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.