Aceh is located at the northern tip of Sumatra. With its strategic location on the sea Silk Route, Aceh rised as a superior maritime empire in the Southeast Asia following the demise of the Sultanate of Melaka. Its powerful army challenged the position of the Portuguese and then the Dutch in the region; if it was not due to the wickedness and betrayal of some Malay sultans in the regions, Aceh would have been succesful in its campaign to oust these colonialists.
Aceh long-standing superiority in military prowess was balanced by its keen development its religious and cultural tradition. A proverbial saying in Aceh is ‘Adat bak Iskandar Muda, hukum bak Syiah Kuala’ – referring to how both culture, custom and religious law were hand in hand in ensuring Aceh’s prosperity and stability. This is inherited even today – the tourism industry of Aceh sets out to promote Syariah and Islam as Aceh’s main selling factors. No other Islamic nation has been so bold and so confident in its campaign to be the first ’parawisata Islami’ in the world.
As a centre of Islamic learning, Aceh has long been top on my travel list. The trip, which took place last month, turned out to be very fruitful. Not only did I visit the customary Wisata Tsunami places, but I also managed a short trip to Syiah Kuala’s tomb. I had a driver (acting as local guide) and a minivan at my disposal too so a quick trip hinterland to the Dayah Tanoh Abee (the oldest pondok-style religious institution in Aceh) was possible. There I was made welcomed by the wife of the late Abu Tanoh Abee, who despite the late visit (almost 9pm at that time), patiently waited for my arrival. The Dayah is famous for having among the largest collection of original Acehnese manuscripts. At its heyday, the Dayah also functioned as Aceh’s premier scriptorium. Many Aceh manuscripts were sent here for copying. On the whole of Sumatra only Aceh and the Minangkabau heartland were actively doing this. In this century, it is heartening to known that some Minangkabau surau are still continuing the tradition of copying manuscripts. This is done as an act of manuscript preservation as well as training of young scholars.
About 300 manuscripts are located at Dayah Tanoh Abee library. These manuscripts have been catalogued by Indonesian researchers. However, tthe private collection, kept in a room at Abu Tanah Abee’s family home, is only shown by prior permission from the family heir and still awaiting further cataloguing work. I felt very fortunate that I was granted the permission to visit the private room, which houses hundreds other texts and currently being preserved using traditional methods – flower, leaves and barks of cengkih and kayu manis – to prevent ants, termites and worms infestations.
I found in both the Dayah Tanoh Abee library and private collections some medical texts written in Jawi script, numbering to more than 500 pages each. They were richly illuminated, and there were beautiful drawings and diagrams in each.
I was shown similar examples of medical texts, either an original Acehnese medical manuscript or a translation from an Arabic/Persian work at the home of a local collector, known locally as Pak Tarmizi. Here, Pak Tarmizi beamed with pride as he related the history of Aceh intellectual tradition to an audience from the Departemen Agama (Religious Authority) of Banda Aceh and a band of news reporters who ‘intruded’ at the middle of my visit. I was told that he received visitors from as far as Europe on almost daily basis. Needless to say, I was also featured in the local newspaper the next day.
All private collectors and museums, such as the Museum Negeri Aceh and Museum Pak Hasjmi, were very positive when asked about future collaborations. The private collectors are somewhat sceptical about digitalisation process and would only agree to the painstaking and laboring work of transcribing manuscripts on site, but the museums are more forthcoming with digitalisation work. The existence of several unique medical texts such as the the only known translation into Malay of ar-Rahmah in Banda Aceh alone would be sufficient to keep a researcher busy for decades.