Malaysian Muslim? Sorry, no yoga for you!


Yesterday the Malaysian National Fatwa Council has issued another of its many fatwas, which have seen an increase in numbers during this time of political turmoil. “Yoga is forbidden for Muslims. The practice will erode their faith in the religion,” said Abdul Shukor Husin, the council’s chairman.This time the target was one of the most (also among Muslims) anti-stress activities: Yoga. As mental and physical discipline, Yoga has been appreciated by many Muslim scholars, who have even suggested that the practice could be ‘Islamicized’.

Certainly, no scholar had thought of forbidding it, since Muslims, particularly in India other South Asian areas, have practiced various forms of Yoga for a long time. Indeed, there are many points of contact between the movement of the Muslim prayer and some of Yoga. Whomever is familiar with the philosophy behind yoga is very aware that it is not a religion, and it can be easily adapted to one’s beliefs, whatever they may be.

Yoga is a ‘tool’, a ‘technique’, or better a ‘mechanism’.  However, in times where even ‘water’ may be claimed by a company to be halal, and in a Muslim world in which ‘haram’ is becoming the most popular word to empower oneself or one’s group, I am not surprised that currently, restrictive fatwas are becoming the main political tools in trying to attract a certain electorate. 

Of course, the Malaysian National Fatwa Council’s radical decision has been promptly reported by mass media and blogs of many types. The reaction seems to be often the same: ‘here we are, Muslims have done it again’. Yet what has been unreported is that the National Fatwa Council, inspired by prof. Zakaria Stapa of the Faculty of Islamic Studies in Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia, is not a first. Christian families in the US have requested the banning of Yoga from schools on the basis that it is a Hindu religious practice, hence it violates the separation of state and church. Some evangelic preachers may actually have indirectly inspired the fatwa (see here for an interesting parallel with the present fatwa), 

The interesting point is that Abdul Shukor Husin has tried to justify the quite unjustifiable fatwa mentioning other countries that allegedly would have invited Muslims not to take the Lotus position. Among the countries which Dr Abdul Shukor Husin mentioned there was also Singapore. The reality is different, and Singaporean Muslim clerics have affirmed again that practising yoga is acceptable for Muslims. Should we suggest perhaps to the Malaysian Muslims to cross the border and enjoy their hour of relaxing yoga before crossing the Malaysia-Singapore Second Link and going back to a politically changing Malaysia which seems increasingly looking for a national and ethnic identity through a dangerous fatwa-ization of their society.

Fatwas are ‘suggestions’ or ‘advice’, and recently we have read many which deserve no more than a laugh (do you remember the office breast-feeding fatwa?) – so much so that Al-Azhar University has had to express concern over all the ‘fatwa’ business

I expect that with the increase of political struggle and inevitable changes in the previously very stable Malaysian political landscape, marked by four-decade-old policies that accord to ethnic Malays privileges, fatwas would become a tool to affirm a shift from a mainly ethnically based political discourse to a more (in my opinion dangerous) religious essentialism.  Surely, Singapore is the best place, for an anthropologist, to observe such a fascinating process. 

24 thoughts on “Malaysian Muslim? Sorry, no yoga for you!

  1. How long will it take to yank fundamentalist Muslims like Abdul Shukor Husin into the 21st century. Adherence to Islam must be very weak indeed if he fears that a few stretches and breathing exercises will lead people to defect. If their faith is that weak will fatwas or, worse still, legislation make it strong?
    It is clear that Christians can practice yoga as a technique or preparation for meditation..but not meditation on Vishnu but on the One God or on Jesus Christ…the use of mantras is up to the individual..I use Alleluia!!!

    The great Muslim faith can do with some positive reporting right now. The issuing of fatwas is quite untimely.

    John kinsella

  2. As a form of exercise I have no problem with yoga; however, when exercise is mixed with religion, as many people do with respect to yoga, then I have a problem. In that regard, I agree with the fatwa. I also respect the opinion of the council when they suggest that the exercise portion of yoga should be discouraged, even though I disagree with them. Their intentions are in the right place, which is important to me. And it’s not like there aren’t other exercise programs that can’t be used instead. (One wonders what their thoughts are with respect to Tai Chi. ;) )

    The thing that has me rolling my eyes is that non-Muslims just seem to be gob-smacked over this fatwa (that and the Michael Jackson reversion). I mean, hello! There are bigger issues needing discussion than yoga and Jacko. Why are they focusing on such trivial topics?

  3. Might sound harsh but fact is that we reach tranquility through prayer and remembrance of God in each moment of our daily life
    Also adapting this technique to our own practices could take us far from the objective
    I’d classify it as innovation

  4. ‘The thing that has me rolling my eyes is that non-Muslims just seem to be gob-smacked over this fatwa (that and the Michael Jackson reversion). I mean, hello! There are bigger issues needing discussion than yoga and Jacko. Why are they focusing on such trivial topics?’

