Teren Sevea

Teren Sevea

Director’s Appointment
Collecting Histories: Malay Scholars and European Collectors in the Islamic East
2022-2023 (September)
Teren Sevea


Teren Sevea is a scholar of Islam and Muslim societies in South and Southeast Asia, and received his PhD in History from the University of California, Los Angeles. Before joining HDS, he served as Assistant Professor of South Asia Studies at the University of Pennsylvania. Sevea is the author of Miracles and Material Life: Rice, Ore, Traps and Guns in Islamic Malaya (Cambridge University Press, 2020), and co-edited Islamic Connections: Muslim Societies in South and Southeast Asia (ISEAS, 2009). Sevea’s Miracles and Material Life won the 2022 Association for Asian Studies’ Harry J. Benda Prize for best first book on Southeast Asian Studies. He is currently working on a forthcoming book entitled Singapore Islam: The Prophet's Port and Sufism across the Oceans. Sevea is also the author of number of book chapters and journal articles pertaining to Indian Ocean networks, Sufi textual traditions, Islamic erotology, and the socioeconomic significance of spirits, that have been published in journals such as Third World Quarterly, Modern Asian Studies, Journal of Sufi Studies and Indian Economic & Social History Review. In addition to this, he is a coordinator of a multimedia project entitled “The Lighthouses of God: Mapping Sanctity Across the Oceans”.  

Project Summary

Giovanni da Empoli, a Florentine merchant in Melaka, witnessed the Portuguese bombardment of the Sultanate in 1511. He was familiar with Melaka’s Muslim defenders and described them as valiant, genteel, and technologically advanced believers who lost to their Mediterranean rivals due to the saintly intervention of Saint James. Giovanni da Empoli’s account of the ‘Firangis’ (Franks) in the Malay world would be accompanied by comprehensive Islamic manuscripts insightful about eastern and western intersections in Malay settings, the Islamic provenance and proficiency of ‘western’ technologies, and the processes by which Muslim intermediaries and western collectors collaborated to collect texts and objects from the Islamic east. This project focusses on manuscripts, textual traditions, and objects from the Islamic east (Southeast Asia in particular) that were exchanged between Muslim saints, scholars (‘ulama’) and scribes (munshi), and European missionaries, scholars, explorers, and administrators, in between the seventeenth and nineteenth centuries. Some western collectors were described by contributors as fellow believers and companions, and in doing so, were disassociated from European power. Some of these Christian collectors also participated in initiatory rites and circles and pledged to preserving the esotericism of the collected materials. The granular labour of these Eurasian collecting histories however fell onto the shoulders of the innumerable informants, translators and scribes of Muslim scholars and European enthusiasts, whose names were often effaced, and their histories forgotten. These informants and scribes were hired by Muslim and Christian scholars in shrines, courts, villages, cities, and residencies in early modern and modern Malaya to copy manuscripts and textual traditions that were ephemeral and written on media that were subject to deterioration, as well as to reproduce portable copies of texts and objects. Malay-Islamic intermediaries also taught European collectors, missionaries, and ethnographers, about methods of collecting Islamic manuscripts and objects and ways to read or listen to textual traditions, and conducted rituals for reading, compiling, and transporting Islamic texts. Moreover, these informants would inform western scholarly understandings of Islam, mysticism, animism, and shamanism in the Malay world, and contribute to the history of Christian orientalism.