A fatwa against yoga? and how would this reflect on Muslims?

Originally posted on The Other Malaysia and Farish Noor’s Facebook notes!

Since I became an activist at the age of nineteen, I have spent more than two decades of my life defending Muslims and the image of Islam. During my twenty-two years of living in Europe, I must have attended hundreds of conferences, seminars, public debates and lectures where I tried my best to dissuade people from the negative image of Islam that is so prevalent in the international media of late.

But there were moments when it seemed as if this was an uphill struggle where every battle won was soon followed by a string of defeats, thanks to the actions of Muslims who took it upon themselves to ‘defend Islam’ on their own parochial and short-sighted terms; and whose actions and words did untold damage to the image of Muslims. I recall one particularly bitter episode when I was asked to speak about the universalism of Islam – that took place just when the Taliban were occupied with the task of blowing up the Buddha statues of Bamiyan in Afghanistan. It seemed pointless to continue then, and despair has been my lot for the past few years.

Now I find myself again in such a situation, after it was announced that the Fatwa Council of Malaysia has just issued a fatwa declaring that the practice of Yoga is haram and thus forbidden to Muslims. Overnight I was bombarded by emails and sms-es from my Islamist friends in Indonesia where I teach at two Islamic universities, who asked: “What is wrong with you Malaysian Muslims, and haven’t you got anything better to do?” How do I reply to such a question when I am forced to ask it myself?

That the Malaysian Fatwa Council could even contemplate issuing a fatwa on Yoga of all things beggars belief. It leaves many Muslims and non-Muslims alike stunned and speechless for it would suggest that the state of normative religiosity in Malaysia has sunk to such a shallow and superficial level that only the most mundane issues are deemed worthy enough to gain the attention of the country’s ‘defenders of the faith’.

There are three issues that I would like to raise at this point, and they are the following:

Firstly it should be noted that for millions of people around the world who may be Hindus or non-Hindus, Yoga is seen primarily as a form of exercise and little else. In Europe where Yoga has been popular since the 1960s, millions of Europeans have been practicing Yoga in their spare time as a hobby or part of their health regimes, with scant attention to its religious and spiritual connotations. If it were indeed the case that Yoga forms an intrinsic part of Hindu belief and that it can be used as a means to convert non-Hindus to Hinduism, then there ought to be millions of Hindus all over Western Europe by today! So where on earth are these closet European Hindus then? Has anyone considered this commonsensical point with any degree of reflection or honesty? If Yoga is seen as merely a regime of exercise, then how on earth does sitting cross-legged miraculously transform me into a Hindu? It would be akin to suggesting that continual consumption of curry would eventually make me an Indian; and I hope we can all see how patently ridiculous that is.

Secondly, let us be clear about what thing: Yoga practices have been part of Southeast Asian culture for more than four thousand years and they are as much a part of Asian society as many of the other cultural legacies left by the period of ancient Indianisation. Another practice that has become normalised and localised over the past four millennia is the practice of massage, which is hugely popular in predominantly-Muslim Malaysia and Indonesia as it is in Thailand, Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia. Look at the relief carvings on the temples of Prambanan and Borobudur and it will be seen that massage was prevalent during the Hindu-Buddhist period and the detailed carvings show that what Malay-Muslims call ‘urut’ or ‘picit’ (pressure-point massage) was practiced as far back as the Sanjaya and Sailendra dynasties. Today picit and urut are still popular among Malaysian and Indonesian Muslims, and is practiced by Muslims. Has this ancient form of therapy transformed us into Hindus too? Certainly not, so why the fuss over Yoga?

Thirdly, the declaration that Yoga is haram has robbed Malaysia and Malaysians of yet another neutral civic space where Malaysians of all walks of life can meet and interact as Malaysians and friends. As someone who has been practicing Yoga since the age of nineteen, I can say for certain that many of the Yoga classes I have attended were plural, cosmopolitan gatherings where Malaysians of all ethnic and cultural backgrounds can meet and form lasting friendships and acquaintances. To declare this practice haram for Muslims effectively robs us of another space where we can meet other people, constraining our personal freedoms and limiting the choices in our lives.

Muslims in Malaysia are more closely guarded and policed than ever before, with more and more laws, rules and restrictions on how we dress, eat, speak, interact and even marry and form relationships with. After this fatwa on Yoga, what will be next? A fatwa on karate, kung-fu, pilates, Qi Jong?

