Islamic Arts

Tāj al-salāṭīn: An Instruction Manual for Kings

This stunning manuscript from southeast Asia has an unusual illumination style for the region.

The Tāj al-salāṭīn, or “Crown of Kings” is a well-known Malay manuscript, originally composed in Aceh in north Sumatra in 1603 by Bukhari al-Johri. The Tāj al-salāṭīn was is an ethical guide for rulers with advice on how correctly to govern, underscoring guidelines for just kingship, as well as good governance — in tandem with Islamic tradition. It reminds the ruler of their role as a servant of God on earth, and is comprised of an introduction and 24 chapters divided into four sections:

The first section is centred upon self-cognition, cognition of God, the nature of the world, and death. The subsequent chapter discusses the dignity of kings, justice and tyranny. The following chapter deals with officials of the court such as courtiers, messengers, scribes and viziers. The last chapter comprises various topics, including upbringing of children, generosity and kindness, reason, the conditions of royal power, the science of physiognomy, and the relationship between subjects and kings.

This copy of the Tāj al-salāṭīn is in the collection of the British Library, and was commissioned by Ralph Rice as a present for his brother, Rev. J.M. Rice of Brighton, and completed in 1824. It was scribed by Muhammad bin Umar Syaikh Farid in Penang, 4 Zulhijah 1239 (31 July 1824).

Text and Illumination

The text is written in Malay using the Arabic script, and is highlighted red text for Qur’anic quotations, for words or phrases in Arabic, or for ‘paragraph words’ indicating a new section in the text.

The illumination of this text is unusual for the region, as it draws heavily from Indo-Persian and Ottoman influences. Both the overall design and the choice of colours are more typical of manuscripts from the continent, whereas Malay manuscripts usually favoured reds and yellows. The use of white paint is also highly unusual.

Whilst having the text nestled within bubbles, or “cloudbands”, is common in Ottoman, Indian, Persian and Chinese manuscripts, it is rare to see it in those from Malaysia and Southeast Asia.

However, the final spread (at the top of the page) is more typical of the illumination style found in Malaysia, Oman and Yemen (areas linked by naval trading routes).

Physical description

Dimensions: 240 x 180 mm. 13 lines per page, black ink with rubrication; catchwords on each folio. English paper, burnished, watermarks ‘R Barnard 1820’. Finely illuminated with decorated double frames in colours and gold at the beginning (ff.1v-2r) and end (ff.190v-191r), with text frames in black, gold, blue and red on every page. Full red leather binding with flap, with ruled frames and medallions stamped in gilt.

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Rosalind is an Australia-based doctor and Fellow of the RACGP. She is currently studying for her Masters in Islamic Studies and Classical Arabic.