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When anthropologist Jennifer W. Nourse started doing fieldwork in Indonesia in the 1980s, she learned from the experts in her field that healers in that part of the world, known as dukun, used techniques derived from an Indigenous, animist worldview. However, when she observed dukun in action, she found that they identified their traditions as Islamic. One healer began a session with chanting in Arabic and described her skills as concentrating the “omniscient healing radiance that Allah gave to Muhammad” to enter a trance and bring balance to a patient.

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At first, Nourse believed that the Muslim orientation was simply a “superficial overlay.” But, when she studied the history connections between Persia and the Malay archipelago, she came to believe that the origins of the dukun’s practices lay in Persian Sufi religion and medicine.

Persian traders were visiting, and sometimes settling in, the region that now includes Malaysia and Indonesia as early as the first century CE, but a bigger influx came at the end of the fourteenth century, when a Mongol invasion forced many people to flee the Silk Road city of Samarqand. Nourse suggests that this had a profound impact on the local culture.

“The refined clothes these Persians wore, their flowery speech with its tendency to rhyme, and the tales of scientific advances documented on illuminated manuscripts, all conveyed a sophistication that more than likely enthralled compatriots in the port-cities,” she writes.

Medical technology developed by Persians, including eye surgeries and a range of drugs and herbal treatments for conditions from ulcers to fevers, was particularly well regarded across the continent. And legend holds that the first of the Wali Songo—saints who brought Islam to Southeast Asia—was a Persian doctor known as Wali Gresik. Nourse suggests that Wali Gresik, like most Persian physicians, was probably a member of a secret Sufi Muslim brotherhood and worked in a religious-healing system that focused on harnessing the “illumination of Allah’s essence” as a healing power using techniques including chanting and meditation.

The term dukun may have come from the tradition shared by the Wali Songo. Nourse notes that the spiritual advisor of a Sultan in the sixteenth-century Banten kingdom in Java was known as Kiayi Dukuh.

In the nineteenth century, Europeans colonists described dukun as practicing quackery or malignant sorcery. Colonial authorities argued for the expansion of European medical practices into rural areas of the region to free local people from their dependence on “superstitious” folk practices.

Nourse writes that she came to understand the designation of dukun as Indigenous animists as the product of a colonial view of social evolution that placed them on the lowest rung of development as “savages.” Postcolonial governments adopted this viewpoint in some ways, leading to a disparagement of dukun in the twenty-first century. Practitioners of Sufi-influenced healing began adopting new terms like terkun and docter energi to escape the stigma. Yet today, they still cater to both ordinary people and elites who find value in their methods.

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Journal of Southeast Asian Studies, Vol. 44, No. 3 (October 2013), pp. 400–422
Cambridge University Press on behalf of Department of History, National University of Singapore