Many news stories linking yoga and the Muslim faith have concerned bans, or Fatwas, Islamic scholars have placed on the practice and the controversy these have caused. The clerics believe yoga’s Hindu roots could detract Muslims from their faith, while many devout Muslims feel their faith is not so easily eroded. The wave of public outcry has helped to keep the physical practices allowable, and the benefits of this secular, science-based approach continue to draw Muslims to yoga.
Much of the controversy began in 2008, when the National Fatwa Council of Malaysia declared a ban on yoga. Although a Fatwa is not legally binding and is generally described as a suggestion, disobedience is a sin. The announcement angered many Muslims who had been practicing yoga for years. Sultan Sharafuddin (hereditary ruler of Selangor) also took offense, and declared that all future Fatwa Council decisions “involving the general public” should be pre-approved by the Conference of Rulers to ensure wise implementation. His strong public rebuke marked the first time a sultan criticized a decision of the Council.
Much to the relief of Muslim yogis, the Malaysian Prime Minister also got involved, easing the tension by declaring that only chanting was banned, not the practice of yoga as exercise. A similar decision was announced a year later by Indonesian clerics who banned chanting and mantra recitation, but allowed for yoga to be practiced “purely as a sport or a means of exercise”.
In India Muslim yoga instructor Mehboob Qureshi, is trying to change unfavorable perceptions by introducing yoga to Muslims. He recently led an eight-day yoga camp, held in Juhapura’s Muskaan Garden in Ahmedabad, Gujarat, India, organized by the Society for Promoting Rationality (SPRAT). The group consisted of thirty-five Muslim men and women, and included twelve women who practiced in burqas. Qureshi, stated it was the largest group that has ever gathered to practice yoga in the largely Muslim Juhapura area.
Qureshi, who was introduced to yoga by his Judo coach after suffering an injury, teaches yoga as a science. While his secular approach made the practice more accessible to the participants, he also believes that “mindsets are changing…and people from across religions are more receptive to yoga”.
The participants left excited to learn more about yoga. One woman stated, “There is so much to learn from this science. We have been unaware of its benefits for so long.” Another dismisses the idea that yoga was ever contradictory for Muslims, saying “hopefully, the wrong notions people have will slowly fade.”
Inspired people such as these, who are dedicated to their religion as well as their yoga practice, are instrumental in demonstrating to scholars and other Muslims that the two can co-exist and flourish.