From Majapahit to Putrajaya: The Kris as a symptom of Civilisation Development and Decline (Part 3)

(edited by

Read part 1 here.

Read part 2 here

From Weapon to Stigmata – The fate of the Kris in the Age of Modernity.

By the time that the Hikayat Patani was written, the Malay archipelago had come within the orbit of two different worlds: Western colonialism and revivalist Islam.

Like the Muslim traders and missionaries who came before them, the colonialists from the West who arrived in numbers by the 16th century had little need for the kris. They came fully equipped with new weapons of their   own which would prove more than a match for the arsenal of weapons already extant in the Malay world then. As these Western adventurers and conquerors hacked their way across the Malay world, they built new settlements and monuments dedicated firstly to their faith, and later, their commercial interests.

Western colonial rule drastically challenged the worldview of the Malays and forced upon them the agenda for change. By the 17th and 18th century, it was clear that these interlopers were not about to leave without a fight. The fall of Malay-Muslim powers like Melacca, the kingdom of Maniladad, the defeat of Johor-Riau, the domestication of Jogjakarta and Surakarta, all contributed to the growing sense of pessimism and defeatism that slowly worked its way into the collective Malay consciousness.

What made matters worse for the self-esteem of the Malay peoples was the fact that these infidels had actually defeated them by using techniques, skills and technologies that were alien to them. The British and Dutch had introduced new modes of production, transport, agriculture and warfare, which were hitherto unknown to the Malays. [..]

As this process of penetration and colonisation progressed, the Malay world was opened up, studied, categorised and finally quarantined within the coloniser’s order of knowledge. Raffles, Brooke, Hurgronje, Swettenham, Clifford and other colonial administrators took to the task of regulating and compartmentalising the Malay world within their own ethnocentric and eurocentric world view which necessarily placed the native as well as his culture, beliefs and symbols on an inferior, subjugated register.

Colonial rule reconfigured the world of the colonised in every respect. The religiopolitical environment of the Malays was dissected into two categories: the rational and governable realm of the state and the other, darker world of Malay beliefs and religion, into which was thrown the ubiquitous kris as well. This epistemic arrest of the Malay world ensured that every element was neatly labelled and placed within its own appointed space, and a location was found for all. The kris was eventually put in the same ignominious group of Malay cliches like amok, latah, the world of hantu punitanak, jembalang, bomohs and pukaus.

It goes without saying that those who were allowed to bear arms by then were only the sepoys of the British colonial forces, while those Malays who had the temerity to hold onto the weapons of their ancestors were classified as pirates and murderers instead.

Modernisation, as it was introduced by the Western colonial powers, had created a culture where the circulation of arms was not entirely removed from society, but policed instead. Having defeated the colonial subject and deprived him of his political rights, the coloniser then proceeded to relegate his culture and all its attendant symbols to the vaults of the colonial memory. The kris of the Gods now found itself locked up in the museums of the new colonial masters. (Though one of them did manage to slip out in the middle of the night to slay the odd victim or two).

The other important development within the Malay world that had an immediate effect on the cult of the kris was the emergence of modern schools of Islamic thought that came about thanks to the integration of the Malay states within the global current of pan-lslamism. The modernist trend within Islamic thought manifested itself in the form of modern reformist and revivalist movements that borrowed extensively from the tradition of Modernity in the West while also rejecting that system of belief and values at the same time. In the end it became almost an inverted mirror image of the Modern tradition itself. It was this factor that eventually contributed to the local rejection and marginalisation of the kris in Malay society.

By the 19th century, the Malay world was in closer contact with the rest of the Islamic world than ever before. The modernist and reformist trends of Islam within the Malay world were very much inspired by the developments elsewhere in the Muslim world such as the emergence of the Wahabbi and Indian Deobandi schools and new Muslim revivalists (Mujaddid) whose plans for the revival of Islam was often linked to the goals of purifying it of pre-Islamic elements that were regarded as khurafat (un-lslamic) or syirik (idolatrous). This trend of exclusivist thought finally managed to become the dominant one within the Muslim world, pushing aside the earlier generations of more open, flexible and inclusivist thinkers. Consequently new Malay-Muslim scholars like Munshi Abdullah Abdul Kadir, Shaykh Mohammad Tahir Jalaluddin, Syed Sheikh Ahmad AI-Hadi, Haji Abbas Mohammad Tahar and Shaykh Mohammad Salim AI-Kalili emerged to challenge the forces of the status quo made up of the traditional Kerajaan establishment as well as the secular modern colonial regimes installed by the British.and the Dutch in Malaya and the East Indies.

These modern Islamic thinkers and movements were particularly concerned about the plight of the Malay peoples, whom they regarded as victims of the twin evils of modern colonialism as well as traditionalist obscurantism.

In these respects, the predominant mindset of these modern Islamic movements (like the Sarekat Islam) was a world apart from the early Muslim missionaries and Sufi mystics like Hamzah Fansuri, Abdul-Rauf Singkel and Shamsul-din Pasai of the 16th and 17th centuries.

