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 
was issued.

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.

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