Camphor in the Qur’ān
As I’ve said several times on this blog and elsewhere, very few island Southeast Asian manuscripts have survived from before the sixteenth century. The archipelago’s medieval presence can only dimly be seen in the smattering of surviving inscriptions and the corpus of literary texts in Malay and Old Javanese known chiefly from eighteenth- and nineteenth-century manuscript copies. Mentions of commodities and loanwords from the region in texts written in temperate climes can help reaffirm the Indo-Malaysian archipelago’s place in medieval Afro-Eurasian history, however; such references are indirect traces of lives and labours that would otherwise be invisible. That’s why I’ve devoted so much cyber-ink to them on this blog.
In this post I’m going to take a look at a reference to camphor in the Qur’ān, a text believed by many millions of people, including the majority of Indonesia’s modern population, to be the verbatim word of God. A more revered text can hardly be imagined, and it may be surprising to know that Southeast Asian commodities do nonetheless appear in it. As you’ll see below, we have good reasons to believe that the word for ‘camphor’ and the substance itself — both of which appear to have come originally from island Southeast Asia — were well-known in mainland Eurasia before the Qur’ān was revealed to the prophet Muhammad in the early seventh century CE.
I’ll start this piece by looking at an early reference to Barus, a place in North Sumatra that was famously associated with camphor production. Then I’ll go over by far the likeliest etymology for the word ‘camphor’ (in English, Classical Arabic, and many other languages), before examining some references to camphor in Central Asian and Middle Eastern texts of the early first millennium CE. That should set the context nicely for interpreting the significance of the relevant verse in the Qur’ān.
Barus and βαροῦσαι
In the last post on the blog we looked at the Geographia, a work written in Alexandria in the second century CE that appears to contain the earliest reference to an island bearing the name ‘Java’ in a western Afro-Eurasian text. However, this ‘Java’-ish place isn’t the only interesting Indonesian toponym to occur in the Geographia: We also find βαροῦσαι (Barousai), a place where cannibals (ἀνθρωποφάγοι) are said to dwell (Figure 1).
Βαροῦσαι is almost certainly Barus in what is now the Indonesian province of North Sumatra, near the modern city of Sibolga (Figure 2). We’ve come across Barus a couple of times already on the blog — once in a fourteenth-century description of camphor written in Egypt and again when looking at a medieval southern German recipe for gunpowder — but it’s worth going over some of the basic facts again.
In medieval Arabic and Persian texts Barus was called Fanṣūr (from Pancur ‘spring’, the name of another place in the vicinity), a toponym that first appears in the c.851 CE Arabic account of Sulaymān the Merchant (see Sirafi 2017:5, 91). A variant of this name can also be found in the Marco Polo texts, notably in the formula canfara fa᷉surí ‘Fansuri camphor’ (said to be the finest in the world).
That’s the important point here: Barus was well-known across the Afro-Eurasian supercontinent in the Middle Ages for its camphor. Although the commodity itself isn’t mentioned in the text, the reference to βαροῦσαι in the Geographia suggests that camphor has been harvested in the region and sent across the Indian Ocean since at least the second century CE.
Camphor is a volatile essential oil that occurs as a white crystalline deposit in the woods of at least three tree species: Cinnamomum camphora from China, Taiwan, and Japan, and Dryobalanops lanceolata and D. aromatica from Sumatra, Borneo and the Malay Peninsula (see Donkin 1999 for more on all of these, as well as others in the genus Dryobalanops). The latter, D. aromatica, was the species that grew in the vicinity of Barus. Medieval commentators often remarked that the camphor from Barus was the finest in the world.
Camphor was produced elsewhere in the archipelago, particularly in Borneo and the Malay Peninsula where some of the same trees grow, so references to camphor in medieval texts are not necessarily indirect references to Barus. Barus was so closely connected to camphor production, though, that in several local languages, including Malay and Old Sundanese, camphor was known as kapur Barus ‘Barus lime/chalk’ (Figure 3). It is still known by this name, without capitalisation (kapur barus), in modern Malay/Indonesian. And it is likely that this name is the source of most of the world’s words for ‘camphor’, including the one used in the Qur’ān.
The Malay word kapur comes from proto-Malayo-Polynesian *kapuR (or proto-Austronesian *qapuR, its doublet), which meant ‘chalk’ or ‘lime’ (calcium oxide, not the fruit). Cognates of the Malay word are found across the Malayo-Polynesian family, even out into the Pacific (cf. Tagalog apog, Yamdena yafur, Biak-Numfor afer, Motu ahu), usually referring to powdered lime. Camphor looks a lot like powdered lime and it was used in the same way (i.e. rolled into betel quids and chewed), so it’s understandable that the same name would be applied to both substances.
The appearance of camphor (karpūra) in the Indian epics, the Mahābhārata and Rāmāyaṇa, as well as in some of the purāṇic and Sanskrit medical literature (e.g. the Suśrutasaṃhitā), suggests that camphor first became popular outside the archipelago in India, where the substance’s whiteness readily lent itself to use as a metaphor for purity. Precisely when it first came to India is hard to say, however, as these early Indian texts are notoriously difficult to date.
