Is there a Penang Style of Malay Manuscript Illumination?

Some preliminary comments on the art of the Malay book,
with special reference to manuscripts in the Muzium Negeri Pulau Pinang 1

by Annabel Gallop
The British Library


Studies of Malay manuscripts have historically focused on the content of the texts, with little attention paid to the form of the manuscript, and therefore little is known about the development of Malay manuscript art.  However, work has recently begun to attempt to identify distinct regional styles of decorating Malay manuscript books, revealing a distinctive school of Acehnese manuscript illumination, and hinting at the existence of a characteristic style of manuscript art from the east coast of the peninsula.  Furthermore, there are signs that illuminated Chinese Islamic manuscripts may have influenced some aspects of Malay manuscript art.  On the basis of two important manuscripts - a manuscript of the Taj al-Salatin held in the British Library, copied in Penang in 1824, and a Qur'an in the Muzium Negeri Pulau Pinang, it is also suggested that a sophisticated and unusual school of Islamic book art may have flourished in Penang in the 19th century.


Approaches to the study of the art of the Malay book
An 'Acehnese style' of manuscript illumination
Illuminated manuscripts from the east coast of the Malay peninsula
Chinese influence
A possible 'Penang style' of Malay manuscript illumination


Acehnese Qur'an



The Malay world of maritime Southeast Asia is home to hundreds of different linguistic and ethnic groups, but for centuries the port-kingdoms of the coastal areas have been linked by the faith of Islam and by their shared use of the Malay language for trade and diplomacy. In all these regions - from Sumatra to the southern Philippines - there is a manuscript culture which is recognizably Islamic, written on paper in the Arabic script, with books laid out in typical Muslim fashion, with symmetrically decorated double pages and triangular tapered colophons, often beautifully illuminated.  But while there is a growing awareness of the importance of manuscripts as unique sources for many aspects of Malay culture and society, scholarly attention remains focused on their content rather than form, and the study of the art of the Malay book has barely begun.  There are many reasons for this gap in our knowledge, of which the following can be highlighted. 

Firstly, European studies of Malay have always focused on language and literature: in the 17th century to serve the needs of trade, diplomacy and evangelism, and by the 19th century for administrative, bureaucratic and military purposes.  In support of these preoccupations, Western centres of Malay studies have traditionally concentrated on the study and teaching of Malay philology and literature, right up to the present day.  Accordingly, the presence of decorative elements in Malay manuscripts is rarely remarked upon, even in manuscripts catalogues,2 and - crucially, for the purposes of the study of Malay manuscript art - almost no published reproductions of decorated Malay manuscripts were available prior to the past two decades.  In fact, as far as I am aware, hardly a single reference to the artistic aspects of Malay manuscripts appears in early Western writings until a mention, in passing, in Wilkinson's account of Malay letter-writing in 1907.3  This silence is matched on the Malay side: there are no Malay manuscript treatises on book illustration,4 nor are there any known references in Malay texts to the decoration of manuscript books or documents. Furthermore, while Malay manuscripts form a clear subset of the larger family of Islamic manuscripts, the art of the Malay book has been all but totally neglected by scholars of Islamic art, due to a long-held perception of Southeast Asia as a marginal region on the fringes of the Islamic world, a mind-set which is only now beginning to change.

Secondly, the study of the art of the Malay book - as is the case in all Islamic cultures - must take as its point of departure the Holy Qur'an, as the supreme Book, the manuscript on which the greatest energy, cost and effort would have been expended in any Muslim court or society. But Western collectors appear to have shown relatively little interest in acquiring copies of the Qur'an from the Malay world, compared with their well-documented interest in literary and historical manuscripts. Until very recently, the British Library held only two Qur'ans from Southeast Asia, both acquired by John Crawfurd during the British administration of Java (1811-1815).  Even when Qur'ans are held in Western institutions, a further obstacle to their study in the context of Malay manuscript art can be attributed to the way in which Western manuscript collections have traditionally been organised and managed primarily on the basis of language.  Thus Qur'ans from Southeast Asia will not be listed in catalogues of Indonesian or Malay manuscripts but in catalogues of Arabic manuscripts, in which the few Southeast Asian examples are almost invariably overshadowed by much larger numbers of older or finer Kufic, Mamluk, Safavid, Ottoman or Mughal examples.5  In some cases, the Southeast Asian provenance of a Qur'an may not even be apparent from an institutional catalogue without further recourse to the biography of the donor or seller, or examination of the manuscript itself.

