Disclaimer: The author of this post is not a faqeeh nor claims to be. However, this post was reviewed by someone qualified in the field. Please do not inundate the author with hate mail or requests for fataawah.
To yoga or not to yoga, that is the question… a fatwa issued in Malaysia, suggesting that yoga be banned in the country, has sparked discussion, debate, and exasperation with people making life more complicated than it is.
But before we dive into the juicy halaal-haraam stuff, let’s get an idea of what we’re talking about anyway.
What Is Yoga?
An overview of this Wikipedia article, as well as a quick reference with Shaykh Google, will show that “yoga” is a term with various definitions.
Halaal, Haraam, or Makrooh?
It should be made clear from the outset that the second definition of yoga – the physical exercises – and not the first, is what the difference of opinion is about. Without a doubt, the original form of yoga as a Hindu religious practice is clearly haraam.
That being said, there are two opinions regarding the permissibility of this physical manifestation of yoga: that it is haraam, and that it is halaal.
Those of the former opinion base it on the fact that it comes from shirki origins (Hinduism) and that the entire practice is built upon this foundation of shirk – that is, concentrating one’s thoughts and actions on a metaphysical being and attempting to ‘unite’ with it.
In this case, they follow the opinion that if the origins of any action or custom are from religions other than Islam, then that matter becomes haraam as it resembles the acts of another religion. This opinion is drawn from ahadeeth in which the Prophet (sallallaahu ‘alayhi wa sallam) expressed disapproval for customs or practices which were well-known in the Days of Jaahiliyyah.
One such hadeeth is that of Thabit ibn Adh-Dhahhak that he said: “A man vowed to sacrifice a camel at a place called Buwanah, and he asked the Prophet (sallAllaahu ‘alayhi wa sallam) about it. He said to him: “Does the place contain any of the idols from the time of the Jahiliyyah?” They said: “No.” He then asked: “Did the disbelievers hold any of their (religious) festivals there?” They replied: “No.” So the Messenger of Allah (sallAllaahu ‘alayhi wa sallam) said: “Then fulfill your vow, for verily, vows which entail disobedience to Allah or that which is beyond the capacity of the son of Adam should not be fulfilled.” (Narrated by Abu Dawood, with a Sanad that meets the conditions of acceptance laid down by Bukhari and Muslim)
As well, it is more than just an issue of fiqh for followers of this opinion; indeed, it is an issue of ‘aqeedah. There is a concern that involvement in something which has even a minimal relationship with kufr will lead to interest and possibly even acceptance/ practice of shirki acts. Great care is placed on emphasizing and retaining the purity of tawheed, and this is certainly a commendable and praiseworthy thing. Hence, forbidding the practice of yoga also falls into the category of blocking the means to evil – in this case, preventing any chance that a Muslim’s emaan may be negatively affected.
It should be noted also that in the fataawah which believe that yoga is haraam, the emphasis is not on the physical exercise itself but the manner in which it is done (e.g. following the exact patterns and so on). What is most disliked is the imitation of that which is considered to be the “acts of worship” present in yoga (the chanting and order of certain motions). However, once these things are eliminated and only the exercise remains, the respected shuyookh have concluded that it can no longer be called yoga and is reduced to the category of physical activity in general. Again, this shows that the main concern is regarding anything which could be considered as a form of ‘ebaadah which contradicts the Shari’ah (i.e. shirk).
Those who consider yoga to be permissible point out that there are now literally tens of forms of yoga, which range from the overtly religious/ spiritual to the entirely secular (only physical exercises, no intoning of Sanskrit chants and such). The most common form is the physical, where the focus is on breathing patterns, flexibility, and general health.
In this case, yoga is placed under the category of mu’aamalaat (general actions) rather than that of ‘ebaadah (worship). Thus, the principle of everything is permissible until proven otherwise kicks into play.
It is argued that even if it began as something with haraam origins, the removal of any type of action or acknowledgement related to shirk renders the action as permissible. Comparisons are drawn towards the ruling on various martial arts, where the forbidden or doubtful elements are omitted and the entire activity revolves around permissible themes of physical exercise,discipline, respect, and so on.
Thus, it is concluded that the type of yoga which is permissible is that which does not include any of the shirki actions.
Careful analysis of the two opinions reveal several things of note:
• Both opinions base their rulings on accepted and valid principles. Differences of opinion will exist no matter what, and is something which has existed throughout the history of fiqh. We should respect this, not denigrate it, even if we disagree withthe other opinions.
• Both opinions show concern for the well-being of this Ummah: the first with regards to our strength of emaan and purity of tawheed, and the latter with regards to facilitating ease in our affairs. Contrary to what many may think, the first group is not out to “make everything wrong” and “stop us from doing anything even remotely fun;” nor are those of the second opinion “trying to make everything, even kufr, halaal.”
And Just to Make Things More Complicated…
Since the current buzz about yoga revolves around the specific incident in Malaysia, there is something else to note regarding the permissibility of the activity. Cultural issues, amongst other things, also play a major role in deciding such matters. One of those factors is the environment and society within which the issue in question is based. By this token, an action which may be halaal in one society may be considered haraam in another. Indeed, a fiqh principle which deals with the issue of cultural practices and their effect on legal rulings is that of “custom shall be given the status of law.”
Thus, before anyone jumps to criticize the Malaysian shuyookh who suggested banning yoga, we need to realize that in their social context, there may well be a serious concern about the method of its practice and subsequent effect on Muslims. For example, the link to Hinduism might be significantly pronounced in Malaysia and other Asian countries, to such a point that it also becomes a problem of “imitating the kuffaar” – which, it must be noted, is a relative matter dependant upon time, place, and situation. The Malaysian ‘ulamaa may have concluded that several such factors combined strongly suggest the impermissibility of yoga in their particular circumstance.
So What’s The Answer?!
The truth is, both rulings have great strength in them and it’s not easy to dismiss either of them. We know what they base their rulings on; it is now up to us as individuals to decide what we find closest to the truth. Rather than just asking, “Is it halaal or haraam?” we should instead ask ourselves, “Will this bring me closer to Allah? What benefit is there for me?” Certainly we will come to different conclusions. Some of us may still be wary of the potential ‘aqeedah issues; others amongst us may find that it’ll help in losing those pounds and thus contribute towards ease in doing more good deeds (e.g. more qiyaam al-layl!).
In the end, as with many other fiqhi issues, it’s ultimately up to us as individuals to go with what we believe is most correct and in line with the Qur’an and Sunnah. Let us also remember that in such grey areas many times we just have to agree to disagree, and not shove our opinions down others’ throats no matter how wrong (we think) they are.
May Allah guide us to that which is most correct and beloved to Him and make us of those who live our lives in a manner pleasing to Him, ameen.
Fatawaah on Yoga
Islamweb, IslamOnline, SunniPath, Dar al-Iftah