Executive Summary

Malay medicine can be defined as a cultural system based on beliefs, knowledge and practices related to the concept of well-being of life in the community as a whole [1], though basically it concerns sickness and indisposition. Like any other forms of medicine, Malay medical practice covers three main aspects, namely curing, healthcare and prevention of diseases. Malay medical practitioners or the medicine men are known in Malay terms as pawang, dukun, bomoh and tabib. Although curing the sick is an important aspect of a Malay practitioner, his first and utmost responsibility is rather to prevent the occurrence of diseases that would affect the community as a whole. It is only when these preventive measures somehow fail that he would shift his responsibility to that of curing those affected [2].

Generally, treatment within the concern of Malay medical practice consists of three usual methods of physical treatment namely massaging (urut), daubing (lumur) or cupping (bekam). Malay medicinal treatment usually uses herbs, tonic concoctions, etc., while spiritual treatment involves prayers, charms and incantations (jampi, mantera) and, talisman and amulet (tangkal, azimat). Like in many other cultures, talisman and amulet are worn by the Malays not only for the purpose of curing the disease, but also as means of protection (pendinding) against evil spirits and hence, against diseases believed to be inflicted by those spirits, and also as a measure against recurrence.


Origin and Development

Like any other concepts which are primitive in nature, it is impossible to determine with accuracy the beginning and origin of Malay medicine. Myths and legends abound that any discussion on the subject is incomplete without touching on them. It is actually safe to ascertain that there are no authoritative findings or any written documents which can put a claim to the origin or beginning of Malay medicine, or even to the practice of the Malay medicine man. John D. Gimlette quotes a source of his research, a bomoh by the name of To’ Bomor Enche’ from Kelantan who narrated the following legend:

In the olden days a son was born to Abdul Kutok and Siti Ajam in a country called San in Arabia. The father was the chief of all the Saints and the little boy was known as Akmal Hakim. When he was quite young the tress would speak to him and tell him if their roots and leaves were useful as medicine, even teaching him how to make combinations which would bring the dead to life….. One day Akmal Hakim decided to cross a river and go to a distant country, taking all his books on medicine with him. God commanded the Archangel Gabriel to take the disguise of a boatman and upset the boat during the crossing. Gabriel did this and Akmal Hakim was drowned. When the boat upset all the books were lost in the water except fragments which floated away to various countries. From these torn sheets the finder learned to become bomor [sic] or physician.[2]

The character Akmal Hakim is probably mentioned (and corrupted) with reference to the Lukman Hakim of Surah Lukman of the Al-Quran, a claim commonly made by many Malay medical practitioners. But what noted here is an important aspect of reference to Islamic symbolism, with regard to the origin of Malay medicine, to a period whereby a strong Islamic influence has already existed. It clearly referred to the period after the arrival of Islam in the Malay world, in the middle of 14th century.

However, Winstedt traced Malay medicine to a period as early as the primitive era of shamanism and animism, which had reached the Malay world from Tibet and China [3]. Strong Hindu–Buddhist influences in Malay world view could be traced to the time of Sri Vijaya kingdom in the13th century. Malay charm cures (mantera) which are practiced by the bomohs and pawangs nowadays are scattered with Sanskrit words. Before the arrival of Islam, the Malay world view was strongly influenced by the beliefs in spirits (hantu – ghosts, evil spirits and goblins). As an extension of this belief and in relation to clinical medicine, Malays believe that these spirits are parts of the existence of natural beings surrounding them, including trees and animals. As far as these plants are concerned, Malays believe that they are actually cultivated by these spirits. While these plants are of medicinal value, the spirits that guard them can cause great harm. Thus, there are manteras to propitiate and appease the spirits. Superstitious Malays believe that it is a certain class of the evil spirits, the hantu penyakit (spirit of illness) who causes illness. Hence, hantu kembung causes stomach ache, hantu ketumbuhan inflicts small pox, while hantu buta and hantu pekak cause blindness and deafness, respectively.