A third, and related, issue is the importance of conducting codicological studies on a regional rather than strictly linguistic basis, and to this ends all the manuscript products of a certain region should be considered together.  Thus for a study of the art of the book in Aceh one should look at Malay, Acehnese and Arabic manuscripts produced in Aceh, or, for Madura, manuscripts from that island written on paper in Malay, Arabic, Madurese and Javanese.  However, scholarly studies and reference tools are usually demarcated by language, and a lot of effort is therefore required to bring together a suitable corpus of works for examination.

Despite this background of disinterest and neglect, in the past two decades certain developments have greatly enhanced the climate for the study of Malay manuscript art.  Among the most important was the establishment in 1985 of the Pusat Manuskrip Melayu (PMM) at the Perpustakaan Negara Malaysia, whose vigorous and pro-active collecting policies have led to the building up of a collection of over 2,400 Malay manuscripts since its inception.  Over the same period of time, another Malaysian institution, the Muzium Islam - part of the Pusat Islam, Bahagian Hal Ehwal Islam Malaysia, Jabatan Perdana Menteri - has acquired a complementary collection of over a thousand Islamic manuscripts written in Malay and/or Arabic, including, apparently, over 300 Qur'ans (Ali 1997:109 n.4).  The same market conditions which sustained these developments also led to the slow but steady appearance on the international Islamic art market - and in the illustrated catalogues of the major London auction houses - of a number of Southeast Asian Islamic manuscripts.6 

These collecting activities have been accompanied by no less important efforts at documenting Malay manuscripts, spearheaded again by the PMM, which has been in the forefront of cataloguing not only manuscripts in its own collections but also those of other institutions.   The past decade has also seen a surge in the publishing of catalogues and studies of manuscripts.  Thanks to wider public interest in manuscript art and to technological advances which have greatly reduced the cost of reproducing images, many of these recent publications are lavishly illustrated, with a special emphasis on illuminated and decorated manuscripts.7

As a result of these developments in the dual fields of collection development and documentation, there are now a considerable number of published reproductions of illuminated manuscripts from Southeast Asia, and easier access to unpublished ones, so that it may at last be possible to begin to investigate the art of the Malay book, or, at the very least, certain specific aspects of this art.

Approaches to the study of the art of the Malay book

The term 'Malay book' is used in this study in a very broad sense, to refer to manuscript volumes or codices from Southeast Asia written in the Arabic script, usually in the Malay or Arabic language, but sometimes in other regional languages such as Acehnese, Minangkabau, Javanese or the Tausug language of Sulu.  Manuscript books on paper from Southeast Asia only survive from the late 16th century, and most of the examples in public collections date from the 18th or 19th centuries.  In the Malay book, illumination usually takes the form of purely ornamental patterns using floral, foliate and geometric motifs in a range of colours, sometimes with the addition of gold but rarely with silver.  The orthodox Islamic prohibition of the depiction of living creatures in official or religious contexts was taken to heart by Malay scribes, and - with only a few late exceptions, particularly from Java - there is no evidence of a tradition of figural illustration in Malay manuscript books.

The subject of this study is all graphic devices which serve to adorn, emphasize or beautify the text in Malay manuscript books, whether in the form of elaborate illuminated frontispieces or chapter headings, or simple marginal ornaments or text markers.  'Illumination', from the Latin illuminare, 'to enlighten or illuminate', refers to the embellishment of a manuscript with luminous colours, especially gold and silver (Brown 1994:69). In this study, the terms 'illumination' and 'decoration' will be used more or less interchangeably, but with a slight difference of qualitative emphasis: the term 'illumination' is preferred for more ornate examples of ornamentation, while the scope of 'decoration' is broader, encompassing even the most basic graphic embellishments of the text.  At present, there is no standard Malay vocabulary for the description of decorative features in Malay manuscripts. 

