Webinar on “Discovering Islamic Southeast Asia in the Asian Civilisations Museum Collection”

In this webinar session, Ms Noorashikin Binte Zulkifli presented on the topic of Islamic art in Southeast Asia, showcasing collections and recent acquisitions from the Asian Civilisations Museum in Singapore. These art forms, mostly developed in Island Southeast Asia, serve as records of the way Islam was adapted to local knowledge and craftsmanship. 


Wednesday, 1 December 2021 – The ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute hosted a webinar titled “Discovering Islamic Southeast Asia in the Asian Civilisations Museum Collection” by Ms Noorashikin Binte Zulkifli (Asian Civilisations Museum, Singapore), a curator specialising in Southeast Asian Islamic Art. The webinar was part of the Temasek History Research Centre’s Archaeology and Art History of Southeast Asia Programme and was moderated by one of the two programme’s conveners Dr Noel Hidalgo Tan.

Ms Noorashikin Binte Zulkifli demonstrated how Southeast Asia’s articulations of Islamic art contrasted with art forms from other parts of the Islamic world. Dr Noel Hidalgo Tan moderated the webinar. (Credit: ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute)

The webinar session kicked off with the poll question “What do you think of when it comes to Islamic art”? Ms Noorashikin offered the audience a choice of more than one answer ranging from calligraphy & manuscripts, talismanic objects, paintings & drawings, figures & sculptures, geometric patterns, architecture, ban of figural representation, arabesque/floral motifs, sacred/ritual objects, scientific/other instruments. Ms Noorashikin demonstrated, through an overview of the ACM collections, how Southeast Asia’s articulations of Islamic art often contrasted with art forms from other parts of the Islamic world. A great variety of materials were shown, from textiles, to metalwork, woodcarving and manuscripts, mainly from countries across Island Southeast Asia.  

This presentation was divided into two parts. In the first part Ms Noorashikin showed how scriptures, mostly Arabic calligraphy, were prevalent in the region’s Islamic material culture. The second part introduced artefacts representing nature and mythical beings.

Among artefacts bearing scriptures, categories such as wooden doors and ceremonial hangings are not rare. They are used to distinguish between public and sacred space. On a room divider, the ship or boat motif composed of calligraphy is depicted – a symbol that can be found on other object types. 

Manuscript illuminations stand among the finest artistic traditions in the region, witness to the social history and history of the religious life of Malay Muslims. Trengganu, on the East coast of the Malay peninsula, is the region generally accepted as having produced among the most sophisticated illuminations, with a rich colour scheme, compared to Acehnese or Javanese manuscripts. A Quran from West Sulawesi, recently acquired by the Museum, bears evidence of the Trengganu style emulation, just across the straits of Malaka. 

Ms Noorashikin presented other artefacts where Arabic calligraphy is used such as a refined Quran chess with Arabic inscriptions, which style is associated with Myanmar Buddhist chess traditions. Another such example of an artefact with calligraphy can be found among Chinese exported wares, such as one particular 17th c. large Zhangzhou dish believed to be commissioned for the Acehnese sultanate with nine circles bearing inscriptions from the Quran and references to Ali, indicating a Shia leaning. 

Seals, textiles and grave markers also count among the many artefacts central to Islamic material culture. Highlighting one particular grave marker, Ms Noorashikin noted they are seldom inscribed, but a wooden grave marker from Kutai, kept at the ACM bears a Quranic verse with delicate floral and vegetal ornaments. 

In the second part of her presentation, Ms Noorashikin showed objects depicting nature and living or mythical beings, whether in figurative or abstract styles. A prevalent form in Southeast Asian Islamic material culture, but unusual for the Islamic world, is the al-Buraq mythical animal, as depicted in ceremonial hanging cloths from Sumatra, or in Southern Philippines in three dimensions in funerary context. Reminding the audience that Islam spread further beyond the Malay world and reached other communities than the Malays, she showed a ceremonial cloth from Lombok with Arabic calligraphy framed by human figures, bringing further evidence of the way Islamic teachings were adapted through local knowledge and traditions.

Wayang, although not necessarily associated with Islam, was another way to introduce Islam in the region. Bima and Dewa Ruci are two figures, respectively of the Hindu and Javanese mythology, used to spread Islamic teachings through popular performance, adapting to local forms, as experienced recently in Singapore‘s Kampong Gelam, with the Sultan Mosque in the background. Other mythical animal motifs found in the Islamic culture are the Makara, used as palanquin ornament in 18th century Patani, for example, to parade young boys during their circumcision ceremony. As shown by Ms Noorashikin, this rite of passage ceremony could still be witnessed until the mid-20th century in Kelantan and Patani as seen from old pictures. 

This presentation was attended by 144 participants from all over Asia, Australia, Southeast Asia and Singapore. Many questions were asked to Ms Noorashikin. Some questions addressed calligraphy and script styles, the religion of craftsmen, Muslim divination manuals, the meaning of talismanic shirts and cloths, Southeast Asian glass and ceramic export for the Middle East, and a few other questions about the origin of the Buraq motif.

Over 140 participants attended the webinar. (Credit: ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute)