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  • Izzuddin Ramli

Magic in the Malay World

Updated: Jul 4, 2022

The difference between divination and the divine is a fine one.

Photo by Penang Monthly.

South-East Asia is a region with strong beliefs in the spirit world, blending modern rationality and traditional knowledge. There is great reciprocity between the seen and the unseen – from spells to win back an errant lover to communing with the spirits, raising crops, curing illnesses and cursing enemies, magic is everyday practice for some of its polyglot inhabitants.

In Myanmar, during British colonial rule, magic practices were rather political: many Burmese used a “weizza”, a semi-immortal supernatural figure in Buddhism, to fight their oppressors. Most of these were however disbanded by the generals who seized power in 1962.

The Malay world constitutes southern South-East Asia. It is an expansive region that territorially stretches over what we know as Austronesia and extends to Easter Island in the east and Madagascar in the west. The use of magic was rooted in Malay society long before the arrival of Islam. Even after Islam entered the Malay cultural and social sphere, existing mystical practices were not eradicated but were instead assimilated into religious practices. In turn, Islamic elements were sporadically incorporated into the Malay spirit world.

Given the difficulty faced by scholars of Malay studies to provide a proper definition of the Malay realm, defining what Malay magic practices are poses quite a challenge. Dr Farouk Yahya, a Leverhulme Research Assistant for Islamic Art and Culture at the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford University, sheds some light on the subject during a talk he gave last year, organised by George Town Fesitval and Areca Books in conjunction with the launch of The Arts of Southeast Asia from the SOAS Collections – a book edited by Farouk.

What is “Magic”?

In Kelantan, old Malay traditions and practices such as wayang kulit face extinction due to regulations to restrain superstitious elements.
In Kelantan, old Malay traditions and practices such as wayang kulit face extinction due to regulations to restrain superstitious elements. Photo by Penang Monthly.

"Magic’ is a complicated term to define, but it basically involves practices that attempt to alter something through supernatural means,” says Farouk. “The way I define Malay Malay magic in my research is that of magic practised by those who speak Malay as a first language. Therefore, other groups such as the Dayak and Madurese are excluded. However, these societies – together with the Malays and many other peoples in maritime South-East Asia – fall under the Austronesian ethnolinguistic group and thus share certain cultural similarities.”

Numerous writings have been produced on what the Malays label as “magic”. Beginning with the expansion of British control in the late nineteenth century, many early visitors, including explorers, traders, administrators and missionaries, collected and reported on Malay rituals and beliefs as well as their language, literature, histories and folklores – which altogether form the field of Malay studies.

“Malay studies can certainly include the study of magic and divination, including the texts and images that are contained in manuscripts on these topics,” says Farouk. “The manuscripts often contain numerous images of human beings, spirits and animals, as well as a variety of diagrams and charts. There is also evidence of intercultural connections between Malay society and the wider world.

“Although concrete evidence is sparse and further research is needed, we may assume that the many merchants, religious clergy and settlers from India, the wider Islamic world, China and other parts of South- East Asia transmitted their knowledge to the local population through practical demonstrations, oral transmissions and books. At the same time, Malay merchants, pilgrims and students who travelled to other parts of the world would have brought back knowledge with them when they came home.

“From my study of the manuscripts, I have found that the texts, images and practices contained within them can be traced to a variety of sources. There is an indigenous Malay tradition, which belongs to the wider corpus of South-East Asian beliefs and practices. In addition to this are techniques that originated from India, China and the Islamic world. However, an important point to make about these foreign influences is that they often underwent a process of localisation, in that they were reinterpreted and adapted to fit into Malay traditions and world views,” says Farouk.

A small number of works by local scholars on Malay studies have led Western scholars, particularly orientalists, to dominate the look and understanding of magical practices in Malay society: “Firstly, they collected manuscripts and objects relating to these practices, and the resulting European collections have preserved some early material that would not have otherwise survived the hot and humid South-East Asian climate.

“Secondly, they recorded their observations on magical and divinatory practices that were employed in the region. A particularly important book is W. W. Skeat’s Malay Magic, first published in 1900. Skeat’s book is a valuable resource for Malay practices on this topic, as he provides explanations of what techniques were used and how they worked.

However, according to Farouk, some analyses by early Western colonial scholars must be used with caution: they often emphasised the pre-Islamic elements of Malay culture and referred to Islam as merely being a “thin veneer” in Malay society. “Scholars now believe that this was not the case. Islam has played a major role in shaping Malay culture for centuries, and indeed many magical and divinatory techniques involve the use of the Quran and pleas to God for help and guidance.”

Islam, Science and Magic

A new phase of Islamisation in Malaysia has come to dominate almost every part of Malay life: it marks a starting point where Islam, science and magical practices are brought into debate, and their compatibility to integrate with each other has become the main question.

In Kelantan, old Malay traditions and practices such as wayang kulit, mak yong, main puteri, menora, bageh and etc. face extinction due to regulations to restrain superstitious elements imposed by the Islamic PAS state government. This resulted in almost all ritualistic and magical practices being turned into performing arts, with the exception of main puteri, a traditional healing method employing the use of music, which is still practiced with the presence of superstitious elements as an alternative to modern medicine.

“During the twentieth century there was a marked shift towards modern medication. That said, when modern science is unable to provide answers to various problems, sometimes people may attribute the causes to supernatural forces and thus seek out supernatural remedies. However, there is a trend nowadays on the use of ‘Islamic healing’. This form of treatment employs predominantly Quranic verses and supplications (doa), and prohibits items typically associated with traditional Malay magic such as the use of benzoin and talismans,” says Farouk.

In Islam, divination is no less popular. Tables and charts are consulted to determine a person’s fortune in life, and this practice is undertaken by magicians and shamans who orally transmit knowledge to their students. Faal Quran and Faal Nursi are two examples of divination using the Quran that show the integration between elements of Islam and Malay superstitious practices.

With the eclectic elements found in most Malay magic practices, it would not be too much to conclude that Malay society has always been cosmopolitan, having been historically connected with various civilizations – contrary to the perception that the Malays were rather late in reaching modernity. Malay magical and divinatory traditions absorbed ideas from a wide variety of sources. The transmissions of knowledge would indeed imply a rather fluid and outward-looking environment that shaped the Malay world as we know it today.

*This article was first published in Penang Monthly, January 2018.


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