It is to the study of Islamic illumination that we naturally turn in search of a framework for a study of Malay manuscript art, and it is somewhat surprising to find that that the study of non-figural Islamic illumination is relatively unevenly treated, with the attention of art historians traditionally being focused on miniature painting.  Indeed, some of the problems mentioned above in connection with Malay manuscripts appear to be common to the study of other illuminated Islamic manuscripts: inadequate descriptions of ornamentation in manuscript catalogues; the paucity of published reproductions; and the lack of a standard descriptive vocabulary, whether in Arabic or in English, and of an internationally-recognized and stable classification of decorative elements (Akimushkin & Ivanov 1979:35; Polosin 1995:16).  Nonetheless, there are masterly studies of illumination in Persian manuscripts, surveying the chronological development of types of illumination such as initial 'sun-burst' roundels (shamsa), chapter headings (úunwÂn), full-page illumination of initial pages (sar-lawÐ), and borders and colophons (Ettinghausen 1939; Akimushkin & Ivanov 1979).  On the other hand, the subject matter of the text, whether religious, literary or scientific, is the basis of a study into the function of illumination in Islamic manuscripts (Waley 1997), while an 'archaeographic' approach highlights the need for more scientific and exact methods of describing illumination in Islamic manuscripts to enable the reconstruction of the principles of graphic proportion on which the work of illuminators was based (Polosin 1995)

There is therefore a wide choice of approaches available for the study of the art of the Malay book, such as a chronological study, starting with the oldest known illuminated Malay manuscripts of the early 17th century and tracing developments up to the early 20th century, or a series of regional studies, based on manuscripts from particular states or produced by certain ethnic or linguistic groups.  Also important is the identification of influences on Malay manuscript illumination, whether foreign (Ottoman, Persian, Indian, Chinese or European) or intra-regional (Javanese, Bugis, Batak, etc.), or from other artistic media, such as wood-carving, textile design, metalwork, or architecture. A study of manuscript art could also be based on genres of texts, distinguishing between illumination found in Qur'ans and, say, other religious texts, divination manuals or literary works such as hikayat and syair, whose poetical structure makes clear demands on the graphic layout of the page.  Alternatively an analysis could focus on the types of illumination commonly found in Malay manuscripts: illuminated double-page openings; colophons, whether triangular or round; chapter and section headings; marginal ornaments; and text frames and borders.  Another criterion which could usefully be introduced is that of the nature of patronage, distinguishing between manuscripts produced for traditional Malay rulers and those produced within the urban kampung of Batavia for the 'court' of the Dutch Governor-General, and those created in more restricted circumstances in villages and religious schools.

Each of these criteria would need to be considered for a full understanding of the art of the Malay book, but at this stage of the investigation it would be a mistake to take a normative approach and select a method - whether chronological, regional, typological or generic - and attempt to apply this rigorously to Malay manuscripts. Rather, the material should be allowed to speak for itself, to see what patterns emerge naturally from the evidence. The current state of our knowledge of Malay manuscript art can be likened to a jigsaw puzzle where each piece represents a single decorated manuscript.  In just one or two areas, a considerable number of jigsaw pieces can be joined together to display a relatively clear picture.  More often, only two or three pieces fit together, confirming the underlying presence of a pattern the precise characteristics of which cannot yet be discerned, or a small number of individual pieces may be grouped together on the basis of a common colour or motif, but cannot yet be joined to reveal the image described therein.  Most commonly of all, there are numerous individual pieces whose position in the general scheme of things is still completely unclear.  

Examples of each of these scenarios will be explored below.  Firstly.  there is a recognizable 'Acehnese style' of manuscript illumination, where more than thirty manuscripts can be 'linked together' to outline a distinctive school of manuscript art.  Secondly, and much more tenuously, there are several small groups of four or five manuscripts, two of which hint at the existence of a distinctive style of illumination from the east coast of the Malay peninsula, while another indicates that Chinese Islamic manuscripts may have exerted some influence on Malay manuscript art.  Thirdly, there is a manuscript that, until recently was regarded as a single piece of the jigsaw that could not be fitted in to the overall picture, until the discovery of another single piece.  Put together, the two suggest that a distinctive 'Penang style' of Malay manuscript illumination may have flourished in the early 19th century.

