Malay Beliefs – Soul (Semangat)

Semangat, the earliest religion of the Malays was animism, and the most significant of indigenous Malay beliefs have to do with the idea of the soul. The earliest of these ideas come from animism, while the later ones derive from Hinduism, Buddhism, and Islam which in various ways succeeded animism but also accommodated it. Altogether, there are several words used in the Malay language for the equivalent of the English term “soul.” These may be divided into three broad categories.

There is firstly the belief in the universal substance or the lowest level of the soul, equivalent to the mana of the Polynesians, and said to be possessed by all animate beings such as plants , animals and human beings, as well as by certain other so-called inanimate objects and even places. This category of “soul” is known in Malay as semangat, which may be translated as vitality or even energy. It is the possession of semangat that makes certain parts of the human body deserving special care. Thus hair or finger- and toe-nails should not thrown about, for a person with evil intentions could, through causing harm to the hair and clippings of nails, cause harm to the person to whom they belong. This is known as sympathetic magic. Places, such as old lakes and rivers, graves and even open spaces sacred. Again it is the possession of semangat makes certain objects such as items of royal regalia, musical instruments or the keris sacred. The Malays are particular about how these objects are treated, for it is believed that if these objects are mistreated, then harm, such as illness, could come to those responsible. Popular belief sees semangat in some instances as being equivalent to spirits (jin or hantu). It is thus possible to understand why certain places such as ancient graves, abandoned lakes or rivers and old trees are also considered to be the places where spirits reside. One has to exercise particular caution when in the vicinity of such locations for fear of offending the spirits and thus inviting spirit attack.

Semangat can be weakened or stolen through black magic and such soul-weakening or soul-loss results in serious illnesses, only curable through the efforts of a traditional medicine man or shaman (bomoh).

From the basic animistic level, the concept of soul or spirit then ascends among the Malays to pass through various concepts and terms such as jiwa, sokma derived collectively from Hinduism and Buddhism. Finally, the Malay, through Islam, has received and accepted concept of soul as found in the Semitic religious. The term for the higher soul, roh, is derived from the Arabic, and refers specifically the soul, which according to Islamic teaching, was breathed into the clay body of Adam by God on the day when the first Man was created. Thus while lower types of souls are possessed by plants and animals, the roh, present only in human beings, represents the highest possible type of soul.

In traditional Malay magic as well as in many of the every rituals and ceremonies that have to do with everyday problems in the villages, including those connected with the building of a house, harvesting or fishing as well as with disease and healing, the belief in semangat per se and in semangat manifested as spirits, plays a vital role.