The Maqam of Sultan Tengah

Flowers on the Sultan's Grave

Mount Santubong rises out of the South China Sea a lone mountain.  Two rivers meet the sea on either side, a narrow isthmus of land between them.  Mount Santubong has its own weather, with clouds cresting, writhing or settling around the peaks most days regardless of what the day brings the flat swamps beyond.  No wonder fairy tales are sung about it[1].  Kuching, thirty minutes inland, is a recent settlement, only becoming important in the 1840s with the arrival of James Brooke, the famous White Raja of Sarawak.  Santubong, by comparison, has evidence of human activity going back a thousand years.  Hundreds of years before James Brooke, Mount Santubong was home to the first and last Sultan of Sarawak, whose final resting place is at the foot of that remarkable mountain.  He was known as Sultan Tengah.


Mount Santubong
Mount Santubong.



There are still traces of his memory here and there.  I had heard it said that he is the patron saint of the region, and some have related contacting him in dreams and spiritual encounters[2] .  He was in any case a man who has returned to his Maker and as such I decided to visit him to read Ya Sin, intending to share its blessing with him bi idhnillah.  I arrived on a cool drizzly morning.   As I entered the mausoleum, deserted but with fresh flowers upon the grave, I caught the otherworldy scent of Kenanga blossoms [3].  Behind the headstones wrapped in royal yellow stood three large black slabs bearing in English, Malay and Jawi the legend of Sultan Tengah.

The Legend of Sultan Tengah, the First and Last Sultan of Sarawak


In the 1500s, Sarawak [4] was loosely under the rule of the Kingdom of Brunei. The 9th Sultan of Brunei was Sultan Muhammad Hassan, who ruled from 1582 to 1598.  When he passed away, the crown passed to his first-born son, Sultan Abdul Jalilul Akbar.  Sultan Muhammad Hassan had another son named Pengiran Muda Tengah Ibrahim Ali Omar Shah, who was known as Raja Tengah.  According to the oral history, this Raja Tengah also desired the throne of Brunei.  Raja Tengah insisted that since his elder brother was born before his father become the 9th Sultan, whereas he was the first son born after his father’s ascension to the throne, he had the greater right to inherit the kingdom.

Sultan Abdul Jalilul Akbar was a clever man. He understood the delicacy of the situation and tried to appease his brother’s desire. He saw a way to resolve the conflict by appointing Raja Tengah as sultan somewhere else. So it came to pass that Raja Tengah was named Sultan of Sarawak, seeing as the region was loosely under the rule of Brunei and was at the distant reaches of the realm.


Maqam at the foot of Gunung Santubong
In the shadow of Mount Santubong.


To Sarawak

According to the annals of the kings of Brunei, Sultan Tengah accepted the appointment and made preparations to depart for Sarawak. He was accompanied by more than 1000 soldiers from the Sakai, Kedayan, and Bunut tribes of the indigenous peoples of the island of Borneo. A number of members of the court also went with him to aid in the establishment of an administration in the new realm. It is mostly from this delegation that the Malays of Sarawak trace their lineage today.

Upon their arrival, the new Sultan and his followers built a palace and a fortified wall around it. Sultan Tengah began to appoint his deputies and arrange the kingdom’s affairs. Among the positions that he designated were Patinggi Datu Seri Setia, Datu Shahbandar Indera Wangsa, Datu Amar Setia Diraja and Datuk Temenggong Laila Wangsa. Only when all was settled did Raja Tengah began to use his new title, Sultan Ibrahim Ali Omar Shah, First Sultan of Sarawak.


Inside the Maqam of Sultan Tengah
The grave of Sultan Tengah, under a perforated dome open to the rain.


A Diplomatic Incident

Around 1599, Sultan Tengah visited Pahang, then a part of the Kingdom of Johor, to visit his aunt Raja Bondan who had married Sultan Abdul Ghafur Muhyiddin Shah Ibnu Sultan Abdul Kadir Alauddin Shah. While he was in Johor, Sultan Tengah was asked to perform a courtly dance. While doing so, the handkerchief of his dance partner nearly struck him in the face. Sultan Tengah became enraged and slapped the offending man. This made the Sultan of Johor terribly angry such that he demanded Sultan Tengah leave Johor immediately. According to the history passed down from the Sultanate of Sambas, Sultan Tengah, known to Sambas as Sultan Abdul Jalil, was forced to leave Johor because he rejected Raja Bondan’s offer to marry her daughter the Princess Cik Zohra. During the return voyage to Sarawak, Sultan Tengah’s boat was caught in a fierce storm, losing its rudder.