An 'Acehnese style' of manuscript illumination

click to enlarge
[click to enlarge]

After the fall of Melaka to the Portuguese in 1511, the kingdom of Aceh in north Sumatra rose to become the most powerful Islamic state in Southeast Asia in the 16th and early 17th centuries, with a thriving literary culture.  Aceh was still an independent state in the late 19th century when the Dutch colonial government based in Java was attempting to consolidate and expand its control over the whole Indonesian archipelago.  Aceh was attacked in 1873, heralding a war which dragged on into the early 20th century.  During this long conflict, large numbers of manuscripts were captured from Aceh, ending up partly in Batavia, where they are now held in the National Library of Indonesia in Jakarta, and in Holland, primarily in Leiden University Library, the Koninklijk Instituut voor Tropen in Amsterdam, and the Rijksmuseum voor Volkenkunde in Leiden.  Even where no information is given in the manuscripts themselves, their Acehnese provenance may be determined by their known status as war booty, or they may have been donated by well-known figures in the military campaign.  The flip side of this pillage is that there are probably more manuscripts from Aceh preserved in public collections today than from almost any other Malay kingdom, and despite the looting there are still substantial numbers of manuscripts in Aceh, in the Museum Negeri Aceh, the Dayah Tanoh Abee, a traditional Islamic college, and the Yayasan Ali Hasjmy in Banda Aceh. From a survey of these manuscripts, which mostly date from the 19th century, a distinct style of double-page illumination can be discerned.  The two defining features of this style are:

  • The text block is surrounded by a decorated rectangular border, the verticals of which are extended up and down to form two columns flanking the text block on left and right.  The tops of these columns always slope inwards, usually in a wavy line.
  • On the outer three sides of the text block (i.e. top, bottom, and facing the vertical edge of the page) are arches which may be semicircular, triangular or ogival in shape.  The arches on the vertical sides closest to the foredge are nearly always flanked by two 'wings', which may be either delicate tendrils or more substantial constructs.

In addition to these two major features, certain other characteristic elements are very commonly found:

  • delicate finials may project from the cusps of the arches
  • the text block may be framed by a looped vine, which starts from each of the four corner and rises to a loose intersection at the midpoint of each side
  • there may be a plaited border
  • the colour palette is limited, generally comprising only red, yellow/ochre and black, sometimes including brown and green, and occasionally gold

So far, over thirty manuscripts have been identified which fit this picture, mostly dating from the late 18th and 19th centuries.  Over half the number are Qur'ans, and the others mostly contain religious texts such as the popular Masail al-muhtadi li ikhwan al-mubtadi and the Sirat al-mustaqim of Nuruddin al-Raniri, one manuscript of which is said to have been copied during the reign of Sultan Alauddin Muhammad Syah of Aceh (r.1781-1795).  Twenty four manuscripts have definite or very likely Acehnese provenances, while the remainder have been identified as Acehnese on the basis of their decorative features, including a Qur'an said to be 'written by a Malay', reproduced in 1913 in the first edition of the Encylopaedia of Islam (Vol.1, Pl.X).

This is not to suggest that all manuscripts from Aceh conform to a single decorative template, and there are many other illuminated manuscripts from Aceh with different decorative features, such as a boldly-decorated Qur'an now in the Muzium Negeri Pulau Pinang, formerly owned by Teungku Nyak Abu bin Teungku Chik Ahmad of Aceh8.  However, there are not such large numbers of illuminated manuscripts in any other single style, and, conversely, no manuscript which fits all the criteria above has been identified as coming from anywhere else.  So we can have some confidence in identifying a specific school of Acehnese manuscript illumination, dating at least from the late 18th century and lasting into the late 19th century.

Illuminated manuscripts from the east coast of the Malay peninsula

The Acehnese style is characterized by its self-confidence and unswerving sense of identity, a superb sense of architecture, and its striking and bold use of line and colour.  But for greater delicacy, a more subtle palette and a more refined aesthetic sensibility, we have to turn to the Malay peninsula.  The numbers of known illuminated manuscripts from this region are so much smaller that it is more difficult to talk with conviction about identifiable styles of illumination.  Nonetheless, it seems probable that one of the finest schools of Malay manuscript illumination flourished on the east coast of the Malay peninsula, in the states of Terengganu and Kelantan and the southern Thai region of Patani, and two distinctive features have been noted which may be characteristic of this region.

