View of part of the Fujairah Corniche and the Hajar Mountains in the Background

Saturday, November 22, 2008

Will UAE Follow Malaysian Islamic Body and Place Fatwa on Yoga?

According to a report from Associated Press (22 November 2008), Malaysia's top Islamic body on Saturday ruled against Muslims practicing yoga.

The reasons:

1. Yoga has elements of other religions that could corrupt Muslims.

2. The National Fatwa Council's non-binding edict said yoga involves not just physical exercise but also includes Hindu spiritual elements, chanting and worship.

3. Council chairman Abdul Shukor Husin told reporters, "It is inappropriate. It can destroy the faith of a Muslim."

4. Abdul Shukor Husin noted that clerics in Egypt issued a similar edict in 2004 that called the practice of yoga "an aberration."

Implications and Reactions
Although the council's decisions are not legally binding on Malaysia's Muslim population, many abide by the edicts out of deference, and the council does have the authority to ostracize an offending Muslim from society.

The Malaysian fatwa reflects the growing strain of conservatism in Malaysia, which has always taken pride in its multiethnic population. About 25 percent of Malaysians are ethnic Chinese and 8 percent ethnic Indians, mostly Hindus.

Recently, the council issued an edict banning tomboys, ruling that girls who act like boys violate the tenets of Islam.

Yoga teacher Suleiha Merican, who has been practicing yoga for 40 years, called yoga "a great health science" and said there is no religion involved.

"We don't do chanting and meditation. There is no conflict because yoga is not religion based," Merican, 56, said.

There are no figures for how many Muslims practice yoga, but many yoga classes have a sprinkling of Muslims attending.

Putri Rahim, a housewife, said she is no less a Muslim after practicing yoga for 10 years:
"I am mad! Maybe they have it in mind that Islam is under threat. To come out with a fatwa is an insult to intelligent Muslims. It's an insult to my belief," Putri told The Associated Press.

In a recent blog posting, social activist Marina Mahathir criticized the council for even considering a yoga ban, calling it "a classic case of reacting out of fear and ignorance."

United Arab Emirates Response
At the time of writing there did not appear to be a reaction expressed by Islamic scholars or government officials in the United Arab Emirates about yoga or this Malaysian ruling.

A frenzy of often conflicting fatwas caused the UAE to establish three months ago an official UAE Islamic hotline that issues fatwas according to the government’s moderate stance.

Here is the link for the UAE’s Islam Online Network which has these words on its Home page:

“IslamOnline is the leading and orginal Islamic portal on the Internet. Based in Dubai, IslamOnline's objective is to portray a positive and accurate picture of Islam to the world as well as providing support services for Muslims as well as for non Muslims wishing to explore Islam. IslamOnline is the number one source for Islamic content in the Islamic world.”

A search (22 November 2008) of the word ‘yoga’ on this site, found no results or mention of the word ‘yoga’ and its practice. This may reflect the more moderate stance of Islam in the Emirates.

Some Reflections
Islam is not one body of teaching and there is significant diversity in interpretation and practice throughout the world.

Yoga does not represent one body of teaching and its practical expressions are diverse.

One of the reasons for the Malaysian edict is that yoga “has elements of other religions that could corrupt Muslims” but these corrupting elements are not spelt out in the report. What is also not reported is that Islam also contains [not corrupting] elements from other religions, principally from those religions that are called ‘People of the Book’ (أهل الكتاب‎ Ahl al-Kitāb).

Source: Malaysian Islamic Body Bans Yoga for Muslims, Washington Times, 22 November 2008.

Dr Geoff Pound