A top Islamic council in mostly Muslim Malaysia told Muslims on Saturday to avoid yoga because it uses Hindu prayers and encourages a union with God that is blasphemous.
The latest edict from the National Fatwa Council reflects a growing swing towards a conservative brand of Islam in the multi-ethnic country that has prompted worries among non-Muslims.
"There are other ways to get exercise and a peace of mind," council chairman Abdul Shukor Husin told reporters in Putrajaya, the country's administrative capital, on Saturday. "You can go cycling, swimming and eat less fatty food."
"For us, yoga can destroy a Muslim's faith. But this is not a matter for the non-Muslims to be concerned about because its not imposed on them. We are looking out for the Muslim community," he said, noting Egypt and Singapore had issued similar rulings.
Fatwas or religious edicts are not legally binding, but they are highly influential in Malaysia.
The new ruling comes hot on the heels of another edict against young Muslim women wearing trousers. The National Fatwa Council said that by wearing trousers, girls risked becoming sexually active "tomboys." Gay sex is outlawed in Malaysia.
In May, the government dropped a proposal to restrict women from traveling abroad on their own after an outcry from women's groups.
‘What really endangers society?'
About 40 percent of Malaysia's population of 27 million are non-Muslim, including sizeable minorities of Christians, Buddhists and Hindus. Complaints of religious discrimination have mounted along with the turn towards Islamic conservatism.
An influential Christian group earlier this year said authorities were seizing Bibles at border entry points. State television routinely airs Islamic shows, but will not allow other religions broadcast time. Hindus complain of the difficulties in getting approval for their temples to be built.
Malaysians have expressed outrage in blogs and letters to the editor since the council first announced a few weeks ago it was considering a fatwa against yoga.
"I wonder what's going to happen to the health clubs here in Malaysia... will they be forced to put up a 'No Muslims allowed' sign during their yoga classes?", said a posting at a popular Malaysian fitness blog.
Social commentator Marina Mahathir, daughter of former prime minister Mahathir Mohamad, questioned the council's priorities.
"What endangers a society more... corrupt citizens and leaders, or yoga practitioners and females who dress in a masculine fashion?" she said in a recent column in the Star newspaper.
"Yet there are so many of us who are unwilling to trust our own conscience and would prefer to trust the robed and the turbaned to make rulings on things which we should be able to judge on our own."