The first feature is a border hugging the outer edges of a double-page opening, which is rounded at the corners and sometimes in its undulations mirrors and complements the scalloped edges of the decorative frame around the text block.  From this outer border projects a series of finials that reach out to smaller rays protruding from the decorative frame of the text block, evoking the relationship between stalagmites and stalactites.  This feature has been noted in two Qur'an manuscripts which appear to be from Terengganu, one apparently dated 1871 and now in the Muzium Islam (Manuskrip 1984:17; Tamadun 1997:206) and the second in the Muzium Budaya Melaka, and also in a guide to reading the Qur'an (Manuskrip 1984:7).

The second distinctive feature is a motif found usually in the arches that protrude from the vertical sides of a double-page illuminated frame, but sometimes in the top and bottom arches as well.  The arches are formed by two interlocking 'waves' which are then surmounted by a small ogival dome.  The seven manuscripts noted with this feature include a prayerbook, Dala’il al-Khayrat by al-Jazuli, in the PMM (MS 1273); a Kitab Maulid in the Muzium Negeri Kelantan with a Patani colophon (MZ(KN)146:86); a copy of the Hikayat Hang Tuah in the Muzium Negeri Terengganu (H 83 10); and a very fine Qur'an acquired by the British Library in a London auction in 1996 (Or.15227).  Possibly the oldest example is a superb volume containing the Bustan al-Salatin and Taj al-Salatin, acquired in Pontianak in 1812 and now in the Royal Asiatic Society (Raffles Malay 42)9.   It should also be noted that so far, this particular 'interlocking wave' motif has not been seen in published Qur'ans from other parts of the Islamic world; nor is it known from manuscripts in Indonesian or Dutch collections (which contain relatively few manuscripts from the Malay peninsula).

If indeed the motif does derive from the east coast of the peninsula, there is another possible reason for the rarity of these manuscripts.  In 1882, a devastating fire in Terengganu destroyed the Sultan's official residence and 1,600 other houses, doubtless including those of court officials and aristocrats who would naturally live near the palace.  This fire, which 'swept away all direct evidence of earlier Malay architecture in the Trengganu capital' (Sheppard 1986:33) may also have wiped out, in a single blow, a large proportion of the written heritage of the state.   For we know from two surviving letters that the quality of illumination of royal letters in Terengganu in the early 19th century was perhaps higher than in any other Malay state10, yet few examples of fine old manuscripts from Terengganu are known.

Chinese influence

The third issue is the question of the influence of Chinese Islamic manuscripts on Malay manuscript illumination.  Over the past two decades, the international Islamic art market has witnessed the emergence, for the first time, of substantial numbers of Chinese Qur'ans and other Islamic manuscripts, dating from the 15th to the 19th centuries.11  This entire genre of Qur'ans was almost unknown prior to the 1980s, save for two examples in the Chester Beatty Library in Dublin (Arberry 1967:78, Pl.70).  The script and layout of these Qur'ans follows a standard format: double page openings with decorated frames have three lines of text, while normal pages have five lines.  Many Chinese Qur'ans were created in sets of 30 separately-bound juz' (a thirtieth-part of the Qur'an; plural: ajzÂ), rather than as a single volume.   Two such Qur'an juz' are held in the Muzium Negeri Pulau Pinang (PM/034/96 and PM/036/96), acquired in 1996 from a Muslim student from China studying in Pahang;12 another example is held in the Muzium Islam Melaka; and the British Library has also purchased a number of individual juz' over the past decade.

The decorative elements of these Chinese Qur'ans appear to shed some light on certain otherwise inexplicable illuminated Malay manuscripts.  This is particularly evident in the case of some Malay manuscripts in the British Library from the John Leyden collection, which were probably acquired either in Penang, where Leyden stayed with Raffles from October 1805 until January 1806, or Melaka, where he stayed from April to June 1811.  Several of his manuscripts - notably a copy of the Hikayat Muhammad Hanafiah, copied by Muhammad Kasim in 1805 (BL MSS Malay B.6, reproduced in Gallop & Arps 1991:71) - have on the opening pages decorative rectangular borders filled with a lotus flower in profile and trailing vines similar to those found in Chinese Qur'ans.

