Loyal Followers

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Of the Superstitious Malays: A meditation on whether the concept of a bomoh in Malay culture is compatible with the tenets of Islam

I find the psyche of the average Malaysian Muslim Malay on matters of religion to be puzzling and inconsistent. On the one hand they are often found demonstrating and remonstrating to others just how religious a Muslim they are. On the other hand most of them also are only too ready to refer any kind of problem they have with their own bomoh or to call a spade a spade, witchdoctor. These are 2 differing inconsistent beliefs which cannot be reconciled. Let me explain why.

In Islam, we begin with the Quran because it is the revelation of Allah. Verse 2 of Al Rahman (Surah 55) states: 'It is He Who has Taught the Quran' . At the outset, let me state that whilst I am not particularly religious or an expert on Islam, I do not think the Al-Quran is meant to be a specialist text only for scholars of Islam. Allah has made it for all and emphasized this four times in verses 17, 22, 32 and 40 of Al Qamar (Surah 54) and in verse 101 Al Ma'idah (Surah 5). All the wordings are almost the same except in verse 22 it begins with 'But'. Verse 17 reads as follows:

"And We have indeed made the Quran easy to understand and remember: Then is there any that will receive admonition?"

With that out of the way, let us proceed. In Islam, Allah is the ultimate Creator of all things. The Al Fatihah (Surah 1) makes this abundantly clear:

" In the name of Allah, Most Gracious, Most Merciful

Praise be to Allah, The Cherisher and Sustainer of Worlds; Most Gracious, Most Merciful; Master of the Day of Judgment. Thee do we worship, and Thine aid we seek; show us the straight way, the way on those on whom thou hast bestowed Thy Grace, those whose (portion) is not wrath, and who go not astray."

This verse also makes abundantly clear that aside from being the ultimate Creator of all, it is to Him that we worship, seek aid from and look to for the 'straight way'. But if there is any doubt verse 153 of Al An'am (Surah 6) should be consulted:

"Verily, this is My Way leading straight: follow it; Follow not (other) paths: they will scatter you about from His (great) Path; thus doth He command you, that ye may be righteous."

So this verse provides that there is no other Path except the Path of Allah. All other paths will scatter the believer from His Path. And His Path is to be found in the Quran. Verse 41 of Al Zumar (Surah 39) states:

"Verily We have revealed the Book to thee in Truth, for (instructing) mankind. He, then, that receive guidance benefits his own soul: but he that strays injures his own soul. Nor art thou set over them to dispose of their affairs."

And should we require protection, we must seek it only from Allah. Verse 36 of Al Zumar (Surah 39) provides:

"Is not Allah enough for His servant? But they try to frighten thee with other (gods) besides Him! For such as Allah leaves to stray, there can be No guide."

Yusuf Ali's commentary on this verse is as follows:

"The righteous man will find Allah enough for all the protection he needs, all the rest and peace he craves for, and all the happiness he can imagine. If the evil ones wish to frighten him with false gods, he knows that it is mere superstition. In the case of idols to whom worship is paid, this is easily intelligible. But there are other false gods which men worship – wealth, power, science, selfish desire and so on. The idea may occur to them: "this is the right course, but what will men say?" or "shall I lose my case if I tell the truth?" or "will it ruin my chances if I denounce sin in high places?" All such false gods will only mislead and leave their victims in the lurch. The worship of them will lose them the Grace of Allah, which wants to guide and comfort all who seek Allah."

