This article investigates European collecting of Malay manuscripts during the colonial era to address two inter-related questions: was this collecting instrumental in destroying the Malay manuscript tradition, and are colonial collections accurate representations of Malay manuscript culture? It makes the case that while European intervention was certainly destructive, in fact the majority of Malay-language literary texts survive only in colonial-era collections. It also considers whether colonial collections, precisely because they are high in Malay literary texts and low in Arabic religious texts (known as kitab), are unrepresentative of Malay manuscript culture in the nineteenth century and earlier. Taking Marsden’s seminal collection of Malay manuscripts as its case study, the article provides a fuller account of how this collection was assembled, and traces the individuals known to have acquired manuscripts for Marsden. Newly documented manuscript collections that remain in situ in Indonesia and in Malaysian institutions are discussed as a counterpoint.
This study interrogates the concept of fictionality in the premodern Arabic tradition through probing into different readings of Ibn al-Muqaffaʿ’s Book of Kalīla and Dimna. Instead of presupposing the applicability of the modern concept of fictionality, I suggest to use the concept as a hermeneutic category that can encompass different perspectives on what exactly is fictional in a text. After identifying the challenges of defining fictionality in the pre-modern Arabic textual tradition, I shall look into some of the readers of Ibn al-Muqaffaʿ’s translation between the third/ninth and sixth/twelfth centuries to unpack different modalities. Some readers such as Ibn Qutayba in his ʿUyūn al-akhbār (Essential Accounts) and Ibn ʿAbd Rabbih in his al-ʿIqd al-farīd (The Unique Neckless) foreground the ethical function of parables and gnomic sayings and ignore the fact that most of Kalīla wa-Dimna’s stories contain animal characters. Others such as al-Yamanī in his Muḍāhāt amthāl kitāb Kalīla wa-Dimna (The Analogues of Kalīla wa-Dimna’s Parables) and al-Bīrūnī in his Geography of India tackle the ontology of fictionality from the perspective of reliability versus unreliability associated to Ibn al-Muqaffaʿ’s claim over the authenticity of his transmission of “the Indian book.” Finally, focusing on Ibn Sīnā’s and Ibn Rushd’s Commentaries to Aristotle’s Poetics, I show how Kalīla wa-Dimna as a prime example of parables (amthāl) and invented stories belongs to rhetorical discourse and has to be distinguished from poetic discourse which generates images (takhyīl). By opposing the two types of discourse — poetry and stories from Kalīla wa-Dimna — in terms of both their ontological status and their functionality, they portray, I argue, a different taxonomy of fictionality. Although all these various readers might agree that Kalīla wa-Dimna contains fictive content, the different interpretations defy a classification of Kalīla wa-Dimna within the modern dichotomy of fictional versus factual narrative but allow us to uncover different ontological and pragmatic modalities of fictionality in the premodern past.