Finding the Missing Airliner with Coconuts

Who gets to define what a “real” Islamic practice is? Malaysians have been debating this question ever since a bomoh (a Malaysian shaman) arrived at the Kuala Lumpur International Airport and attempted to locate Malaysia Airlines flight MH370 using a magical ritual that combined Islamic elements with shamanic practices.

On Thursday Ibrahim Mat Zin, also known as Rajah Bomoh Sedunia Nujum, delivered a press conference (in which he demonstrated a squint that bore an uncanny resemblance to Pat Robertson.) He initially stated that he had been invited to perform his ritual by one of Malaysia’s “top leaders,” but then retracted this claim. In the immediate aftermath of the plane’s disappearance, he organized a prayer session in which 99 people recited the ayat yasina surah that is sometimes described as “the heart of the Quran.” The bomoh’s ritual also incorporated Islamic elements such as water from the Well of ZamzamHowever, other elements of the ritual were derived from traditional shamanism, such as a carpet that represented a “boat,” and “binoculars” made of bamboo. These ritual implements allowed the bomoh to spiritually “search” for the plane.

Many Malaysians have expressed outrage over the bomoh’s attempt to help. Jakim, the Malaysian government’s department for Islamic development, released a statement that the Mat Zin’s ritual contradicts Islamic teachings and practices.

Twitter accounts have bemoaned the incident as an embarrassment to Malaysia and called for Ibrahim to be arrested.

All cultures have experts that can be consulted for supernatural aid. Americans support a thriving industry of psychics and astrologers and generally don’t care what other countries think about it. However, countries with developing economies are sometimes embarrassed when world attention focuses on their traditional shamans and witches. Recourse to the supernatural is equated with backwardness.

The stakes are further raised in this case because globalization has forced a conversation about what constitutes “real Islam.” Southeast Asia is home to many Islamic practices that are vernacular and syncretic which present a problem for legalistic models of Islam, such as Salafism. Before the age of new media, Muslims in Europe or the Middle East could not have cared less about how a Malaysian bomoh reflects on their tradition.

But as much as some Muslims might regard figures like Mat Zin as obnoxious or embarrassing, every world religion has such figures and always will. Scholars of “lived religion” understand that religious rituals are often improvisational. As much as religious authorities attempt to restrict access to the supernatural to approved times and places, practitioners will always invoke supernatural aid in ways that make their co-religionists uncomfortable. The question of whether Mat Zin’s practice is “really Islam” is ultimately a subjective one, dependent on whatever definition of Islam one is using. But however one defines orthodoxy, a religious tradition will always yield innovationsespecially in the aftermath of a crisis.