The extensive list of Malayo-Polynesian cognates means that we can be sure the word was not loaned into Malay from Sanskrit karpūra, though, as is sometimes claimed. There are no cognates of karpūra with regular sound correspondences in other branches of Indo-European; it must be a loanword, and these days is usually interpreted as a back-formation from Prakrit kappūra, which is closer to the Malay and the Persian forms (see below). The Malay word, meanwhile, has a clearly established etymology. It is therefore safe to say that Malay kapur (or a close relative of it in another Western Malayo-Polynesian language) is the source of most of the world’s words for camphor, including the English word ‘camphor’ and the Arabic كَافُور (kāfūr).
Camphor Beyond Southeast Asia and India
In light of this evidence — the aforementioned second-century appearance of Barus/βαροῦσαι and the references to camphor/karpūra in early Sanskrit literature — it’s hardly surprising to see camphor mentioned by name in early- and mid-first millennium CE texts from Central Asia and the Middle East. Interestingly, the forms of the words for camphor in these texts are often strikingly close to the original Malay (or Batak, Sundanese, etc.), and may have been borrowed directly with no Indian intermediaries.
Camphor seems to make an appearance in one of the early fourth-century CE Sogdian letters recovered by Aurel Stein from an old watch tower at Dunhuang in the early twentieth century (Figure 4). The spelling is a little unusual, but the context of the letter (Ancient Letter VI, as it’s now known), concerning a purchase of silk (Sogdian: pyrcyk), suggests that this is nonetheless a reference to camphor. There are sporadic references to the stuff in the later Sogdian corpus as well, usually with the spelling ⟨kp’wr⟩ (probably pronounced kapūr).
Camphor appears in a few Middle Persian texts too, including the Bundahišn, a Zoroastrian encyclopedia whose contents date to the seventh or eighth century CE (although the manuscripts are considerably younger — Figure 5). Here camphor (Middle Persian: kāpūr) is found in a list of odoriferous plant products, including mastic (from the island of Chios in the Aegean) and sandalwood (presumably the red variety, Pterocarpus santalinus, from India). You may note that the Middle Persian pronunciation, kāpūr, is essentially the same as the Malay. It could easily have been borrowed directly, particularly when one considers the importance of Persian seafarers on the Indian Ocean in the early first millennium (see Hourani 1951:65).
Other commodities from the archipelago were arriving in western Afro-Eurasia at this time, including so-called Jatim (or East Javanese) beads, which were manufactured in East Java between the seventh and tenth centuries from Sasanian and Byzantine glass and which have been recovered from Byzantine strata at Berenike in Egypt (Francis 2002:134–136; Lankton et al. 2008). Cloves, harvested halfway around the world in eastern Indonesia, also start to appear even in western European texts around the mid/late first millennium, as in Figure 6:
By the time the Qur’ān was revealed to the prophet Muhammad in the seventh century CE, in any case, Malay-speaking states firmly enmeshed in international trade had likely already established themselves in Sumatra. The oldest surviving inscriptions in Malay date to the late seventh century, in fact, just a few decades after the Hijra, and they describe the existence of a Buddhist kingdom now known as Śrīvijaya. There is no doubt that camphor was among the goods traded out of Śrīvijaya’s ports and that merchants from India and Persia were among its buyers even before these first Malay texts were inscribed.
Camphor in the Qur’ān
We shouldn’t be too surprised, then, to discover a reference to camphor in the Qur’ān. The reference occurs in Sūrat al-Insān (‘The Man’ — 76:5):
إِنَّ ٱلۡأَبۡرَارَ يَشۡرَبُونَ مِن كَأۡسٍۢ كَانَ مِزَاجُهَا كَافُورًا
ʾinna l-ʾabrāra yashrabūna min kaʾsin kāna mizājuhā kāfūra
We’ll come onto the translation in a moment — that’s a bit more controversial than perhaps it needs to be. The word at the end of the verse, كَافُورًا (kāfūra), though, is indisputably the word for ‘camphor’, probably borrowed from Middle Persian kāpūr (with an accusative case ending). The same word is found in other Classical Arabic texts with the meaning ‘camphor’ and the comparative evidence is compelling. This is thus a fascinating and probably unique example of an Arabic word of Malay (or other Western Malayo-Polynesian) origins in the Qur’ān. Whether it actually means ‘camphor’ here — and not some other metaphorical or profound spiritual referent — is trickier, but the identification of the word itself doesn’t present any real difficulties.
In some early manuscripts the word كَافُور appears without the first ʾalif, as ⟨كفودا⟩ (kafūda), as you may be able to see in Figures 7 and 8, taken from an eighth-century manuscript of the Qur’ān now in the Bibliothèque nationale de France. (The Corpus Coranicum website has a number of different manuscripts and editions that can be cycled through easily if you want to see variants of this word and the verses that surround it.)