The Malay’s belief in the world of spirits was so profound that it was never totally erased from their world view even with the advent of Islam. To a certain degree, Islam managed to change the terms commonly used – the jinn replaced the hantu; and the manteras were freely mixed with verses from the Al-Quran. It was only much later that prayers fully used verses from the Al-Quran and Hadith replaced the manteras which was originally in Sanskrit.

As mentioned earlier, the arrival and spread of Islam slowly changed the concept used by the Malay medical practitioners. The manteras were gradually replaced by quotations from the Al-Quran and Hadith of the Prophet Mohammad. Later, Islamic Arabic literature began to arrive and books on medicine such as Tashil al Manifiz were made available. The book Mujarabat al Arabiah (Arabic Medicine) was translated into Malay as Mujarabat Melayu (Malay Medicine). While the 17th century book, Tajus al – Salatin was about Islamic philosophy and medicine [1][4]

A. Samad goes a few centuries earlier to quote an incident from Sulalatus Salatin to show that Malay tabib and their practices were known to the Malays, as early as during the time of the Malacca Sultanage. In this incident, a Malacca warrior, Seri Udani was wounded during a battle with the Portuguese invaders. Seri Udani was then taken back to his house where the then Sultan of Malacca, Sultan Ahmad ordered a tabib to treat him [5]

Knowledge about, and writings on Malay medicine must have existed in the Malay world for hundreds of years. The Malay Annals (Sejarah Melayu) contains a number of incidents which refer to or are related to the tradition of medical treatment. At the same time, there are numerous manuscripts written on Malay medicine which are now being kept in a number of institutions in Malaysia as well as overseas. According to Dr. Harun Mat Piah, there are more than 40 such manuscripts in the Centre of Malay Manuscripts of the National Library of Malaysia, while a few are in the collections of the Dewan Bahasa Dan Pustaka, Terengganu State Museum and University of Malaya. Such manuscripts are also available in Great Britain, Indonesia, Sri Lanka and Brunei Darulssalam [6].  

Dr. Harun’s compilation (2006) is a rather comprehensive study of a number of these manuscripts, consisting of seven chapters that cover practically all aspects of Malay medicine [6]. Earlier, A. Samad Ahmad compiled Warisan Perubatan Melayu (1982) [4] based on two manuscripts, which is considered rather brief and fail to fully depict the true diversification of the manuscripts available.

Yet another compilation, Medicine in Malay Villages, Malay Culture of Healing, Vol. 2 (an extension of a book by the same author entitled Royal healer: The Legacy of Nik Abdul Rahman Bin Hj Nik Dir of Kelantan), though lack in comprehensive research materials, is however a diligent effort by Roland Werner [7]. Dr. Roland Werner discovered these manuscripts, which were translated by Ismail Munshi around 1886, in the possession of the Pharmaceutical Society of Great Britain. This translation was edited with medical notes by J.D. Gimlette and determinations of the drugs by J.H. Burkill. 

Much interest in this subject shown by Western scholars and researchers can be determined by numerous publications, either as articles published in journals, such as Journal of Straits British Royal Asiatic Society and Journal of Malaysian British Royal Asiatic Society, or as books. Some of these books are,

  • Yvan, Dr. 1855. Six Months among the Malays and a Year in China. London: Blackwood
  • Skeat, W.W. 1990. Malay Magic. London: Macmillan
  • Gimlette, J.D. 1915. Malay Poisons and Charms Cures. Singapore: Oxford Press. University
  • Winstedt, R.O. 1925. Shaman, Saiva and Sufi. London: Constable
  • Gimlette, J.D. and Thomson, H.W. 1939: A Dictionary of Malayan Medicine. London: Oxford Press. University
  • Winstedt, J.D. 1951. The Malay Magician. Routledge and Kegan Paul.

Current Status

Malay medicine has survived into the modern era vis-à-vis conventional and modern medicine without losing much of its vigour. Today, much effort is being undertaken by either individuals or institutions, which shows that Malay medicine is still popular, while at the same time, promises greater potential to develop further.