Finally, to emphasize this point a little further, reference is made to Verse 38 of Al Zumar (Surah 38) which provides:

"If indeed thou ask them who it is that created Δ the heavens and the earth, they would be sure to say, "Allah". Say: "See ye then?" The things that ye invoke besides Allah – can they, if Allah wills some Penalty for me, remove His Penalty? – Or if He wills some Grace for me, can they keep back His Grace? Say: "Sufficient is Allah for me! In Him truth those Who put their trust.§"

Yusuf Ali's commentary at Δ states as follows:

"Most worshippers of false gods are neither atheists nor skeptics. They admit the existence of Allah as an abstract proposition, but it has not come into their hearts and souls: it has not been translated into their lives. They run after false worship on account of ancestral custom or on account of their thoughtlessness or false environment, or on account of their own selfish desires or limited outlook. …"

Yusuf Ali's commentary at § provides:

"Allah alone is He Who will and can discharge any trust you put in Him. All other things will fail. Therefore those who put their trust in anything should put their trust in Allah."

From all the above Verses, it is clear that Allah's Path is the only Way to Truth and Righteousness. There is no other way to it. And if protection is needed, Allah provides it as well. As Muslims, we must look to Allah for everything: "Is not Allah enough For His servant?"

But the irony of this is that whilst the average Malaysian Muslim Malay will take the greatest offence at even the faintest perceived (and often delusional) slight on their religion or integrity as a perfect Muslim, they are only too quick to rush off to see their bomoh about any problem they may encounter. Feeling lousy for a few days and don't know why? Somebody must have cast a spell on you (jampi) and only the bomoh can remove it. Cannot sleep, starting to see strange things and feel somebody is following you? Somebody must have jampi-ed you and only the bomoh can remove it. Got a bad stomach ache? Somebody must have 'put' something in you and only the bomoh can remove it. You can probably begin to see the pattern now. Apparently only the bomoh can sort any of your problems out. It can be about wealth, good looks, disease, health or fame – they will somehow have come across that spell that would give you just that.

The first thing the skeptic will think upon coming across them is that if they can do all those wonderful miracles, why they don't possess the very things others come to them for. The second thing is if they really can do these things, why do it for others for a comparatively smaller fee, when they can do it themselves. But these are questions from the realm of logic and empiricism which the Muslim Malay feels has no bearing whatsoever in matters of faith. And it is in this spirit of faith that they approach these bomoh.

But precisely what kind of faith is it? This is the precise point at which things get murky and to try and understand it, we need to look at the common modus operandi of these bomoh. Most of these bomoh will tend to use some kind of medium with which to weave their spell or to extract the 'badness'. An example would be a cucumber, candle or perhaps a special stick. Most would use verses from the Quran during their casting which they would mumble, or read aloud or have others in the room murmur them. Once they are done, there would always be some proof of their good work. They usually show their clients what it is that was taken out from them before disposing it. They usually never allow the clients to keep the evidence i.e. needles, black gooey stuff, etc. Sometimes the client is healed in one session but often they have to come back for repeated treatment. Payment is sought for indirectly and implicitly encouraged. One would be told that these were a token sum for those assisting them or themselves. Often one would also be required to purchase trinkets or 'specially treated' water from them (it usually means they have read Qur'anic verses over the bottles of water or what not) which you should use as much as possible. Do not worry if you run out because you can always purchase more of that from them. Some are kind enough to give you a good discount if you buy in bulk. The modern bomoh has now developed their arts to give it a scientific and medical sheen by wearing a stethoscope or setting up their practice like that of a common general practitioner's clinic.

But then this belief in the curative powers of the bomoh does not sit well with Verse 83 of Surah Al Nisa (Surah 4):

"When there comes to them some matter touching safety or fear, they divulge it. If they had only referred it to the Messenger, or to those charged with authority among them, the proper investigators would have tested it from them. Were it not for the Grace and Mercy of Allah unto you, all but a few of you would have fallen into the clutches of Satan."

