Malaysia: The Yoga Debate

Updated On: Dec 02, 2008

Malaysia’s fatwa council issued a blanket ban on the practice of yoga, deeming it ‘haram’ (forbidden, for Muslims). The fatwa council believed that the practice of yoga would lead Muslims to deviate from Islamic teachings; based on the primary argument that the Hindu prayers incorporated in yoga could erode Muslims’ faith. Fatwas (religious edicts) are not legally-binding, but are highly influential.

The decision drew sharp rebuke from many Muslims, especially young Muslim women who contended that the fatwa council was trying to micro-manage the lives of the Muslims in the country.

However, Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi told the national news agency Bernama that “I wish to state that a physical regime with no elements of worship can continue, meaning, [the practice of yoga] is not banned. I believe that Muslims are not easily swayed into polytheism”.

This debate has brought two issues into question.

First, it seems as if the government and the Islamic scholars are vying for control in religiously-diverse Malaysia. The fatwa’s decision also drew sharp rebukes from Malaysia’s sultans, who said that they should be consulted on any matters involving Islam. "Islam is a progressive religion and the ulama (scholars) should be confident of the followers' faith rather than micro-managing their way of life," Tunku Naquiyuddin, the eldest son of the ruler of the central Negeri Sembilan state, explained. He wanted the government to task over the yoga ruling.

Second, in macro-perspective, many have contended that beyond the subject of yoga per se, this debate is truly a subset of the issue on the widening gap between the conservative – in this particular aspect, the National Fatwa Council specifically – and liberal Muslims in Malaysia. The latter are “appealing to the national religious council to stop micromanaging their way of life”; whereas the former, comprising Islamic scholars, is concerned that the traditional institution’s authority would be gradually undermined.

So what does the future hold for the practice of yoga? Mr. Moaveni sums it up aptly:

“[The place of yoga … will not be shifted by the fatwa] those who practice will practice, the super-pious will frown, and the anxious minority will pose questions like this one, which appeared on the site Ummah.com: "But what if someone starts a business, e.g. a spa, which offers yoga?”

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Goh, Melissa, “Malaysia abuzz with debate about the practice of yoga” dated December 2, 2008 in ChannelNewsAsia.com [retrieved December 2, 2008], available at  http://www.channelnewsasia.com/stories/southeastasia/view/393443/1/.html

Hamid, Jalil, “Malaysia Backs Down From Yoga Ban Amid Backlash” dated November 26, 2008 in ABCNews.go.com [retrieved December 2, 2008], availablehttp://www.abcnews.go.com/Health/wireStory?id=6336659

Moaveni, Azadeh, “Should a Pious Muslim Practice Yoga?” dated November 30, 2008 in Time.com [retrieved December 2, 2008], available athttp://www.time.com/time/world/article/0,8599,1862306,00.html

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