The modern Malay-Muslim reformers feared the pre-Islamic past not because it was so different from the world of the present, but because it was so much alike. To them the private space of Muslim life was more often than not an esoteric realm (khalwat or khas) where the Muslim’s psyche and spirituality (batin) was most in danger of contamination from dubious elements from the occult or pre-Islamic past. Their modernist and reformist agendas ensured that the policing of discursive, behavioural and sartorial frontiers remained a paramount objective in their work. Fearful of returning to the days when the discursive economies of Islam and Hindu-Buddhism co­ mingled and interpenetrated with promiscuous ease, they were desperately concerned to rid Malay Islam of the traces of pagan pre-Islamic influences.

The 19th century therefore witnessed some of the fiercest attacks against not only the traditional ruling elite but also their lifestyle, culture and values. The zeal of the hajis who led the Minagkabau Padri Wars of 1821-1832 was directed against traditional customs (adat) that were regarded as un-lslamic and therefore had to be eradicated. This fervour was matched by the Ulama who led the forces of Aceh against the Dutch during the devastating Aceh war of 1873-1912 and the Muslim generals who led the Moros against their Spanish enemies in southern Philippines. These socio-political struggles had the effect of strengthening the cultural and social frontiers that existed between orthodox Malay-Muslims and their more traditionalist counterparts as well as those who were more Westernised.

The generation of modern Malay-Muslim thinkers and scholars of the late 19th century who made up the Kaum Muda (Younger generation) of Malay-Muslim nationalists and activists attacked many cultural practices such as the traditional Malay wedding ceremony, the hair-shaving ceremony for babies, the burial rites of Malays and the Malay practice of puja laut (worship of the Godddess of the sea, practised until the 60s) as being pagan or Hindu in origin. Consequently, the cult of the kris was to suffer accordingly as it was branded as yet another embarrassing reminder of the days when Malays were not Islamic enough according to contemporary revised standards. [… ]

The Kris as an Artefact of Monumental History.

‘Only from the standpoint of the highest strength of the present may you interpret the past: Only in the highest exertion of your noblest qualities will you discern what is worthy of being known and preserved, what is great in the past. Like by like! Otherwise you will draw the past down to yourselves’. Friedrich Nietzsche

The Malaysian 50-Ringgit note once bore the image of a Kris Tajong. Now it carries the image of an oil rig instead.

The Kris in the modern age has become a maligned and misunderstood phenomenon. The state attempts to valorise the kris by constructing huge monuments in its honour, ignorant of the fact that its beauty lay in its subtlety and finesse.

One of the recent controversies surrounding the kris involved the huge steel sculpture of a kris that was made in Europe and finally exhibited outside the new national stadium outside Bukit Jalil, Selangor. (in 1998).

Conservative kris-fanciers were appalled by the structure, arguing that it was an exorbitant monument (RM 9 million) with little artistic merit. Others pointed out that the kris monument was constructed with little regard for Malay kris protocols: Firstly, it was in the form of a naked blade (while most krises should be seen sheathed) and it was pointing heavenwards (which was seen as a bold and aggressive gesture, almost offending in the eyes of many Muslims who felt it was an affront to God above). Other kris monuments dot the landscape of Kuala Lumpur, Selangor, Shah Alam and Kelang. For the Commonwealth Games of 1998, a number of kris monuments were commissioned (though many were uncompleted). These took the form of a kris sheath (minus the blade and hilt) planted slantwise into the ground and they were made of steel sheets. These monuments also incurred the wrath of many local kris collectors and experts.

Art galleries and museums continue to feature this curious exhibit from the remote past as some kind of emissary from the age of superstition and irrationality. Contemporary scholars and authors continue to weave tales around this fetish, warning their readers of its awesome powers and bloody history. Art and antique dealers deliver the coup de grace by telling their customers that the kris with the ‘best bargain’ tag attached to it belonged to a powerful Raja who performed all kinds of wondrous deeds with it. To the denizen of the modern metropole, alienated and domesticated, it is the magic key which opens the way to a myriad of fantastic and unrealisable possibilities.

The sad fate that has befallen the kris is merely symptomatic of the evolution of the Malay peoples into the modern age. Caught in the manifold vices of modernity, trapped between the religious pharisees who condemn the evils of the pagan and infidel past and the equally unremitting fervour of the fundamentalists of modernisation, the Malay of the present has precious little to remind him of the age of where the kris was actually meaningful and relevant to his life. He can no longer break the hermeneutic code that holds the secret of the kris. Thus it can no longer fly, and remains earth-bound like him.[…]

The evolution of the kris has come to a full cycle. What began as a knife has now been reduced to that once more, as kris tie-pins, letter-openers and paper-cutters litter the catalogues of handicraft centres and tourist shops. The kris was what it was only so long as the beliefs, practices and values attached to it were there as well, and they fed into the worldview of the people for whom the kris made sense. The cult of the kris was a social phenomenon that extended beyond the object itself. Once these beliefs and values began to wane the world of the kris was diminished and all that was left was a knife. With the rise and fall of the kris we chart the ascendancy and subsequent degeneration of Malay civilisation as it looks for its way on the stage of human agency commonly known as history.

Kuala Lumpur-London


Dr Farish A. Noor is among other things a historian, a political scientist and an antique collector.

This series of three articles is a version abridged by of a longer piece on the kris by Dr. Farish A Noor. It can only be reproduced with’s authorisation. Please e-mail



First Published: 27.01.2002 on Kakiseni

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