In Surah 4 verse 83, Yusuf Ali translates ulul-amri (commonly translated into Malay as ulamak) to mean 'those charged with authority'. My understanding of this word is that it means 'those expert or knowledgeable in their field'. Allah cannot mean these men charged with authority over knowledge so as to render it a certainty because that would by definition imply completeness of knowledge, and such perfect knowledge is only possessed by Allah. Reading the verse and giving 'ulul-amri' a sensible meaning, we are encouraged to refer matters of concern to those blessed with the requisite expertise to address those concerns. If you're going to build a high-rise, architects and civil engineers ought properly to be consulted. If you have a medical problem, you refer it to a doctor, or if you prefer, traditional healer (as distinguished from a bomoh). If you think either has the requisite expertise, in principle, I do not think resorting to either offends the Qur'an. But a bomoh does not tout his religious knowledge so much as his ability to manipulate it to serve his purpose; he claims this as the basis on which he practises his 'power' or ability which not any common man can learn or practise.

Many feel what these bomohs do are Islamic because of Qur'anic verses that are often used during these sessions. And in truth that is what it really is: an appearance. If what these bomoh are doing is truly the Way of Allah then these practices should be contained in the Quran. But you would not find any of these practices in there. The Way of Allah is not the way of magic and superstition. Verse 102 of Surah Al Baqarah (Surah 2) makes clear the part about magic:

"They followed what the evil ones gave out (falsely) against the power of Solomon: the blasphemers were, not Solomon, but the evil ones, teaching men Magic, and such things as came down at Babylon to the angels Harut and Marut. But neither of these taught anyone (Such things) without saying: "We are only for trial; so do not blaspheme." They learned from them the means to sow discord between man and wife. But they could not thus harm anyone except by Allah's permission. And they learned what harmed them, not what profited them. And they knew that the buyers of (magic) would have no share in the happiness of the Hereafter. And vile was the price for which they did sell their souls, if they but knew!"

In fact, you would not even find support for any of these practices in any hadith i.e. the words and deeds of Nabi Muhammad S.A.W. And when you point this out to the bomoh or their clients they will shut you up by asserting that the bomoh possesses superior knowledge than you, or that you do not believe and therefore cannot understand, and leave it at that. But if the bomoh has superior knowledge and truly follows the Way of Allah he should have no trouble pointing out the Quranic verses or hadith he relies upon.

And belief is not a precondition to understanding. In fact, it is the other way around; one cannot reach belief without first understanding. As an example, how can one claim to properly believe in Islam and not understand it? But one can certainly not believe in Islam yet understand it through study and serious contemplation. Karen Armstrong would be one of the more famous examples of the latter.

But on a more fundamental level, if you are a Muslim and if you are in need then you must seek help from Allah. You cannot seek it from others. The bomoh is not Allah and is not a messenger of Allah. The last messenger of Allah was Nabi Muhammad S.A.W. And how then do you seek help from Allah? Verse 54 of Al Nahl (Surah 16) shows the way:

"And ye have no good thing but is from Allah: and moreover when ye are touched by distress, unto Him ye cry with groans;"

Clearly the verse states that all goodness can come from Allah and that we are to seek Him in times of our distress. And prayer is where we can seek Allah out. Nowhere does it say that we are to seek some human being to alleviate our distress. How then are we to treat this relationship with the bomoh? It is one of superstition and Allah frowns mightily on it. Verse 103 of Al Ma'idah (Surah 5) provides:

"It was not Allah who instituted (superstitions like those of) a slit-ear She-camel, or a she-camel let loose for free pasture, or idol sacrifices for twin-births in animals, or stallion-camels freed from work: It is blasphemers who invent a lie against Allah; but most of them lack wisdom."

So the superstitious are actually blaspheming against Allah. This makes sense and is logical because there cannot be any power other than that of Allah and superstition and magic is man-made. The bomoh also does not possess any of Allah's power in any measure because if they did it would have surely been stated in the Quran. And if these bomoh claim to be able to do things that even surpass the powers of Nabi Muhammad S.A.W, it cannot be true. Allah has not spoken of imbuing a human being with any special powers and Nabi Muhammad S.A.W possessed none.