Also notable in Chinese Qur'ans is the incorporation of characteristically Chinese architectural features in marginal ornamental devices, for example as sajdah markers indicating places for prostration.  These architectural devices help to explain the decoration in an extraordinary manuscript in the National Library of Indonesia (A.70, reproduced in Kumar & McGlynn 1996:47) of the Mawlid sharaf al-anam, 'The birth of the most noble of men', a text on the Prophet Muhammad, which is adorned with numerous architectural constructs whose Chinese origin can now be more clearly recognized.

It is therefore possible that certain elements in Malay manuscript illumination may be traced back to Chinese roots, especially in areas with large Chinese populations like Penang, Melaka, Palembang and the north-coast cities of Java.  Alternatively, in some cases the shared ornamental vocabulary of some Malay and Chinese Islamic manuscripts may reflect a common origin from Central Asian prototypes, disseminated east and southeastwards over many centuries.

A possible 'Penang style' of Malay manuscript illumination

In the first case discussed above, enough pieces of the jigsaw can be fitted together to reveal strong evidence of an Acehnese school of Malay manuscript art.  In two other cases the evidence is more scanty but suggests, firstly, an 'East Coast' style of illumination, and secondly, the possible influence of  Chinese Islamic manuscripts on certain illuminated Malay manuscripts.  In many, many more cases, we only have individual manuscripts of great artistic interest but which cannot yet be linked with others to tell a story.

One of the most impressive of such artistic icons is a superb manuscript of the Taj al-Salatin, 'The Crown of Kings', in the British Library, which is perhaps one of the finest examples of Malay manuscript illumination known.  This Malay text, an ethical guide for rulers, was composed in Aceh in 1603 by Bukhari al-Johori ('of Johor', or al-Jauhari, 'the jeweller'), and the British Library manuscript was copied in Penang by a scribe named Muhammad bin Umar Syaikh Farid on 4 Zulhijah 1239 (Saturday 31 July 1824 AD).  Technically almost flawless, it is nonetheless completely atypical for a Malay manuscript, with countless features that set it apart from other illuminated Malay books.13  While the stunning frontispieces draws heavily on the artistic vocabulary of Indo-Persian and Ottoman manuscripts of the 17th and 18th centuries, these elements are combined in a Malay fashion that distinguishes this book from manuscripts from either of the possible source cultures.  Particularly notable is the setting of the lines of text on the first two pages within white cloudbands edged with black ink against a ground of gold. This is a very common illuminating device in Indian, Persian and Ottoman manuscripts, but has not been encountered in any other Southeast Asian Islamic manuscript.  Also very unusual in the Malay context is the predominance of dark and light blue used in conjunction with gold and yellow; the combination of blue and gold is again characteristic of Islamic manuscripts west of the Malay world but is rarely found in Malay manuscripts, where the dominant colours are red and yellow.  The manuscript is written on English paper with a watermark date of 1820, which is burnished or polished: this is another feature common to other Islamic manuscripts, but not Malay manuscripts. 

The final pages containing the colophon, with the name of the scribe and date of copying, are equally technically and artistically accomplished, but rather different in stylistic tenor.  No gold is used here, and the graduated multi-lobed outer frame is not commonly found in other Islamic manuscripts, where - as in the frontispiece - lobed frames tend to conform to a rectangular pattern.  The name of the scribe, and various pious benedictions in Arabic, are given in three cartouches while the final one contains the date written in Persian: this is yet another unusual feature for a Malay manuscript.  The scribe was therefore familiar with Malay, Arabic and Persian, and may have been of Indian descent.

No comparable Malay manuscript which could shed light or contextualise any of these unusual features in the Penang Taj al-Salatin was known, until the recent appearance of a Qur'an in the Muzium Negeri Pulau Pinang.  According to the information label in the Museum, the original owner of this manuscript was Encik Muhammad Noordin Merican, who in 1877 presented it to his son-in-law Hasyim Yahya Merican, who in turn gave it to his daughter Che Ahmad Nachar (Ma' Wan), who was the mother-in-law of Haji Fathil.