At the root of the matter is the fact that the Malaysian Fatwa Council has acted unilaterally once again and unilaterally issued a blanket prohibition in the name of Islam and all Muslims. Well, I did not vote or elect any of the members of this council; and neither did any other Muslims in the country. Here lies the real problematic of power behind such appointed bodies that have been given so much power and authority over our lives. Lest it be forgotten, the only body that is allowed to legislate on our behalf as Malaysian citizens is the Parliament, that was elected by the citizenry themselves. Yet over the past three decades of an Islamisation process that has gone out of control, more and more non-elected and non-democratic bodies have been created that wield enormous power over the lives of Malaysians, particularly Muslims.

What has aroused the angry reaction of Malaysian Muslims in the case of this fatwa is the fact that it was issued unilaterally without any consultation with society. And this reflects the extent to which the Fatwa council is in fact a body that is not answerable to the Malaysian public. More so than a question of theology or theocratic details and fine-print, the workings of the Fatwa Council in Malaysia has demonstrated the workings of a state that has abdicated its responsibility to lead the way towards a modern, progressive Islam that is relevant to the plural and multicultural world we live in today. Yet ironically all this is happening under the watch of Prime Minister Abdullah Badawi, who made it his project to promote an ‘Islam Hadari’ that is modern and tolerant. How, pray tell, can there be a tolerant, moderate and modern Islam when books are banned on a monthly basis and Muslims are not even allowed to exercise and meditate in peace? And once again, it is the image of Islam that has suffered the most.

End.

Update: Zainah Anwar writers a beautiful article at the The Star Online about the yoga fatwa and the increasing rigidity of Muslims’ lives in Malaysia. I don’t think I can comment any further about what is perhaps the most talked-about topic in Malaysia after reading these two.

6 thoughts on “A fatwa against yoga? and how would this reflect on Muslims?

  1. I’ve been waiting for you to write on this issue. What’s your view on the fatwa against pengkid?

    Earlier fatwa against pondan/bapok has been posted. So as against smoking. I don’t see any difference in the way Muslims pondans/smokers lead their lives.

    My point is… they’ve banned yoga. So what?

    When are they going to go all out on pre-marital sex among teenagers and abortions? Nak tunggu sampai majority anak Malaysia ‘berbapakan orang yang sama’?? Dibin/dibintikan dengan nama Abdullah??!!

  2. Salaams,

    I was wondering if you would weigh in on this. The new important information is that the fatwa was reversed by the royals who are 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 somes to me that they royals are now going to become serious and active about exercising their powers to control the idiotcy of the council.

  3. Fatemeh, MemAluya, and Salaam!

    Hello and sorry for the long (and painful) absence!

    I’ve been busy working on my research proposal and PhD application (which are now finished and out of my hands – thank God!), and sorting out visa and passport issues – because it’s so, so difficult being an immigrant in the UK these days.

    Yes, I will write something substantial on the yoga issue (the ban is pending at the moment) and hopefully other more interesting things that aren’t too embarrassing about Malaysia!

    More posts to come this Sunday!!

    Lots of Love,
    Cycads!!

    p/s: I will comment properly in a bit!

  4. MemAluya,

    My view on the pengkid (tomboy) fatwa should be quite clear if you’ve been reading my blog: I think it’s ridiculous. Sexuality and symbols of one’s sexuality are not really black and white; instead, sexuality exists on a spectrum. Rooting out female homosexuality through nabbing so-called tomboys would be overlooking very feminine women who are bisexual, lipstick lesbians, or women into BDSM or other kind of sexual subcultures that will inevitably be haram some day. Suffice to say, such fatwas can be so dangerous if they fall into authoritarian and draconian hands.

    Before we allow the release of any kind of fatwa about teenage pre-marital sex, there MUST be sex education in schools, because otherwise the fatwa will not make psychological sense. And about abortion: it should be legal if we want to reduce the number of new-born babies dumped in rubbish bins and public toilets, and unnecessary deaths of women and girls from botched backstreet abortions. Again, sex education is paramount, and I’m not talking about just form 4 reproductive biology!!

    Salaam,

    Impressive background information that I did not know about there. Farish Noor has mentioned above that Muslims in Malaysia did not vote members of the national fatwa council into office but they dominate the lives of Malaysians so much. There should be an election system of some kind.. The current king (thankfully) has a lot more sense and has been pulling his weight in politics more than other king in recent history.

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