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Jawi books in Cairo Title page of Javanese translation of Al-Hikam (Cairo: al-Halabi, 1347 [1928]).

Jawi books in Cairo

On a visit to Cairo, Nico Kaptein acquired a number of Jawi books. Kaptein explains why these rare books deserve a closer look: they shed an important light on historical contact between Cairo and South East Asia.

In March 2018, I had the opportunity to spend two days in Cairo and, with the help of a local bookseller, I was able to buy some 25 Malay books in Arabic script that had been produced in Cairo. Such books, known as Jawi books, are quite rare and difficult to find in Cairo, but books in South-East Asian languages other than Malay are a real oddity. I was therefore pleasantly surprised to also find two examples of the latter.

The Arabic word Jawi is the adjective form of the word Jawa, which Arab speakers use to denote the entire region of South-East Asia. The Jawi language is therefore Malay; the lingua franca of South-East Asian Muslims. In line with this, and more technically, Jawi also refers to the Arabic script which is used to write Malay texts. Jawi books are therefore Malay books written in Arabic script (albeit slightly modified).

The books I was able to purchase were virtually all printed by the Mustafa al-Babi al-Halabi and Sons publishing house in Cairo in the 1920s and 1930s. Obviously, this segment of Cairene book culture is connected to the existence of a Jawa community in Cairo, consisting of Muslim students from South-East Asia who came to Cairo to study at the famous al-Azhar University. By 1925 – around the time when the books I bought were published – their number was estimated at at least 200 (in 2012 there were more than 8,500).

Without exception, these Jawi books deal with Islamic topics, with some of them being older works and some dealing with more current issues. To mention a few random examples, they include a copy of the famous Kitab seribu masalah (“The Book of a Thousand Questions”); the well-known adaptation of al-Ghazali’s thought, entitled Hidayat al-salikin by `Abd al-Samad al-Palimbani (d. after 1788); an Arabic-Malay fatwa collection for Muslims in South-East Asia, mainly given by the famous Shafi`ite Mufti of Mecca Ahmad Dahlan (d. 1886), entitled Muhimmat al-nafa’is; and works by various Meccan scholars originating from the Patani family of Southern Thailand.

The first example of a non-Malay book is, according to its Arabic title page, “in Javanese” (Arab. bi-lisan al-Jawi al-Meriki) and is a translation of the famous mystical work Al-Hikam by the 13th century Egyptian scholar Ibn `Ata’ Allah. Interestingly, the title page mentions that the translation was made by the famous 19th century Javanese scholar Muhammad Salih ibn `Umar al-Samarani, who is better known under the name Kyai Saleh Darat (d. 1903, Semarang). The Javanese is rendered in Arabic script and is fully vocalised. Strictly speaking, this book is not in Jawi but in Pegon, which is the term for the Arabic script used to write Javanese (above illustration, top left).

The second non-Malay text I bought is in Sundanese, the indigenous language of West Java. As the title page mentions in Sundanese, this text was written by “Raden Haji Muhammad Mukhtar ibn Raden Tatanegara, originating from Bogor, residing in the city of Mecca and teaching (Sund. anu sok muruk) in the Masjid al-Haram”. This scholar lived from 1862-1930. The book was published in 1341 [1922], so its author was still alive at the time of publication.

Although the book is in Sundanese, it has an Arabic title, which reads `Aqa’id Ahl al-Sunna wa-l-Jama`a (“The Doctrines of the People of the Way of the Prophet and the Community”) and is perhaps polemicizing with the Wahhabis. The Sundanese is rendered in Arabic script (also called Pegon) and is also fully vocalised (illustration below, top right). I have not found examples of books in South-East Asian languages other than Malay, Javanese and Sundanese. Books from Acehnese authors were all in Malay.

title page of Sundanese book by Raden Muhammad Mukhtar al-Buquri, `Aqa’id Ahl al-Sunna wa-l-Jama`a (Cairo: al-Halabi, 1341 [1922])

At times, the books provide interesting clues that contextualise their production. Often, the names of proofreaders (musahhih) are given. The name of one Malay proofreader stands out, namely that of Muhammad Idris al-Marbawi al-Jawi al-Azhari (“the Azharite”). This person was born of Malay parents in Mecca in 1895 and was active in Cairo from 1924 until 1967, after which year he settled in Perak on the Malaysian Peninsula, where he died in 1982. In addition to these language correctors, distributors of the books in South-East Asia are sometimes mentioned, in Kota Bahru (in Kelantan) and Penang for instance, which demonstrates the existence of direct lines from Cairo to particular booksellers in South-East Asia.

Sometimes the names of people who claim to hold the copyright to the text are mentioned, e.g. a person from Cirebon in West Java, showing that people from South-East Asia apparently ordered books to be published in Cairo. These books were thus readily available in South-East Asia and it also stands to reason that students who had studied in Cairo and returned home will also have brought books from Cairo with them. In fact, many of these Cairo-produced works have appeared and continue to appear in pirated editions in Indonesia and Malaysia as kitab kuning, to be used in traditional Muslim educational institutions.

All in all, these books therefore constitute interesting evidence of the historical contacts between Cairo and South-East Asia, and to me it is evident that the subject of Jawi books in Cairo requires full and detailed study, beyond the random selection I was able to buy. Such a study will enhance our knowledge of the Jawa community of students, teachers and other people involved with this community in Cairo in different ways. Moreover, this study will provide an insight into commercial networks and, more importantly, networks of religious and intellectual affiliation and exchange between the Middle East and South-East Asia.

Top illustration: title page of Javanese translation of Al-Hikam (Cairo: al-Halabi, 1347 [1928]).
Bottom illustration: title page of Sundanese book by Raden Muhammad Mukhtar al-Buquri, `Aqa’id Ahl al-Sunna wa-l-Jama`a (Cairo: al-Halabi, 1341 [1922]).

This blog was previously published on the The Koninklijk Instituut voor Taal-, Land- en Volkenkunde / Royal Netherlands Institute of Southeast Asian and Caribbean Studies (KITLV) website.

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