Study – Islamic Art in the Malay World

I was having problems logging in to my account on WordPress. And when I was able to, I could not post anything on the blog, let alone to write. I had suspicions it was the internet provider’s fault and after failed help sessions with the local ISP, I gave up and brought the matter in my own hands. finally, with some help of a few programs i can now comfortably write and publish articles to the blog.

I had mentioned a few times about the Islamic art in the Malay Peninsula, but I failed to elaborate any further on the subject. You can read a short photo heavy article here. This is primarily because the art in the Malay Peninsula is more affiliated with the Malay culture. Malay art was not often considered to be Islamic. Also, Malay art tends to be more influenced from the Chinese or Hindu-Buddhist culture, and set it apart from the rest of what is traditionally regarded as Islamic Art.

In fact, Malay art is very much influenced by the Middle Eastern traditional Islamic Art, especially after the arrival of Islam to the Peninsula.  The traditions and cultural aspects of the Malay art that were over time abandoned in favour of the Islamic teaching. In time, Malay art amalgamated with Islam that in turn creates a significantly unique art style that is different from other Islamic art styles and yet, given to its roots, can be considered as a part of the Islamic Art.

History –

Before Islam, Hinduism and Buddism had taken root in the social and cultural aspects of the Malay Peninsula. Records of Hindu kingdoms in Java and Sumatra had been written by Indian scholars in 200AD (1) while Buddhism came into the region from Central Asia and China in the first Millennium BC and flourished around the 12th century. (2). Both of these religions bring its tradition and culture into the Malay Archipelago and took roots there as powerful empires. The proof of the strong presence of Hinduism and Buddhism can be found many temples dedicated to Buddha and/or the Hindu deities throughout the region, both intact and ruined. Also, many cultural practices and traditions are still being carried out today by the Malay community which has their roots in these religions

During as early as the 9th Century, a few hundred years after the founding of Islam in Mecca by Prophet Muhammad, there were reports of Arab traders selling their goods in the Malay archipelago. in fact, trading relations can be assumed to already taken place, based on a hadith of the Prophet –

Um ‘Atiyya said, “One of the daughters of the Prophet died and he came out and said, ‘Wash her three or five times or more, if you think it necessary, with water and Sidr, and last of all put camphor (or some camphor) and when you finish, inform me.’ ” Um Atiyya added, “When we finished we informed him and he gave us his waist-sheet and said, ‘Shroud her in it.’ ” And Um ‘Atiyya (in another narration) added, “The Prophet said, ‘Wash her three, five or seven times or more, if you think it necessary.’ ” Hafsa said that Um ‘Atiyya had also said, “We entwined her hair into three braids.” (3)

Camphor is a kind of pleasant smelling substance obtained from evergreen trees primarily found in South East Asia particularly in Borneo and Sumatra. It is very unlikely that the prophet to know of this substance and enjoins his followers to annoint the dead with Camphor, unless he knows of it and its perfumed odour.

It is also noted that Arab traders had been going to South east Asian ports long before their conversion to Islam, strengthening the fact that Islam may have spread in the peninsula as soon as after the prophet Muhammad propagated the religion.

The change from Hindu-Buddhism to Islam

The exact time when Islam was introduced into the region is still a debatable subject among scholars. Some agree that the presence of Islam exists somewhere around the 14th century, or even as early as the 10th century (4). However, the conversion of King Phra Ong Mahawangsa, the last Hindu king of Kedah to Islam and renaming himself Sultan Mudzafar Shah I marks the beginning of mass conversion of the Malays in the peninsula. The exposure of the people to Muslim traders from the Middle east and Central Asia, as well as the conversion of their kings to the Islamic faith, led them to abandon their past beliefs to embrace the new faith.

