Sultan Hassan's Canons: Islamic Law in Brunei from the 16th Century

[I wrote the following article for my Golden Legacy column on The Brunei Times. It was published on 23rd April 2012].


Sultan Hassan's Canons: Islamic Law in Brunei from the 16th Century

In a news article in The Brunei Times Last year, His Majesty the Sultan and Yang Di-Pertuan of Brunei Darussalam during a meeting with members of the Brunei Islamic Religious Council (MUIB) proposed the introduction of an Islamic Criminal Act to deal with crimes while maintaining the implementation of existing civil and religious legislations.

His Majesty noted that Brunei does not have an enactment that specifically handles criminal offences under Islam. His Majesty noted that despite the establishment of the Syariah Court, it was only influential in the area of Family Law. He stated that the establishment of the Syariah High Court authority was to fully manage the Islamic Criminal Act, as ordained by the All Mighty.

His Majesty also noted that Brunei has been implementing Islamic Law since the 17th century, and it was only recently with the intervention of foreign powers that Brunei had to or was rather forced to abandon it.

What is this Islamic Law which Brunei had maintained way back in the 17th century?

The late Professor Saedon Othman writing in his 1996 book entitled “The Implementation and Administration of Islamic Law in Brunei Darussalam” noted that before the British implemented its Civil Law, the main body of basic law in Brunei was Islamic law and that the law was well executed and administered and it was effective.

The law was initiated by the ninth Sultan of Brunei Sultan Muhammad Hassan (1582-1598) and implemented and enforced during the reign of Sultan Abdul Jalilul Akbar (1619-1649) and his son Sultan Abdul Jalilul Jabbar (1659-1660). It was widely known as the Sultan Hassan’s Canons.

Sultan Hassan’s Canons or Law dealt with almost all aspects of socio-economic life, including debts, bankruptcy, interest payments, trade, marriage and divorce, and general crime such as adultery, slander, murder, theft and burglary. It also covered a wide area of Islamic law, with at least 47 clauses complying with Islamic law.

According to Haji Metassim Haji Jibah in his article “Catatan Mengenai Hukum Kanan” originally published in Bahana (October to December 1980 edition) and later compiled in his book entitled “Dokumentasi” published in 2004, the Brunei Canons existence was noted by Sir Richard Windstedt in his book “A History of Classical Malay Literature” published in 1972. Sir Richard’s original article was written much earlier and published in 1939 in the Journal of the Malayan Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society.

Sir Richard noted that the Brunei Canons which he obtained dated 1709 was similar to the old Malay Laws which could also be found in Riau, Pahang and Pontianak. He thought that the Canons were either copied or based on the ‘Hukum Kanan Melaka’ (Malacca Canons or Laws).

Many latter day commentators disagreed that the Brunei Malay Canons and any other canons should not be considered as part of the old Classical Malay Literature as these are not meant to be literary works. Though a number argued that the Canons could be included, as any literary work during that period should be considered as Malay Literature.

The important question is: was the Brunei Malay Canons taken from the Malacca Canons of the same period?

The introduction to the copy of the Brunei Malay Canons kept at Dewan Bahasa and Pustaka published in a 2003 book entitled “Hukum Kanun” compiled by Haji Asri Haji Puteh, stated that the laws or traditions stated in the canons were originally from Sultan Iskandar Zulkarnain or better known as Alexander the Great.

When one compares the Brunei Canons and the Malacca Canons, there were similarities but there were also significant differences. First of all the Brunei Canons were longer with 44 chapters but the Malacca Canons only had 27 chapters.

Brunei’s Canons 44 chapters dealt with:

Chapter 1 – the Adat and the rights of the Sultans and the Royal Family with regard to clothing, colours and other accessories;

Chapter 2 – the language usage of the Sultans and the Royal Family;

Chapter 3 – the usage of the gold thread in mattresses, umbrellas and handkerchief;

Chapter 4 – punishment for crimes of murder and other capital offences,

Chapter 5 – punishment for the killing of another with the knowledge of the Sultans and other nobilities;

Chapter 6 – punishment for running amok;

Chapter 7 – punishment for killing slaves;

Chapter 8 – punishment for hacking and slapping;

Chapter 9 – the rights of the Bendahara, Temenggong, Shahbandar and Nakhoda in carrying out capital punishments;

Chapter 10 – punishments for kidnapping other people’s wives and slaves;

Chapter 11 – punishments for thefts;

Chapter 12 – punishments for adultery and accusing someone for adultery;

Chapter 13 – punishments for those who absconded;

Chapter 14 – punishments for those who accused each other;

Chapter 15 – punishments for those who used the services of a slave without the owner’s permission;

Chapter 16 – punishments for slandering, aiding and abetting a guilty friend

Chapter 17 – punishments for those who accepted payments to kill and beat people;

Chapter 18 – punishments for those who rebelled against the Sultan;

Chapter 19 – rules for selling fruits, wood and mortgaging farms;

Chapter 20 – rules with regard to land;

Chapter 21 – punishments for allowing not keeping cows in a cow sty;

Chapter 22 – rules for rice plantations burnt by another;

Chapter 23 – rules or guidance with regard to finding injured or hungry persons due to disasters, drowning persons in the sea;

Chapter 24 – punishments for stealing slaves from other countries;

Chapter 25 – rules with regard to marriages, the bride’s wali (guardians), the marriage provisions (syarat) and the marriage proclamation (lafaz);

Chapter 26 – rules with regard to marriage witnesses;

Chapter 27 – rules with regard to the number of witnesses;

Chapter 28 – rules with regard to what constitutes illnesses and diseases which makes a woman unable to be married;

Chapter 29 – rules with regard to divorces;

Chapter 30 – rules with regard to the measurement of gantang and cupak;

Chapter 31 – rules of trading and not allowing usury and interest, sales of alcohol, dogs and other haram products;

Chapter 32 – rules for trades of farm products including domesticated animals;

Chapter 33 – rules for loss of deposits in cases of debts;

Chapter 34 – rules for bankruptcies including promises during business transactions;

Chapter 35 – rules for trustees and punishments for the unlawful usage of the wealth in trust;

Chapter 36 – rules with regard to making pledges and who is allowed to make pledges;

Chapter 37 – punishments for apostates and rules with regard to the disposal of the bodies of apostates;

Chapter 38 – rules with regards to those who can be witnesses and also the rules with regard to sighting the new moon for the fasting month;

Chapter 39 – rules for claiming wealth (related to Chapter 35);

Chapter 40 – punishments for killing another Muslim;

Chapter 41 – punishments for those who committed adultery;

Chapter 42 – punishments for yelling obscenities at another;

Chapter 43 – punishments for drinking alcohol and other intoxicating drinks;

Chapter 44 – rules for cutting down trees.

According to Awang Metassim, the first to the twenty first chapters had similarities to the Malacca Canons. He noted that the Brunei Canons followed the traditions of Islam but the Malacca Canons were influenced by Hinduism. The Brunei Canons also focused on the rules of marriages.

Alas, space does not permit a longer discussion on this subject. Perhaps it can be visited again in the future.



Funnyguy said…
Salam 'alaikum, just wondering whether they have an english translated copy of the "Hukum Kanun"? i'm really interested in looking into it.thanks

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