The reading ⟨كَافُورًا⟩ is entirely standard, however, as can be seen in the lovely Qur’ān in Figure 9, a nineteenth-century copy from the east coast of the Malay Peninsula:
The translation of 76:5 differs by translator, with some translating the word at the end as ‘camphor’, some treating the reference to camphor as wholly metaphorical, and some doubting the identification entirely (on the incorrect grounds that camphor cannot be and never was eaten or drunk in the Middle Ages). Some translations simply transliterate the word — ‘Kafur’ — and put its identification as camphor in a footnote.
The preceding verse suggests that torment awaits the faithless; a neverending flow of a mix of camphor/Kafur and water or wine is the corresponding fate of the righteous. Below I’ve listed a few of the available translations of 76:5 to give an idea of the range of interpretations:
In Maulana Muhammad Ali’s translation:
The righteous truly drink of a cup tempered with camphor
In Marmaduke Pickthall’s:
Lo! the righteous shall drink of a cup whereof the mixture is of water of Kafur
And the Sahih International version:
Indeed, the righteous will drink from a cup [of wine] whose mixture is of Kafur
Muhammad Asad’s controversial translation goes for ‘calyx of sweet-smelling flowers’ (in defiance of the word’s etymology, I’d say):
[whereas,] behold, the truly virtuous shall drink from a cup flavoured with the calyx of sweet-smelling flowers
Now, I’m not in a position to make any theological claims, and this is not of course a reference to camphor as a mundane commodity in a recipe or shopping list. I will note, however, that this verse is paralleled in 76:17, wherein the righteous are given to drink a similar mix but with ginger (زَنجَبيلًا zanjabīla — incidentally a word of Tamil origin) instead of camphor, which suggests to me that we are indeed dealing with a reference to camphor qua camphor.
Mixing camphor into drinks is not unheard of in medieval Middle Eastern texts. Ibn Sayyār al-Warrāq’s Kitab al-Ṭabīḫ, a cookbook written in Arabic in the tenth century, recommends mixing camphor into both food and drink, and small amounts of camphor are called for in several recipes in later texts as well, including a medieval Egyptian meatball dish (mudaqqaqa kāfūriyya ‘camphor meatballs’ — Lewicka 2011:204). Spices and perfumes — musk, sandalwood, and others — were often used in this way, a practice most people worldwide would probably now find a little peculiar (see King 2017:320; see note 221 on the same page for more on camphor).
While I cannot comment on the theological implications, the idea of connecting the kāfūra in surah al-Insān with camphor, and with the Malay word kapur (and by extension proto-Malayo-Polynesian *kapuR and *qapuR), does not seem at all outlandish to me. It accords with the evidence we have of camphor being present around the Indian Ocean and even in Inner Asia before the seventh century, something also evidenced by Ptolemy’s Barousai and by the presence of other island Southeast Asian commodities in pre-Islamic Egypt and Persia.
It is particularly noteworthy that a word of probable Malay origin should appear in the Qur’ān when one remembers that a dialect of Malay is the national language of Indonesia, now the largest Muslim-majority country in the world. It is a reminder of the region’s fascinating early-medieval history in perhaps the most important book in the lives of many if not most Indonesian and Malaysian people today. But it also means that a word that appears in the Qur’ān has cognates in some of the native languages of New Guinea, the Philippines, and the Solomon Islands — and that is simply fascinating.
I have to get down to some real work soon so this will probably be the last blogpost for a little while. I promised something fun last time but I got into researching this stuff and couldn’t stop. I hope it’s been somewhat interesting and not just a disconnected ramble. I’m far, far from a specialist in Arabic (or Persian, or Greek, or…). Thanks to Nadeem from (@eranudturan), Aleksander Engeskaug (@AleksEngeskaug), and everyone else on Twitter for help with some of the sources.
A. J. West — Leiden, May 2020
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Donkin, R. A. 1999. Dragon’s brain perfume. Leiden: Brill.
Francis, Peter. 2002. Asia’s maritime bead trade. Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press.
Hourani, George F. 1951. Arab seafaring. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
King, Anya H. 2017. Scent from the garden of paradise. Leiden: Brill.
Lankton et al. 2008. A study of mid-first millennium CE Southeast Asian specialized glass beadmaking traditions. In Elisabeth A. Bacus et al (eds). Interpreting Southeast Asia’s past. Vol 2. Singapore: NUS Press.
Lewicka, Paulina B. 2011. Food and foodways of medieval Cairenes. Leiden: Brill.
MacKenzie, D. N. 1971. A concise Pahlavi dictionary. London: Oxford University Press.
Sirafi, Abu Zayd Hasan ibn Yazid. 2017. Accounts of China and India. Translated by Tim Mackintosh-Smith. New York: New York University Press.
Vaissiѐre, Étienne de la. 2005. Sogdian traders. A history. Translated by James Ward. Leiden: Brill.