A Stricter Islam Displaces Old Ways in Malaysia

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

by James Hookway


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 james.hookway@wsj.com




23 thoughts on “A Stricter Islam Displaces Old Ways in Malaysia

  1. To be fair, every country that has pushed the “Islamic” agenda for political purposes has ended the same way. Turkey, Egypt, Tunisia even Bangladesh was founded originally as secular.

    The fact is, the US founders were supremely insightful that its the nature of politicians that will inevitably abuse religion in politics no matter which. Malay leaders and intellectuals have been indulged by their constituents not to answer this key idea as they pushed Islamisation for their convenient political purposes. If they were responsible then they must force the Ulamas within and PAS who rails against secularism, pluralism and liberalism to answer this simple key facts and they should be taught in schools to debate and discuss.

  2. Should we fear the influence of Wahabism? What can we do since it is dangerous if we are critical of Wahhabism. Right? Thus, there are no other ways for us to stop the influence Wahhabism. Do Najib, Zahid and other UMNO leaders understand the danger of Wahhabism?


  3. There is only one way in Malaysia- the strict adherence and faith in the Federal Constitution,except when 2/3 of the people or their representatives decided to displace or change with other ways, and determine their destiny the way they choose to be.

    There is not necessary to invoke Islam or other religions to live a peaceful,progressive and happy life ,unless those who do so, have ulterior motives which cause miseries to others . it is always done at the expense to the people and country for their self-serving interests.

    This is exactly the very reason these rogue politicians are competing to out-do one another by invoking religions.It will create more problems than answers.

    Where are the politicians faith in the constitution ?

    The tenents of the Federal Constitution should be taught in schools and public, not otherwise.

  4. The: The present low oil prices is intended by Saudi Arabia to drive the fracking of shale oil in the US out of business. This is a kind of economic war. Instead of cutting production the Saudis continue the level of production as usual, driving up the costs for fracking for oil in the US. The Saudi is hoping for a short term pain for long term gain, able to strangle the US again.

  5. Malaysia should learn from Indonesia to develop its own local Islam which accommodates local culture and values, instead of importing the Saudi Arabian form of global Islam as IS and al -Qaeda are trying to spread.

  6. Dream on by that time the Uber Model on Energy would have taken over the US and the world with oil being basically confined to the Transportation Industry.

  7. the UMNO Baru ketuanan melayu(read pelari in bahasa java) are aware of the benefits of wahabism as the duplicitious brits did when building up the soiled house of Saud with the help of the ulama abdullah wahab. Now the UMNO baru pavlovian dogs learnt well and heared ” their(his) masters voice.

  8. “……, which usually involve counseling patients who have problems with their love lives or businesses”

    Sex and money, the two biggest motivators in life.

    I’m reading Churchill’s the River War, don’t ask me why. Here is an excerpt which I think few would argue with. But if you must…

    “How dreadful are the curses which Mohammedanism lays on its votaries! Besides the fanatical frenzy, which is as dangerous in a man as hydrophobia in a dog, there is this fearful fatalistic apathy. The effects are apparent in many countries. Improvident habits, slovenly systems of agriculture, sluggish methods of commerce, and insecurity of property exist wherever the followers of the Prophet rule or live. A degraded sensualism deprives this life of its grace and refinement; the next of its dignity and sanctity. The fact that in Mohammedan law every woman must belong to some man as his absolute property – either as a child, a wife, or a concubine – must delay the final extinction of slavery until the faith of Islam has ceased to be a great power among men. Thousands become the brave and loyal soldiers of the faith: all know how to die but the influence of the religion paralyses the social development of those who follow it. No stronger retrograde force exists in the world. Far from being moribund, Mohammedanism is a militant and proselytizing faith. It has already spread throughout Central Africa, raising fearless warriors at every step; and were it not that Christianity is sheltered in the strong arms of science, the science against which it had vainly struggled, the civilisation of modern Europe might fall, as fell the civilisation of ancient Rome.”

  9. Edit to add .

    Right Wing types love to use this quote. They obviously have not actually read the original two volume book as it does not appear in the single volume edition. Churchill also praises Muslim soldiers as loyal etc.

    However I like this quote because it refers not to the Muslim political elite but rather the rank and file, who are duped by their so called leaders.

  10. @Conrad, the reason I say it is a bid dated, and chauvinistic is because I think a lot of Christians, possibly including myself, would run into the same issues, as we swap Churchill’s quote ‘Mohammedinism’ with ‘Jesus followers’. It is stereotype, and not very helpful. It is certainly politically incorrect for any modern statesman to say those words in public today.

  11. Political incorrectness makes utterances neither dated nor chauvinistic. The test is, does what Churchill say of Muslims applicable to what is happening in this day and age ? If the answer is no then Churchill is being mendacious and false. If the answer is yes, then he was perceptive.

  12. Conrad, I don’t think Constantinople became Islamabad in one day. There was a time that Islamic world is a lot more ‘scientific’ and ‘progressive’ than the Christian world during Europe’s dark ages.

    What I am trying to say is this. I don’t think it applies to today’s Islamic world. I see that it is applicable to the world, throughout history, across almost all tribes and nations. It is certainly still applicable to pockets of today’s China.

  13. “I don’t think it applies to today’s Islamic world.”

    Really ? More Muslims kill each other over their religion than any other groupings of religionists. Their world is mired in corruption and poverty, with Islam being imposed and in most cases embraced by the masses. I used to think that Hindus were fatalist in their outlook but evidence points to Islam being the most virulent of the Abrahamic death cults.

  14. @Conrad: I noticed that there is book on Churchil on the fact that he is not an orientalist that came out last year.

    But, given I am not too familiar with Churchill. Just the quote alone, give me a sense of what Edwad Said’s work on Orientalism.

    I was trying to get a copy of Melayu Dilemma last year, after spending a year in China. When I was in China, I could not but noticed Mahathir’s words came to my mind automatically.
    Some of it seems to ring true. But, I need to reconcile it, and re-read the exact words he wrote. It has been quite sometime since I first read it.
    Nonetheless, I still see no reason for me not to object to those words Dr Mahathir wrote.

    I vowed not to be like Mahathir, and at the same time stop hating him, even before recent Bersih 4 appearance, in spite of much inner anger that I still have for many phony statesman from Malaysia’s past and present.

    Struggle through that, Conrad. Else, whatever stereotype we have for each other would stick forever, without hope for improvement.

    I am quite sure Churchill does not know all about Muslims. He could not given his circumstances. He could possibly be best judged according to peers of his time.

  15. katasayang, forget about Churchill, in fact I would most probably agree with what many of his critics say about him, his ideological stance and his political career.

    Hone in on what he says about Muslims at the time he interacted with them in the most stressful of circumstances imaginable, that is during a time of war.

    This is not about stereotyping. This is about acknowledging that Muslims have a problem and that is Islam. Much like how Capitalists have a problem and that is Capitalism.

    Islam is not defined by people like Kassim Ahmad or Din Merican or just about any Muslim on this board. It is defined by hate mongers, fatalists and charlatans who operate with impunity because they have managed to contain people like Kassim Ahmad, Din Merican and just about every Muslim whose voice is curtailed by fascists who would literally throw the Book at them.

    As for Mahathir, he is a Malaysian creation. Hating him would be hating ourselves. Self loathing is evident in the more enlightened of our population. And for good reason.

  16. @conrad 😊 man. It sucks when we all agree with each other. We are just echoing each other’s words in this blog most of the time. How do we talk to others? 🤐 i wonder how dean din’s student scholars are like?

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