Malaysia's top Islamic body, fresh from banning tomboys, issued an edict Saturday that prohibits Muslims from practicing yoga, saying that elements of Hinduism in the ancient Indian exercise could corrupt them.
The National Fatwa Council's chairman, Abdul Shukor Husin, said many Muslims fail to understand that yoga's ultimate aim is to be one with a god of a different religion — an explanation disputed by many practitioners who say yoga need not have a religious element.
"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," Abdul Shukor said.
News of the yoga ban prompted activist Marina Mahathir to wonder what the council will ban next: "What next? Gyms? Most gyms have men and women together. Will that not be allowed any more?"
The edict reflects the growing influence of conservative Islam in Malaysia, a multiethnic country of 27 million people where the majority Muslim Malays lost seats in March elections and where minority ethnic Chinese and mostly Hindu ethnic Indians have been clamoring for more rights.
Recently, the council said girls who act like boys violate Islam's tenets. The government has also occasionally made similar conservative moves, banning the use of the word "Allah" by non-Muslims earlier this year, saying it would confuse Muslims.
'Making a stand'
Analysts say the fatwa could be the result of insecurity among Malay Muslims after their party — in power since 1957 — saw its parliamentary majority greatly reduced in elections because of gains by multiracial opposition parties.
Malay Muslims make up about two-thirds of the country's 27 million people. About 25 percent of the population is ethnic Chinese and 8 percent is ethnic Indian, most of whom are Hindu.
"They are making a stand. They are saying 'we will not give way,'" said Ooi Kee Beng, a fellow at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies in Singapore.
Decisions by Malaysia's Fatwa Council are not legally binding on the country's Muslims, however, unless they also become enshrined in national or Shariah laws. But many Muslims abide by the edicts out of deference, but some, like Putri Rahim, plan not to follow the latest fatwa.
"I am mad! Maybe they have it in mind that Islam is under threat. To come out with a fatwa is an insult to intelligent Muslims. It's an insult to my belief," said Putri, a Muslim who has practiced yoga for 10 years.
In recent years, yoga — a collection of spiritual and physical practices, aimed at integrating mind, body and spirit — has been increasingly practiced in gyms and dedicated yoga centers around the world.
There are no figures for how many Muslims practice yoga in Malaysia, but many yoga classes have Muslims attending.
Yoga under fire
In the United States, where it has become so popular that many public schools began offering it in gym classes, yoga has also come under fire.
Some Christian fundamentalists and even secular parents have argued that yoga's Hindu roots conflict with Christian teachings and that using it in school might violate the separation of church and state. Egypt's highest theological body also banned yoga for Muslims in 2004.
Yoga drew the attention of the Fatwa Council last month when an Islamic scholar said that it was un-Islamic.
A top yoga practitioner in India, Mani Chaitanya, said the Malaysian clerics seem to have "misunderstood the whole thing." Chanting during yoga is to calm the mind and "elevate our consciousness," said Chaitanya, the director of the Sivananda Ashram in New Delhi.
"It is not worship. It's not religious at all. Yoga is universal. All religions can practice yoga. You can practice yoga and still be a good Christian or a good Muslim," he said.
Malaysian yoga teacher Suleiha Merican, 56, who has been practicing yoga for 40 years, also denied there is any Hindu spiritual element to it. "It's a great health science that is scientifically proven and many countries have accepted it" as alternative therapy, said Merican, a Muslim.