Although Malay medicine and methods of treatment have not been fully embraced by the populace, Malay medicine and practices have never been totally rejected or completely replaced. Even in urban areas of the country, the bomohs are still playing their roles for the well-being of the people. In some communities, they are still honored for their sagacity and their use of the curative or remedial plants and other drugs which they may employ [2]. There is an obvious revival in the use of local herbs, either as supplements for general health or for their therapeutic values, so much so that even if the role and importance of the bomohs as physicians fall to the minimum; Malay medicine, as far as the herbs and other materia medica are concerned, shows increasing signs of positive development. When more research and pharmacological studies are conducted, and scientific methods of production are applied to Malay medicine, its future and usefulness as complimentary medicine will definitely be enhanced.

Philosophy and Principles

The Malay bomoh believes that the human body is made up of four elements: earth, air (wind), fire and water. Earth gathers in the spleen, air in the blood, fire in the bile, and water in the lungs. He also believes that diseases were inflicted by the evil spirits which were also from these four elements. Various ailments, especially those characterized by cold and dryness, such as giddiness, emerge from earth. Diseases which are characterized by heat and moisture originate from air, while ailments such as nausea and heartburn come from fire. Water brings disease which causes damp chills and vomiting [2]. There is, for example, a generic term in Malay, namely penyakit angin, which translates as ‘wind diseases’, because Malays regard wind as the casual agent in diseases which are difficult to diagnose, such as rheumatism.

It is believed that Malays inherited these Neo-Platonic ideas of the four elements from Muslims from India, who, on their part, got it from Persian Sufism. A passage from the Tajus al-Salatin which was translated by Dr. Blagden, was quoted by Gimlette, as follows:

The essence of humanity is made up of four matters, differing from one another in their properties, termed the four elements; and each of the four is in conflict with one another, like earth, water, wind and fire. These four matters are the essence of every individual man as long as his being subsists; and the properties of these four matters, which are in the essence of every individual man, are always different from one another in all men, without regard to the man’s will, so that during the whole term of his life he is not at rest. For God has put into the body of each individual man various matters of which one is in conflict with another in its properties and characteristics phlegm, bile, dryness, humidity, heat, etc. which are in conflict with one another. If the properties of all these matters are normal in a human body, neither deficient nor in excess, the human body is in good health and at rest; but if they are not normal, but are deficient or in excess, then sundry diseases arise in the human body by reason of this fact [2].

This doctrine of the essence of human being is further emphasized by the Malay medical practitioners, not only for the purpose of understanding the human body in its relationship to health and diseases, but also in order to determine the sources of diseases that afflict man. A passage in MSS 2515, as quoted by Harun Mat Piah explains that “Firstly Allah SWT created the body of Adam with four elements and Adam was thus created. The first being earth, the second water, the third fire, the fourth air there is no conflict. Concerning the source diseases, they are caused by the air [wind] that causes the water to be much cooler, because much food are cold, food which are wet such as fruits and vegetables and fats and food which are rotten (decayed) and rancid, since there is no food which is solely dry; and because of that it becomes the source of all diseases that afflict man” [6].

It is also this belief that determines the bomoh’s perception of treatment and choice of medicine. His choice must be appropriate, whereby he prescribes treatment in accordance with conditions of the body of his patient. The medicines, like food, are categorized into hot, cold, moist and dry groups. The prescriptions and their compounds, such as cold and warm, warm and humid, as well as the need to maintain the balance of power, make up the essence of humanity. Therefore, the human body itself, not to elaborate, also becomes the basis of prohibitions and taboos with regard to the bomoh’s practices. And these prohibitions and taboos are strictly adhered to by the practitioners, for these taboos (pantang-larang) normally come with the bomoh’s prescriptions.

Practice and Treatment

Taboos are prohibitions prescribed by the bomoh and are to be followed strictly. Breaking the taboos may result in the medicine prescribed losing its effectiveness and potency. In fact, in some cases, it is strongly believed that breaking the taboo may result in some unpleasant consequences. These taboos are actually imposed to guarantee that the medicines taken have their desired effects, and for this purpose, the patient is required to avoid certain acts or foods or drinks that can jeopardize the final goal of the medication.

