Of the black arts and white bomohs

There are bomohs who dabble in the black arts, frowned upon by Islam, but, by and large, Malaysia's shamans consider themselves good Muslims and shun such practices.

Self-styled bomoh king Ibrahim Mat Zin uses coconuts in his acts, seeing the coconut water as a cure. And he uses bamboo telescopes for "scanning", not unlike modern telescopes, he said.

"It is like a bicycle or a car. One is modern and faster, but the other also gets you there," Mr Ibrahim said.

In Malaysia, a well-known bomoh putih, or white bomoh, was the late Datuk Haron Din, spiritual leader of Parti Islam Se-Malaysia until his death in September. He managed to straddle the Islamic and traditional shaman systems.

Largely frowned in Malaysia are the black arts, such as the use of charms, the summoning unseen spirits and fortune-telling.

The most high-profile bomoh hitam (black bomoh) case was that of Maznah Ismail, a pop singer turned so-called witch doctor. Known as Mona Fandey, she was hanged in 2001 for the 1993 murder of Umno lawmaker Mazlan Idris, who had sought her services to boost his career.

She and her husband had promised the politician a headgear purportedly owned by former Indonesian president Sukarno and a talisman that would make him invincible, but instead, they gruesomely decapitated him and chopped him into 18 parts.

According to Mr Ibrahim, Mona used shamanistic knowledge for evil because she had been consumed by vengeance over Mr Mazlan's alleged broken promises. He likened this to the mystical Jedi in the Star Wars films who were consumed with hate and became the evil Sith.

As Mr Ibrahim would explain it, bomohs are no different from Chinese sinsehs and faith healers of other religions, such as Christian evangelists.

Said social anthropologist Eddin Khoo: "Things like Chinese sinseh, acupuncture, yoga, ayurveda are acceptable because the middle class embraced them. But when the Malay middle class became educated, they began to shun what appeared to them to be mere superstitious mumbo-jumbo."

Shannon Teoh

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on March 19, 2017, with the headline 'Of the black arts and white bomohs'. Print Edition | Subscribe