Malay Muslim birth rituals
To the Malays, a birth is regarded as a gift bestowed by God. They believe that a child brings blessings and sustenance to the family. Babies are deemed pure, like a piece of white cloth, and parents play an important role in nurturing the child. At birth, the azan (Muslim’s call to prayer) would be whispered into the baby’s ears, usually by the child’s father. This Islamic ritual signifies the hope that the child would grow up to be a good Muslim.1
Malay confinement practices traditionally comprise 44 days. New mothers are often cared for by their mothers or mothers-in-law.2 During confinement, new mothers will bathe in warm water that has been boiled with lemongrass and ginger to promote circulation in the body.3 They will also go through urut, a traditional post-natal massage usually done by a masseuse. The massage helps to tighten and tone muscles around the abdomen, revitalise their energy and improve their blood circulation.4 The mother will also wear a bengkung, a cloth at least four metres long, which is wrapped around her abdomen. It is believed that this practice will help shrink her uterus and keep her womb in place.5
The special diet for mothers in confinement includes “heating” foods and traditional medicines such as jamu (herbal medicine)6 and air akar kayu (tonic drink)7 which comprise medicinal plants, herbs, roots and spices. “Cooling” foods, such as cucumbers, cabbage and pineapple, as well as spicy foods are generally avoided. Herbal pastes such as pilis, tapal and param are applied to the mother’s forehead and body to prevent migraines and “dispel wind”.8
Today, the traditional post-natal birth rituals have evolved. While some Malay mothers choose to engage the services of a confinement nanny, others choose not to undergo certain confinement rituals. Traditional jamu is now readily available in capsules and the bengkung is sometimes replaced by a corset.9
Cukur rambut (Shaving of a newborn’s hair)
In accordance with Malay traditions, a kenduri (ceremonial feast) is held after the birth of a child for the customary ritual of cukur rambut (shaving of a newborn’s hair), and to introduce the newborn to the extended family.10 Traditionally, the ceremony is held on the seventh day after the baby’s birth. However, some families today choose to postpone the ceremony until much later.11
In preparation for the ritual, a young coconut with its top cut off and decorated with flowers is placed on a tray. The ceremony, usually attended by relatives and friends, begins with the reading of Berzanji and Marhaban (songs in praise of Prophet Muhammad). The baby is then carried in the arms of a parent or relative, while another family member carries a tray that contains the cut coconut. Guests will be approached individually and invited to cut a small lock of the baby’s hair, which is then placed into the coconut.12 At the end of the ceremony, the newborn’s head is shaved clean. The baby’s hair is then weighed and the family would donate the weight of the hair in gold or its monetary equivalent to charity.13
Tahnik and aqiqah (Prelacteal feeding of date or honey and Sacrifice of goats/sheep on the occasion of a childbirth)
Parents who follow Islamic birth traditions also celebrate the birth of a newborn by performing the tahnik and aqiqah rituals.14 Tahnik involves applying a small amount of softened date or honey to the baby’s palate, followed by recitation of the doa (supplication).15 Aqiqah, on the other hand, symbolises the parents’ gratitude for the child with which they have been bestowed. It involves the sacrifice of goats or sheep (two for a boy and one for a girl). Both the tahnik and aqiqah rituals are usually performed when the baby is seven, 14 or 21 days old.16
1. Hidayah Amin, Malay Weddings Don’t Cost $50 and Other Facts about Malay Culture (Singapore: Helang Books, 2014), 34, 36 (Call no. RSING 305.8992805957 HID); Mathew Mathews, ed., The Singapore Ethnic Mosaic: Many Cultures, One People (Singapore: World Scientific, 2017), 132 (Call no. RSING 305.80095957 SIN); Tham Seong Chee, Religion & Modernization: A Study of Changing Rituals among Singapore’s Chinese, Malays & Indians (Singapore: G. Brash, 1985), 66 (Call no. RSING 301.295957 THA); Haron A. Rahman, “Rites of Life and Death in Pictures,” Straits Times, 28 July 1987, 4. (From NewspaperSG)
2. Mathews, Singapore Ethnic Mosaic, 132; Amin, Malay Weddings Don’t Cost $50, 38; “Special Diets and Taboos,” Straits Times, 25 October 2009, 47. (From NewspaperSG)
3. Carol Leong, “Had a Baby? No Showers for You,” New Paper, 14 April 1999, 13. (From NewspaperSG)
4. Amin, Malay Weddings Don’t Cost $50, 40; Leong, “No Showers for You”; “Special Diets and Taboos”; “Warm Food, Massage, Follow Childbirth,” Straits Times, 24 July 1995, 6. (From NewspaperSG)
5. Amin, Malay Weddings Don’t Cost $50, 41; “Would You Pay $550 for Her Help?” New Nation, 14 November 1979, 10–11; “Special Diets and Taboos”; Lea Wee, “Confinement Period May Trigger Depression,” Straits Times, 8 September 2011, 14–15; “Warm Food, Massage, Follow Childbirth.”
6. “Storm in a Herbal Cup: Indonesian Elixirs Get a Modern Twist,” Business Times, 27 November 2015. (From Factiva via NLB’s eResources website)
7. “Malay Confinement Practices,” Health Hub, accessed 20 November 2018.
8. Amin, Malay Weddings Don’t Cost $50, 40–42; “Special Diets and Taboos”; “Warm Food, Massage, Follow Childbirth”; Zawiyah Salleh, “Pantang Larang Kaum Selepas Bersalin,” Berita Harian, 10 September 1996, 5. (From NewspaperSG)
9. Amin, Malay Weddings Don’t Cost $50, 41–42.
10. Mathews, Singapore Ethnic Mosaic, 132; “Why Baby’s Hair Is Shaved Seven Days after Birth,” Straits Times, 10 July 1995, 6 (From NewspaperSG); Tham, Religion & Modernization, 69.
11. Amin, Malay Weddings Don’t Cost $50, 38.
12. “Why Baby’s Hair Is Shaved.”
13. Muhd Ariff Ahmad, “Hair Rites,” Straits Times, 11 February 1991, 7 (From NewspaperSG); Amin, Malay Weddings Don’t Cost $50, 38.
14. Khalid Khamis, “Khidmat Percuma Sambut Kelahiran Bayi Cara Islam,” Berita Harian, 12 August 2001, 3. (From NewspaperSG)
15. Al-Mawaddah Mosque, “Tahnik Service,” accessed 11 July 2018.
16. Amin, Malay Weddings Don’t Cost $50, 39; Aqiqah Singapore, “About – Definition and Ruling,” accessed 11 July 2018; Kathleen M. Mckenna and Rani T. Shankar, “The Practice of Prelacteal Feeding to Newborns among Hindu and Muslim Families,” Journal of Midwifery & Women’s Health 54, no. 1 (January–February 2009): 78–81; “Islamic Aid,” Aqiqah Singapore, accessed 20 November 2018.
The information in this article is valid as at November 2018 and correct as far as we are able to ascertain from our sources. It is not intended to be an exhaustive or complete history of the subject. Please contact the Library for further reading materials on the topic.
Heritage and Culture
Malays (Asian people)--Singapore--Rites and ceremonies
Malays (Asian people)--Singapore--Social life and customs
Religious life and practices