January 18, 2016
Unprecedented Public Display of Piety in Kuala Lumpur on New Year’s Eve (December 31, 2015)–Dataran Merdeka–led by Deputy Prime Minister, Dr. Zahid Hamidi
A Stricter Islam Displaces Old Ways in Malaysia
Conservative Wahhabi doctrines are redefining the way Islam is practiced; some rituals have been banned
Kelana Indra Sakti is one of Malaysia’s most successful shamans. Framed testimonials from his customers hang from his office walls. In the driveway of his house he keeps a stretch Mercedes-Benz limousine given to him by a grateful client. His name, meaning “Adventurer, Heavenly Magic,” was bestowed on him by one of Malaysia’s wealthy sultans.
Lately, though, Mr. Kelana has supplemented his consultations with readings from the Quran.“People just expect it these days, so I do it,” said the 70-year-old shaman.
Islamic Conservatives in serious discussion
Islam in Malaysia, and Southeast Asia, is taking a more conservative turn. The Muslim faith, brought here by Arab traders hundreds of years ago, has coexisted for generations with Malay customs such as shamanism, other forms of traditional medicine and the country’s sizable Buddhist, Christian and Hindu communities.
But more recently, conservative Wahhabi doctrines, often spread by Saudi-financed imams, are redefining the way Islam is practiced and, for some, eroding the tolerance for which the country has been known.
Signs of change abound, from the Arab-inspired architecture of Malaysia’s administrative capital to the more widespread application of Shariah, the Islamic law code largely based on the Quran.
In the northeastern state of Kelantan, one of the most conservative parts of the country, lines in supermarkets are separated by gender, and men are banned from watching women’s netball tournaments. In December, Malaysia’s first Shariah-compliant airline began flying. The airline guarantees pork-free meals and bans alcohol, in line with Islamic teaching, and its flight attendants are required to cover their heads with the hijab.
Politicians, meanwhile, are now competing with each other to show off their Islamist credentials. The opposition Pan-Islamic Party strict adherence to Shariah has helped build its support in rural areas. And a government investment fund—under the control of the Muslim-oriented ruling party—was recently set up to pay for village leaders to make the Hajj pilgrimage to Mecca.
The government’s recently established Department of Islamic Development of Malaysia writes sermons delivered in mosques nationwide each Friday, according to Malaysian analyst James Chin of the University of Tasmania.
Some Muslim academics and opinion leaders have begun to push back, saying the Arabization of Islam in the country has gone too far. Last year, Marina Mahathir, the daughter of former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad, complained that Malaysians were being taught formal rituals over the substance of the faith.
Malaysian security officials now worry that the changed climate is encouraging younger Muslims to turn to less tolerant forms of the faith. Security forces have detained over 120 people for suspected ties to Islamic State in the Middle East; scores of others have traveled to Syria to join it.
The cultural shift is complicating life for Malaysians holding on to shamanism and other old Malay customs. At a recent medical conference at the National University of Malaysia, just south of Kuala Lumpur, doctors and psychologists gathered to hear how a variety of ailments can be helped with readings from the Quran.
“We’ve forgotten old Islamic treatments and how they can help,” said one of the participants, Hamidi Abdul Rahman, president of Professional Islamic Support and Nurture Group, a faith healing group.
In Kelantan state, the shift is more pronounced. The local Islamist (PAS) government has outlawed traditional healing rituals, leaving musicians who lead them to practice under cover of darkness.
Performers such as 84-year-old Yar Daut shrug off what he says is a misplaced attempt to turn Malaysia into Arabia. “What nonsense. We’ve been performing like this for over 200 years,” he said as he mopped sweat from his brow during a break from his band’s practice sessions.
Malaysian author Eddin Khoo says that in some cases traditional music and rituals are surviving precisely because they are being driven to the margins.“The best way to make something appealing is to ban it,” Mr. Khoo said. “People are finding a way to keep it alive, whether the religious authorities go along with it or not.”
Mr. Kelana, who is Muslim, says he still has steady demand for his services, which usually involve counseling patients who have problems with their love lives or businesses.“They still need my help, and it’s my job to assist them,” he said as two young women in Muslim head scarves waited for him at his clinic.
Some shamans, or bomohs in Malay, have gotten into trouble with the law, though. Religious authorities declared in April that a well-known bomoh, Ibrahim Mat Zin, deviated from Islamic teachings when he performed a rite to locate the missing Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 with a pair of bamboo binoculars and a couple of coconuts.
Mr. Ibrahim, better known as Raja Bomoh Sedunia, or King of All the Bomohs in the World, denies doing anything wrong.Mr. Kelana reckons it is better to bend with the wind, as he puts it. It helps that he doesn’t need to perform any special rituals to figure out what is wrong with his patients. He says he can see an aura surrounding a person, and this provides all the information he needs to suggest a course of treatment.
If his clients want him to perform some spells or incantations, as in the old days, or read from the Quran, well, he’s ready to do that.“If it fits the part, why not?” Mr. Kelana said.
This pragmatic approach has won him a loyal following. He counts politicians on his client list. One patient, Nur Suzana, said she had traveled all over Indonesia and Thailand looking for shamans to deliver a cure when she said she was troubled by a jinn, or evil spirit.“Only Kelana Indra Sakti could help me,” she said after her visit.
Some imams at Mr. Kelana’s local mosque are coming around to his methods, he said. They have begun referring worshipers to him for help with their problems. “I’ve become the last resort, but people are still coming,” he said.
Write to James Hookway at firstname.lastname@example.org