Exercised over yoga in Malaysia
Malaysia’s prime minister declared on Wednesday that Muslims can after all practice the Indian exercise regime, so long as they avoid the meditation and chantings that reflect Hindu philosophy. This came after Malaysia’s National Fatwa Council told Muslims to roll up their exercise mats and stop contorting their limbs because yoga could destroy the faith of Muslims.
It has been a tough month for the fatwa council chairman, Abdul Shukor Husin, who in late October issued an edict against young women wearing trousers, saying that was a slippery path to
lesbianism. Gay sex is outlawed in Malaysia.
The council’s rulings, and other religious controversies, might at first blush seem to indicate a growing strain of conservative Islam in mostly Muslim Malaysia. But it could also
reflect the growing unease of Islamic authorities in defending the faith in a rapidly modernising Malaysia where non-Muslims constitute 40 percent of the population and are increasingly
asserting their rights.
The yoga fatwa stirred up a hornet’s next, not only in the blogosphere where that could be expected, but in another deeply conservative Malaysian institution — the sultans. Sultan Sharafuddin Idris Shah, who presides ceremonially over the central state of Selangor, said Abdul’s fatwa council should have consulted the nine hereditary Malay rulers who take turns being Malaysia’s king before announcing the ruling. The highly unusual comment from one of the sultans on a
policy matter suggests some discord about who speaks for Malaysia’s Muslims on matters of faith. Islam is the official religion in multi-religious Malaysia and the constitution designates the nine sultans as guardians of the faith. The (rotating) king is the head of Islam in Malaysia.
The sultans, for their part, have seen what remains of their secular powers eroded over the years, particularly under the two-decade administration of former prime minister Mahathir
Mohamad. They could be defending a last bastion of royal prerogoative in the religious arena.
Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badaw, who has been preaching a moderate brand of Islam called Islam Hadhari, moved to contain the damage saying Muslims can do exercises like the “sun
salutation” so long as they don’t start chanting.
The fatwa council’s rulings, in any case, are not legally binding until they are adopted as national laws or sharia (Islamic) laws in individual states. There seems to be little appetite for that. No laws have been made against young women wearing trousers. The government in May dropped a proposal to restrict women from travelling abroad by themselves after a storm of derision from women activist groups.
But even as the flap over yoga is relaxing, the government is crossing swords with Christian groups.
A Christian federation claimed Bibles were seized at entry points earlier this year. Malaysian Catholics are having an ontological argument with the authorities about the word “Allah”.
The government banned the Malay-language section of a Catholic weekly newspaper from using the word, saying it creates confusion among Muslims. Catholics say Allah is simply the Arabic word for
“God”, and has long been used in Malay-language Bibles. (A Dutch bishop has stirred debate in Europe with a similar argument)
Non-muslims, who constitute 40 percent of Malaysia’s population, sometimes worry that things such as the fuss over fatwas and words for God, may augur a mini-clash of civilisations in Malaysia, which last year saw a harsh crackdown on Indian rights protesters. It was one year ago that 10,000 ethnic Indians defied tear gas and waterr cannon to voice complaints of racial and religious discrimination in its biggest ever anti-government street protest.