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Saturday, November 22, 2008

Malaysian Fatwa Council deems Yoga (ancient form of exercise from India) 'haram'


PUTRAJAYA: The National Fatwa Council has declared that yoga is haram (prohibited) in Islam and Muslims are banned from practising it.

Its chairman Datuk Dr Abdul Shukor Husin said yoga had been practised by the Hindu community for thousands of years and incorporated physical movements, religious elements together with chants and worshipping, with the aim of “being one with God”.

“Because of this, we believe that it is inappropriate for Muslims to do yoga. The council is declaring that practising yoga, when it comes together with the three elements, is haram,” he told a press conference here yesterday.

He noted that while merely doing the physical movements of yoga without the worshipping and chanting might not be against religious beliefs, Muslims should avoid practising it altogether as “doing one part of yoga would lead to another”.

Muslims, he said, were discouraged from practising yoga even as a form of exercise as it would ultimately lead to worshipping and chanting, which is against Islam.

“In Islam, a believer must not do things that can erode one’s aqidah or faith. Doing yoga, even just the physical movements, is a step towards erosion of one’s faith in the religion, hence Muslims should avoid it,” he said.

Shukor said that once the fatwa was gazetted, it would be up to the state governments to implement and enforce the ruling as religious affairs come under their purview.

“Malaysia is not the only country which prohibits Muslims from doing yoga. Singapore and Egypt have come out with the same edict,” he pointed out.

The council, he said, came up with an edict on yoga as the matter was referred to it following growing concerns whether it would be against the religion if Muslims continued with the exercise.

Recently, Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia’s Islamic Studies Centre lecturer Prof Zakaria Stapa advised Muslims who had taken up yoga to stop practising it for fear that they could deviate from the teachings of Islam.

Shukor said the declaration of yoga as haram was done after serious and in-depth discussions among the council members who met last month.

He said that after studying the matter, including the history and purpose of yoga, the council decided that it was inappropriate for Muslims as it could affect one’s faith.

Asked if the decision would draw flak within the Malaysian community, including the non-Muslims, he said the ruling was only meant for Muslims. The rest were free to practise yoga.

He said Muslims must be careful not to do anything that could erode their faith, adding the religion strongly advocates “prevention is better than cure”.

“There are many other forms of exercise that Muslims can partake in, especially when the religion promotes healthy living and lifestyle. Performing prayers, for example, is a good form of exercise,” he said.

Fatwa Council under fire for banning yoga

One of country's highest Islamic bodies was under fire today after its chairperson said yoga was forbidden for Muslims because the practice would weaken religious faith.

Devotees of yoga and moderate Muslim groups criticised the ruling by Abdul Shukor Husin, head of the government-backed National Fatwa Council. Yoga is hugely popular in mostly-Muslim Malaysia.

"I don't think it had caused any Muslim to convert to Hinduism, neither has it weakened their faith," said Norhayati Kaprawi, an official with Sisters of Islam, an organisation which champions the rights of Muslim women.

"It is just an exercise like tai chi, which has its roots in Buddism," she told the Sunday Star newspaper. She said her group's staff had been holding yoga classes for the past year and that they would continue.

“I hope they can focus their attention on bigger and more pressing issues, such as money politics and corruption. Isn’t that more serious?” she asked.

Rulings by the Fatwa Council are not legally binding on the country's Muslims, and there are no laws to punish those who ignore Council decisions - but it is an enormously influential body.

Abdul Shukor decreed that yoga was forbidden because it involves the recitation of mantras and that it encourages a union with god that is considered blasphemy in Islam.

"The practice will erode their faith in the religion," he said on Saturday. "It does not conform with Islam."

Most unfortunate message

A veteran opposition lawmaker, Lim Kit Siang, said that the edict showed that Malaysia was heading towards a conservative type of Islam which could divide the multiracial country.

"It is sending a most unfortunate message that Malaysia, instead of moving towards a moderate and universal Islam, is moving towards an opposite direction which will create divisions," he told AFP.

Islam is the official religion of Malaysia, where more than 60 percent of the population of 27 million are Muslim Malays who practice a conservative brand of the faith.

About 25 percent of the population is ethnic Chinese and eight percent is ethnic Indian, most of whom are Hindus.

Yoga, an ancient Indian aid to meditation dating back thousands of years, is a popular stress-buster in the Malaysian capital Kuala Lumpur.

Muslim yoga teacher Siti Suheila Merican said that the physical movements were good for improving health.

"Worldwide it has been accepted as an excercise for health benefits," she was quoted as saying by the Star newspaper.

“It is a science of health that is time-tested and proven scientifically to be extremely effective. Many doctors in the West recommend yoga as an alternative therapy to medication,” she said.

M. Revathi, 40, who has been teaching yoga part-time for about 10 years, said some people mistook the names of the asanas (postures) as religious verses as they were in Sanskrit “but there’s nothing religious about the names.”

“As for the meditation part, it’s not religious either. I tell my students to relax and free their minds, and they can meditate in whatever language they like,” she said.

Cancer survivors dismayed by blanket ban on yoga

PETALING JAYA: Many Muslim cancer survivors who practise yoga to promote general wellbeing are disappointed and confused over the National Fatwa Council’s edict on the ancient form of exercise.

National Cancer Society of Malaysia’s advisor Datuk Zuraidah Atan said she had been inundated with calls from the survivors who were confused and apprehensive over the edict or fatwa.

“An overreaching fatwa like this is not good for them as unnecessary worry can have a negative effect on them psychologically and physically. Some are already feeling guilty for practising it.

“There is a need for the Fatwa Council to explain their edict properly so that Muslims who practise yoga, including cancer survivors are not made to feel guilty,” she said.

Zuraidah said the council organised a weekly free yoga session for cancer survivors, especially those who were over 40 as a form of relaxation and breathing exercise.

“Besides yoga, we also have qi gong sessions. Is the Fatwa Council going to ban qi gong, too, because it has its origins in Buddhism? Then how about line dancing? We also organise that as a form of light exercise for cancer survivors,” she said.

She said yoga, qi gong and line dancing were good for cancer survivors because they were group dynamics which also helped promote positive thinking and unity among survivors of different race and religion.

She said there were many levels of yoga and only yoga in its purest form involved religious chanting.

“Most Muslims know this. The yoga that is being taught in yoga centres nationwide only concentrates on techniques and has nothing to do with the promotion of Hinduism,” she added.

Hindu Sangam: Council being insensitive

Meanwhile, Malaysia Hindu Sangam president A Vaithilingam told Malaysiakini that the council's decision was an insult to all Malaysians.

"The Fatwa Council has every right to decide on what is right for the Muslims in Malaysia.

"But, it has no right to insult fellow Malaysians and declare a 5,000 year practice as ‘haram', even though it is for themselves," he said in a text message.

He also added that the council's stand that the Hinduism context in yoga ‘corrupts' Islam was another sensitive public statement.

"The Fatwa Council has not been sensitive to the feelings of the Hindus," he said. Later in a statement, Vaithilingam said that the Hindu Sangam respected the right of the Fatwa Council to give guidance for persons professing Islam on the tenets and practices of Islam.

"However, in doing so, they must respect the sensitivities and feelings of the other religions in Malaysia. Many Hindus have been deeply disturbed by the Fatwa Council's announcement," he said.

To call the ancient practice of yoga as ‘haram' and saying that it can ‘corrupt' a person was very hurtful and demeaning, he added.

He regretted that the council had not consulted the Hindu Sangam first so that "the religious and non religious aspects of yoga could have been explained to them".

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