Mocked by many, but bomohs like him have appeal

Mocked by many, but bomohs like him have appeal
Self-styled Raja Bomoh Ibrahim Mat Zin shows how he prayed for Malaysia's protection against North Korea, holding up two fingers to bless both nations.
PHOTO: The Straits Times

The efforts by a self-styled Bomoh King of the World to find the missing Malaysia Airlines MH370 plane and to save Malaysia from a North Korean invasion with coconuts and bamboo cannons have catapulted him into the limelight and raised mocking laughter.

But Mr Ibrahim Mat Zin, in all seriousness, claims that he has in fact been protecting Malaysia from harm for seven decades - from even before the country's independence.

"I don't want money. I pray to ring-fence Malaysia," he told The Sunday Times in an interview, claiming to have turned 86 on Thursday. "We don't have modern weapons like Korea. If we go to war with weapons, we will lose. But we use ancient methods to fence the air, the earth and the water, so that missiles will go missing and not reach Malaysia."

Videos of his rituals began going viral since MH370 went missing in March 2014, providing a light- hearted moment for many people amid the deep anguish over the missing plane.

The best-known techniques of the Raja Bomoh Sedunia Nujum (Clairvoyant Shaman King of the World) include looking through bamboo telescopes and waving coconuts around.

He has been mocked by urbane Malaysians and criticised by Muslim scholars, who declared his methods to be haram - outlawed by Islam.

But Mr Ibrahim insists his methods are in line with Islamic teachings. He pointed to the work of other Malay faith healers and medicine men over the decades, and claimed that government officials, including Malaysia's first two prime ministers, had in fact requested his help.

Read also: Raja Bomoh performs ritual over Kim Jong-nam's death

He refused to disclose which officials requested his help in the MH370 mystery or in the ongoing row with North Korea over the murder of its citizen, Mr Kim Jong Nam.

Asked about MH370, Mr Ibrahim said: "The plane is in a parallel realm. It will be missing for 25 years before it returns, but the people may still be alive because the air is different, a month is like a day to them."

He said this was the first time he was revealing this to anyone.

Despite outlandish claims such as these, Malay shamans like Raja Bomoh - who says he is a fifth-generation shaman - commands wide following in Malaysia.

Thousands of medicine men are still sought out by the majority Malay community, despite warnings from Islamic authorities that many of them deal in black magic. The most well-known bomoh outfit in Malaysia is Darussyifa' (House of Healing), run by followers of the late Datuk Haron Din, spiritual leader of Parti Islam Se-Malaysia until his death last September.

Despite growing Islamic formalism and puritanism - a push to introduce Islamic criminal law is gaining momentum and being supported by the ruling Umno party - these traditional Malay practices are seeing a revival, according to social anthropologist Eddin Khoo.

Read also: Raja Bomoh 'protects' Malaysia from North Korea

He said the Malay psyche has been displaced in modern times and is reaching out for identity.

"Some seek out religion because it gives great strength to those feeling victimised. But others reach back into their roots. There is a power struggle between different influences in Malay society and people do go to shamans for advice because Islamic scholars are very aloof from the people," said Mr Khoo, who runs Pusaka, an NGO working to preserve the viability of Malay art forms.

Read also: Raja Bomoh summoned by Malaysia police over complaints he's tarnished Islam's image

Mr Ibrahim openly accuses Islamic leaders of oppressing and manipulating Muslims. Mr Khoo said so-called "heathen" Malay practices that people like Mr Ibrahim retain are a challenge to Muslim clerics, who have their own black-and- white Islamic narratives.

"Malay traditional culture is inherently liberal. Many of their practitioners loathe political control and want to be left to their own devices. But should Islamic authorities try to stymie their activities, there will be resistance," said Mr Khoo.

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."

This article was first published on March 19, 2017.
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