By: Samsul Nizar
Professor and Head of STAIN Bengkalis
One of the Malay civilisations with elevated philosophical-religious values is the Zapin dance. Historiographically, zapin dance results from the amalgamation of Malay and Arab cultures. This performance was first introduced to the Malacca Strait region in the early sixteenth century by Arab traders. This dance became a new cultural form through acculturation with the local culture (Malay) over time. Cultural acculturation fills each other as a symbol of Malay society’s (Arabic) openness to other cultures. This acculturation appears dense and colours each movement, rhythm, and lyricism accompanying zapin dance.
Initially, the zapin dance served as entertainment within the palace environment. However, as the dance evolved, it became a means of communicating traditional messages and religious teachings (Islam). Consequently, zapin dance is not merely a form of entertainment; it also contains educational messages and serves as a vehicle for Islamic propaganda through its movements, accessories, and sung lyrics.
Each zapin dance movement has a philosophical-religious significance and is connected to local social life and Islamic doctrines. Therefore, it is only natural that each verse of the song and the cadence of the zapin dance are brimming with religious and local cultural significance. This dance features rapid footwork to the beat of the hand instrument (marwas) and is accompanied by verses filled with advice.
At least before 1960, only male performers performed zapin dances. However, with time, Malay female performers now also perform zapin dances while still displaying polite attire and covering the aurat.
Each zapin dance movement is an internalisation of human interactions with nature or the environment and is imbued with the spirit of Islamic religious teachings. There are at least 92 varieties of Malay zapin dances, such as Titi Batang, Anak Ayam, Siku Keluang, Pusing Tengah, Alif, Arab, Bedana, Bujang, etc. Each zapin movement has significance and is rhythmically and systematically executed.
Zapin movements have philosophical values as human guidelines for recognising the teachings of Islam and the wisdom of Malay culture, which should be used as lessons.
First, the delicate nature of the movements. The gentle dance rhythms and movements (not trampling on nature) allude to the Malay personality, which brings friendship rather than conflict or hostility that destroys or tramples on the side of humanity and the universe. This is the essence of the Malay culture. They do not wish to have their dignity violated and never wish to violate the dignity of others. Similarly, care for nature without harming the universe. This refers to the words of the Prophet Muhammad: “Whoever is not blessed with meekness will not be blessed with goodness” (HR. Muslim).
Islamic teachings that influence Malay culture are reflected in the importance of delicacy in every zapin movement. The Malay people’s compassion in all aspects of life, their openness (inclusivity), and their wisdom towards other communities or cultures. The Prophet exemplifies Islamic teachings’ compassionate attitude and values to his people, both towards others and the universe.
Second, Intelligence, circumspection, and vigilance. The dance’s forward and rearward motion is a calculated movement of the mind, heart, culture, and religion. It moves dynamically and forward without kicking those in front or behind it. When advancing and living well, do not neglect one’s origin and “pay attention” to the plight of those who have preceded one. As a leader, you must always pay attention to the people. Do not cause disturbance and “kick” the leader in front of you when you are the people. Because, over time, the leader will revert to being a member of the populace, and the populace will continue the leadership relay. Allah has established the sunnatullah in this manner as the gears of nature continue to turn. All policies must be considerate and accommodating of all elements of the nation in a civilised manner.
Third, the tawadhu attitude and the adab quality. The initial and final movements of the zapin dance are performed in a half-sitting position as a sign of ta’zim and deference. When the dance is performed, the motion demonstrates a slightly inclined body and head position. Consequently, this position and motion are emblematic of refined Malay cultural etiquette. This movement represents tawadhu and a respectful attitude towards others without remaining arrogant. The downward kneeling posture symbolises submission and servitude to the Supreme Creator. Looking down, we are reminded of the beginning (life) and the end (death). The message is that humans should always propagate virtue before death. This is a manifestation of His words: “…Whoever bows his face (submits himself) to Allah, and he does good, he will have a reward on the side of his Lord, and there will be no fear for them, and they will not grieve” (al-Baqarah: 112).
Ibnul Qayyim states, “If you adore Allah but do not submit to Him, you are not His servant. You are not His servant if you submit to Him but do not adore Him. You are a true servant only if you adore and submit to Him.”
Indeed, each “movement” has a message, and each message has a “movement.” Even though humans occasionally neglect to perform many activities (movements) without a message. Or too many communications without evidence of actual behavioural activity (motion).
Fourthly, the accompanying poems to zapin performances contain religiously based advice. Syair (poem) is filled with messages of advice that occasionally contain criticism and criticism that is filled with messages of advice (of value). The poetry is beautiful and repetitive without irritating, but it moves the spirit. For the proprietors of adab and the preservation of culture, all constructive criticism must come from those who have constructed (completed). While only those who have never accomplished anything initiate scathing criticisms. Thus, Malay culture cultivates etiquette. The verses of the melody that accompanies the zapin dance are replete with sound advice. Each verse contains a message. At the same time, all messages are derived from the Quran and hadith.