    Well as a non-Muslim I roll my eyes at the fact that Islam needs in this example to legislate via a fatwa over such triviality that is why. Unfortunately such trivialities seem to matter to some Muslims they kill over cartoons and riot over teddy bears for example. As to Jacko and his conversion that does not matter and is unimportant, the guy is a fruitcake.

  5. **This is gonna be long, my apologies, but I had to let it all out. : ) **

    I think this is an example of taking something simple and making too much out of it.

    In Islam, a Muslim is encouraged to take benefit from anything out there (be it a science, an exercise, a teaching, etc.) as long as it does not contradict the principles of the religion.

    Now, Yoga – originally/historically – has an association with certain religious practices in Hinduism and then it spread to others. I mean, running a simple search on wikipedia…what pictures do you get with the article? Pictures of statues in performing Yogic meditation. Yoga is based on certain philosophies, certain ways of practice/techniques etc. which all have roots/reasons behind them.

    Let’s take the example of “The Sun Saluation” pose. Here’s what I found regarding its background:

    Surya (sun) is the Soul, both of the moving and unmoving beings. – The Rig Veda

    “In Hindu mythology, the sun god is worshipped as a symbol of health and immortal life. The Sun Salutation gives reverence to the internal sun as well as to the external sun, the creative life force of the universe that the yogis believe to radiate inside as well as outside the body.”

    It goes on to say “To begin sun salutation, bring your mind and body to attention facing east. Mentally visualize the rising sun. Visualize the sun radiating throughout your body. ”

    So if one “REALLY” practices Yoga, believing in the above, this is against the Teachings of Islam! Muslims do not pray to the “sun god” and certainly going through this pose would be an imitation of those who do – it even reminds me of some images I’ve seen on TV of some worshippers in a temple performing their prayers in front of a statue.

    I think the ‘fatwa’ is quite simple – though perhaps a bit generic – practice of Yoga (Yoga with its philosophies and mantras and whatever else goes along with it) can contradict the teachings of Islam and should be avoided.

    The original post states that Yoga is not a religion, but a ‘mechanism’. Sure, no one is saying it’s a Yoga religion; however, it originated or is based on things which stem from a certain faith or a certain set of beliefs/philosophies. I am aware that some people nowadays practice it without any “religious” or even “spiritual” connections involved…just strentching and flexibility and breathing etc. Perhaps “visualizing yourself at ease”/no stress, etc.

    Now…get this…

    If one does “stretches” or “breathing exercises”…if one raises his arms up and breathes deeply, then reaches for his toes…if he decides to sleep on his tummy and stretch his spine…there is NOTHING wrong with that at all in Islam (or with anyone else I imagine?!!) What’s wrong is doing it in the EXACT same steps with the EXACT same beliefs/philosophy that lies behind it all.

    Maybe the fatwa should have clearly stated the distiction between practicing “YOGA” and just “exercising and stretching”, as to not anger anyone.

    Also, if one wants “peace” and “contemplation” and “connecting with God and His creation” and “discipline” and “self awareness” whatever else…then Islam has sufficient guidelines to help the person establish all of the above and more, and it’s more “superior” than anything else out there because these are the practices outlined by the Creator not any of His creation.

    I don’t see what the big deal is really…

    If you are a Muslim and you want to practice Yoga, go ahead and suit yourself. You are responsible for your decisions, your actions, and your intentions. If you want to be careful about your actions and ensure that they are within the ‘guidelines’…good for you, and your reward is with your Creator.

    On another note…

    Some fatwas are indeed rediculous…coming from people who are ignorant in their own religion (doesn’t matter how many Ph.D.s you have on the topic!)

    However, I wouldn’t call this trivial or rediculous, I respect the reasons behind it, and understand where it’s coming from.

  6. Dear My2Cents and JDsg

    thanks for your comments. Although I am not an expert in Islamic theology, and I tend to stay quite away from theological debates, I still do not understand this fatwa. Let me give you something to reflect upon.

    Yoga has hindu origin, but the majority of people practicing it do not follow the hindu religion or even philosophy. The majority of Muslims practicing yoga use it to relax and for exercise.

    Now think of this: Tawaf has pagan origins as we know, so many parts of the the Hajj. So should we have a fatwa which asks all Muslims not to think of the origin of Tawaf?

    Muslims for centuries have used, adapted and changed and culturalised other traditions. We have Muslims praying in churches which have been transformed into mosques, and often there is still the word ‘Jesus’ or representations of the cross. Should we need a fatwa asking those Muslims to stop praying in such re-converted churches?

