Drinking the Ink of Prayer

By Genie Yoo  [1]

Sometimes historians dream of moments of recognition in the manuscripts they encounter. The act of reading or reciting, writing or copying, can trigger a distant memory, allowing one to draw a line connecting two seemingly unrelated points on the plane of history. I experienced something of this moment as I sat in the National Library of the Republic of Indonesia, reading an untitled and undated manuscript of Arabic prayers and their Malay prescriptions. That morning, Mas Bambang, a familiar face behind the counter, had handed me a manuscript labelled ML469. It was a prayer book, shorter and thinner than expected, and the first folio, glued tightly to the marbled cover, began with a list of recipes.

“For those who wish to memorize the Qur’an,” I copied into my notebook, “take ambergris, musk, and turmeric.” There was a hint of recognition in the order of these three ingredients, common since antiquity. “The three are to be moistened,” I copied, “to make the ink.” Suddenly, an inkling of recognition blended into memory. Two years prior, I had sat in Prof. Michael Laffan’s office in Princeton, reading out loud my transcription of the same lines from another manuscript, one which he had photographed in Simon’s Town, South Africa. “Write this prayer on a white bowl,” I wrote, “and drink for seven days.” I circled the Malay word for “bowl” (mangkung), a variation of its modern standardized form (mangkuk). Minute differences also beckon the memory. When I had given Michael a puzzled look about another variation of this term (mangku), he had pulled out the Wilkinson dictionary, an invitation to join the exercise of word hunting. Putting my pencil down, I gingerly flipped through the folios of ML469 until I arrived at the Arabic and saw that this copy of the prayer, too, like the one from Simon’s Town, was the prayer of ‘Akasa.

The earliest extant copy of Malay-language explications for the prayer of ‘Akasa in Europe is a late 16th c.-early 17th c. manuscript from the Scaliger Collection, initially mislabelled to be in the Turkish language. Or 247, Special Collections at the Leiden University Library.]

So began my fascination with two nearly identical copies of a Malay-language recipe for drinking the ink of prayer, now preserved in two manuscripts on opposite sides of the Indian Ocean: one in Jakarta, Indonesia, and the other in Simon’s Town, South Africa. While the former was a compilation of prayers in the same hand, its provenance an unmarked mystery, the latter was a shorter fragment copied into a communal notebook full of other recipe fragments. Variations between them left doubt as to their direct link in transmission; however, there were too many of the same lines in a string of recipes in the same order for the same prayer, to presume they were merely incidental. The question of a possible “original” seemed less relevant; they were likely copies of similar eighteenth-century copies circulating in the archipelago. What interested me more were the possibilities of bringing the two together into one frame: it allowed me to see that handwritten copies of similar prayer books circulated across vast distances and that prayers and their recipes for ritual use were copied, at times, in selective fragments.

The fragment in Simon’s Town was distinctive. The hand that wrote it, Michael assured me, had belonged to the famous eighteenth-century figure Imam Abdullah ibn Qadi Abd al-Salam, known as Tuan Guru (lit. “Master Teacher”). He was a nobleman from the eastern island of Tidore whom administrators of the Dutch East India Company had exiled to their Cape colony in 1780, just before the beginning of the Fourth Anglo-Dutch War. As Dr. Saarah Jappie has written, Tuan Guru’s fame is linked to his founding of the first Islamic school or madrasah in Cape Town in 1793.[2] There, he taught a diverse community of Muslim students and championed the rote-learning system in Malay and Arabic, which later madrasah teachers continued in Afrikaans.[3] Memory was essential to practicing the faith of Islam through recitation; and perhaps teaching how to commit something to heart, to preserve it within the body, inspired more than mnemonic instruction.

“For those who wish to memorize the Qur’an,” Tuan Guru had copied into the untitled notebook, “take ambergris, musk, and turmeric.” The handwriting is identical to a Qur’an Tuan Guru had copied from memory on Robben Island, now preserved at the Auwal Mosque (lit. “First Mosque,” est. 1794). “The three are to be mixed,” he wrote, “on a Friday night to make the ink.” The other manuscript had not mentioned the day and time for making the ink. If context can fill the gap, it may be noteworthy that Tuan Guru’s madrasah also functioned as the community’s first mosque, where followers of the faith congregated on Fridays, the sacred day of worship. “Write onto a white bowl this prayer,” he continued to copy, “and drink for seven days.” To write and to drink—the recipe called for a ritual assimilation of two common physical acts of learning in Islamic education.[4] Using the ink and the bowl to write and to drink, one was to absorb into the body the power of prayer, as a supplicatory means to achieve the memorization of the sacred Word.

Did Tuan Guru copy this recipe for his students in the context of the madrasah? He wrote it into a communal book full of other recipe fragments in different hands, for instance, of writing a talisman for healing. Copying it ensured that the prayer would again be copied then imbibed. The book was instructional, and the recipe meant to be used, preserved, and transmitted through the act of copying, not only on paper but also in the body. Can the manuscript in South Africa reveal something about the manuscript in Indonesia and vice versa? While the two raise more questions than answers, they also open up ways to reflect on the link between memory and the physical acts that aid it, whether in the secular context of a library or in the sacred context of a madrasah. They allow us to see the point where the plane of memory intersects with that of history, in the past and in the present.

Biography

Genie Yoo is a PhD Candidate in History at Princeton University. She specializes in the early modern and modern history of Southeast Asia and works at the intersection of science, medicine, religion, and empire. This blogpost is based on chapter two of her dissertation-in-progress, titled “Mediating Islands: Ambon Across the Ages.”

Notes

[1] My gratitude to Dr. Saarah Jappie and Michael Laffan.

[2] Saarah Jappie, “From the Madrasah to the Museum: the Social Life of the “Kietaabs” of Cape Town,” History in Africa 38 (2011): 375-376.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Prof. Rudolph T. Ware III writes about the epistemology of embodiment in Islamic pedagogy, particularly in the context of West Africa. See Rudolph T. Ware III, The Walking Qur’an: Islamic Education, Embodied Knowledge, and History in West Africa (Chapel Hill, NC: The University of North Carolina Press, 2014).