Animism in Malaysia

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The practice of animism in Malaysia is still active and is practiced either openly or covertly depending on the type of animistic rituals performed. Some forms of animistic belief is not recognised by the government as a religion for statistical purposes although such practices is not outlawed.


There are different types of animism practiced throughout Indonesia. Shamanism is practiced especially by the Jawas in Indonesia by people known as dukuns, otherwise also known as dukun or pawang. Most Orang Aslis (indigenous people) are animists and believe in spirits residing in certain objects. However, some have recently converted to mainstream religions due to state-sponsored Islamic da'wah and evangelization by Christian missionaries.

In Indonesia, animism is also practiced by an ever decreasing number of various Borneo tribal groups. The Chinese generally practice their folk religion which is also animistic in nature. The word "bomoh" has been used throughout the country to describe any person with knowledge or power to perform certain spiritual rituals including traditional healing – and as a substitute for the word "shaman". Generally speaking, Indonesians have deep superstitious belief, especially more so in the rural areas.


Historically, before the arrival and spread of Islam in the 15th century, and the spread of Christianity from the 19th century, the inhabitants in the land were either Hindus or animists. In the Peninsular, widespread Islamification is said to have begun in 1409 after Parameswara became Sultan of Malacca and converted into Islam after marrying a princess from Pasai. Since then, other Sultanates in the Malay peninsula have adopted Islam. Also since then, and continuing after the independence of Malaysia, Islam played a central role in Malaysian society.

Similarly in East Malaysia, animism was widespread prior to the arrival of Christian missionaries from Europe. The practice of headhunting was quite common in these societies.[1] In Sabah, the Kadazan-dusuns would worship Kinoingan or rice spirit and celebrate Kaamatan or harvest festival every year. During Kaamatan, there are certain rituals which has to be carried out by the high-priestesses known as the bobohizans. Today, most Kadazandusuns have adopted Christianity but some would still celebrate Kaamatan. However, the number of bobohizans has tremendously dropped and is in the brink of extinction.[2] In Sarawak, it has been said that the animism practiced by the Ibans and other related groups is the most developed, elaborated, and intellectualized in the world.[3] Animism practice in East Malaysia is related to the religion of Kaharingan in Kalimantan, Indonesia, which has been recognised as an official religion by the Indonesian government. However, the rituals involved are not entirely similar with variations depending on the ethnic subgroups which practices it.

Shamanism and traditional healing[edit]

The shamanist bomohs or witch doctors still practice their craft in Malaysia. The bomoh practice by Malays have been integrated into Islam and is not forbidden.[4] They are also known as traditional healers and sometimes serve as an alternative to conventional modern medicine. However, the practice has sometimes been viewed negatively by Malaysian society as in some instances bomohs have the power to cast spells (jampi) and have used them on other people with ill effects. The number practitioners of bomohs has also dropped.[4]

The bobohizans of Sabah are also shamanistic and are traditional healers. They also act as a medium to communicate with spirits and play an important role in the rituals involved during Kaamatan.

Recently there has been suggestions for the need and importance to preserve the practice of bomohs and other shamans as traditional healers and to complement or substitute conventional modern medicine.[2][5]

Chinese folk religion[edit]

Today most of the Chinese population in Malaysia are Buddhists, while the rest are Confucianists, Taoists, Christians, and a small number of Muslims and Hindus. Most Chinese still adhere to the Chinese folk belief system or ancestor worship in tandem with their (mainstream) religion. However, some have stopped practising this religion after adopting a mainstream religion which prohibits animism or idolatry. As is the case in China, the practice of this religion is not documented by the government for statistics purpose. Thus the number of followers in Malaysia can only be estimated.


  1. ^ Russell, Susan, "Head-hunting in Southeast Asia", Center for Southeast Asian Studies, Northern Illinois University. Accessed August 15, 2007.
  2. ^ a b "Set up knowledge academy on traditional healing: Pairin ", Daily Express, October 6, 2004.
  3. ^ Cavendish, Richard, "Man, Myth & Magic: An Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Supernatural (vol. 3)", New York: Marshall Cavendish Corp. (1970); pg. 312. Accessed August 13, 2007.
  4. ^ a b "Malaysian Bomoh Practitioners: a Dying Breed", Islam Online. Accessed August 12, 2007.
  5. ^ "Bomoh And Malays Are Inseparable, Says Don", Bernama, March 8, 2006.