Stretching Identity: Yoga and Islam ~ via Insiya Rasiwala-Finn.

Via on Jul 10, 2009

insiya rasiwala-finn muslim yoga islam

Is there an inherent conflict in practicing Yoga if you’re a Muslim?

And, is yoga still yoga if it’s separated from its spiritual roots?

By Insiya Rasiwala-Finn

My earliest memories are of watching my father pray in the silence of the early morning. He would kneel on his prayer mat angled precisely westward, toward Mecca, a white topi on his head, and recite verses from the Koran. Their resonant sounds filled the room:

“La illah a illal l’ah…”

Then my father would roll up his prayer mat and return, wearing a pair of shorts and a loose T-shirt. He would spread another mat onto the carpet— his one fashioned of cotton, long and narrow. Then he began what I interpreted as a different kind of prayer, one that involved him sitting cross-legged on the floor, in silence, for a long time.

I was born in Bombay, India, into what I believe one would call a liberal Muslim family. We visited the mosque on Eid, to celebrate the end of Ramadan and for social occasions such as family weddings. When I was a child, I knew we were Muslim, but I also lit fireworks during the Hindu new year of Diwali and waited for Santa Claus to come each Christmas.

I realize how this was all so normal to us, this jumbling of identities and sub-cultures, all part of growing up in our particular world in Bombay.

Today, I teach Hatha Yoga in Vancouver, Canada, where my students perceive me as a Westernized Indian woman who doesn’t seem to be from anywhere else but North America. I don’t have a discernible Indian accent when I speak and I wear Western clothing with ease. Yet I pronounce the names of yoga asanas in Sanskrit accurately, because Sanskrit resembles the more colloquial, widely spoken Hindi I grew up with. I know that I seem so comfortable with the “culture” around yoga that most Westerners are surprised when they discover that I am not Hindu. To an Indian, however, the syllables of my last name are a simple giveaway: I am Muslim.

When I teach, I am conscious of all the identities that I wear within the layers of my stretchy yoga clothing. I am a woman, Indian and Muslim by birth and upbringing, a yoga practitioner in the West helping to spread a contemporary form of the practice that’s grounded in the belief systems of its origins yet evolving according to our needs today.

insiya rasiwala-finn muslim yoga islam

And yet I wonder, can the larger vessel of yoga hold my multiple identities without irredeemable conflict?

insiya rasiwala-finn muslim yoga islaminsiya rasiwala-finn muslim yoga islam

In November 2008, news headlines around the globe announced that Muslim clerics in Malaysia issued a fatwa or religious edict banning the practice of yoga by Malay Muslims. Malaysia is a predominantly Islamic, yet multi-ethnic nation, where approximately 65 percent of its 27 million people are Muslim. The clerics deemed yoga to be haram (forbidden) because of yoga’s Hindu and Indian roots.

They suggested badminton as a possible fitness alternative.

Abdul Shukor Husin, chairman of Malaysia’s highest Islamic body, the National Fatwa Council, stated that “many Muslims fail to understand that yoga’s ultimate aim is to unite with a god of a different religion,” namely Hinduism (not the aim of self-knowledge and peace that most yogis might understand to be a goal of yoga).

Malaysia’s prime minister soon overruled the religious edict and responded that he did not object to Malaysian Muslims practicing yoga as long as they stayed away from chanting or any such “religious aspects” of the practice. And while technically a fatwa is not legally binding, I found myself fascinated by this story. The idea that yoga, something I consider a non-dogmatic practice, can be seen as a threat to an organized religion—particularly a religious tradition that I come from—seemed strange, even laughable.

Yet the Malaysian Muslim clerics are right—despite the way popular yoga is presented in the West, as a physical fitness practice, yoga does have religious roots. It is originally a Hindu practice, and Hindu philosophy has bearing on the teachings of yoga.

However, if we were to remove yoga from the context of its Hindu history, would the practice change significantly?

I consider the higher principles of Islam to be principles common to all the religious traditions of the world: “Treat your neighbour as you would yourself,” “Do not lie,” “Be generous,” “Offer a portion of your earnings to those in need.” I find all these ideas aligned closely with a general interpretation of the basic ethical tenets of yoga as laid out in the yamas and niyamas.

I think of how my father weaves together his multiple practices as a form of prayer, and during our next phone conversation, I ask him what he thinks about the situation in Malaysia. He laughs over the phone from India. “I should tell those clerics that at a simple, physical level, yoga helps me pray my namaaz more easefully, without any discomfort in my joints. Besides, Islam does not say that it is forbidden to pray in any other form. I do think of myself as Muslim, but I am also a student of the philosophies of yoga. I am seeking my truth — that is the quest of my spirituality—in the practice of Islam and through my yoga practice.”

As a yogi and a Muslim, I know that if I practice yoga in the spirit of uniting with my true self—something that all religions at their core aspire to, as well—I realize that I am connected with everyone. And especially during times of conflict, I know that as a conscious teacher and practitioner, I can help demystify and open the practice of yoga to everyone—regardless of prejudices or disparate beliefs.

insiya rasiwala-finn muslim yoga islam Insiya Rasiwala-Finn is a writer and Vinyasa Yoga teacher in Vancouver, Canada.  A graduate of Mount Holyoke College in Massachusetts, Insiya studied International Relations and is interested in culture, globalization and identity.  She recently participated in Simon Fraser University’s “The Writer’s Studio,” where she worked on poetry and lyric prose.

Photos: Noel Fox

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15 Responses to “Stretching Identity: Yoga and Islam ~ via Insiya Rasiwala-Finn.”

