Van der Meij and Lambooij’s edition and translation of the Malay Hikayat Miʿrāj Nabi Muḥammad (Cod. Or. 1713 in the Library of Leiden University) attends to an important gap in the literature on Southeast Asian Islam. As van der Meij notes, despite the abundance of versions of the nocturnal journey of the Prophet Muḥammad in the Malay-Indonesian world and the keen interest of European scholars in versions of this tradition in other parts of the Islamic world, no text edition or translation of any of these Miʿrāj texts has ever been endeavored. The lack of scholarship on the topic means that the context of the Malay Hikayat Miʿrāj Nabi Muḥammad is largely unknown. There is no information on how it came to be transmitted, what its models were, and precisely when and in what context it was composed. Due to this lack of scholarship on the topic, van der Meij’s and Lambooj’s volume raises many questions that cannot yet be answered.
The book is subdivided into three main parts. Van der Meij is responsible for the first of these, the Introduction, in which he presents background information for the text and the manuscript. The other two parts are authored by van der Meij and Lambooj together, and consist of a transcription of the manuscript and its translation, respectively.
The Introduction includes a comprehensive overview over the — albeit scarce — literature on the existing scholarship on the ascension of the Prophet Muḥammad. It also briefly addresses the exemplary role of the Prophet Muḥammad, arguably a paradigmatic characteristic of the Miʿrāj tradition more generally, as well as the tradition of heaven and hell stories in other religious genres from the Indonesian archipelago, before dwelling in some length on the manuscript on which the transcription and translation is based, which was completed in 1782. The scribe’s likely Javanese and/or Batavian background and lack of detailed familiarity with the Arabic language or the Qur’ān is given as the likely explanation for omissions and mistakes in the text, that sometimes render sentences rather unclear and force the two authors to leave some passages untranslated or to mark their translations as tentative.
Part 2, the transcription of the Jawi text, reflects the bilingual style of the manuscript and is written in a Romanisation of the Jawi script, with the numerous Arabic passages transcribed according to the Library of Congress system and kept in italics to facilitate an easier identification for the reader. Similarly, in Part 3, the translation of the Hikayat Miʿrāj Nabi Muḥammad into English, the Arabic phrases are left untranslated in the main body of the text and rendered into English in the footnotes, which also indicate the Qur’ānic source of the phrase, if one could be identified. The translation may be considered to be very successful, remaining both close to the Malay text and being composed in legible and eloquent prose.
This book offers many valuable resources for the study of Jawi manuscripts more generally and the understudied field of Miʿrāj narratives in the Malay-Indonesian world more specifically. The color photographs of the manuscript provide the reader with a valuable orientation to the scribe’s style who, for example, sometimes color coded the Arabic words to differentiate them from the mostly Malay text. The transcription makes the original text accessible to anybody literate in Indonesian or Malay, while at the same time reflecting the idiosyncrasies of the original manuscript. And the translation of the text affords the reader the opportunity to gain access to the under-explored field of Miʿrāj texts in Malay and its many narrative elements that are likely unique to the Malay tradition of this popular and widespread genre.
At the same time, the book raises many questions that, as the authors admit from the outset, are beyond its scope, largely due to the scarcity of prior scholarship. The reader is left with questions such as the following: How does this text compare to other Miʿrāj narratives in the Indonesian-Malay world and beyond? Which elements are likely adopted from older versions, and which ones reflect the conventions and concerns of its more immediate context? If it is true that this text is an example of a living, but not particularly scholarly tradition, as van der Meij suggests in the introduction, how are we to imagine this tradition? And since he also mentions the prevalence of the motif of journeys to heaven and hell in the other religious traditions of the archipelago, what cross-influences can we assume to have existed? Nonetheless, it is quite evident that van der Meij and Lambooj’s book provides a valuable first perspective on this text, and we may hope that their foray into this field will lead to further research on the topic.
Reviewed by Verena Meyer (firstname.lastname@example.org)
Meyer, V. 2016. A review of Th.C. van der Meij & N. Lambooij. 2014. The Malay Hikayat Miʿrāj Nabi Muḥammad: The Prophet Muḥammad’s Nocturnal Journey to Heaven and Hell, posted online on 7 June 2016: newbooks.asia/review/nocturnal-journey