However, while Islam is their religion, the abandoned faiths leave a lasting impact and still influenced their daily lives – culturally and socially. This can be seen in the ceremonies they held, the music they play that still have notes influenced by their former faith and the artistic work they do. While the influences remain, these over time and in turn get influenced by the culture Islam brings, thus the two traditions – the old of animistic, Hindu and Buddhist and the new of Islamic culture – are amalgamated and creates what is uniquely Malay and yet Islamic.

The influence of Islam in Malay art

The existing artistry of the Malays such as textiles and clothing, metalwork and jewellery as well as architecture became assimilated with the Islamic motifs the new religion brought to the archipelago. The design remains the same, but the existing motifs were sometimes replaced but more often complimented with new, Islamic ones.

Islamic Motifs Used in the art of the Malay World

Batik headcover with stylized Islamic calligraphy design. Courtesy of http://www.artgallery.nsw.gov.au/collection/works/241.2008/

Among the motifs employed with the existing designs in the Malay craftwork includes Islamic calligraphy, Geometric designs, Islimi (stylized vegetal or floral motifs) and motif design taken from Islamic lore, such as the Buraq, the ride on which the Prophet Muhammad rode on his way to Jerusalem from Mecca in his Night Journey of Isra’.

Application of Islamic designs and Motifs

Floral and Vegetal design were not unheard of in the art of the Malay world before the rise of Islam in the peninsula as motifs based on nature such as Pucuk Rebung (Bamboo shoot) and Ayer Muleh (a type of stylized flower, but some said it mimics the swirling of waves) were already known. The coming of Islam and thus the art and culture that comes with it, means that the already existing designs were improvised and given a much more adhered look

Geometry design, a hallmark of the Islamic art, is also featured in the Malay art. This is most apparent in the production of textiles such as the woven cloth Kain Tenunan or the Batik textile. A pattern is to be repeated usually in four or six folds. The pattern itself is sometimes a star design, commonly an Octogram or a Hexagram. However, a repeating pattern based on flowers are not uncommon.

Kain Jongsarat, a traditional woven cloth from Brunei. taken from http://busy-dragonfly.blogspot.com/

In fashion, the traditional outifts of the Malay were modified to conform to the modesty rules of Islam. According to the teachings of Islam, both men and women are required to cover parts of their body as modesty as well as for praying. The men are required to cover from the navel to the knees, and women are to cover all but their faces and hands. These areas are called the Aurat. In addition, it is recommended for a Muslim man to wear some sort of headcover during prayers and entering mosques.With this in mind, the Malays adjust accordingly. In the old days, the Malay men wore simple plain buttoned top with trousers, along with a Kain Samping or Sinjang to be wrapped around the waist, covering the aforementioned areas.  They also wear the headcovering called Dastar made of simple square cloth, often using batik but sometimes the elaborate tenunan were used for formal occasions. More recently, Malay men wore a type of hat made out of velvet called Songkok or Peci, believed to originate from the Fez.

Women in Baju Kurung with scarves for headress, 1950s

The women, on the other hand, wears the Baju Kurung or Baju Kebaya for daily life. Baju Kurung is a type of outfit covering most of a woman’s body in two separate pieces consisting of a blouse and a bottom that sometimes uses a batik sarong. Baju Kurung literally means constrained dress. A Baju Kebaya  is basically similar to the Baju Kurung but made to fit the body of the wearer instead of loosely fitting. Ironically, it is believed the word Kebaya comes from the Arabic word Abaya, a loose fitting garment for women. For a head veil, sometimes a sarong is used. A scarf is more commonly worn.

Balustrade and roof adornment of a Malay House. Courtesy of http://adiatsauri.blogspot.com/2010/09/semangat-kayu.html

In architecture, Islamic architectural features such as Masyrabias are incorporated into traditional Malay buildings. The art of the pierced screens are not uncommon to the Malays before the arrival of Islam, but the motifs employed became increasingly Islamic with vegetal motifs used. Malay wood carving that conforms to Islamic standard of not using images of humans and animals adorn many Malay traditional buildings, usually underneath roofs and as railings and window covers.

 

 

References –

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