Brave New World (The Star)
November 27, 2008
"You can’t control what another believes because no fellow human being can truly tell what is going on in the mind of another."
I don't like yoga. With all due respect to yoga practitioners out there, I always found it a little wimpy. I mean, yeah, it’s a great party trick to be able to bend over backwards and look like Linda Blair in The Exorcist but, really, is that going to help me lug two suitcases up four flights of steps? I don’t think so.
Be that as it may, I do practise a bit of yoga. In between sets for my abdominal workout, I do a yoga thing.
I am not sure what it is called in yoga terms, but if I had to name it, I would call it “small hummingbird reaching for the moon”, and it’s great because it stretches out my ageing back.
I’ve been doing it for years and I must say that in all that time, not once did I get an urge to build a shrine to Vishnu in my dining room.
I’ve also lit an incense stick and stuck it in a pile of sand in front of a stone Buddha. And I’ve sung hymns in an abbey for two years’ worth of Wednesdays.
Neither activity made me want to be a Buddhist or join the Church of England. They were after all merely physical acts. What goes on in my mind and in my heart are completely different things.
And no one can tell me what my faith is or is not.
This brings me to the National Fatwa Council and its declaration that yoga is forbidden because it has Hindu elements in it which can cause poor simple Muslims to lose their fragile faith while sitting in the lotus position.
A lot has been said about this issue already and I don’t wish to add to the numerous points made on the legal effects of the declaration or its theological basis.
Instead I wish to point out that it is actually quite ludicrous to try to control that most private and intangible human trait: faith.
You can’t control what another believes because no fellow human being can truly tell what is going on in the mind of another.
And yet there are some who insist on trying. And so, because you can’t tell what goes on in a person spiritually, you try to control the surface issue, the physical manifestation of what you deem to be reflective of faith.
This obsession with form is not only shallow; it is also counter-productive. It breeds a mentality of “if I do the ‘right actions’, then I’m doing the right thing”.
It’s the kind of thinking that creates some horrible everyday blasphemies like people muttering “halal, ya?” after they accept a bribe.
As though the physical utterance of the right word is enough to blank out the intangible wrongness of the act.
It does not take much for a person to go to temple or church or mosque and carry out all the rituals. But such acts without the prerequisite emotional content of the rituals do not make you pious.
Just as performing things with roots in religions different from your own – the bersanding ceremony for example – without the corresponding emotional and spiritual content does not mean you are deviating from your faith.
This being the case, why bother trying to control a person’s actions? Perhaps it is the only way to try to assert authority, to force your perceived relevance onto others. If this is so, then it is a most futile effort.
I am not suggesting that there is no space for the fatwa councils of this country. There will always be people who want to get guidance from figures they believe are better qualified than themselves. Even in personal matters like faith. This is fine, but such bodies ought not to have the power to control how people choose to live their lives.
It is one thing for an authority figure to give advice; it is quite another for that same body to have the power to make rulings that have the effect of legislation, especially when it is not elected.
There is a sub-text to this episode and it concerns the recent calls by the ex- and current chief justices for the merging of Islamic law and civil law or the merging of the syariah courts and the civil courts. I do not think this is a good idea.
I have argued elsewhere that the emotive nature of any theologically based law and the exclusivity of such systems are not appropriate for a fundamentally democratic society.
Time and time again, I have heard the repeated argument that only those who are “qualified” can speak about Islamic law.
In a country where all its people should have a right to speak about matters that affect their lives, regardless of their education, this to me is an unacceptable approach to law-making.
However, my point here is that this recent declaration on yoga, which to my eyes reflects a terribly narrow world-view and a superficial understanding of this matter of faith, is made not by some obscure group. It was made by the National Fatwa Council.
This council is a part of officialdom and in the event that our Constitution is fundamentally changed to allow our civil and Islamic legal systems to be merged, the council’s voice will be a most prominent one in the hybrid system that is formed.
That is all the more reason then that this proposed merger is not allowed to happen.