KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia – Malaysia's top Islamic body on Saturday banned Muslims from practicing yoga, saying the Indian physical exercise contains elements of Hinduism and could corrupt Muslims.
The National Fatwa Council, which has the authority to rule on how Muslims must conduct their faith, issued a fatwa, or edict, saying yoga involves not just physical exercise but also includes Hindu spiritual elements, chanting and worship.
Council chairman Abdul Shukor Husin told reporters that many Muslims who practice the globally popular yoga failed to understand that its ultimate aim was to be one with a god of a different religion.
"We are of the view that yoga, which originates from Hinduism, combines physical exercise, religious elements, chanting and worshipping for the purpose of achieving inner peace and ultimately to be one with god," he said.
"It is inappropriate. It can destroy the faith of a Muslim," he said.
The Fatwa Council's decisions are not legally binding on Muslims, who comprise nearly two-thirds of Malaysia's 27 million people, unless they are enshrined in national or Shariah laws.
However, many Muslims abide by the edicts out of deference, and the council does have the authority to ostracize an offending Muslim from society.
The fatwa reflects the growing strain of conservatism in Malaysia, which has always taken pride in its multiethnicity. About 25 percent of Malaysians are ethnic Chinese and 8 percent ethnic Indians, mostly Hindus.
Recently, the council issued an edict banning tomboys, ruling that girls who act like boys violate the tenets of Islam.
The issue of yoga came into the limelight last month when an Islamic scholar expressed an opinion at a seminar that it was un-Islamic, prompting the Fatwa Council to step in.
Local newspapers have received several letters from Muslims, expressing indignation at the scholar's view, saying yoga is simply a way to maintain health and has nothing to do with religion.
There are no figures for how many Muslims practice yoga, but many yoga classes have a sprinkling of Muslims attending.
In a recent blog, social activist Marina Mahathir criticized the council for even considering a yoga ban, calling it "a classic case of reacting out of fear and ignorance."
"Yoga may have spiritual roots but most of us do it for the exercise, both for the mind and body," Marina wrote.