Undeterred, the superstitious would claim that notwithstanding all these verses, the reasoning goes that that so long as Qur'anic verses are used, this must mean that whatever these bomoh do is Islamic. But then Allah also recognizes the hypocrites amongst His believers. Verse 8 and 9 of Al Baqarah (Surah 2) makes this clear:

"Of the people there are some who say: "We believe in Allah and the Last day;" But they do not (really) believe."

"Fain would they deceive Allah and those who believe, but the only deceive themselves, and realize (it) not!"

The word 'Qur'an' appears in 70 verses in all, and yet in not even 1 is there an assertion that its verses may be used as amulets or as cures for ills. Verse 82 of Surah Al Isra (Surah 17) is often quoted as supporting the contention that the verses have curative qualities:

"We send down (stage by stage) in the Qur'an that which is a healing and a mercy to those who believe: to the unjust it causes nothing but loss after loss"

To demonstrate that this verse is not to be taken literally is not difficult. Take a knife and cut yourself. Make it deep and broad. Now while you are bleeding profusely recite as many verses as you can before you pass out from blood loss. Are you healed? What then is meant by 'healing' in this verse? Verse 82 Surah Al Isra (Surah 17) is instructive:

"O mankind! There hath come to you a direction from your Lord and a healing for the (diseases) in your hearts, and for those who believe, a guidance and a Mercy."

Although Allah does make explicit reference to the curative values of honey, He does not make this so of the verse itself, in Verse 68 Surah Al Nahl (Surah 16):

"Then to eat of all the produce, and find with skill the spacious paths of its Lord: there issues from within their bodies a drink of varying colours, wherein is healing for men: verily in this is a Sign for those who give thought."

What these Malays fail to grasp is that the bomoh's methodology is to mesmerize with a generous sheen of legitimacy. So great is their need to believe these bomoh's can heal and cure them that they forget all the Qur'anic teachings in the hope of a quick and cheap cure. This is where the average Muslim Malay falls into error and infringes Allah's warning in Verse 31 of Surah Al Tawbah (Surah 9):

"They take their priests and their anchorites to be their lords in derogation of Allah, and (they take as their Lord) Christ, the son of Mary; yet they were commanded to worship but One God: There is no god but He. Praise and glory to Him: (Far is He) from having the partners they associate (With Him)."

So clearly we cannot simply believe something is Islamic when Quranic verses are recited. It is trite that even Satan can quote scripture. What makes a practice or an act Islamic is if it agrees with the Way of Allah as set out in the Quran. But can a person be considered a Muslim if he professes Islam and still consults with the bomoh? I don't think so. Verse 159 of Al An'am (Surah 6) provides:

"As for those who divide ‡ their religion and break up into sects, thou hast no part in them in the least: their affair is with Allah: He will in the end tell them the truth of all they did."

Yusuf Ali's commentary at ‡ states the following:

"Divide their religion: (farraque) i.e. (1) make a distinction between one part of it and another, take the part which suits them and reject the rest; or (2) have religion one day of the week and the world the rest of the six days; or (3) keep 'religion in its right place' as if it did not claim to govern the whole life; make a sharp distinction between the secular and the religious, or (4) show a sectarian bias, seek differences in views, so as to break up the unity of Islam"

Therefore as a Muslim you either accept the entirety of Allah's doctrine or not at all. You cannot choose which parts of it you like and accept those and reject those others. We have now come full circle. Superstition and the concept of the bomoh are incompatible with the beliefs of a true Muslim. It would therefore appear that the average Malay Muslim is a very confused person who has very little understanding of both their own superstition and Islam. Allah has in fact foreseen this confusion and prescribed its remedy in verse 121 of Al Baqarah (Surah 2):

'Those to whom We have sent the Book study it as it should be studied: they are the ones that believe therein: those who reject faith therein – the loss is their own."

(Note: All Quranic translation are taken from the translation rendered by Abdullah Yusuf Ali with his commentary; Published by Amana Corporation). Thanks to HMI and my loyarburok gang for their comments on the piece.

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