His boat washed ashore in Sukadana, on the western coast of Borneo in what is now the Indonesian province of Kalimantan Barat. Sukadana was under the rule of Raja Giri Mustika, who had adopted the title Sultan Muhammad Saifuddin after converting to Islam through the assistance of one Shaykh Shamsuddin, an Arab from Mecca. Sultan Tengah was well received in Sukadana, and studied the religious sciences under Shaykh Shamsuddin throughout his time there. While in Sukadana, Sultan Tengah married a younger sister of Sultan Muhammad Saifuddin named Puteri Surya Kesuma. He intended to reside permanently in Sukadana and requested permission to spread the teachings of Islam to the people of the area.


Batu nisan di kubur Sultan Tengah
Gravestones at the head and foot, wrapped in royal yellow cloth.

Calling to Islam

Sultan Tengah was only granted permission to spread Islam to the lands around the Sambas River, much further to the north. So, in 1600, Sultan Tengah left Sukadana for the Sambas River with 40 boats equipped with men at arms. Sailing up the Sambas River, they landed at Kuala Bangun, where Princess Surya Kesuma gave birth to a prince named Radin Sulaiman. She was later delivered of two more princes as well during their sojourn in Sambas. The second prince was known as Pengiran Badaruddin who later became Pengiran Bendahara Seri Maharaja. The third prince was Pengiran Abdul Wahab who later became Pengiran Temenggong Jaya Kesuma.

Finally, Sultan Tengah arrived in Kota Lama, Sambas. There he was met by the King of Kota Lama, Ratu Sepudak, who received him with the highest honors and stately protocol. Sultan Tengah learned that Ratu Sepudak would allow him to spread Islam in his realm even though he was not himself a muslim. After a long period of stay in Kota Lama the eldest son of Sultan Tengah, Prince Radin Sulaiman, married the daughter of Ratu Sepudak, the Princess Mas Ayu Puteri Bongsu. They had a son named Radin Bima who would later become Sultan Muhammad Tajuddin of Sambas.

When Ratu Sepudak passed away, he was replaced by Pengiran Prabu Kenchana who was appointed by Radin Sulaiman as one of his advisers. The story goes that Ratu Sepudak desired that the throne should pass to Sultan Tengah due to his experience in governance, but the matter was contested by members of the royal court.


The Journey Home

Thus it was around 1630 that Sultan Tengah went to Matan. There, he married a princess of Matan who gave birth to a son, Pengiran Mangku Negara, who later became the Sultan of Matan. After staying a number of years in Matan, Sultan Tengah decided to return to Sarawak. As the voyage neared its end, he stopped at a place known as Crocodile Rock at the mouth of the Santubong River. There he was murdered by one of his own followers.


When the news of Sultan Tengah’s death reached Sarawak, Datu Patinggi, Shahbandar Datu, Datu Amar and Datu Temenggong went to Santubong to arrange for a burial in keeping with the traditions of the Brunei Sultanate. It is said that he died in 1641, ten years after Radin Sulaiman became Sultan Muhammad Saifuddin I of Sambas. Sultan Muhammad Saifuddin I was succeeded by Sultan Muhammad Tajuddini, and the rest of their long lineage is a matter of record of the Sultans of Sambas down to the present day [5].


Legend of Sultan Tengah
An brief account of the Sultan’s life in the Malay language in jawi, a modified arabic script.


Sultan Tengah is buried near the village known today as Kampung Batu Buaya Santubong. The ancient headstone marking his grave is consistent with that of a sultan. With the death of Sultan Tengah, the Sultanate of Sarawak came to an end, the span of the realm the life of a single man.  Sarawak eventually reverted to the control of the Sultan of Brunei.  Even so, the titles[6] bestowed by Sultan Tengah on his deputies continue to be used for the Sarawakian ruling elite to this day.


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Reader, what I have translated and arranged above has reached me without author or attribution and I myself can not confirm or deny a word of it. It is curious though that the memory of the adventures of Sultan Tengah – Founder of dynasties, Spreader of Islam! – is strongest in the Sultanate of Brunei to one side of Borneo and the Sultanate of Sambas to the other, proving true his name: Sultan Tengah, the Middle Sultan.



Kenanga flowers with a scent so strong
Watered and fed till the blossoms filled
I’ve tried so hard, worked so long
Yet stand I ready to accept His Will.


Mekar kenanga harum baunya
Kembang mekar disiram dibaja
Puas ku cuba sudah ku usaha
Namun takdirnya ku pasrah saja. [7]


Kenanga or Ylang-ylang, Canangium odoratum
The spidery yellow-green petals of the kenanga flower, Canangium odoratum


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1. Puteri Santubong, the fairy princess transformed into a mountain.

2. Others say the fuss to commemorate the grave was a calculated act of flattery to attract investment from the wealthy present-day Sultan of Brunei, wallahu alam.

