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

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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, observes Aliran member Farish Noor.

Since I became an activist at the age of 19, I have spent more than two decades of my life defending Muslims and the image of Islam. During my 22 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 SMSes 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?

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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 practising 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 one thing: yoga practices have been part of South-East 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 practised as far back as the Sanjaya and Sailendra dynasties. Today picit and urut are still popular among Malaysian and Indonesian Muslims, and is practised by Muslims. Has this ancient form of therapy transformed us into Hindus too? Certainly not; so why the fuss over Yoga?

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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 19, 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 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.

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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 have 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.

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