The cultural history of the Malays over the past several thousand years has seen them pass from an animistic base through Hinduism and Buddhism, to Islam and following that to Western-style modernization.
The influence of animism is ubiquitous, serving as a basis for traditional Malay culture, its inherent taboos and superstitions such as those connected with the presence of negative influences (kuwong, cending, bala seroka), as well as many of the ritual practices. Similarly the contributions of Hinduism and Islam are strong in the Malay’s way of life. Often, as in the case of beliefs related to sacred places and persons (keramat), religious syncretism is evident.
Beliefs related to the gradations of the soul from the lowest, semangat, to the highest, roh, have been derived from these diverse and often contradictory traditions. Man shares semangat with the rest of creation. Its weakening or loss, as well as an imbalance in angin , literally wind, being the two principal causes of disease; the third is possession by spirits (hantu).
Similarly concepts related to the invisible world, and its denizens including the ranks of native spirits, the deities (dewa) of Hindusim, and the angels (malaikat) have been significant in shaping the Malay’s worldview.