12 May 922 (12 muharram AH 310). When they arrived, Ibn Fadlan read aloud a letter from the caliph to the Bulgar khan, and presented him with gifts from the caliphate. At the meeting with the Bulgar ruler, Ibn Fadlan delivered the caliph's letter, but was criticized for not bringing with him the promised money from the caliph to build a fortress as defense against enemies of the Bulgars.
One noteworthy aspect of the Volga Bulgars that Ibn Fadlan focused on was their religion and the institution of Islam in these territories. The Bulgar king had invited religious instruction as a gesture of homage to the Abbasids in exchange for financial and military support, and Ibn Fadlan's mission as a faqih was one of proselytization as well as diplomacy.
For example, Ibn Fadlan details in his encounter that the Volga Bulgar Khan commits an error in his prayer exhortations by repeating the prayer twice. One scholar calls it an “illuminating episode” in the text where Ibn Fadlan expresses his great anger and disgust over the fact that the Khan and the Volga Bulgars in general are practicing some form of imperfect and doctrinally unsound Islam. In general, Ibn Fadlan recognized and judged the peoples of central Eurasia he encountered by the possession and practice of Islam, along with their efforts put forth to utilize, implement, and foster Islamic faith and social practice in their respective society. Consequently, many of the peoples and societies to Ibn Fadlan were "like asses gone astray. They have no religious bonds with God, nor do they have recourse to reason".
A substantial portion of Ibn Fadlan's account is dedicated to the description of a people he called the Rūs روس or Rūsiyyah, i.e. the Volga Vikings, the North Germanic (or, in the "anti-Normanist" interpretation, early East Slavic) groups travelling the Volga trade route. The Rūs appear as traders who set up shop on the river banks nearby the Bolğar camp. They are described as having bodies tall as (date) palm-trees, with blond hair and ruddy skin. They are tattooed from "fingernails to neck" with dark blue or dark green "tree patterns" and other "figures" and that all men are armed with an axe, sword and long knife.
Ibn Fadlan describes the Rus as "perfect physical specimens" and the hygiene of the Rūsiyyah as disgusting (while also noting with some astonishment that they comb their hair every day) and considers them vulgar and unsophisticated. In that, his account contrasts with that of the Persian traveler Ibn Rustah, whose impressions of the Rus were more favourable. He also describes in great detail the funeral of one of their chieftains (a ship burial involving human sacrifice). Some scholars believe that it took place in the modern Balymer complex.