3. Kenanga, also known as Ylang-ylang, is Canangium odoratum, a tree often planted near mosques, maqams and cemeteries where its otherworldly aroma brings to mind the unseen world waiting for us all.  Its essential oils are also ingredients in fancy name-brand perfumes.

4. Sarawak at that time referred to a smaller territory than it does today, perhaps what is today the westernmost division of the state.

5. The Malay Archipelago contained dozens of princes and kings.  In Indonesia, many royal houses became collaborators with the Dutch and were swept away with Independence.  The Sultans of Sambas survived and have been accommodated by the Republic of Indonesia as “Head of the Sambas Sultanate for Domestic Affairs”, a hereditary administrative post similar to but less grand as the Sultan of Yogyakarta.  More on the Sambas Sultanate including accounts of Sultan Tengah’s presence here.

6. See Of Dukes and Datuks for more on the Malaysian system of peerage.

7. Pantun found here, author unknown. English translation mine.

Note: The narrative of Sultan Tengah’s life that I have translated here comes from an email from a facebook page from an anonymous message-board posting and from there I gave up.  If the author of the original Malay text would like acknowledgement here, please contact me.   There are several other versions of the story floating around which I have made no attempt to reconcile.

Review: Ottoman Age of Exploration

Ottoman Age of Exploration

By Giancarlo Casale.

The Ottomans were very active throughout the Indian Ocean world during the 1500s despite having no access to or knowledge of the area at the beginning of the century.  The author shows their exploration of the Indian Ocean is closely analogous to the activities of the Portuguese in same period. The most remarkable aspect of the story is the way Muslim peoples from East Africa to Sumatra were all prepared to give their loyalty and even their sovereignty to the Osmani Khalifah simply for showing up once with a boat or two on their shores.  Aceh is described mostly just in the context of Ottoman diplomacy. I’d like to read more about the Sultanate of Aceh in that period next.


The Ottoman Age of Exploration Goodreads page.

Habib Nuh Al-Habshi

By Abu Muhammad of Bahrus Shofa.

Photography & English translation by Bin Gregory Productions

Hilltop MaqamIt is related that Kiyai Agung Muhammad bin ‘Abdullah as-Suhaimi BaShaiban made a regular daily  practice of reading the mawlid of the Holy Prophet s.a.w., but now and again he would miss a day.  One night, he had a dream, and in that dream he met the Holy Prophet s.a.w. and Habib Nuh, who had already passed unto the Mercy of the Lord at that time.  In that dream, Habib Nuh was accompanying the Prophet s.a.w. as he walked by the home of Kiyai Agung until Habib Nuh said, “O Messenger of God, let us visit the home of my friend Muhammad Suhaimi.”  But the Holy Prophet s.a.w. did not wish to do so, and said, “I don’t want to visit him because this Muhammad Suhaimi always forgets me, because he abandons the recitation of my mawlid.”  Habib Nuh implored the Prophet s.a.w., “I beg of you that he may be forgiven.” Only then did the Holy Prophet s.a.w. elect to enter and sit in the home of Kiyai Agung.   Thus was the dream of Kiyai Agung; after seeing its signs, Kiyai Agung never again failed to recite the mawlid, even upon the open seas, or even though only two or three people sat with him in congregation.

stepsThis is an account of a dream: believe it or don’t, as you please. I relate the story here to acquaint the reader with the high spiritual station of a certain Friend of God who rests in his grave in Singapore.  The one of whom I speak, and whose blessings I desire for myself and my family and the muslims one and all, is Habib Nuh bin Muhammad al-Habshi, who lived from 1788 to 1866 AD.  His grave rests at Palmer Road, Tanjong Pagar, Singapore.  The greatness of Habib Nuh al-Habshi became more widely known when the government of Singapore, while building a large freeway, tried to move his shrine but were unable to do so.  In the end, his shrine was left untouched and to this day remains under the care of the Islamic Religious Council of Singapore.

Habib Nuh al-Habshi left the life of this fleeting world on Friday, 14 Rabi’ul Awwal 1283 H. Before he passed, he willed that he should be buried atop a small hill on Palmer Road. His will was considered odd since the spot that he had picked was well removed from the Muslim burial grounds and was situated by the sea, exposed to the erosive forces of the ocean and its pounding waves.  Therefore his family decided that his remains be interred in the usual cemetery.  When his funerary rites were complete and the time came to carry his remains to the cemetery, his litter could not be raised by the pallbearers.  It is said dozens of men tried to lift it but none were able.  In the end, they realized they must obey the will of Habib Nuh with regard to his desired burial place.