    I find that this fatwa shows how the scholars in Malaysia start to fear changes and, as in other parts of the Muslim world, instead of using rationality and following the main Islamic tradition, use reactionary reasoning in the hope to foster their own power.

    Muslims have no pope and no clergy, though some Muslim scholars and clerics still dream of having one!

  7. Salaam ‘alaikum.

    Well, first, let me go back to what I originally wrote: “I also respect the opinion of the council when they suggest that the exercise portion of yoga should be discouraged, even though I disagree with them. Their intentions are in the right place, which is important to me.”

    My concern is not over whether Muslims do yoga or not; Milady has done it in the past and I never felt that her iman had suffered as a result. For her, it was solely an exercise; I’m sure that if the instructor had asked her to do any chanting she’d have walked out immediately.

    The key sentence for me was when the Council chairman, Datuk Dr Abdul Shukor Husin, said, “In Islam, one must not do things which can erode one’s aqidah (belief)” (from your New Straits Times article). In this regard, the fact that Yoga comes from Hinduism is almost irrelevant. As I also wrote, “One wonders what their thoughts are with respect to Tai Chi.”

    Now, to briefly tackle your other two points. With respect to tawaf, while the pagan Arabs did do something similar, are you sure that this was something the pagans originated? I think a more possible source of origin is that Ibrahim and Isma’il (pbut) started the practice after building the ka’bah. (I also believe that the tawaf on earth is a duplication of the tawaf in heaven.) And, as for Muslims praying in churches, that is not a problem for me either. As Muslims, we’re not limited to where we can do salat except for some very specific areas. If you live here in S’pore as long as I have so far, you’ll find yourself praying in some pretty unusual spots, such as on HDB void decks and in the middle of a soccer pitch (I’ve done both). Neither of those locations are haram, although one could argue that, at least with a church, the place has been consecrated as a house of worship to God.

    You suggest in your comment that the council may be trying to use “…reactionary reasoning in the hope to foster their own power.” This fatwa may very well be more politically motivated than most. Malaysia has been moving in this direction for a while now although, in the past, it was done more for countering the appeal of PAS (UMNO and PAS trying to appear more traditional and orthodox than the other). But I view this fatwa like many others: an opinion that’s not legally binding on anyone, a tempest in a teapot that will be ignored especially once the next trivial news story takes the imagination of peoples’ minds.

    Wa salaam.

  8. Salam

    The whole thing is blown way out of proportion.
    Yoga to some, comes with religious connotations but to many, it is JUST an exercise.

    There are bigger issues out there..

  9. Salaam ‘alaikum.

    Talked to my ustaz today, and Milady and I asked him for his thoughts about whether yoga is haram or not. (This is a man whom I regard very highly on religious matters.) His answer: haram!

  10. Hi JDsg,

    I respect other opinions, but the beautiful think of Islam, if I am correct, is that you can respect, disagree and reject opinions :)

    hope to meet you again

  11. Salaams,

    I just posted this over at Cycads but I figured this was needed here if haven’t already updated: The new important information is that the fatwa was reversed by the royals who are the final custodians of Islam in M. I think it’s important that everyone know that.
    Having had arguments with someone once upon a time who had a vague notion that the matter we were discussing might have been forbidden somewhere, it’s important that everyone get the new accurate information that this fatwa was stillborn and illegitimate.
    Further, the royals said that no further fatwas would be released directly from the fatwa council. They have to be sent to and approved by the royals before they are gazetted.
    As I’ve said elsewhere, this was a case of the separation of powers (between the royals and the fatwa council) in an Islamic framework working. This act shows that the royals are now going to become serious and active about exercising their powers to control the idiotcy of the council.

  12. Hi Dr Marranci, do you remember from Northern Ireland the DUP (many of whose members are from Paisley’s Free Presbyterian Church) saying they discouraged their supporters from partaking in ‘line dancing’? There are similarities with this incident I feel. Overall though this post shows the overbearing and stifling nature of Islam. No wonder the Islamic world is renowned for it’s intellectual autarchy.

  13. Dear Paul,
    thank you for your comment. Yes I remember indeed the ‘line dancing’ though even there it was because of the political reality of NI.
    I disagree, however, that the issue is with the ‘overbearing and stifling nature of Islam’, since this fatwa was not the result of ‘Islam’ but the decision of some ‘scholars’ (i.e. human beings).
    As I have repeated often: Islam (or any other religion) does not exist without a mind ‘creating’ it. Hence ‘Islam’ in general cannot be of “stifling nature” but some Muslims can ‘create’ a ‘stifling Islam’ (as of course some Jews can create a stifling Judaism, some Christian stifling christianity and so on).

