In this seminar, Dr Teren Sevea, Visiting Fellow at Nalanda–Sriwijaya Centre, delivers a lecture on the vital roles of Muslim miracle-workers within the socio-economic fabric of 18th – 9th century Malaya. His research is based on Malay-Jawi manuscripts pertaining to the esoteric practices of these miracle-workers or “pawang”, which are replete with relevant socio-economic information of the contemporaneous world that the pawang lived and practised his/her art and profession. NALANDA-SRIWIJAYA CENTRE LECTURE SERIES
The ‘Magic’ of Modern Malaya: Remembering Histories of Adam’s Ore and Muhammad’s Guns
Friday, 11 November 2016 – The Nalanda-Sriwijaya Centre hosted a seminar by Dr Teren Sevea, Visiting Fellow at Nalanda–Sriwijaya Centre, ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute.
The seminar focussed on the vital roles of Muslim miracle-workers within the socio-economic fabric of 18th – 9th century Malaya. Using Malay-Jawi manuscripts pertaining to the esoteric practices of these miracle-workers or “pawang” – the seminar recounted a history of the “worlds” and environments in which pawang conducted socioeconomic activities that were aligned with Islamic esoteric science.
Dr Teren Sevea (right) hosted by Dr Terence Chong (left) as Chair of the seminar (Source: ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute)
Dr Sevea highlighted several manuscripts that chronicled the genealogies of much-revered pawang figures. The genealogies could be connected to some originating incidence that happened in the times of Prophet Adam or Prophet Muhammad. When Prophet Adam was exiled from the Garden of Eden, Allah had caused tin and gold ore to be scattered in the ground so that Adam could use these resources. This gift of livelihood was transmitted to Adam’s descendants; the chosen pawang in Malaya possesses special olfactory skills to “smell ores” in the deep Malayan interiors. Similarly in the case of guns, Prophet Muhammad had transmitted the knowledge of how to make and use guns to his four Companions and Caliphs. The knowledge was eventually transmitted through a line of prominent sufi saints to gun gurus in Malaya and Sumatra; these gurus were thus direct “technological” heirs of the Prophet’s guns. The manuscript about guns would also provide details of how to use the guns.
Pawang, both male and female, were thus revered as the heirs of prophets and saints from earlier Islamic periods, who were endowed with both knowledge and magical skills to “make things work” in the contemporary forests, mines, “workshops” and stockades of Malaya. Pawang were indispensable in a whole spectrum of agricultural operations from the clearance of jungle land, sowing to reaping crops, irrigation works and the performance of fertility rituals for the crops.
Dr Sevea showed that pawang were not marginal people but were critical to a number of economies and industries that were developing in Malaya. In tin prospecting, it was the pawang who led the miners (Chinse, Europeans, Malays or Tamils) into the interior, smelled the earth for ore, lied down and converse with the spirits. The pawang would be the first to enter the vertical shaft underground, and he/she performed sacrifices to appease spirits and clear the area of pestilence like cholera and malaria. Pawang also held the monopoly for tin smelting before the advent of the Straits Trading Company in 1877.
Dr Teren Sevea speaking about “pawangs” in colonial Malaya (Source: ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute)
The gun gurus were skilled in the making of guns and in how to use the guns. The gurus were tied to a network of gun sellers and smugglers. Pawang mass manufactured rifles and also tailor-made rifles according to an individual’s physique. The process of making guns also involved speaking with the spirits of the gun and domesticating the weapon, so that it would be safe for use. During the Aceh war in the last quarter of the 19th century, rifles made by gurus in Malaya were smuggled to Sumatra against the prohibitions of the Dutch. The religious justification for gun making was that the guns were made for “slaying kafirs.” However, the definition of a kafir was nuanced by the fact that a Chinese or European non-Muslim was not a kafir as long as that person was a devotee of a particular guru.
Participants at the seminar (Source: ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute)
During the seminar, Dr Sevea emphasised the rich historical and economic data that could be found in traditional texts of magic and folklore. While these manuscripts were written as magical manuals, they are replete with relevant socio-economic information of the contemporaneous world that the pawang lived and practised his/her art and profession. This presentation illustrates how “magical” manuscripts are prime sources of socioeconomic histories and are informative about religio-economic sensibilities.
About 30 participants attended the 90-minute seminar.