A. Samad Ahmad suggests three worlds that form the basis of Malay medicine – the mystical or supernatural world, the world of animals and the world of plants [4].

Although animals and plants are vital materials used in the preparation of Malay medicine, other materials are freely used based on their therapeutic properties. Generally, the materials used for making Malay medicines can be divided into four groups. The first is man-made products such as air bermalam (water left overnight), air manisan (syrup), vinegar, coconut oil, etc. The second is materials derived from the animal kingdoms such as goose, chicken, eel, frog, leech and cockroach or their organs such as elephant’s tusk, cat’s whiskers, crow’s bile, tiger’s nail, etc. The third group of medicines is from the plant kingdom such as tamarind, spinach, ginger, lime and nutmeg while the fourth is minerals such as sulphur, gold, iron rust and mercury.

In Malay medicine, these materials are either used singularly or in combination. And what makes Malay medicine authentic are its methods and process of production and also its applications. In the various manuscripts and other writings on Malay medicine, like those on other aspects of Malay culture and tradition, one will come across many terminologies or expressions which are uniquely Malay, some of them being practically impossible to precisely translate into another language without losing its unique identity. A good example is one concerning the measurement of amount and weight. Sejemput (jari) means to pick by using the fingers, or more precisely to pick as much as possible with the finger tips. It refers to the weight and amount. The same accounts for the measurement of time and methods of treatment.

Measurement of Amount and Weigh (Selected)

  • Biji – Numerical coefficient for small objects like fruits, eggs, pepper, etc.
  • Ulas – Numerical coefficient to show the number of pips, like lime, garlic, etc.
  • Hiris – Slice, ginger, onion, etc
  • Helai – Piece, stalk of leaf, etc.
  • Jemput – As much as can be taken with the fingers. (sejemput)
  • Cekak – A much as can be spanned between the thumb and any finger. (secekak)
  • Genggam – A fistful. (segenggam)
  • Kulit telur – A shell of an egg full of. (sekulit telur)

Measurement of Time

  • Hari; sehari; berselang tiga hari – Day; everyday; every three days.
  • Dinihari – Before dawn, daybreak.
  • Sebelum terbang lalat – Before the fly flies (before sunrise).
  • Sepuluh tapak bayang-bayang – Ten steps of the shadow (position of the sun).

Methods of Treatments

  • Urut – Massage
  • Gosok, sapu – Rubbing
  • Lumur – Daubing
  • Kumur – Gargling
  • Sembur – Spraying from the mouth
  • Mandi/Berendam – Bathing/Wallowing
  • Bekam – Cupping
  • Bebat/Balut – Bandaging
  • Hidu – Inhaling
  • Jelum – Cleaning the body by rubbing with water/fluid.
  • Jaram/Tuam – Compressing
  • Telan/Minum – To be taken orally.


  1. Haliza Mohd. Riji. Prinsip dan amalan dalam perubatan Melayu. Kuala Lumpur: Universiti Malaya 2005. pg. xiii, 30.
  2. Gimlette, J.D. Malay poisons and charm cures. Singapore: Oxford Press. 1st published 1971. pg 19-21, 32-34.
  3. Winstedt, R.O. 1981. The Malays: a cultural history. Singapore: Graham Brash (Pte) Ltd.
  4. A. Samad Ahmad. 2005. Warisan perubatan Melayu. Kuala Lumpur: Dewan Bahasa dan Pustaka. Pg. xiv ff., xix ff.
  5. A. Samad Ahmad (ed.). Sulalatus salatin (Sejarah Melayu). Kuala Lumpur: Dewan Bahasa Dan Pustaka, 1979. Pg. 245.
  6. Harun Mat Piah. Kitab tib: ilmu perubatan Melayu. Kuala Lumpur: Perpustakaan Negara. 2006. Pg 23, 69.
  7. Werner, R. Royal Healer. Malay culture of healing vol. 1. Kuala Lumpur: University of Malaya Press, 2002.
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