Rajaque Rahman, a Practising Muslim talks about how blinkered interpretation of what’s permitted and forbidden in Islam is making the Muslim world hesitant to take advantage of universal healers like yoga and meditation.
Even as I was persuading a group of Muslim elders in Itanagar — the capital city of eastern-most Indian state of Arunachal Pradesh — to give yoga, pranayama and similar ancient Indian techniques a try for a healthy and happy living, the group went serene with the azan for the Jumah (Friday congregational prayer ) from the neighbourhood mosque. As I followed them to the mosque, I noticed the gentleman who was the most vocal and orthodox during the discussion was heading in the opposite direction. When I queried why he wasn’t coming to the prayer, I was flabbergasted by his innocent but distorted logic. “I can’t go to the mosque as I have to pass through shops that slaughter and sell meat of swine to reach there. You know, Islam strictly prohibits swine meat. I would rather miss the prayer than commit haram by going near swine meat,” he reasoned.
Though I knew Islam prohibits eating swine meat, I never imagined somebody would ever interpret that prohibition in such a myopic way. When I pondered over it, I realised this type of blinkered interpretation of what’s permitted and forbidden in Islam is what is making the Muslim world hesitant to take advantage of universal healers like yoga and meditation.
Like the old man, orthodox Muslims fear the practice of yoga will erode their faith in Allah and Islam. As the Quran and Hadith (Prophet Muhammad’s teachings) have nothing specific that will make practise of yoga haram (forbidden), they based their judgement on their own concocted fear that supposedly ‘Hindu’ elements of yoga would destroy the faith of a Muslim.
As a Muslim who has been practising yoga for over a decade and has experienced the depth of yoga at the physical and spiritual levels, I felt the best way to allay the fear is to look at the Hindu philosophy on yoga and see how and where it contradicts the tenets of Islam. For this, I wouldn’t settle for anything less authentic than Maharishi Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras. Sri Sri Ravi Shankar, the founder of the Art of Living has given an extensive and lucid commentary on the yoga sutras.
Yoga simply means uniting with the Self. The Yoga Sutras starts by calling itself an enunciation in union. And a self-imposed discipline to attain that union is yoga. Is striving for such a union with the Self against Islam? Definitely not, for Prophet Mohammed has said, “He who knows his own Self knows his Lord.” So anything done in pursuit of knowing the Lord cannot be termed as forbidden in Islam. Instead, it will count as a meritorious act of honouring and following the Prophet. So yoga as a spiritual pursuit is very much permissible in Islam. Dara Shikoh, eldest son of the Mughal Emperor of India, Shah Jahan is known for his Persian translations of the Yoga Vashishta and the Bhagavad Gita.
The best explanation of why yoga is not just a permissible, but also a desirable act for Muslims is to be found in the second sutra of the Yoga Sutras. “Yogas Chitta Vritti Nirodhah.” It means yoga is stopping all the modulations of the mind. Ceasing all the outward activities of the mind and reposing in Allah is the ultimate goal of Islam. So any act done to reach such a state cannot be un-Islamic.
In fact, it represents the highest form of ibaadat (prayer). Prophet Mohammed said, “I have a time with God to which even Gabriel, who is pure spirit, is not admitted.” Hence, the soul of prayer is a complete absorption, a state without room for any outward thoughts which is also the ultimate purpose of yoga. So doing yoga asanas with the sole intention of attaining a thoughtless state so that one can connect with Allah wouldn’t make one a bad Muslim.
This leaves only one ground for orthodox mullahs to frown at yoga: that yoga stems from polytheist beliefs of Hinduism. But when yoga means union, how can it be linked to polytheist beliefs? In fact, yoga takes one away from polytheism and leads to Advaita, which is in perfect agreement with the Islamic doctrine of tauhid (oneness of God).
Just because something has its roots in Hinduism, it doesn’t become forbidden for Muslims. If it were so, many arts, languages, foods and cultural practices with roots in other religions, would also be forbidden to Muslims. So, when we can accept foods and music from other cultures, why not the wisdom to unite with the Self?