SOAS University of London

Centre of South East Asian Studies

Mate Selection among the Malays in the early 20th Century

Dr Zanariah Noor, Post Doctoral Researcher (Department of Languages & Cultures Of South East Asia) / Senior Lecturer (Sultan Idris Education University, Malaysia)

Date: 30 September 2014Time: 5:15 PM

Finishes: 30 September 2014Time: 7:00 PM

Venue: Brunei Gallery Room: B102

Type of Event: Seminar


During the early 20th century, kitab kuning (‘yellow books’ constituting the classic works of traditionalist Muslim religious scholars, so named because of their yellow tinted paper,) were used to study religion primarily in conservative religious pondok (traditional schools). Most kitab kuning were translations of and commentaries on Arabic religious books from the Middle East, written in jawi script by Malay religious scholars.  The books played a vital role in the transmission of fundamental Islamic principles to Malay Muslims.  Kitab kuning covered a wide range of topics which can be roughly classified according to subject matter, such as the tenets of the Islamic faith (aqidah), mysticism (sufism), morality or Islamic manners (akhlak), collections of prayers and invocations (du’a, wird and mujarrabat), traditional Arabic grammar (nahw, sarf and balaghah) as well as Islamic jurisprudence (fiqh). The discussion of Islamic jurisprudence had the most concrete implications for everyday behaviour and was considered the most important works of reference. The realm of Islamic jurisprudence covered Islamic rituals, transactions, criminal law, international affairs and also Islamic family law, which included the matter of choosing the ideal spouse. Some kitab kuning singled out matters relating to Islamic family law and presented the writings in the form of handbooks on marriage and marital obligations which could be easily understood even by laymen. Thus, the transmission of Islamic teachings which was earlier circulated among learned teachers and religious students in pondoks could be transmitted to laymen via personal readings or explained by teachers during short lectures in mosques or surau (small prayer houses) which usually took place after subuh or maghrib prayer. The notion of male superiority and of female subordination as depicted in kitab kuning influenced how Malays perceived certain characteristics and manners as factors in choosing their other halves. However, during the 20th century, amidst calls for social reformation and reawakening of the Malays to overcome foreign domination in Malaya, Muslim social reformists presented a different version of ideal spouses. These reformists, who were primarily educated in Cairo and were influenced by Abduh’s ideas of the religious and social reformation of Muslim society, criticized Malay conservative religious scholars for inculcating incorrect interpretations of certain Islamic principles in Malay society, which at the time was mostly illiterate and relied heavily on traditionalist scholars’ teachings. According to the reformists, choosing the ideal spouse was vital as family was considered the backbone of society. The reformist interpretation of the ideal characteristics of future spouses, based on prophetic sayings as well as books of Islamic jurisprudence which were the basic guidelines for Muslims, differed from that of the traditionalists. In this article, Kitab Muhimmah and Uqud al-Lujjayn, two kitab kuning used as marriage handbooks by conservatives will be used to illustrate the mate selection process as well as the desirable attributes of potential spouses from the traditionalist perspective. Reformists’ perceptions of the ideal spouse, on the other hand, appeared in newspapers, magazines as well as books, considered popular reading in Malay society irrespective of educational background.


My research interests cover areas such as Islamic family law, Gender in Islam and Malay society, Women in Islamic family law, Children in Islamic family law and Islamic beliefs and practices. I also have special interests in Islamic Thought of the Malay Scholars especially the works of religious scholars in kitab jawi and Malay Muslim intellectuals in periodical journals.

Organiser: Centres & Programmes Office

Contact email:

Contact Tel: 020 7898 4892/3