Friday, 30 January 2009

Islam and Yoga: The Perfect Union?

Islam, yoga practice, and religious essentialism

by Muhamad Ali, Riverside, California

The recent banning through a fatwa by the Ulema Councils in Malaysia and in Indonesia (Majelis Ulama Indonesi, MUI) of a particular form of yoga, the one with "Hindu elements", poses some questions regarding the relationship between Islam, Hinduism, and other religions, and is filled with unnecessary essentialisms that have preoccupied Muslim scholars and society at large.

Understandably the fatwa was an attempt of some of the ulemas dominating the Council to guard the faith of the Islamic community from "corruption" and "heresies".

Fatwas, although not legally binding to Muslims, are heard and followed by many Muslims who feel they need practical guidance from religious authorities.

In Indonesia, the MUI has served that purpose from 1975 to date, with much controversy about their existence and their role in the country.

The fatwa on yoga demonstrates that a religion is inherently pure, without any outside influences. It implies that Islam is pure, and its purity should be maintained.

The current discourse and the fatwa on yoga have overlooked the fact that Islam is historically and religiously diverse and complex; and yoga is also a very complex idea and practice.

The banning of a particular form of yoga for Muslims ignores the similarities and interaction between some forms of Sufism and some forms of yoga throughout history.

Yoga has been viewed and practiced in different and changing ways.

In Sanskrit, yoga can mean "to unite" or "to control". It can be related to action, devotion, or knowledge. As a concept and practice, yoga has become not uniquely Hindu; it prevails in Buddhism, Christianity, Islam, and other religions.

And it has become popular among many people today without any religious affiliation. Among Sufi Muslims, there are such yogic-like practices as recitation (zikir), invocation (doa) and exercise (riyadha) as part of their methods (suluks).

There is some ambivalence among those ulemas who tend to see purification as their major concern.

They ignore the fact that many ideas from the Koran and prophet Muhammad have influenced those who are not institutionally part of the Muslim community.

For example, Sufi Jalaluddin Rumi has been influential in the US, Europe and Australia; the so-called "non-Muslims" have learned much from Rumi without necessarily being "Muslim" if this term refers to a person who follows Muhammad as the main model.

Many of the verses that Rumi uses in his poems are Koranic and derived from Muhammad's sayings and traditions, but "non-Muslims" do not necessarily consider these as corrupting their religious beliefs or unbelief (Catholic, Jewish, Hindus, Buddhist, etc).

It is theologically unfair to appreciate one's tradition influencing others while not appreciating other traditions influencing yours.

On the other hand, there is a curious question regarding the Council's differentiation between what is religious and what is not religious. The ban was directed at yoga which involves Hindu chanting and ritual.

Yoga aimed at physical health and mental discipline is permissible. Here we see how religion has been defined as exclusively ritualistic. Physical health is not considered religious.

This is very interesting because the ulemas are used to defining Islam as a complete way of life, which includes the maintenance of physical health. They must be aware that the Koran and Muhammad's traditions talk about maintaining physical health and mental discipline by various means.

It seems that the ulemas of the Council believe that the means of keeping a Muslim healthy can be anything, including yoga, but the one without other "religious" elements.

By allowing physical discipline and banning mental and spiritual discipline, the ulemas seem to distinguish belief from practice, mind from body movement. They usually do not want to make distinctions between belief and practice, mind and body movement.

A more fundamental issue, I think, is the scholarly and popularly held view about the contradiction between Islam and Hinduism. Islam has been believed to be monotheistic, whereas Hinduism polytheistic, and therefore both are inherently antagonistic.

This is a simplification of the long and complex history of what we label Islam and Hinduism. There were Muslims, either Sufis, philosophers, scholars, or lay people, who practiced the traditions of India - later called "Hinduism" - without seeing contradictions.

Abu Rayhan Al-Biruni, a Persian philosopher and scientist of the 11th century, for example, in his Kitab al-Hind, studied the Ramayana and the Mahabharata and appreciated the Hindu philosophical and spiritual system. Based on Hindu texts, Al-Biruni regarded Hinduism as monotheistic because not all Hindus worship multiple gods.

For example, many Hindus regard God is one, eternal, without beginning and end, acting by freewill, almighty, all-wise, living, giving life, ruling, preserving, unique, and so forth. These are some of the divine qualities not unlike the beautiful 99 attributes of God (asma al-husna) as described in the Koran.

In India, there were some Arab rulers, such as Muhammad Ibn Qasim, who saw Hindus as ahl al-kitab (people of the books) because they had scriptures - from the Vedas, Upanishads, and Bhagavad Ghita, among others. Thus, it is a gross simplification of belief among most Muslims - and most monotheists - to view Hinduism as of polytheism and idolatry.

There are many Hindus who only worship and give reverence to one supreme power - either Vishnu or Shiva - or their manifestations avatar or Brahman (in the Upanishad). Muslims also discuss some ideas of karma and reincarnation.

There are Sufis who do not see Hindus as necessarily kafir, usually defined as "non-believers", because Hindus believe in God and have divine scriptures.

Indonesian Muslims are actually well-known for their long history of religious and cultural accommodation with animistic, Hindu, and Buddhist ideas - including stories of the Ramayana and Mahabharata.

And this has become one of the major factors that facilitate the transmission and localization of Islam in many parts of the archipelago. Religious diversity and interpenetration between ideas and practices need be seen as a strength rather than weakness.

When relating to other religions, the ulemas have a responsibility to understand the complex and different and shared aspects of religions and not be satisfied with unnecessary oversimplifications and essentialism.

There is today a greater responsibility for those who claim themselves as ulemas to reform themselves by broadening their perspectives. In fact, the Koran defines the ulemas as those who are learned in various different disciplines, not simply the so-called traditional revealed knowledge.

The Council's fatwas are one among many voices of Islamic interpretation in Indonesia.

In fact, religious authority has become increasingly diverse and dispersed; and more and more people are being educated through the increasing means of learning and communication. These fatwas, like others, should remain voices in the public sphere, and hopefully will not be linked to any political or legal institution that would enforce them.

The writer teaches Islam and Asian religions. He is currently an assistant professor at the University of California, Riverside.