Preserving Traditional Knowledge: Ethnobotany and The Holy Writings

In a rather exceptional collaboration, the Institute for Biodiversity and Environmental Research (IBER) co-organized a joint seminar with Sultan Omar ‘Ali Saifuddien Centre for Islamic Studies (SOASCIS) on 27 May 2015 to discuss Ethnobotany of Plants Mentioned in the Holy Writings at UBD’s Institute for Leadership, Innovation and Advancement (ILIA) building. The seminar was delivered by newly appointed Eminent Visiting Professor Lytton John Musselman, a Fulbright Specialist Scholar.


Exploring the vast possibilities of enthobotany in the holy books, Prof Musselman shared that approximately 80 plants are mentioned in the Holy Bible and about 30 in the Holy Qur’an. He elaborated that the Holy Bible and the Holy Qur’an were written in cultures that have high appreciation of plants, and as such, the plants and their products are powerful symbols because of their link with that culture.


To investigate these plants, a combination of several disciplines is needed, including ethnology, botany and linguistics in order to understand “how people used plants in the past but also in the present”, he said.


Among the plants described in the Holy Books are those that are used for products, which today come from different plants, some of which are of unclear identity. “There is so much interest in studying those plants, because it has been shown clearly, that plants mentioned in the Holy Writings have scientifically proven medical value,” Prof Musselman said.


One of these plants, which Prof Musselman’s research tried to identify with certitude, is Oud al-Hindi(Incents of India) which is mentioned in the Qur’an to cure seven diseases. While the name is usually associated with several plants like saussurea costus, grown in the Himalaya or Aloe, Prof Lytton’s research concludes however, that the most likely plant to be Oud al-Hindi is grown on Borneo under the local name gaharu.


Prof Lytton’s currently 4th visit to Brunei is closely connected to the establishment of a botanical garden; a project with “tremendous potential of studying these plants, of growing them and thirdly interacting with gardens in other parts of the world”, as he explained. SOASCIS’ expertise in the field of Islamic Studies could provide some of the historical and textual knowledge connected to these plants.


Musselman developed a speciality in parasitic plants - such as mistletoe, which derives nourishment by parasitizing other plants – a topic he studied during his work with UBD last year. He will share this expertise in establishing experiments in this field that students and faculty at UBD can pursue. He will also be involved in general training of students in plant identification.


"Brunei, which shares the island of Borneo with Malaysia and Indonesia, has the richest tree flora in the world, and the government there is doing a great job of protecting these plants," Musselman said of his interest to conduct research in Brunei, as quoted in the news at Old Dominion University.


“SOASCIS interest in this research is to provide a key input for this kind of study, as well as the proposal of the botanical garden; even though many do not realize the connection (of the environment) with Islamic Studies”, says Prof Dr Datuk Osman Bakar, Director of SOASCIS. Having published a lot about Islamic Sciences, he elaborated on the well-recorded botanical gardens of the Spanish Muslims in the 11th and 13th century in one of his latest books Islamic Civilisation and the Modern World.


“We have a number of local and international students who will publish on traditional knowledge”, Assoc. Professor Dr Kushan U. Tennakoon and Director of IBER added. He noted that the seminar serves not only to promote the discipline of ethnobotany in Brunei, but also to share knowledge and experiences, and shed some light on the potential area of research.


In its belief that breakthroughs are found at the intersection of disciplines, UBD encourages its students and academics to delve in multiple disciplines and network with international collaborators to promote knowledge transfer. Through the appointment of Prof Lytton as Eminent Visiting Professor of IBER, several publications and research exchanges in the field of ethnobotany are envisioned. In that course, a local UBD researcher, Dr Norhayati Hj Ahmad, will be joining Old Dominion University, Virginia, USA for nine months to conduct parts of her research on a prophetic plant Nigella Sativa that could possibly cure diabetes.


Prof Musselman holds the endowed Mary Payne Hogan Distinguished Professorship at the Department of Biological Sciences at Old Dominion University, Virginia, USA. During his last 30 years of research he has published several books on that topic and as expert in that field works with the UNESCO sponsored Qur’anic Garden project in Qatar.


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