How to do things with translation: ‘Law’ in the Malay world

By Iza Hussin

Kitab Undang-Undang Qanun Yang Dipakai Dalam Negeri Johor, 1837

As last week’s blog entry briefly introduced, these are the opening pages of KPG7514.M35 1837, a Malay text recently rediscovered at the Library of Congress.[1] The pencilled title on the facing page is in English and underlined: Malay Code of Laws, followed by “Copied by Abdullah ben Abdulkadir, at Singapore, 1837,” and the note, “Johore.” The illuminated gold title is in Jawi script: Bahawa Ini Kitab Undang-Undang Qanun Yang Dipakai Dalam Negeri Johor. This Malay language title carries more information than the English, and more ambiguity:

Bahawa Ini Kitab: that this is a/the book

Undang-Undang Kanun: of Islamic laws/codes

Yang Dipakai: in use  

Dalam Negeri Johor: in the state/country of Johor

Seeing these facing pages in their original form presents an opportunity to consider the work done to draw equivalences between ‘Malay Code of Laws’ and Ini Kitab Undang-Undang Qanun Yang Dipakai Dalam Negeri Johor. This blog post will not dissect the text in detail, but suggests a range of approaches to help us understand what this translative effort consisted of, how the material history of the text itself matters for its substantive analysis, and who was involved in its production.[2] What it ultimately does is complicate the idea of a single approach to Islamic law and its sources in the Malay world, and to point to a moment in which the very meaning of law was in flux.

Material history, scientific collecting, colonial networks.

The copyist of the text, Abdullah ben Abdulkadir (aka Munshi Abdullah, 1796-1854), was a figure well known in the Malay world as a teacher, scribe, translator, and author.[3] By 1837, when this work was produced, he had worked as a Qur’ānic teacher in the Malacca garrison, understudied his father as a petition-writer, tutored the British colonialist Stamford Raffles in Malay language and culture and then served as his secretary and interpreter, and worked with British and American Christian missionaries on large-scale projects of translation and publishing, including of the Bible. He was more aware than most of the ambiguities and possibilities of translated texts, and an expert at parsing the Malay manuscript tradition for European scholars, administrators, and collectors. His use of red and black inks, with the red marking out section breaks or headings, as well as Qur’ānic quotations, deploys and melds Malay manuscript and Victorian styles. At the moment of its production, Abdullah was most likely working as a teacher in Singapore, and working closely with missionaries Benjamin Keasberry and Alfred North. North was from the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions, and acquired the text for the United States Exploring Expedition, and through that to the Smithsonian and the Library of Congress. While other elements of Abdullah’s work were part of the administration of the Straits Settlements and colonial networks in the Malay world, this text appears to have been part of an ethnological enterprise, collected alongside vocabularies, histories, letters, medical treatises and stories. That the text is glossed as a ‘Malay’ code of laws rather than more specifically as laws in use in Johor, points to its place in an archive for external consumption, as well as to the ways in which these laws refer to a broader universe of legal content in circulation within the Malay world.

Law’s multiplicities.

In many respects, the text is an exemplar of its time and place: in content, structure, and language, it draws from the tradition of the Undang-Undang Malaka, which trace back to fifteenth-century Sultans of Malaka, Muhammad Syah (1422-1444) and Muzaffar Syah (1445-1458), and whose versions spread across Muslim Southeast Asia.[4] Work has yet to be done to explore the genealogy of the concept of undang-undang, whose meanings draw widely from a sense of ceremonial and order.[5] Within the universe of text from which the manuscript derives, there were many kitab undang-undang, whose contents overlapped, were altered to fit one locale and then another, and which travelled alongside one another. Munshi Abdullah’s characterisation of this text as a ‘code of laws,’ rather than a singular law, reflected that plural understanding. To underscore this sense, at the end of the Johor text there is another, bound together at its back: Bahawa ini kitab undang-undang laut daripada Sultan Mahmud Shah Raja Melaka, which was translated by the copyist as “Maratime Laws of Mahmoud Shah, an ancient raja of Malacca.” (sic: the more literal translation of the title would be, ‘This is a book of laws of the sea from Sultan Mahmud Shah, King of Melaka.’) Side by side with Islamic undang-undang (undang-undang kanun), there were undang-undang of the sea (undang-undang laut), undang-undang in, or deriving from, the Malaka corpus pertaining to places and kingdoms (Patani, Aceh, Pahang, Johor), as well as sources of undang-undang such as custom (undang-undang adat) and the practices of the Minangkabau.