  1. Meta:

    "you could ask the same question of whether you're Christian, or Jewish, etc. Great article and thoughts by her. I personally found the film "Enlighten Up" to address this question also… and opened up the possibilities to what yoga can be (something different) to many people"

  2. Nathan Smith ndsmith says:

    Very nice article. Love the pictures and the sentiment. It's comparative theology in action. Religious identity, as with personal identity, is fraught with paradoxes.

  3. via Facebook, four comments:

    Roger at 1:05pm July 10
    nope, that'd be exercise. But then, one can do exercise with a certain degree of spirit mindedness. Thin line this one is.

    Mark at 1:22pm July 10
    ah, but the day you're born you're practicing yoga. Life is yoga no matter what your beliefs are. We get stuck on the outer gestures and appearances too often.

    Tara at 1:25pm July 10
    Yes since the asanas open spiritual channels whether you like it or not. Many times people are first drawn to yoga for other reasons (to tone their butt or whatever) but they can't help but glean the other benefits and that often is what leads them down the path as they continue to practice. Sneaky stuff that yoga is!!!

    Meta at 2:10pm July 10
    you could ask the same question of whether you're Christian, or Jewish, etc. Great article and thoughts by her. I personally found the film "Enlighten Up" to address this question also… and opened up the possibilities to what yoga can be (something different) to many people

  4. swati jr* says:

    this is an excellent article. love the questioning and self inquiry used to express some serious thoughts.

    i think if we look at the roots of yoga (which predate Hinduism i might add) then we encounter the Ved. Ved means total knowledge and is neither a religion nor a practice. it is the "isness" of existence summed up in the form of knowledge or natural law. prior to being written, it was verbally expressed, prior to that it was just known. this is the level of experience which all yogis feel. this cannot be changed or corrupted, but CAN be enhanced and quantified with intention, knowledge and more transcendence/samadhi. the ultimate goal is always the same but humans really like to muddle things up along the way!!

  5. hello Insiya, I found your article very insightful and informative. I am very curious about Yoga in the Middle East, particularly. Do you know much about what is going on there?

    I teach Partner Yoga (and also have an article currently in Elephant) and receive a lot of response, not always positive, about this practice.

    Thanks again for the article,

    • insiya says:

      Hi Elysabeth,

      i have a friend who is teaching yoga in Dubai and i know folks who have been teaching in Turkey. it's definitely something that is looked upon with interest – and when i was in India recently, i met some women who had come from the middle east to study yoga in india… so seems to be catching on there…
      hope this helps.
      i will check out your article, look forward to being in connection.



  6. Rajesh Patil says:

    Yoga is a Hindu practice definately. The purpose of Yoga is to "Unite" 'Atman' (self) with "ParamAtma" the Supreme-The Bramha. Thus, a Human unites with the Supreme – as per Yoga (Hindu) Concept. There is NO SUCH THING IN ISLAM. According to Islam, a Muslim needs to "Believe" in Koran, the Allah, Mohammed, the last Day (KayAmat) etc. Thus, If one goes beyond these beliefs, then it is Haraam (forbidden) for a Muslim. A Muslim has to wait till KayAmat after death when Allah will decide his fate whether to admit in Heaven or not. Human journey is up to Heaven according to Islam. Allah is different and Humans are different. Koran has categorically mentioned it many places. "La Illa…." (means – 'there is ONLY Allah"). No other can be like Allah. They can NOT Be same !! There is no 'share' with Allah !!. If one twists Yoga to their way and uses — its a big blunder called "Shirk" !!

    • Rajesh Patil says:

      Thus, practicing Yoga or it's elements / parts is following HIndu Dharmic concepts. Therefore, one who practices Yoga or its parts, is a Hindu !!!

  7. Sandeep says:

    Article says: "Abdul Shukor Husin, chairman of Malaysia’s highest Islamic body, the National Fatwa Council, stated that “many Muslims fail to understand that yoga’s ultimate aim is to unite with a god of a different religion,” namely Hinduism (not the aim of self-knowledge and peace that most yogis might understand to be a goal of yoga). "

    If you drop your inhibitions a little and advance further in the practice of meditation, you will realize that God is One and all these theological debates are meaningless. One has to experience the true nature of the Divine Consciousness which permeates the Universe and lives within every individual soul

  8. Mallika says:

    The short answer is YES, Yoga philosophy conflicts with Islamic theology. Yoga means to join, join jeevatma (individual atma) with Paramatma ( divine consciousness), where there is realization of identity with Brahman. According to Islam this philosophy is blasphemous.

    According to Islam, one has to believe the Koran, Prophet and Allah. After death one is buried till the end of times. Then believers are taken to heaven. Yoga is experiential, where as Islam, Christianity are just blind faith. Yogi is a word carelessly thrown around, Muslim yogi is as feasible as a baptized Muslim.

  9. @vamanan81 says:

    The actual question is not of stretching yoga but of stretching the contours of a religion but practically excludes everything but itself!

  10. Arun says:

    This "Yoga predates Hinduism" is a popular myth, propagated by those who want to practice Yoga without acknowledging its roots.

  11. Hemachandra says:

    According to the author, “I consider the higher principles of Islam to be principles common to all the religious traditions of the world”.

    How can this be true? AFAIK, Islam expects
    total submission to “Allah” as a prerequisite along with a belief in a specific messenger and a specific book. This is not universal as claimed as I do not see them in many belief systems…

    The author (and many others) attempt to
    appropriate from other traditions and relabel them as per convenience. Such appropriations are in direct conflict with Islam (as argued by others here).

  12. I got what you intend, thankyou for posting .Woh I am happy to find this website through google. “You must pray that the way be long, full of adventures and experiences.” by Constantine Peter Cavafy.

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