Old Manuscripts written in Arabic

Dozens of old manuscripts were threatened with extinction. Abandoned, dog-eared or severely damaged. Many of their owners could not even read them as they were written in Arabic, without any punctuation marks. The contents remained a mystery to the public. Thanks to Habib A. Syakur, people can now understand what is written in these precious manuscripts, which recount the teachings of Islam from the 17th to the 19th century. The 44-year-old resident of Bantul, Yogyakarta, patiently worked on the papers, read them carefully, translated, rewrote and printed them out for the public. “These fiqh, Islamic laws, are very important for the people, especially academics,” Syakur said. The old manuscripts belonged to individuals, who kept them in their own homes, considering the historical religious documents their heirlooms. “Not just anyone was allowed to look at the papers, let alone read them, because their owners believed they held mystic powers,” he said. Some documents were damaged as the owners could not look after them properly. Others were in good condition but their owners could not read the papers. Those who could read them did not think of informing the public about their content or preserve them. “If nothing was done about these old manuscripts, invaluable heritage would have disappeared. I took on the responsibility to rewrite and translate them,” Syakur said. “Since I was a kid, I have been used to reading Arabic books, which ignited my passion for old manuscripts.” But he realized his interest alone would not enable him to translate the papers. In order to really delve into the old manuscripts, after completing his Arabic language studies in Egypt, Syakur continued studying languages at a graduate level at the Sunan Kalijaga Islamic State University in Yogyakarta. With his mastery of Arabic and his love for old manuscripts, in 2007, Syakur started hunting these old religious documents individually kept and owned. He went to regions as far as Probolinggo and Ponorogo in East Java, and the centers of Islamic development in Central Java like Demak and Temanggung. Even though Syakur knew who kept old manuscripts, he had difficulties accessing the papers, given people’s possessiveness and reluctance to let the documents out of their sight. To obtain the manuscripts, including the one about Prophet Khidir he found in Temanggung, Central Java, Syakur approached people closely acquainted with the owners, and managed to collect about 30 manuscripts from their owners for free. “They only wanted to make sure that I did not lie about my intention to copy the contents,” he said. Then, after two years of hunting for old manuscripts, Syakur started translating them. Among them was Inayatul Muftaqir, an old book about Prophet Khidir. Many people have longed to read it because there is little information available about this charismatic yet mysterious prophet. Another manuscript touches upon Sufism and karomah received by the saints, titled Bughyatul Adzkiya. Syakur spends his spare time translating the manuscripts while lecturing at the Sunan Kalijaga Islamic State University. “I tend to work on translations for four to five hours a day on average,” said Syakur, who had four children with his wife Khuni Khumairoh. “I mostly do the translating after praying at dawn until I leave for work, and at night before going to bed.” When translating, not only does he read and rewrite the papers, but he also compares them with available reference books. “I often use other works to find the golden thread and clarify some of the mystifying writings contained in the manuscripts,” he said. The pleasure Syakur derives from doing these translations simply cannot be measured. He cited as an example the story of Prophet Khidir. It was widely known this prophet was related to Prophet Moses, while the old manuscripts said he was also related to Alexander the Great. He had to plough through countless reference books to interpret just one missing word from the damaged document. “When there are parts of text missing, the interpretation should come with notes, because we need to be intellectually responsible [about our interpretation of the texts],” he said. Some manuscripts do not seem to have authors, as they form part of the body of knowledge from Islamic teachers recorded by their faithful students. “Sometimes the students would forget to write on the cover, and went straight to the content.” Syakur knows many old manuscripts remain with their owners, and that it would be impossible for him to collect them all. So, he has called upon all individuals to hand them over to a foundation to prevent them from vanishing forever. Translations of old manuscripts can also be used to learn about how science developed. “By studying the manuscripts, we could study the science and technology that developed at that time,” Syakur said.


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