Memo from Kuala Lumpur
Many say it's a non-issue; Muslims in Malaysia now more willing to question clerics' rulings
By Hazlin Hassan
KUALA LUMPUR: In the past, it would have been inconceivable for most Malay Muslims to even dare to question a religious cleric.
But two highly controversial fatwas, or edicts, issued recently have sparked intense public debate over decisions made by the country's top religious body.
Malay Muslims in Malaysia are used to obeying their clerics and often believe that learned religious leaders know best.
But times seem to have changed.
When the National Fatwa Council banned tomboyish behaviour and the wearing of trousers by women in a bid to prohibit lesbian sex, there were murmurings of unease among moderate urban Malays. The edict, issued on Oct 23, was largely ignored.
Fatwas are not legally binding unless gazetted by a state as syariah, or Islamic, law. Once they are gazetted, the state religious authorities such as the Selangor State Religious Department will enforce such laws. However, many Muslims traditionally obey such edicts out of deference, even if they are not gazetted.
But when the council barred yoga, an increasingly fashionable form of exercise favoured by many well-to-do urban Malays, it sparked a huge uproar.
Rights groups and yoga practitioners criticised the move, and even studiously reticent royal rulers weighed in on the debate.
It would seem that urban Malays are now less likely to take the word of religious clerics and have no qualms challenging their authority.
The yoga ban sparked not just widespread criticism, but also confusion among state fatwa councils, some of which are now unsure if they should gazette the fatwa and make it law.
The confusion stems partly from the Sultan of Selangor's rebuke of the National Fatwa Council for issuing the edict. He also said that all nine royal rulers, who are seen in the country as upholders of the faith, should have been consulted.
The entire debacle was triggered after a lecturer at Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia advised Muslims to stop practising yoga, saying its Hindu influences contradicted their Islamic faith.
The national council said it then decided to carry out a study on yoga before issuing the fatwa.
But it is unclear what exactly was studied. If council members had visited yoga centres, they would have found that most of those in Kuala Lumpur are staunchly secular. Classes take place in air-conditioned halls in trendy, expensive gyms with nary a Hindu 'Om' or chant to be heard. Like everybody else, Muslims do yoga as just one of the many ways to de-stress.
I, too, was taken aback by the ruling, but for selfish reasons. Having managed to evade exercise for much of my life, I had, over the last five years, become fond of the low-impact and deceptively easy exercise.
For one thing, it did not put too much strain on my joints. But it was surprisingly effective. I found I became much more flexible and more relaxed. My yoga instructor certainly did not make me chant any Hindu prayers, and we were never instructed to 'become one with God', one of the reasons, it seems, that prompted the council to order the ban. We were told to envision anything we fancied during meditation, be it the deep blue ocean or a majestic mountain top.
I certainly never felt the urge to convert to Hinduism just because I was doing a downward dog movement. We did sun salutations too, certainly without facing or worshipping the sun.
Some commentators have pointed out that Muslims did not need to resort to yoga to deviate from their faith if they were already so inclined. Others noted that exercises such as qigong and taiji had roots in Buddhism.
Many more wondered whether the energy the council expended on banning yoga could have been used to tackle bigger and more pressing issues, such as corruption and poverty.
Now, urban Muslims are demanding to know the council's methods in researching and deciding on fatwas.
Ms Aspara Rusli, a 30-year-old businesswoman who took up yoga in March, felt that the clerics should have attended a few yoga classes to find out if they were indeed advocating Hinduism.
'If they actually attended my classes and did some yoga themselves, then they would see it is not a big issue,' she said.
Some say the council should be more transparent in issuing edicts.
Others were reminded of a previous fatwa against Muslim women participating in beauty pageants, which came to light only after a raid in 1997. Several young women were handcuffed, thrown into a lock-up, and brought to trial for the offence.
Malaysians were incredulous at the harsh way the women were treated, and worse still, at the fact that few knew the fatwa existed.
Even then-prime minister Mahathir Mohamad said he felt the action against the women was harsh and degrading. He was promptly labelled an apostate by some muftis.
As for the yoga fatwa, the depth of the divisions over the issue was revealed when one mufti expressed his disagreement. Perlis Mufti Asri Zainul Abidin said fatwas announced in this day and age should not be too rigid. He also said the council should have offered an alternative version of yoga.
Indeed, Muslim yoga practitioners are probably thinking the same thing, that a 'halal' form of yoga should be identified and established so that more compliant Muslims would not be confused.
But for now, many yoga practitioners are likely to ignore the fatwa. Conservatives will continue to frown on them and insist Muslims should not question the judgments of learned clerics.
A 60-year-old Malay woman, who practises yoga to ease her high blood pressure and vertigo, said she wrestled with the dilemma initially.
'Suddenly, I was unsure of myself. Is yoga really that sinful?' asked the wealthy housewife, who was pious, prayed five times a day, and had gone on pilgrimages to Mecca several times.
But after Prime Minister Abdullah Badawi said it was acceptable to continue with yoga, minus the chanting, she felt better and is back to her stretching and breathing exercises.
So things are back to normal for many yoga lovers. But what has changed is Muslims' willingness to let clerics' rulings go unquestioned.
[Common sense strikes back!]