Some Islamic Artefacts at Muzium Negara

by Afidah Zuliana binti Abdul Rahim

The Islamic Arts Museum Malaysia (IAMM) 20th Anniversary Curators’ Sharing Sessions enhanced my appreciation of the Islamic artefacts on display at Muzium Negara. Here is an opportunity to highlight the artefacts in Gallery B based on information gleaned from the IAMM curators and publications.

The Malay world began to accept Islam from the 13th century onwards, with evidence first found in northern Sumatra. This early phase was characterized by a superficial understanding of the faith. From the 1400s, the Malays increased their understanding on living as Muslims. Eventually, from the 18th century onwards, there was an even deeper understanding of Islam, through the emergence of Islamic scholars such as Syeikh Daud al-Fatani and Raja Ali Haji.

Intellectual centres in the Malay archipelago included Palembang, Aceh, Batavia, Riau-Lingga, and Patani. These centres became Malay scriptoria where scribes and illuminators copied religious and literature manuscripts.

The Holy Quran on display at Gallery B originates from Terengganu, on the East Coast of the Peninsula. It is a sample manuscript from an area distinguished for its Islamic scholarship and calligraphic expertise. This Quran is a 19th century specimen in Naskh script – a calligraphy style valued for its clarity in assisting non-Arabic speakers recite the Quran accurately. Its arabesque design with floral motifs and vegetal scrolls reflect the natural Malay world. Red and green, colours also seen in woodcarving, echo the decorative traditions of this region. The use of gold suggests that this Quran was made for a royal patron.

Nakula (1980) wrote about the relationship between Islam and the Malay arts. One’s faith in the oneness of Allah can be manifested in the creation of artworks. In modern Malaysia, apprentices of master carver Adiguru Norhaiza Nordin are required to sit in nature so that they may realise the cosmic dimension and have the vision of multiplicity in oneness and oneness in multiplicity. With this understanding, the woodcarvers may then integrate all elements of their being into its proper centre, thus attaining purity and wholeness when executing their art.

The soul of Malay woodcarving is influenced by the moral ethical values connected with Malay worldviews. The poem below illustrates the Malay philosophy on woodcarving:

Tumbuh berpunca   
Punca penuh rahsia
Tajam tidak menikam lawan
Lilit tidak memaut kawan

Growth from a source
A source full of secrets
Sharp does not stab foe
Twines do not tie friend

The first two lines allude to Divinity – the starting point of life (God) is not seen. The other two lines indicate Community – the bowing leaves signify respect for one another and that there is harmony even in conflict.

The motifs carved contain underlying messages and sometimes act as a reminder. The door panel on display combines calligraphy and floral motifs, which reminds one of the Creator. Some motifs remain from pre-Islamic days, for example the lotus but these are given a new interpretation to fit the teachings of Islam. Woodcarvings are only displayed in clean or sacred places.

Calligraphy is also used for protection as shown by our red vest with verses. This talismanic vest would have been worn as an undershirt to safeguard its wearer in battle. A similar-looking 19th century silk vest from the Malay Peninsula with Quranic verses displayed at IAMM is made from the underside of the Kiswah – the cloth that covers the Kaaba in Mecca.

A distinctive sample of calligraphy from the Malay world is found on the tombstone of Sultan Mansur Shah. Batu Aceh tombstones are usually found in pairs – one for the head and the other for the foot of the grave. This tombstone has been moved from its original site, which probably explains why only one remains. In true Batu Aceh style, it has a Sufi couplet inscription referring to the transience of life. The calligraphy on this tombstone is challenging to read due to its overlapping nature. Recently, the IAMM curators have deciphered and translated the inscriptions for Muzium Negara. Look out for the new description on display.

A noteworthy artefact in Gallery B is the 16th century ceramic plate from the Ming Dynasty inscribed with Quranic verses. The Aceh-style Swatow dish was a more affordable plate for the middle-class Acehnese who aspired to own Chinese ceramics. Its calligraphy may not be fine or accurate as it was mass-produced for the export market. The back of a similar plate at IAMM shows the crude finish with sandy grits on its base. It is likely that the piece at Muzium Negara has a similar base, albeit hidden from sight.

Islamic metalwork was once highly sought after in Europe. Such metal items made for the European market were known as Veneto Saracenic. Iran was renowned for fine metalwork as exemplified by the 17th century Isfahan copper bowl in Gallery B. Safavid Iran metalwork emphasized steel and copper, usually finished with tin. Isfahan was then its capital city. The use of figural motifs was allowed in the arts, with the understanding that such items were not displayed in sacred places. The copper bowl has calligraphic inscriptions and scenes of daily life – characteristic of Shia Islam.

Aceh-style Swatow dish (top right) and Isfahan copper bowl (left)

References

Abdullah Mohamed @Nakula (1980) Falsafah dan pemikiran orang-orang Melayu: hubungan dengan Islam dan Kesenian, Kuala Lumpur: Kementerian Kebudayaan Belia dan Sukan.

Introduction to Islamic Arts – Calligraphy: The collection of the IAMM (2016)

Islamic Arts Museum Malaysia Guide Book (2014)

Author: Museum Volunteers, JMM

Museum Volunteers, JMM Taking the Mystery out of History

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