Its woody fragrance, rich in sweet and earthy nuances, brings back memories of blissful gatherings and sacred abodes. Oud, also known as agarwood, has long been praised for its olfactory splendor. It is traditionally cut into small carvings such as prayer beads, too.
DID YOU KNOW?
In Arabic, the name ʿoud is used for a variety of fragrant wood types. It refers to both agarwood and its extracts. Agar, a word ultimately coming from one of the Dravidian or Indic languages, is the name of the aromatic resin that is formed in the heart of the tree trunk and is also called aloes. When the tree becomes infected with a particular mold, it produces a dense, dark, resin-imbedded wood to protect itself. This is why scientists speak of oud as a stress-induced aroma. Once cut, an essential oil with a woody and enveloping scent can be extracted that is so valuable it is often dubbed liquid gold.
Did you know?
Agarwood occurs in trees primarily belonging to the genus Aquilaria, that grow at the Himalayan foothills, throughout Southeast Asia, and in the rainforests of Papua New Guinea. First-grade agarwood production is limited to small pockets of South and Southeast Asia. The species of the tree, its geographic location, the length of time since its infection, and harvesting methods are all factors that influence its aromatic qualities.
DID YOU KNOW?
HAVEN OF THE SCENTS
In Cantonese, Hong Kong means “Fragrant Harbor.” It is a reminder of how it once played a crucial role as a trading port in the incense trade to the lands of Islam and beyond, to which agarwood was central as the most priced incense of all.
The four Vedas, the oldest scriptures of Hinduism, are a testimony to the use of agarwood as a religious offering and fragrant smoke of thousands of years ago, believed to facilitate spiritual connections. Used by the Indian nobility to perfume their homes, this precious heartwood spread along the Silk Road and was incorporated into both Christian and Islamic cultures. The use of oud also extended to China and Japan. In Ayurvedic, Tibetan, and traditional Chinese medicine, agarwood has been applied for therapeutic purposes. It was also chewed on to sweeten the breath.
Today, this odorous wood is one of the most expensive natural raw materials in the world. Its wild resource is now depleted, which only contributes to its rarity and high cost within an ever-growing market. Did you know it is pricier than gold?
THE ISLAMIC TRADITION
There are a number of ahadith referring to agarwood, either used as incense or as a remedy. Our beloved Prophet reportedly said that al-ʿoud al-hindi contains seven cures, including one for pleurisy. One hadith in particular, narrated by Abu Huraira, describes Paradise where agarwood will be used.
In the publication Arabian Drugs in Early Medieval Mediterranean Medicine, it is described that in early medieval times, oud was imported from the lands of Sind and India along the Persian Gulf-Syrian Desert route. At the Persian port of Siraf, it was loaded onto ships and exported over sea to other parts of the world. Over twenty kinds of agarwood were mentioned in sources from this era, their names referring to their origin. Earlier named as a drug in Byzantine medical sources and by the 12th-century polymath Ibn Rushd, it was considered a hot and dry drug in the Unani Tibb tradition. The book teaches us further that an agarwood potion was swallowed to soothe upset stomachs, and cure liver problems and dysentery. Smearing agarwood ointments and massaging the ailing body with oud oil was thought to treat fever, itches, and respiration issues. It was also used to polish the teeth, protect the mouth and gums, boost the spirit, and calm the nerves.
From the early Islamic period on, oud was used as a liquid perfume and an incense. Disliked for its rather bitter fragrance before, it only became really popular under Abbasid reign. It was believed to kill lice and prevent them from breeding. Oud became one of the leading perfumes of the Islamic world, as described by the theologian and natural scientist al-Jahiz, the physician Ibn Masawayh, and the polymath al-Kindi. Some of the most precious—and expensive—perfumes were distilled out of musk, amberis, and oud. Highly esteemed in medieval Arabic literature and poetry, especially after the Islamic conquests, these were often sent to rulers as prestigious gifts.
THE ISLAMIC TRADITION
In this day and age, oud is still an indispensable part of the cleaning ritual of the Kaaba. Its inner walls are wiped with white cloths impregnated with Zamzam water mixed with oud perfume, rose, and musk oil. Associated with the virtue of hospitality, oud incense is burned in many Muslim households and spaces of devotion. Oud still is, as it always has been, linked to the sacred.