Although very different from the Taj al-Salatin, this Qur'an too is copied with the greatest care and artistry, with exquisite calligraphy and verse markers, and is itself in many ways an equally unique and atypical illuminated manuscript.  Like many Malay Qur'ans, there are three major illuminated double-page openings, at the beginning of the Qur'an, in the middle and at the end.  But while most single-volume Qur'ans just mark each 30th part of the text with a small decorative marginal marker, this Penang Qur'an is unusual in marking each juz' with a full double-page decorated frame, every one of which is unique, each based on a palette of red, yellow and green.

In the present context of our search for connections between manuscripts, the most important feature is the shape of the outer lobed frame of the double-page illuminations, which is remarkably similar in both the Penang Qur'an and the Taj al-Salatin.  Although this is perhaps the only characteristic common to the two manuscripts, it is deemed distinctive enough to be significant, and suggests that this shape of frame might be characteristic of a Penang style of illumination in the 19th century. But perhaps even more striking is the individuality, creativity and extraordinary level of technical accomplishment of both manuscripts, and the eclectic array of sources, which in each manuscript has been absorbed and then re-proferred in a wholly individual form, entirely consistent with multi-lingual, multi-ethnic and multi-cultural world of Penang in the 19th century. 




1.    I am extremely grateful to the Director of the Muzium Negeri Pulau Pinang (MNPP), Khoo Boo Chia, for enabling me to study the collection of Malay manuscripts belonging to the MNPP on 22.12.2000.

2.     For example, one of the finest examples of Malay manuscript art - the double-page illuminated frontispiece of a copy of the Bustan al-Salatin (RAS Raffles Malay 42, ff.1v-2r, reproduced in Gallop & Arps 1991:68-69) - is not even mentioned in two catalogue descriptions of this manuscript (van der Tuuk 1866:14,28; Ricklefs & Voorhoeve 1977:138).

3.     'Besides being most carefully drafted, a Malay letter had to be made as handsome as possible.  It was sometimes adorned with floral patterns such as we find one the illuminated pages of ancient books' (Wilkinson 1907:22).

4.     Compared with, for example, the (admittedly unique) Javanese work on manuscript illumination compiled in Yogyakarta in 1860 (RAS Javanese 46, reproduced in Gallop & Arps 1991:94-95).

5.     A notable exception is the collection of Qur'ans from Southeast Asia in Dutch institutions, which, by virtue of their large number, is presented as a cohesive whole in the most recent handlist of Arabic manuscripts in Dutch collections (Voorhoeve 1980:277-9).

6.     Up to twenty Southeast Asian Islamic manuscripts have appeared in London auction rooms between 1985 and 2002 (based on a study of catalogues published by Christie's, Sotheby's and Bonhams).

7.     See, for example, Gallop 1991; Gallop & Arps 1991; Ahmad 1992; Gallop 1994; Katalog 1995; Kumar & McGlynn 1996; Aksara 1997; Wieringa 1998.

8.     250 ff,  ca. 30 x 22 cm; recently rebound by Arkib Negara Malaysia and heavily laminated.  According to the information label in the manuscript, it was presented to the Museum by Puan Hajah Raguan bte Muhammad Haniff and her mother, Cik Fatimah bte Haji Hussain, of No.352 Dato Keramat Road, Penang; Cik Fatimah was a cousin of Teungku Nyak Abu.

9.     The spatial gulf between Pontianak and the East Coast is not, in itself, an insuperable obstacle to this theory.  Pontianak was an important staging post on the sea route between the east coast of the Malay peninsula and the islands of Riau-Johor.  There were also very close links between the ruling families of Pontianak and Johor, and between those of Johor and Terengganu, and it is likely that important manuscripts travelled between the courts as gifts or were sent for moral edification.

10.     Reproduced in Gallop 1994:39 and Wieringa 1998:388.

11.     For an introduction to this group of Qur'ans, see Bayani 1999:12-21.

12.     Pers.comm., Khoo Boo Chia, 22.12.2000.

13.     A full description of the illumination is given in Gallop 1991:174.


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