[Image from TIME, a yoga class in Tehran]
The Daily Times reported today that Islamic scholars in India, including those at the Darul Uloom Deoband, “say they do not object to Muslims practicing yoga, contrary to a recent decision by Malaysian clerics to ban yoga for Muslims.” Maulana Abdul Khaliq Madrasi, deputy vice-chancellor of the Darul Uloom, told an Indian news agency, “Yoga is a good form of exercise. If some words, which are supposed to be chanted while performing it, have religious connotations, then Muslims need not utter those. They can instead recite verses from the Quran, praise God or remain silent.” The Times of India cited a spokesman for the Darul Uloom, who added, “If you observe closely ‘namaz‘ [prayer], which every Muslim is expected to perform five times a day, is itself a sort of yoga and plays an important role in keeping a person healthy.”
The debate and controversy over Muslims and yoga began last year, when Malaysia’s top Islamic body, the National Fatwa Council, issued a fatwa banning it, “saying that it combines elements of physical exercise and chanting of religious mantras.” According to a TIME magazine blog, the council claimed “that the sweaty ‘Oms’ and other Hindu elements of a standard 60-minute yoga class could ‘destroy the faith of a Muslim.'” This past week, prior to the Deoband announcement, Indonesia‘s Islamic body followed the Malaysian example, issuing a similar edict banning yoga’s practice.
A Guardian columnist echoed my sentiments exactly when he noted, “The MUI’s [Indonesian] fatwa reflects a creeping conservatism influenced by an increasingly vocal extremist fringe, in a country where most observe a moderate brand of Islam.” In my opinion, fatwas are often used by religious councils to exert greater influence over the personal lives of local citizens. Edicts regarding the education of girls, [hello, Swat] or health policies are obviously much more serious than those banning exercise. However, the yoga fatwa is ludicrous because it’s so trivial, and because it could ultimately undermine the credibility of these councils. Yoga has become such an intrinsic part of pop culture that I am certain very few people realize its religious connotations. In fact, noted the aforementioned TIME blogger, “Muslims, at least those of the Middle East, have been practicing yoga widely since the mid 1990s, and in some countries the exercise is now as commonplace as it is in blue-state America.” Thank God the Deoband seminary didn’t give in to such melodrama. I don’t think my chakra could take it.