From the very first lines of the text of Kitab Undang-Undang Qanun Yang Dipakai Dalam Negeri Johor, we get a sense of the capaciousness of the idea of ‘undang-undang kanun.’ After a brief rubricated Arabic reference to Allāh and the recommendation, wa-al-ʿāqibah lil-muttaqīn, the text switches back to Malay, and begins with reinforcing the roles of office holders, and divisions of authority among them, making reference both to hukum kanun and to adat yang ta’luq as elements necessary for the preservation of order. The list of topics covered by the undang-undang also included laws (here, hukum) relating to land and riverine areas, sanctioned and unsanctioned killing and violence, theft, treatment of slaves and runaways, accusations, buying and selling of natural resources, fitnah, livestock, marital relations and divorce, commercial transactions, debt, trust and oaths, apostasy, witnessing, adultery, alcohol consumption, and so on.

Law’s translations.

Even though, by glossing the undang-undang as a Malay Code of Laws, Munshi Abdullah acknowledged their multiplicity, equating undang-undang with law also foreshadowed a shift in how they had begun to be understood and utilized by the states of the Malay Peninsula. Here is an image of the opening page of the Undang-Undang Tubuh Kerajaan Johor, printed by the government of Johor. A concurrent English printing is entitled The Law of the Constitution of 1895.[6]

By 1895, the terms for law had taken on quite different meanings and institutional referents in the state of Johor. This text represents a massive effort to equalize undang-undang with ‘law’, in the singular, and an effort that required institutional translations to reinforce these semantic transformations. While the opening sections of this constitution also began with naming and ordering office holders within the state, this order had been narrowed to the Sultan and his heirs; the content of this text had similarly been narrowed to delineate matters related to rulership, executive and legislative authority, state finance, and the religion of the state. Some of the material described as undang-undang in 1837 was abstracted into other domains of government and legislation, while others were not, in processes of narrowing and selection about which we still know too little.[7] The next blog post discusses, in a prior institutional context, one institutional pathway through which this narrowing and selection occurred, focusing on the work of judges in British India.


[1] Joshua Kueh, “Malay and Bugis Manuscripts and Early Printed Books at the Library of Congress: An Update,” Journal of the Malaysian Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society 93, no. 2 (2020): 45-63.

[2] See also Annabel Gallop, “Malay legal texts,” British Library Asian and African Studies Blog, February 20, 2015,

[3] See Abdullah bin Abdul Kadir, Hikayat Abdullah (Singapore: B. P. Keasberry, 1849), available via the National Library of Singapore at:; Ang Seow Leng, “Stories of Abdullah,” BiblioAsia, January 31, 2016,

[4] Liaw Yock Fang, A History of Classical Malay Literature (ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute, 2013).

[5] With thanks to Tom Hoogervorst for his thoughts on the concept of undang-undang. See also “Legal diglossia, lexical borrowing and mixed juridical systems in early Islamic Java and Sumatra,” in Islamic Law in the Indian Ocean World: Texts, Ideas and Practices, eds., M. Kooria, and S. Ravensbergen (Routledge, 2021), 54.

[6] Undang-Undang Tubuh Kerajaan Johor 1895. Arkib Negeri Johor, Johor Bahru; State of Johore, The Law of the Constitution of 1895 (1962). See also Iza Hussin, “Textual Trajectories: Re-reading the Constitution and Majalah in 1890s Johor,” Indonesia and the Malay World 41, no. 120 (2013): 265.

[7] See generally Iza Hussin, The Politics of Islamic Law: Local Elites, Colonial Authority, and the Making of the Muslim State (Chicago University Press, 2016).

(Suggested Bluebook citation: Iza Hussin, How to do things with translation: ‘Law’ in the Malay world, Islamic Law Blog (Dec. 20, 2022),

(Suggested Chicago citation: Iza Hussin, “How to do things with translation: ‘Law’ in the Malay world,” Islamic Law Blog, December 20, 2022,

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