It has become almost fashionable for a Muslim to say 'Islam is in danger'. The religion whose literal meaning is peace is today seen as the root cause of terror and violence. The Muslim world cannot merely dismiss this as a fallout of a grand conspiracy against Islam by people of other faiths. It has failed to present the real essence of Islam and remained a mute spectator to many atrocities against humanity committed in the name cleansing the world of infidels.
This diffidence to stand up for Islam is mainly due to lack of clarity among Muslims about what their religion truly stands for. The Muslim world is heavily weighed down by its own blinkered interpretation of what's permitted and forbidden in Islam. The most glaring misinterpretation that has led to a distortion of the very essence of Islam is its understanding of the expression 'La Ilaaha Illallaah', which is the first principle of Islam. Literally translated, it means 'there is no god but God'.
However, generations of Muslims have been taught to interpret it as 'there is no god but Allah'. Thanks to this limiting interpretation, Muslims are made to believe that there are many gods, but only Allah is the right one. This understanding totally distorts Islam's real message of tauhid (oneness of God).
A case in point is the recent statement of chairman of National Fatwa Council of Malaysia Abdul Shukor Husin while passing a fatwa against yoga. "Many Muslims fail to understand that yoga's ultimate aim is to be one with a God of a different religion." When one has affirmed to 'La Ilaaha Illallaah', how can a Muslim think of another "God of a different religion".
If a Muslim thinks there are different Gods for different religions, he is negating the essence of Islam and unwittingly subscribing to polytheist beliefs. 'La Ilaaha Illallaah' establishes beyond argument that there is only one God. However differently we may pray and by whatever name we may call, it goes to that one source. Further, the Quran clearly states that God can be invoked in different names. "Glory be to God, beyond any associations. He is Allah, the Creator, the Evolver, the Bestower of Form. To Him belong the Most Beautiful Names." [Al Hashr 59:22].
Despite the clear pointers in the Quran, orthodox mullahs still hold that calling God by any other name than Allah amounts to associating a partner with Him. The biggest casualty of this exclusivity of Allah has been the concept of jihad, prompting innocent Muslims to believe that fighting against 'infidels' who don't call God by Allah is an act worthy for the Quranic promise of heaven for jihad. This amounts to challenging Quran's command to invoke God by any names with a sense of reverence and beauty.
This myopic interpretation of the concept of tauhid has had a domino effect on other spheres of life. Take the case of recent fatwas forbidding yoga for Muslims on the ground that yoga will erode their faith in the religion.
As the Quran and Hadith have nothing specific that will make practice of yoga haram, the ulemas based the ruling on their own fear of supposedly 'Hindu' elements of yoga destroying the faith of a Muslim. The best way to allay their fear is to look at the Hindu philosophy on yoga and see how and where it contradicts the tenets of Islam.
Yoga simply means uniting with the Self. Maharishi Patanjali's Yoga Sutras starts by calling itself an enunciation in union. The asanas, the practice of which is the focal point of these fatwas, are just one way of attaining that union. Is striving for such a union with the Self against Islam? It cannot be. For, Prophet Mohammed has said, "He who knows his own Self knows his Lord." Anything done in pursuit of knowing the Lord will count as a meritorious act of following the Prophet.
The best explanation of why yoga is not just permissible, but also desirable 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 doing yoga asanas as a means of attaining a thoughtless state will qualify as the highest form of ibadat (prayer). Hence contrary to the fatwas, yoga as a spiritual pursuit is very much permissible in Islam.
It's universally proven that yoga brings peace of mind, and on that count yoga is almost obligatory for Muslims. As Islam means peace, peace of mind is a prerequisite for one to be truly following Allah's only religion.
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 doctrine of tauhid.
The time has come for ulemas to dispel this mistaken understanding of the real essence of Islam. Else history will accuse them of doing a great disservice to Islam and unwittingly leading innocent Muslims towards polytheism.
(The author is a former business journalist and now teaches yoga-based spiritual programmes of the Art of Living. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org)