03 October 2011

Response to Sandalwood in The Huffington Post

Daliah Merzaban recently interviewed me for the The Huffington Post article Martial Arts & The Journey To Islam. One of the commenters, Sandalwood commented on the original article in The Huffington Post with this:

"... Silat, a martial art practised in Malaysia and Indonesia, rooted in Islam."

Silat is derived from Indian and Chinese roots, as this article states... http://en.­wikipedia.­org/wiki/S­ilat

Its interestin­g that now in Malaysia, Silat is considered to be "rooted in Islam", as this stance parallels what has been happening to school history textbooks, where Malaysia's pre-Islami­c history is barely mentioned, in favour of turning the curriculum into a biased one, as this article indicates.­.. http://www­.malaysian­mirror.com­/media-buz­z-detail/4­1-opinion/­51319-soft­ening-up-s­tudents-to­-islam-wit­h-history-­syllabus

Lastly, if bowing to each other is supposed to be rooted out of this practise, so as to make it more Islamic, please be aware also that the dozens of hand movements in this and other Martial Arts throughout Asia are Mudras derived from Hindu and Buddhist influences from the pre-Islami­c era, as the wiki article states.


Due to the length limit of the comments section, I was forced to cut my reponse short. I reproduce here the full response to his comment:

Salam hormat Sandalwood,

Silat Melayu in Malaysia is one of the youngest martial arts on Earth, and despite some teachers' assertions, there is no evidence that it spontaneously came into being as a complete art. Each style was developed independent of each other due to historical inter-state rivalry and family rivalry.

As such, silat continues to grow and adapt just as the Melayu culture adapts to new forces. The Melayu culture today bears very little resemblance to the Melayu from 200 years ago. Even silat has been open to influences from Indian, Chinese, Korean and Japanese fighting styles. However, the foundations of silat remains the same.

According to Prof Phil Davies, a Pencak Silat Kuntao Matjan master in Canada, one of the most difficult foundations to master in silat by non-Melayu peoples (Even "Chinese" and 'Indians") is the power generating "gelek" which is unique to their cultural physiology.

Merdeka and nationalisation has crystallised that 'silat' belongs to the Melayu and in a backward step, has caused a lot of silat styles to be freeze framed into space, claiming to have reached their evolutionary pinnacle. Meanwhile, other fighting styles around the world continue to evolve. (However, there are forward thinking traditional silat masters who have taken this head on).

This was the whole issue Bruce Lee had with the Chinese styles. He managed to prove that they had become ineffective shadows of themselves because they wanted to maintain the Chinese-ness of their arts. He effectively called them out on their racism and ethnocentrism. Neither the Chinese nor the Melayu are the centers of the world (although the current economy might suggest otherwise for the former).

The Wikipedia article you quoted doesn't say that silat was derived from Indian and Chinese roots, but it says it was "influenced by". It goes on to provide such evidence as "Many of the region's medicinal practices and weapons originated in either India or China, and silat's thigh-slapping actions are reminiscent of Hindu wrestling"

First off, a cursory glance to the traditional medicine of the Melayu sees more in common with the Orang Asli (most Melayu herbalists agree that their culture's foundation in medicine come from the aborigines). Many of the rainforest remedies the Melayu aren't even available in India and China.

Secondly, another cursory glance at the Keris, Rencong, Tumbuk Lada, Kerambit (a localised Jembiah), sees no comparison with "Indian" or "Chinese" weapons. Read "The Keris & Other Malay Weapons", a collection of articles by the Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society where the origins of Melayu weapons are discussed.

Thirdly, the only reference to "thigh slapping in Hindu wrestling" is from this one line in Donn F. Draeger's "Weapons and Fighting Arts of Indonesia" : "Hindu culture gave pentjak-silat a vast heritage of combative ideas. Many of the grappling tactics used stem from Indian origins; the thigh slapping antics of various pentjak-silat styles smack of Hindu wrestling rituals in Hindu culture."

As any up to date martial artist can attest, Draeger sensei's research in those early years when silat was closed off to outsiders should be taken with a bag of salt, as his error in even naming silat as "bersilat" has propagated onto the internet, despite thousands of attempts to correct it. Be careful of believing everything you read on the internet (including my reply :). I don't think "smack" is an academic term.

That being said, any martial art that doesn't incorporate superior methods from other cultures or adapt to new threats will become Latin or Sanskrit, nice to look at, but effectively dead.

You said "Its interesting that now in Malaysia, Silat is considered to be 'rooted in Islam'" and provided a link to the current trend of Melayu-Islamisation by the government. Do not confuse the government’s initiative to further deny true history with Silat Melayu’s intrinsic link with Islam. Just because it’s not on Wikipedia or no one has bothered to do deep research into it doesn’t mean it’s not there.

When Islam arrived in the Peninsula, the process of Islamisation (not Arabisation, as is currently rife) was done through the route of tariqat. Missionaries’ primary goal was to realign Melayu thought and spirit toward Allah and Islam. The Melayu being a very spiritual and natural people found it easier to reconcile Allah with Sang Hyang Tunggal (the one God), their current diety than with anything they found in Hinduism and Buddhism.

And since fiqh was adapted to the local culture along the lines of the principles of Fiqh ‘Urf, a local flavor of shariah came into being. It was this set of laws that radiated outwards into all facets of Melayu life in the states where Islam took hold. One of those that was affected was silat, which back then was just termed “gawang” (avoidance), “Ilmu bertikam” (stabbing knowledge) or “ilmu penjuritan” (warrior knowledge). Most of the change happened internally, as unIslamic spiritual practices and thought processes were realigned to ad-Din.

Finally, bowing to each other as a mark of respect is alright, but not to the point of sujud in salat. I might also mention that the example of Aikido given by myself to Daliah is of Jun Yamada sensei, a Japanese Aikido master who reverted to Islam after teaching in Malaysia. He follows the lineage of O Sensei Morihei Ueshiba, founder of Aikido, an adherent of Omoto-kyo. Any modifications he made to his own teaching was his choice. You might want to take this up with him.

Again, thank you for reading the academically accurate Wikipedia article with a sharp eye. This is what was actually written: “The vast majority of silat exponents use the Hindu-Buddhist namaste in which the palms are pressed together at chest level. This represents the balance of two opposing forces such as light and dark or hard and soft.”

It’s a form of greeting, nothing more. Nowhere does it mention mudras, and I have not encountered any Silat Melayu that employs mudras in their styles. If there were, they might have already fallen victim to the trend that you allude to.

Salam persilatan,

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