  14. Dear Taib,

    Thanks for the provocation.

    Unfortunately, although few people mention this, Muslims are the main victims of terrorist and political criminal violence committed by others whom declare to be more ‘Muslim’ than them.

    I am sure that among the thousands killed by these criminals, there were, distressfully so, also those (children and women included) whom loved yoga and many other things that make life enjoyable or at least tolerable.

    Best wishes
    Gabriele

  15. I believe ‘anyone bound to a religion and of has no self discipline is still going to believe in others and anything and keep on torturing this world’ – to be what you are – to spread harmony – if you still depend on anything – you are the most pity one – please think alone – think there is no-one – nothing – nowhere – but you should be within you – be good – self – nice- then – can realize – think think think…

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  17. Interesting article. Lots of comments. Some Muslims take things too seriously. There’s a statement from Abu Yusuf (the student of Abu Hanifa) which says something like: Our teachers would never say something was halal or haram unless it was really clear in the Qur’an or in the sunna. (It’s in Radd ‘ala Sirat al-Awza’i, can’t remember the page or the actual quote). I think that fear of attributing judgements to God has decreased over the centuries, and radicalism/extremism generally occurs anyway when a community/society feels under threat.

    But Marrenci, the reason why your argument about the Hajj rites doesn’t stand up is because those acts were approved by the Prophet, thus they are sanctioned. Furthermore, in Islamic theology these were originally monotheistic rites which were corrupted by the idolators.

    Paul, you sound like one of those Western Islamophobes: “Muslims are bad, therefore every time I hear that they did something bad it will confirm my belief that they are bad.” Of course a lot of dark people feel the same way about white people. And a lot of Muslims feel the same way about non-Muslims (specially Americans and Brits). Etc… According to your logic, therefore, whiteness and being a non-Muslims must be bad because whites/non-Muslims do bad things.

  18. Yoga is only physical exercise. Why should be prohibited in Islam? I see Islam is really afraid if their follower convert themselves toother religion but I am not afraid. Formerly Iwas muslim but now I do not believe in Islam.

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  20. How funny when you talked about the Tawwaf is a pagan ritual.
    So using the same analogy eastern pagan bow when they pray to something we Muslims bow Jesus (pbuh) bowed too “Going a little farther, he fell with his face to the ground and prayed….(From the NIV Bible, Matthew 16:39)” and so is Moses (pbuh) “And Moses made haste, and bowed his head toward the earth, and worshipped.” so according to you monotheistic religions are pagan.
    Another analogy prophet Adam (pbuh) sons Qabeel and Habeel scarified an animal for Allah and so was asked Ibrahim (pbuh) and Muslim sacrifice animal in Aid eat some of it and give poor some of it and the pagan also scarified animal and human too the same here is monotheistic religion pagan ?
    Actually the religion started way before Islam Christianity or Judaism it started with Adam (pbuh) and all the prophet after him preached the true religion of Allah to people but people keep corrupting the true teaching and Allah keep sending prophets that’s why you may find many similarity with pagan religion because some of them may have root to the true teaching.
    hope it cleared things for you
    salam

    • Dear Emine,
      you are right, Muslims, and the Qur’an, recognize a chain between the ‘pagan’ rituals and the then rediscover monotheism. The issue indeed, as we can see from this example, is not that the ritual (i.e. the action in itself) was or became pagan, but the fact that it changed meaning under the Islamic interpretation of it (or if went back to the original meaning). This demonstrate that it is the meaning and not the movement and ritual action which matters. Hence the discussion on yoga: yoga has a long tradition and history, but many meanings. Muslims can adapt yoga to their needs as many others do (Jews, Christians, Atheists, Agnostics, and so on). What for me it’s interesting, as an anthropologist studying Muslim societies, is how many contemporary fatwas and judgments today lacks the flexibility and intellectual sophistication which Muslim scholars had shown in the past centuries. Indeed, Muslims have practice yoga much before the discussion we have had today, and no real discussion took over. May other fatwas today are just ridiculous like the quite famous ‘breast feeding of male employees’.
      thanks for reading my blog
      Gabriele

  21. Yoga is haraam, there can’t b ny doubt about that. It is a form of worship used by hindus, no matter how u try to justify it u know deep in ur heart that its wrong. If u want relaxation try readin ur salaah with full dedication and slowly, then wen u done put ur head down in sajda and think of God for as long as u like. As for the stretch exercises, there are thousands for each muscle group. Just read ” a’udhubillah” and “bismillah” b4 u start and u’ll neva go wrong. Have trust and faith in Allah, remember him wen doin nythin and u’l always b relaxed. This life is a test, its not meant to b easy. If u hav tolerance and patience now, ur hearafter would b beautiful.

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