Webinar on “Malay illustrated manuscripts with a focus on images of magic and divination”

In this webinar session, Dr Farouk Yahya spoke on manuscripts illustrations in Southeast Asia, focusing on manuscripts produced for magic and divination practices in the Malay world. This presentation stressed how although Malay illustrations and manuscripts combine motifs and beliefs inspired from neighbouring regions, their function and practices having found unique expressions in the Malay world.


Thursday, 2 September 2021 – The ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute hosted a webinar titled “Malay illustrated manuscripts with a focus on images of magic and divination” by Dr Farouk Yahya, a Research Associate in the Department of History of Art and Archaeology from the SOAS University of London. Dr Yahya is an art historian specializing in Islamic art in Southeast Asia and the Malay world. The webinar was part of the Temasek History Research Centre’s Archaeology and Art History Programme of Southeast Asia and was moderated by one of the programme’s conveners Dr Helene Njoto.

Dr Farouk Yahya
Dr Farouk Yahya explained how Indic and Arabic scripts were adapted by Southeast Asian societies to write vernacular languages. Dr Helene Njoto moderated the webinar. (Credit: ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute)

Dr Yahya started with a general introduction to the materiality and antiquity of manuscripts in Southeast Asia. He described the different materials used to produce manuscripts (palm leaves, dluwang, tree bark, paper, etc.) emphasizing their vulnerability. Due to the perishable nature of these materials, early manuscripts are very rare in the region, the earliest surviving example dating from the 14th century, not long after the coming of Islam in the region. However, Dr Yahya showed a few examples from statuary and epigraphy dating as early as the 5th century onwards that bring evidence of very early manuscripts usage in the region, as seen in a seated Maitreya figure from the 9th c. CE holding a manuscript.

Turning to aspects of language and script, Dr Yahya explained how Indic and Arabic scripts were adapted by Southeast Asian societies to write vernacular languages, Malay being one of them. The Malay language was used not only by Malays but by a vast range of maritime Southeast Asian populations. He showed how the codex format was adopted in the region, including copies of the Qur’an, which could be richly decorated or illuminated but seldom illustrated. Only a few genres are illustrated such as devotional works like Al-Jazuli’s Dala’il al-khayrat, a text widespread in Southeast Asia addressing such themes as the tomb layout of Prophet Muhammad and his two companions Abu Bakr and Umar in Medina. Dr Yahya took this example to introduce the second part of his presentation: the localisation of motifs and themes. He showed how Southeast Asian versions of this famous text had more elaborate vegetal or floral motifs, a different palette of colours, as well as specific Malay architectural features such as slumping curved roof finials.

Dr Yahya further showed how Malay literary manuscripts were rarely illustrated, with a few exceptions such as Hikayat Hanuman, the Tale of Dewa Mandu and the Tale of Indra Mengindra. On the contrary, Magic and Divination manuscripts held numerous fascinating illustrations serving different purposes, such as requests to transform something or a situation by calling on superhuman forces (magic) or to predict future events by using techniques such as astrology or numerology (divination).

Taking a few examples from 19th century manuscripts, Dr Yahya presented a few representative features from talismanic designs used to exorcise evil spirits, and the way these talismans were used. Another emblematic motif found in this type of manuscript is the Rotating Naga technique. This motif was found all across the region, but it is known to have been more often represented in Southeast Asian manuscripts for the purpose of seeking auspicious times for specific actions (war, housebuilding, travelling, etc.). Dr Yahya explored another well-spread motif represented in calligrams using Arabic script: the Lion of Ali. He demonstrated how this original Middle Eastern motif found a proper Southeast Asian expression. In this popular Southeast Asian talisman, Ali was seldom mentioned and the lion was referred to as a tiger, an animal present in the region, unlike its fellow feline.

A lively question-and-answer session followed, with participants asking many questions about the content and use of the manuscripts for cursing, medical treatment, religious purposes, today’s practices of the rituals mentioned, genres represented (panji, syairs, hikayats, etc.), as well as motifs and themes (Tiger of Ali, naga, calligrams), and regional influences between Sunni and Shia traditions. Attendees also asked about materiality and conservation, the identity of scribes, the differences between Malay and Christian manuscripts, and finally the context of their collection during the colonial times. The webinar attracted over 200 participants, mostly from Singapore and Southeast Asia.

Over 200 participants attended the webinar. (Credit: ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute)