Fatwa or no, yoga event goes on in Bali
By Peter Gelling
Monday, March 9, 2009
DENPASAR, Indonesia: One month after the top Muslim clerical body in Indonesia
issued a fatwa condemning yoga, the island of Bali is holding an international
festival celebrating the ancient practice.
It is the second time in recent months that the predominantly Hindu island in
this Muslim-majority country has staged such open opposition to rulings by the
Ulema Council, a quasi-governmental body that issues legally nonbinding - but
still influential - religious edicts.
In October, after the Indonesia Parliament passed broad anti-pornography
legislation, which was first championed by the Ulema Council and included
limits on dancing and dress, Balinese erupted in anger, fearing many of their
traditional rituals would be considered illegal. Thousands marched through the
streets and Bali's governor, Made Mangku Pastika, declared that he would not
enforce the law.
Though about 90 percent of Indonesians are Muslim, the country is made up of
hundreds of distinct ethnic and cultural groups. Islam itself comes in many
different forms here. The religious and governmental authorities on the island
of Java, Indonesia's most populous island and the country's center of power,
are often accused of being insensitive to these differing cultures.
Some analysts even suggest that legislation like the anti-pornography bill and
other rulings influenced by Islam would alienate these groups and threaten
national unity. When the Balinese, along with people in Sulawesi and Papua,
protested the pornography bill last year, they held signs calling for increased
autonomy from the central government in Jakarta.
The council most recently riled groups outside Java when, in January, it posted
a package of fatwas that, among other things, deemed yoga exercises
incorporating Hindu chanting or rituals a sin.
It followed similar fatwas issued in Egypt and Malaysia. In all three
countries, the religious leaders said they were concerned that practicing yoga
could cause Muslims to deviate from Islamic teachings.
"Muslims should not practice other religious rituals because it will weaken
their faith," the council chairman, Ma'ruf Amin, said shortly after the fatwa
The Bali-India Foundation, which is sponsoring the festival here, estimates
that 10 million people across Indonesia practice yoga in one form or another,
mostly for its physical benefits. Though yoga is most popular in Bali, yoga
centers have sprung up in all major Indonesian cities.
Sholahudin al-Ayubi, a member of the Ulema Council who was in charge of
investigating its stance on yoga, said that while yoga could be spiritually
hazardous, practicing it purely for health reasons was acceptable. "What could
be a problem for Muslims is if they practice yoga as part of a religious
ritual, using Hindu mantras or Hindu prayers," he said by telephone last week.
The Bali-India Foundation has about 350 students, many of them Muslim, said
Somvir, who goes by only one name and is the director of the foundation. In
fact, he said that the fatwa had only increased interest in yoga, noting that
since the end of January, sales of a yoga manual he wrote had more than
doubled. More than 600 people, including Bali's governor, attended the
festival's opening ceremony.
"Yoga is a strong concept - we are not afraid or concerned about the fatwa,"
Somvir, who met with Ayubi before the fatwa was published, said in an interview
at the festival, which ends Tuesday. "Yoga's very meaning is 'unity' and it is
open to all faiths."
The festival was originally organized as a means of promoting spiritual tourism
on Bali, before the fatwa was released. But Somvir and other organizers say it
has provided an opportunity to respond publicly to the council's edict. Several
Islamic scholars are participating in the conference.
Salman Harun, a professor at State Islamic University in Jakarta, said in a
discussion on religious pluralism that he thought the council's fatwa was
unnecessary. "Many of the movements done while praying in Islam are very
similar to yoga, and most Muslims would agree that the moves are beneficial to
our health," he said.
Like all philosophies and religions, Somvir said, yoga has experienced numerous
accretions over the centuries and, as a result, is embraced by many Hindus as a
part of their religion. But in yoga's original teachings, there are no mentions
of Hindu rituals or phrases, he said.
Somvir said discussions at the festival would aim to overcome the misconception
that practicing yoga would "affect Islam negatively."
"I think it would be the opposite," he said. "Yoga is meant to enhance one's
health and spiritualism. Yoga transcends religion. I would criticize any
teachers that teach yoga in the name of religion."
To this end, Somvir said he was encouraging his students to hum when meditating
instead of the more traditional "ohm," which has Hindu origins and could run
counter to the Ulema Council's edict.