Gantang and Censer: The Prophet’s traditions

by Afidah Rahim

The ancient East-West maritime trade surrounding the Malay archipelago brought imported cultures to the local people. Islamization of the Malay world has influenced Malay culture since the 13th century CE. In the 15th century CE, Melaka became the centre of Islamic learning for the region. As Muslims, the Malays are guided by the Holy Quran, Hadith and sunnah. There are two handwritten copies of the Quran in Gallery B. This article highlights artefacts relating to the Hadith.

Hadith is translated as ‘tradition’ referring to the narration, account and record of actions and sayings of Prophet Muhammad (SAW). Sunnah denotes the actual actions, practices and sayings of the Prophet. The chain of narrators of ahadith (the plural of hadith) has been meticulously traced to ensure authenticity. The Prophet’s tradition has given practical examples for Muslims to follow.

Ahadith were recorded under Caliph Umar’s orders and later, systematically compiled by the six imams: Al-Bukhari, Muslim, Abu Daud, al-Tirmizi, al-Nasa’i & Ibn Majah. Image credit: Wikimedia Commons, Bakkouz at Arabic Wikipedia

Gantang

The first type of zakat (charity tax) ordered by Allah was zakat fitrah on every individual Muslim with the means to give. It is taken mainly for the poor before the end of fasting in the holy month of Ramadan. Based on Hadith 1511 of the Book of Zakat from Sahih al-Bukhari, ‘Ibn Umar said, The Prophet SAW made incumbent on every male or female, free man or slave, the payment of one sa’ of dates or barley as zakat-ul-fitr’.

The Arabic word sa’ translates to ‘small container’. In the Malay world, the gantang is a traditional unit of volume and the container for measuring it. There are two such containers in Gallery B – a copper one and a wooden one. The copper container is inscribed in Jawi with the words ‘This is a Brunei government gantang, the Just King, 1322 AH’. This dates it to 1904 CE when Brunei was ruled by Sultan Hashim Jalilul Alam Aqamaddin. The copper container is 17cm high with a diameter of 19cm. The wooden gantang is from the Malay Peninsula and doubles up as a pounding mortar for rice flour. It is made from jackfruit wood and has been slightly decorated with a projecting ring at the top. It has the same height as the copper container but is smaller in diameter at only 13cm.

Copper gantang from Brunei dated 1322 AH/1904 CE. Image credit: Afidah Rahim

In the Malay world, dates or barley mentioned in the Hadith above may be substituted with rice, as the staple food of the region. The gantang differs in definition between Malay states. Azman et al (2015) explains the difference in gantang capacity is due to its various sizes and the different types of rice (density and size) used in the weighing process. It is worth noting that in the past, there had been studies on the differences in equivalent weight of sa’ by Baghdad and Madinah jurists. Ibn Malik had said that the sa’ is a measure of capacity and it cannot be converted into weight. This is similar to the English ‘bushel’ e.g. one bushel of oats equals 32 pounds whereas one bushel of malt equals 34 pounds.

Wooden gantang from the Malay Peninsula made from jackfruit wood. Image credit: Afidah Rahim

In modern Malaysia, the traditional measure of gantang has been converted to the metric system with different results. The zakat fitrah in Selangor is calculated based on one Baghdad gantang of rice at 2.7kg whereas in Johor it is at 2.6kg. Malaysia adopted the Hanafi school opinion to pay zakat in currency value instead of using food. Each state religious authority in Malaysia sets its own zakat fitrah rates, ranging from RM5 to RM21 in 2020 CE. The main factor for these different rates is the type of rice consumed.  Most people pay RM7 and those who pay above this rate may consider the balance as sedekah (charity). Hence, the spirit of giving as an obligation on every able Muslim is observed in keeping with the Prophet’s tradition.

Censer

Muslims follow the Prophet’s tradition of burning incense in mosques and homes for purification. Censers are incense burners used in religious context. In the Malay archipelago, usually kemenyan (benzoin) is placed on hot coals to release fragrance. Most Malay households use brass incense burners. Both incense burners on display in Gallery B are from China.