The mosque built at the foot of Palmer Hill
The mosque built at the foot of Palmer Hill
When the decision was made to bring Habib Nuh’s remains to the place indicated by his will, the pallbearers found his litter to be exceptionally light and they bore it with ease.  In 1962, the government of Singapore began ocean filling and reclamation around Habib Nuh’s shrine, and now it is positioned in the middle of dry land, no longer by the sea shore.  His resting place is preserved to this day and has become a site of pilgrimage for those who seek the blessings of a righteous Friend of God.

The karamat of Habib Nuh al-Habshi were evident even during his life.  It is related that he was once imprisoned by the White colonists. Amazingly, Habib Nuh was able to appear outside the jail whenever he pleased, although he was shackled hand and foot in prison.  When he would be seized again, again he would appear outside the prison.  Finally the colonists gave up imprisoning him, as he had rendered their prison meaningless.

Another story relates how a merchant was once sailing toward Singapore.  On his voyage, this ship was struck by a tremendous storm.  Faced with calamity, the merchant prayed to God to save him and his boat, and vowed that if he arrived safely in Singapore he would give a gift of cloth to Habib Nuh.  Praise be to Allah, he and his enterprise were saved by Allah from the ferocity of the storm.  Upon reaching Singapore, he was amazed to find Habib Nuh patiently awaiting his arrival in port, whereupon Habib Nuh asked him to fulfill his vow that he had made upon the high seas.

Yet another story tells of a man preparing to set sail on a boat with a valuable cargo of goods who approached Habib Nuh to request his prayers for a safe voyage.  Habib Nuh sternly forbade him to undertake the voyage.  With Habib Nuh’s advice in mind, the trader decided not to ship his merchandise on that vessel.  Not long after the ship had sailed, the people of Singapore were informed that the ship had caught fire and sunk.

Quran 10:62 above the grave
Quran 10:62 above the grave: “Behold! Verily upon the Friends of Allah there is no fear, nor do they grieve.”
Many more remarkable events are attributed to the karamat of Habib Nuh.  Yet despite the many extraordinary abilities that were manifested by him, it is not to this that we aspire.  Rather, history has borne witness that Habib Nuh al-Habshi was a righteous man, devoted to the teachings of Islam.  What we hope is to follow in his footsteps and those who came before him, one before the other, till we arrive at the presence of the Holy Prophet, peace be upon him.  Love of the Righteous Elect is to be striven for, knowing that man will be together with those he loves in the Hereafter.  Verily, firmness and constancy in religion is better than a thousand astonishing miracles, and miracles hidden are more meaningful than miracles revealed.  We pray that the blessings of Habib Nuh al-Habshi flow to us and to our descendants, a blessing by means of which Allah looks upon us with the gaze of Mercy and Compassion.  Let us send a gift of the Fatihah for the Saint of the City of Lions … Fatihah!
Habib Arifin
Pictured is Habib ‘Arifin bin Muhammad al-Habshi, brother of Habib Nuh bin Muhammad al-Habshi.  Habib ‘Arifin returned unto the Mercy of Allah in the year 1904 AD and is buried on Burma Road, Penang … Fatihah.

Raffles: Invasion of Java

Raffles and the British Invasion of Java

Raffles & the British Invasion of Java

by Tim Hannigan

The book covers a fascinating, obscure moment in colonial history: the launching of Stamford Raffles’ career with the five-year invasion of Java. Those five years are rich with material that Hannigan presents with a fresh eye, sensitive to the Javanese side of the story. The author sometimes seems to be nursing a grudge against his subject – the treatment of Olivia Raffles is downright mean – but the cloud of myth around Raffles is apparently pretty thick, and the author cuts through it with some sharp observations. The moments of contact between the British and royal courts are particularly entertaining. According to the Raffles’ legend, an armed standoff in the court was defused by his skill in the Malay language. Instead, Hannigan convincingly shows, “For Raffles to start griping in Malay over the seating arrangements would have been equivalent to him berating George III in the idiom of a fishwife”.  There are many episodes that get similarly perceptive treatments. The 5-year occupation marks the transition to high colonialism, and Raffles appears to have won his reputation not for being a liberal reformer but for being the imperialist’s imperialist just as the Empire was getting into full swing.

It is great material and great analysis, but the writing sometimes was distracting. There is a lot of overdescription and the alliteration jumped out all over the place: “… a few feverish friars, fast forgetting their catechism …” Once you notice it you can’t stop noticing it: “… begun plotting to place a pliant puppet…” You wish an editor had said something along the way.

All in all, I enjoyed the material and the author’s analysis a great deal. Recommended to anyone interested in the archipelago.

Tim Hannigan’s Footnotes and Sidelights from the Story, including Malaysia’s famous Munshi Abdullah writing about Englishmen riding the green horse:

their mothers would say, “Be quiet, the drunken Englishman is coming,” and the children would be scared and keep quiet.

R&TBIOJ Goodreads page.