Fifth, the rahmatan lil ‘aalamiin message. The Siku Keluang movement is called the “sweep the winds” movement. The entire zapin movement is so dynamic that it spreads in all directions, accompanied by the recitation of Allah-glorifying verses and shalawat to the Prophet. These chants accompanied every zapin dance step. The message of rahmatan lil ‘aalamiin is carried by the performers’ movements that reach all corners of the wind. This is a manifestation of the mission of the Prophet Muhammad, which Allah describes in the following verse: “And We did not send you (Muhammad) except as a mercy for the universe” (QS. al-Anbiya’: 107).
The environmentally conscious Malay culture embodies the message of rahmatan lil ‘aalamiin. No environment is damaged, let alone trampled upon. This is because Islamic values permeate the spirit of the complete culture. The reach in all cardinal directions, but not beyond a wide space, indicates the Malay community’s concern for the environment without monopolising or “colonising” areas that are not its own. This is reflected in the minimal space required for zapin dance, which does not involve “annexing” or seizing each other’s territory. Although limited in scope, the ability to benefit others remains.
Sixth, zapin dance patterns are simple and consist of regular repetition. Therefore, existence resembles a zapin dance. In reality, life is simple, dynamic, and repetitive. A structured framework governs movements without breaking the norms (laws), customs, or religion, civilised dynamism. Such dynamism will produce a dynamic movement that never ceases to inspire. It’s not a passive, effortless motion, incredibly intimidating.
The repetition of zapin dance movements symbolises perseverance and adherence to religious and cultural norms. Patience for all the efforts made and approval of Allah’s (destiny) decisions. When norms are established, justice will be established. Only when norms are consistently followed will there be equitable behaviour. If the laws are broken and not followed, all movements will be discordant, the rhythm and marwas will be out of sync, justice will be lost, and life’s harmony will be destroyed. Thus, Allah reminds us through His words: “And it is not befitting for believing men and women, when Allah and His Messenger have decreed a matter, to have a choice (other) regarding their concerns, when Allah and His Messenger have decreed it. And whoever disobeys Allah and His Messenger, he has indeed strayed far from the right path” (Al-Ahzab 36).
The significance of dynamism in the repetitive and regular movements of the zapin dance reveals that the dynamics of human civilisation are continuity. The universe’s dynamism rotates regularly following God’s law. No one considers themselves the most significant, particularly in contrast to the established norms. All thawaf on each of His rules. When the norms are followed, the universe is organised, and collisions, which are chaotic and disastrous, are avoided.
In the meantime, repetition of movements educates individuals to comprehend better. When repeated frequently, the elegance of each “staged” movement will become apparent. The “audience” will abandon the “dancer” if the repetition of motion violates the rules, revealing the chaos of the “staged” motion. If, despite repeated observance of the rules, the audience needs to pay attention and comprehend, the fault lies with the individual, who cannot be educated due to ingrained ignorance.
Seventh, the composition of zapin performers indicates a highly civilised nation. The use of metal signifies a sophisticated culture. While the aurat zahir and batin are concealed by the clothing, representing devout religious adherents, the clothing covers the aurat zahir and batin. This is the command conveyed in His Word: “Dear Prophet, Say to your wives, daughters, and the spouses of muk-min, “Let them cover their entire bodies with veils.” This is done so they can be identified more readily and avoid harassment. And Allah is Merciful and Forgiving” (al-Ahzab: 59).
Aurat signifies dignity and self-respect in Malay culture. If the aurat is exposed on purpose, it indicates that a person is no longer civilised. When customs are disregarded and broken, this is a sign of barbarism. Such is the significance of tradition in zapin performers’ attire because attire reflects the level of civilisation.
Strangely, “animal civilisation” is tearing apart the “covering the aurat” civilisation, representing human civilisation’s pinnacle. Aurat is displayed with pride and becomes a commodity barometer of modern civilisation. Animal species have been performing aurat since before humans were created. What a civilisational repetition that contradicts intelligent human civilisation’s past!
Indeed, zapin dance embodies such profound theological and philosophical principles. Simply put, the remaining comprehension of zapin dance is limited to spectacle, with no appreciation for the value of existing guidance. Because only some aspects of the zapin dance are researched and explained as guidance. Moreover, modern civilisation, which is irregular and only displays the aurat as an animal, is increasingly abandoning and eroding the existence of zapin. The cycle of existence may resemble the turning of a clock. The pre-modern peak of human civilisation indicates the direction of the mechanism in the sky. Currently (in the modern era), perhaps the hands are at the bottom, just as the character of human culture is at the bottom. Have we lost our dignity as humans and instead wish to enter an era in which we are proud to be non-civilized creatures (animals)? All answers depend on the calibre of the individual making the selected option.
Wa Allahua’lam bi al-Shawwab.
Translated by Riska Saputra
Alumni STAIN Bengkalis