The cylindrical blue and white incense vase is marked with the seal of Emperor Cheng Hua of the Ming dynasty, who ruled from 1465 to 1487 CE. Chinese Muslim eunuchs were influential at court during the Ming era. This porcelain censer is decorated with three medallions enclosing Arabic inscriptions in underglaze blue. It is without a cover for use with stick incense, popular in China. The ‘Mohammedan’ blue (also known as hui hui qing) is a cobalt blue obtained from Persia. Blue and white porcelain was produced at the imperial kilns in Jingdezhen, South China from the early 14th century CE. It is believed that high quality Jingdezhen porcelain was for use at court and Chinese Muslims there. Some Jingdezhen pieces were exported to important Muslims outside of China. Most ceramics exported to Southeast Asia were of lower quality produced at Fujian, called Swatow ware. These were often imitations of blue and white porcelain, mass-produced for the middle class export market.

Blue and white Ming Porcelain Censer with Arabic inscription meaning ‘Said the Prophet of God’. Image credit: Afidah Rahim

Our porcelain censer is likely to be a Swatow, with the main clue being the Emperor’s mark. Arabic or Persian inscriptions were introduced during the late reign of Emperor Hongzhi and early reign of Emperor Zhengde.  Emperor Cheng Hua’s reign precedes this period. In addition, its inscription is not easy to read since the Fujian potters were unlikely to be well versed in Arabic and therefore, susceptible to mistakes when copying.

The colourful incense burner on display is estimated to be from the 18th century CE Qing dynasty. It is made of metal and enamelled with cloisonné decoration. Cloisonné, also known as Muslim ware (Dashi Yao), was probably crafted by the Arab settlers of Western Yunnan. The technique involves the application of coloured-glass pastes within pattern-shaping cells made of copper or bronze wires soldered on metal. It was introduced during the 14th century CE Yuan dynasty and peaked under the Xuande reign era of the Ming dynasty (1426-1436).

Colourful Qing incense burner with cloisonné enamel. Inscription is the first part of the shahada (Muslim profession of faith). Image credit: Afidah Rahim

The calligraphic inscriptions (la ilaha illallah) on the burner and its cover means ‘there is no God but God’. Its design is a combination of the Sini script of the Hui Muslims with the motifs and symbolisms of the Han Chinese (notice the ruyi borders and imperial guardian lion knob). This artefact shows the synthesis of the two cultures.

Incense was sold in specialised markets of the perfumers (suq at-attariyyin) in and around the medieval Islamic world. Frankincense and myrrh were among the trade goods along the Silk Road. The Arabs had written about aloeswood and camphor from Tiyumah (Tioman) island off the Malay Peninsula from their 9th century travels. The Chinese used galangal, sage and Chinese weeping cypress in their censers. To this day, scent promotes a sense of well-being and is encouraged by the Prophet’s tradition.

Malay brass incense burner at Islamic Arts Museum Malaysia. Image credit: Afidah Rahim

References

A. R. Azman et al (2015), Calibration of Gantang (Sa’) Based on Metric System for Agricultural Zakat in Malaysia, ASM Science Journal Volume 9(2)

IAMM (2009) Islamic Arts Museum Malaysia Volume II

IAMM (2020) Mirrors of Beauty: Islamic Arts Museum Malaysia Guide

L. de Guise & Z. Sutarwala (2006) Spice Journeys: Taste and Trade in Islamic World, IAMM

MAIS (2014) Az-Zakah; Spirit, Realisation and Obligation, IAMM

M. Uthman El-Muhammady (1998) The Quran and the Hadith, The Encyclopedia of Malaysia, Religions and Beliefs Vol. 10, KL Ed. Didier Millet

Othman Yatim (1989) Warisan Kesenian Dalam Tamadun Islam, KL Dewan Bahasa Pustaka

Othman Yatim (1998) The Early Islamic Period. The Encyclopedia of Malaysia, Early History Vol. 4, KL: Ed. Didier Millet

Wikipedia, Islamic Arts Museum Malaysia & Muzium Negara Gallery storyboards

Muzium Negara Gallery B curator – En. Azam

Fiqh-us-Sunnah 2.71 Keeping the mosques clean and scenting them https://www.iium.edu.my/deed/lawbase/fiqh_us_sunnah/vol2/fsn_vol2b.html

Various ‘Majlis Agama Islam’ websites

Author: Museum Volunteers, JMM

Museum Volunteers, JMM Taking the Mystery out of History

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