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Book of Law Used in the State of Johor

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The following is a guest post by Dr. Joshua Kueh, the Southeast Asia reference librarian in the Asian Division of the Library of Congress. His research interests cover Malay manuscripts, and topics related to Southeast Asian history, particularly migration and trade in the 1500s to the 1800s.

The Library of Congress has a small but significant collection of rare Malay printed books and manuscripts. The catalog of these items—most of which were acquired for the United States Exploring Expedition (1838-1842) and amongst the first documented Asian books in the Library of Congress—has been little changed for years. However, very recently, a handwritten volume containing Malay laws in the Jawi script emerged in the rare book collection of the Law Library.

The manuscript in question bears the binder’s title Malay Code of Law and has not attracted much attention to date. It was unknown to the scholarly community and would have likely remained so were it not for the unearthing, at the Smithsonian Institution Archives, of lists of Malay books and manuscripts purchased by the American missionary, Alfred North, for the United States Exploring Expedition. In tracking down the items on the list, I became aware of the existence of the Malay Code of Law.

The unassuming covers of the book, once flipped open, reveal a beautifully illuminated panel. The gold-lettered title reads Bahawa ini kitab undang-undang qanun yang dipakai dalam Negeri Johor, which can be translated as “This is the book of qanun [Islamic law] used in the State of Johor.” On the adjacent page is a note that would be of great interest to scholars of Malay literature: “Copied by Abdullah ben Abdulkadir, at Singapore, 1837.” This is the Abdullah of the eponymous Malay classic, Hikayat Abdullah, and the man many see as the father of modern Malay literature. This delightful discovery at the beginning of the book is mirrored by yet another find at its end.

Close-up photo of a page of illuminated text in a Malay book
Bahawa ini kitab undang-undang qanun yang dipakai dalam Negeri Johor, Singapore, 1837,        illuminated title panel [photo by Geraldine Dávila González]

Close-up photo of a page that says, "Malay Code of Laws. Copied by Abdullah ben Abdulkudir, at Singapore, 1837."
A note, very likely written by Alfred North, indicating that the manuscript was copied by Abdullah ben Abdulkadir, also known as Munshi Abdullah. [photo by Geraldine Dávila González]
Bound with the Johor code of law is a volume with a title in Jawi script, Bahawa ini kitab undang-undang laut daripada Sultan Mahmud Shah Raja Melaka. Directly above this title is an English heading describing the contents of the volume: “Maratime [sic] Laws of Mahmoud Shah, an ancient raja of Malacca.” This explanation captures the essence of the title, which loosely translated reads “This is the book of maritime laws from Mahmoud Shah, Raja of Malacca.” Mahmud Syah presided over the closing chapters of the Sultanate of Malacca. During his reign (1488-1511), the Portuguese conquered Malacca and the Sultanate had to relocate its seat of power, settling in Johor and eventually giving rise to the Sultanate of Johor.

Page of a Malay book with red and black writing
English heading: “Maratime [sic] Laws of Mahmoud Shah, an ancient raja of Malacca.” [photo by Geraldine Dávila González]
The implications of this double find written in the hand of Abdullah are yet to be determined, but at the very least the manuscript provides a new source to examine Abdullah’s work. For legal scholars studying the Malay states, the tome will serve as a valuable fount for drawing comparisons between the extant Malay codes of law of the nineteenth century and earlier.

The discovery of the Malay Code of Laws suggests the possibilities when exploring and collaborating across divisions at the Library of Congress. Staff at the Law Library, the Library of Congress Jakarta Office, and Asian Division worked together to locate and discern the larger context of a previously unknown and significant text.

The Malay Code of Laws is in the care of the Rare Books Collection at the Law Library. Other Malay manuscripts and books are available at the Asian Reading Room and in the Rare Book and Special Collections Reading Room.

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