Sultan steps into Malaysia yoga row

Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia - An influential Malaysian royal has stepped into a controversy involving a religious edict by the country's top Islamic body banning Muslims from practising yoga, a form of exercise rooted in Hinduism.

In comments bordering on a rebuke, Sultan Sharafuddin Idris Shah, who rules the central state of Selangor, said the body should have first consulted the nine hereditary Malay rulers before announcing the edict, or fatwa.

The sultan's unprecedented public comment on the issue has suggested deep divisions over who can speak for Malaysia's Muslim majority on matters of faith.

In remarks come after Malaysia's National Fatwa Council declared the practice of yoga prohibited, or haram, saying that it could be traced back to Hinduism and could erode the faith of Muslims.

In his statement, Sharafuddin said he hoped "that in future, any fatwa decision that touches on issues involving the general public should be referred to the Conference of Rulers to be approved first before it is announced".

"This is to ensure that the process of channelling the fatwa decision is implemented wisely to avoid any confusion and controversy," the Selangor ruler said.

Guardians of Islam

Sharafuddin and the other eight Malay sultans of nine Malaysian states form the Conference of Rulers, each taking turns to be the country's king.

They are considered the guardians of Islam and occupy a largely ceremonial and titular position but command great respect among Muslims.

The king is seen as the supreme upholder of Malay tradition and nation's symbolic head of Islam, while the sultans occupy that position in their own respective states.

The edict on yoga has angered many Muslims in Malaysia's plural society who said they have been performing yoga for years without losing their faith.

However, Abdul Shukor Husin, the chairman of the fatwa council, was quoted in a local English daily on Sunday as saying that many Malaysian Muslims failed to understand the ultimate aim of yoga.

"It combines physical movements, religious elements, chanting and worshipping for the purpose of achieving inner peace and ultimately to be one with God," he told reporters when announcing the ruling, the New Straits Times reported.

The fatwa council's rulings are not legally binding on the country's Muslims until they are incorporated into national laws or Islamic sharia laws of individual states.

Commenting on the edict, Sharafuddin said that yoga activities in the state would be discussed "in greater detail" by Selangor fatwa committee before the ban is enforced to ensure that "a decision is not made hastily".

None of the other sultans – including Sultan Mizan Zainal Abidin, the current king – have yet commented publicly on the yoga ban.