The influence of Islam on the arts in Malaysia is perhaps most evident in the Zapin, a dance form for which the southernmost state of Johor is popular.
It is believed to have been introduced here in the 14th century by Muslim missionaries from the Middle East around Yemen (then known as Hadramaut) as a means to spread the religion.
The extant dance form of Zapin - known as Zapin Arab today - combines Islamic devotional chanting with body movements. Originally, only males were allowed to perform the dance and that too in the presence of religious teachers who were given the task of explaining the meaning of the verses sung by the performers. In this way, knowledge about Islam (mostly concerning the history of the Islamic civilisation) was passed on to the audience.
Much has changed throughout the years. For instance, women Zapin dancers are now a common sight, and the dance itself is no longer performed exclusively for religious ceremonies. In fact, it is accepted both as a religious and secular form of traditional entertainment.
The original form of Zapin (Arab) has given rise to numerous substantive forms, collectively known as Zapin Melayu. In Johor alone, variations of the Zapin have emerged in five regions, namely Zapin Tenglu and Zapin Pulau which originate from Mersing; Zapin Lenga from Muar; Zapin Pekajang from Johor Baru; Zapin Koris from Batu Pahat; and Zapin Parit Mustar and Zapin Seri Bunian from Pontian.
These forms or variations are much influenced by tradition and living norms. A good example would be the Zapin Tenglu and Zapin Pulau, both originating from the fishing village of Mersing. The sharp irregular movements seen in the two variations are inspired by the lives of fishermen; tossed around in a fishing boat on a rough sea, struggling to pull in their nets, resting by the shore, etc. By contrast, the graceful sway of Zapin Lenga depicts the lives of farmers, and the more calm and serene kampung environment.
The dancers usually perform in pairs and are accompanied by a traditional music ensemble commonly made up of musical instruments associated with Islamic culture such as the gambus, accordion, violin, marwas (bongos), rebana and dok - 10 to 12 musicians in all.