Malay Belief – Invisible (hantu)

The belief in invisible beings has come down to the Malays through their animistic past, and a whole range of spirits are believed to exist. In simple terms these may be defined as those inhabiting certain localities such as lakes and rivers, orchards, forests and so on, those connected with particular objects such as the royal regalia, musical instruments or puppets, and those responsible for causing disease. The best known and most feared spirits amongst the Malays are the Bajang, the Pelesit , the Penanggalan the Pontianak and the Langsuyar. The common word used by the Malays for these spirits is hantu.

With the arrival of Islam in Malaysia, another term came into use for spirits. This is jin. At times the Malays, preferring not to use the term hantu due to its negative connotations, divide jin into two broad categories –those regarded as harmful or (non-Muslim) and those regarded as harmless or even beneficial, this later category of jin having been converted into Islam. The most famous of all jin is Jin Afrit, who appears in some of the legendary Middle Eastern romances (hikayat), or popular tales such as those collected in the Arabian Nights.

Hinduism introduced amongst the Malays certain higher and lower deities of that religion, and some of them, such as Shiva or Betara Guru and Ganesha , are still well known particularly to traditional medicine men as well as to performers of the shadow play (wayang kulit) or other traditional theatre genres. Most Malays, however, are unaware that these deities come from Hinduism. The same applies to many of the beliefs, traditional literature and folklore, as well as ritual and customary practices that have found their way into Malay culture from India, Java, Thailand or elsewhere. All of these have been to a greater or lesser degree absorbed, and have become an integral part of Malay culture. Cultural practices that seem to contradict with Islam are made acceptable by describing them as customary practices (adat), and the less controversial ones are tolerated.

Islam brought to the Malays belief in angels (malaikat). The most important of the angels is Jibrail, the angel who is responsible for bringing revelations from God to the various Prophets, and who thus brought down the Holy Quran to Prophet Muhammad. Other well-known angels are Izrail or Azrail, Mikail, Israfil, Munkir and Nakir, each with specific functions. Much of the Malay view of the angels and their functions, as well as information regarding the Satanic forces derives from the Holy Quran or from popular Middle Eastern literature.