Powers of attorney form the basis of the second chapter of my book Fluid Jurisdictions: Colonial Law and Arabs in Southeast Asia (Cornell University Press, 2020). The digital collection of these documents produced by the Arab communities in the Straits Settlements (mostly Singapore) in the Koh Seow Chuan Collection in the National Library in Singapore is at once artifact and facsimile for historians like me, and I consider myself very fortunate to have gained access to it. These documents provide complex textual density to the lives of my historical actors. While I truly relished describing the materiality of paper that sustained diasporic links across the Indian Ocean, I also feel a tinge of guilt while reading these documents because they are a window into the private textual remains of people’s lives, allowing me to discover the true nature of their circumstances – the extent of their property, as well as their subtle views of their children, spouses, siblings, business partners and acquaintances.
Occasionally, as I was writing the book, I despaired that my historical actors who were enamored with paper worlds conducted themselves as if legal systems comprised late-colonial legal aesthetics and forms which were highly labor-intensive, collective and anonymous but not a site of meaningful legal action. I quickly realized that there was no chance of this being true because translation was at the core of the powers of attorney’s effectiveness. Most powers of attorney were translated twice from Arabic to Malay and then to English before being stored in the Supreme Court of the Straits Settlements in Singapore, although some were directly translated from Arabic to English. The necessity of constant translation remained dynamic and grounded their lives, making inattention to content impossible. There were difficulties that recurred in all powers of attorney. Crucially, because each person inscribed their own authority in the legal document according to Islamic law, there are multiple references to the first person singular and plural (“I” and “we”) alongside “they” in the same clause, the latter potentially referring to the governments, courts and attorneys – it is up to interpreters to decipher their identities, crucial since legal enforcement is predicated on precision. Furthermore, each document was written from multiple perspectives, namely the attorney, the grantor or testator, and their lawyer. Yet such jarring language did not lead to legal misinterpretation. Make no mistake – they are hugely disconcerting to read. I imagine the skips and jumps that I experience as a historian akin to my historical actors’ abrupt switching between places, jurisdictions, legal systems, and languages.
These powers of attorney tend to transcend both geographical and temporal boundaries so enforcement of any stipulation was a challenge. It is often unclear who should enforce certain terms although testators consistently assumed that authorities who were based where the property was would be the ones to enforce their stipulations. These documents offer a kind of blueprint of action based very much on, let’s face it, wishful thinking, in an ideal world smoothened over by law, and in so doing they tell us scholars down the line how people in the past envisioned not only their lives but also their hopes and dreams for the future with regards to their families and properties across the Indian Ocean. These documents tend to address the property that is not subjected to Qur’ānic shares delineated in the Qur’ān whose formulae were refined over the centuries by later jurists. In other words, these documents referred to property and estate holdings which are the testators’ sole prerogative to disburse. Remarkably, they were not static documents contingent upon proper fulfilment of duties by appointed representatives and attorneys. Some also expressed hope for future collaborations amongst their relatives residing all over Southeast Asia and Hadhramaut.
At the end of 1920, a power of attorney granted by Shaikha binte Jaafar bin Abdul Aziz stated she and her daughters “will take action and reconcile with Fatima bint Aboud bin Saleh bin Abdat (who was her deceased husband’s other wife) they shall either make peace with her or buy her part of the inheritance in the denomination for the people of the estate and for all those who inherited.” Subsequently, Fatimah Abdat (often spelt as “Abdad” in English translations and colonial press) and Shaikha binte Jaafar bin Abdul Aziz did work together to manage their financial affairs, enabling the former to acquire vast amounts of property in both Singapore and Java by the mid-1920s leading to much tension with other family members! The Power of Attorney reproduced below was one of the most extensive documents where a family acted in a concerted fashion. Creating a family history from a pastiche of sources is a thrilling prospect for any historian.
In the Town of Shibam,
Being the Deputy,
Mr. Abdul Kadir bin Ali bin Shaikh Harharah,
Praises are to God alone,
In the month of Rabi al-awwal 1339, in Balil of Hadhramawt, I Shaikha bint Jaafar bin Omar bin Abdul Aziz, one of the two wives of the late Abdullah bin Saeed bin Mar’i, and I, Alia and I, Fatima daughters of Abdullah bin Saeed bin Marie and I, Ali bin Muhammed bin Abdullah Bin Mar’i, we testify that we have assigned Abdullah bin Salmeen bin Mar’i and Suleiman bin Abdullah bin Salmeen bin Mar’i to be our deputies and we have given them complete authorization to receive what we have inherited. What myself Sheikha, mentioned above, and my husband Abdullah bin Saeed bin Mar’i, also mentioned above, have inherited; and what I, Alia and I, Fatima daughters of Abdullah bin Saeed bin Mar’i have inherited; and what I Ali bin Muhammed bin Abdullah Bin Mar’i have inherited by the commandment of my grandfather, mentioned above, Abdullah bin Saeed in Singapore. The inheritance contains houses, real estates, cash, furniture and others of what we call money. They shall take action and reconcile with Fatima bint Aboud bin Saleh bin Abdat, one of the wives of the late Abdullah bin Saeed bin Mari, they shall either make peace with her or buy her part of the inheritance in the denomination for the people of the estate and for all those who inherited. Our assigned deputies shall be independent, if one of them is absent the other one shall function on his own. We have permitted each of them to seek the assistance of whomever he wants and hire them. The hired assistants shall work as the deputies, do their work and sign in their places, they have absolute power and complete authorization to act as needed. We have made this testimony by choice, fully aware of our actions, and on Allah we rely.
Decided for herself what has been mentioned above, Sheikha bint Jaafar bin Omar bin Abdul Aziz
Decided for herself what has been mentioned above, Alia daughters of Abdullah bin Sayyid bin Mar’i
Decided for herself what has been mentioned above, Fatima daughters of Abdullah bin Sayyid bin Mar’i
Their decisions were written by Ali bin Muhammed bin Abdullah Bin Mar’i, who also decided on himself and wrote the document with his hand.
What has been said above by Sheikha bint Jaafar bin Omar bin Abdul Aziz, one of the wives of the late Abdullah bin Sayyid bin Mar’i; and Alia and Fatima daughters of Abdullah bin Sayyid bin Mar’i and Ali bin Muhammed bin Abdullah Bin Mar’i, has been all corrected, sealed, and presented with the presence of person in charge of the law Sharif Sheikh Al-Mahfouz Abdul Qadir bin Salem in the town of Shibam in Hadhramawt.
 Koh Seow Chuan Collection no. 040000089, Power of Attorney by Shaikha binte Jaafar bin Omar bin Abdul Aziz, Alia binte Abdullah bin Said in Marie and Fatimah binte Abdullah bin Said bin Marie, to Abdullah bin Salman bin Marie and Soliman bin Abdullah bin Salmain bin Marie, November–December 1920.
 For more on Fatimah bin Abdad’s adventures see Nurfadzilah Yahaya, Fluid Jurisdictions: Colonial Law and Arabs in Southeast Asia (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2020), 47-52.
Suggested Bluebook citation: Nurfadzilah Yahaya, Portals to the Future: Translations of Powers of Attorney, Islamic Law Blog (July 29, 2021), https://islamiclaw.blog/2021/07/29/portals-to-the-future-translations-of-powers-of-attorney/)
(Suggested Chicago citation: Nurfadzilah Yahaya, “Portals to the Future: Translations of Powers of Attorney,” Islamic Law Blog, July 29, 2021, https://islamiclaw.blog/2021/07/29/portals-to-the-future-translations-of-powers-of-attorney/)