ABU DHABI // To Malaysia's Islamic authority, yoga can "destroy" a Muslim's faith. But to Abu Dhabi's yoga community, the recent fatwa by the authority banning the popular stress-busting exercise is stretching the point. "I've heard their arguments and I think they're pathetic," said Ayad Abas, an Iraqi-Canadian and a devout Muslim who has practised yoga for more than 15 years in the capital. "I used to have a lot of arguments with people who believed it was haram and I'm so fed up with this kind of attitude."
Mr Abas, who has led yoga sessions for the Abu Dhabi Marine Operating Company, characterised the prohibition in the South East Asian nation as "narrow-minded". Last month, Malaysia's National Fatwa Council chairman, Abdul Shukor Husin, ruled that the physical and mental discipline, which has been central to Hinduism since 3000 BC, should be considered haram as it involves "worshipping and chanting which is against Islam".
Mr Husin declared that "for us, yoga destroys a Muslim's faith". He added that "doing yoga - even just the physical movements - is a step towards an erosion of one's faith in the religion, hence, Muslims should avoid it". The news caused outrage overseas, and sparked concern in the UAE that the Malaysian fatwa, which was not legally binding, might influence the local opinion. Malaysia's prime minister, Abdullah Ahmad Badawi, later said Muslims were allowed to do yoga but without chanting, reversing the outright ban.
Contacted through the UAE's fatwa hotline, a mufti with the General Authority for Islamic Affairs and Endowments agreed with the Malaysian ruling - but only up to a point. He felt the Malaysian fatwa should be generally followed "because they have a better understanding of yoga, and they must have done their research". However, the UAE authority could "neither permit nor forbid yoga", as "it depends on the intentions in the heart of the Muslim when he or she are doing yoga".
If their intention is to exercise and not to internalise Hindu traditions, then it is not corruptive to their Islamic faith. The mufti also noted that from afar, some yoga postures may resemble worship, such as a kneeling movement known as child's pose, which can resemble rukka in Islamic prayer - when worshippers sit forward on their knees. During a Sunday morning yoga class at the Abu Dhabi Health and Fitness Club, there was no suggestion among the students that the stretches and focused breathing amounted to anything more than healthful living.
Tala Abboud, 30, a Lebanese Muslim, said the relaxation techniques she learned through yoga had strengthened the way she practised her religion. "For me, it was actually a benefit for prayer," she said. "I used to pray quickly, but now I take time and focus on my breathing. Yoga has helped me concentrate and there's no way it has eroded my faith." Aline Sfein, a Lebanese Christian, questioned the logic behind the Malaysian ban.
"If I eat Italian food, does that make me Italian? If I drive a French car, does that make me French?" she said. "Yoga would never change my beliefs just because it has Hindu roots." Ria Haffar, the Lebanese yoga instructor leading the class at the gym, described the yoga ban as "scary" and said that although chants or mantras such as "om" may sound spiritual, "it's just for vibrations through the body and calming of the nerves".
None of her students has ever approached her with concerns about corrupting their religion. "We don't preach or say you have to be Hindu to do yoga," she said. "I'm a Muslim yoga teacher and it hasn't affected me one bit. I still read my Quran. "I still sleep with my Quran under my pillow. "I believe in Islam and I wouldn't change it for the world." firstname.lastname@example.org email@example.com * Additional reporting by Reuters