KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia – Malaysia’s top Islamic body issued an edict Saturday that prohibits Muslims from practicing yoga, saying that elements of Hinduism in the ancient Indian exercise could corrupt them.
The National Fatwa Council’s chairman, Abdul Shukor Husin, said many Muslims fail to understand that yoga’s ultimate aim is to be one with a god of a different religion – an explanation disputed by many practitioners who say yoga need not have a religious element.
“We are of the view that yoga, which originates from Hinduism, combines physical exercise, religious elements, chanting and worshipping for the purpose of achieving inner peace and ultimately to be one with god,” Abdul Shukor said.
News of the yoga ban prompted activist Marina Mahathir to wonder what the council will ban next: “What next? Gyms? Most gyms have men and women together. Will that not be allowed anymore?”
The edict reflects the growing influence of conservative Islam in Malaysia, a multiethnic country of 27 million people where the majority Muslim Malays lost seats in March elections and where minority ethnic Chinese and mostly Hindu ethnic Indians have been clamoring for more rights.
Recently, the council said girls who act like boys violate Islam’s tenets. The government has also occasionally made similar conservative moves, banning the use of the word “Allah” by non-Muslims earlier this year, saying it would confuse Muslims.
Analysts say the fatwa could be the result of insecurity among Malay Muslims after their party – in power since 1957 – saw its parliamentary majority greatly reduced in elections because of gains by multiracial opposition parties.
Malay Muslims make up about two-thirds of the country’s 27 million people. About 25 percent of the population is ethnic Chinese and 8 percent is ethnic Indian, most of whom are Hindu.
“They are making a stand. They are saying ‘we will not give way,’ ” said Ooi Kee Beng, a fellow at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies in Singapore.
Decisions by Malaysia’s Fatwa Council are not legally binding on the country’s Muslims, however, unless they also become enshrined in national or sharia laws. But many Muslims abide by the edicts out of deference.