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Malaysian Fatwa Council Issues Fatwa on Yoga

Thursday, July 09, 2009 at 04:27 AM EDT

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.