By Firoz Bakht Ahmed*
While I was at the international yoga summit of the Prajapita Brahamma Kumari Vishwvidlaya on June 21, on the occasion of the International Yoga Day, at the plush, nostalgic and holy Red Fort grounds to attend a gathering of more than 40,000 lovers of yoga from all faiths and cross sections of society in India, I was introduced to 100 plus year-old Dadi Janki and 90 year old Dadi Rukmini. They told me that they basically practiced meditation yoga sans any kind of negativity but all positive which elongated their age. It was revelation to me as I thought that yoga is basically physical and breathing exercises.
Having practiced yoga during my school days, I found that it can easily be integrated with the Islamic life; in fact the two assist one another. Frankly speaking, the drill that our drillmaster, Mr Massey used to conduct was nothing but yoga. Not only is there no conflict, but Islam and yoga together make a mutually beneficial holistic synergy.
I follow all the Islamic tenets in the right interpretation and spirit and so, I can say that there is no such thing Yoga being haraam (disallowed) in Islam. Rather, I have found that Islamic yoga is a reality. It is possible to employ the skills of yoga to worship Allah better and to be a better Muslim.
Both are agreed that, while the body is important as a vehicle on the way to spiritual realization and salvation, the human being’s primary identity is not with the body but with the eternal spirit. Maintaining a healthy and fit body is a requirement in Islam, which teaches a Muslim that his or her body is a gift from Allah. Yoga happens to be one of the most potential common grounds between Hindus and Muslims.
The purposes of yoga and Tariqat-e-Naqshbandi (Sufi lifestyle) are apparently similar since both aim at achieving mystical union with the ultimate reality namely Brahma or Allah.
Islamic mysticism is undoubtedly impacted by the uncanny Vedic and Buddhist influences desiring to achieve mystical union with the Supreme Being or as one may also call nirvana or fana (a term used by the Sufis).
The Indian Muslims’ love affair with yoga is a complex thing, born of many factors. There’s the general disenchantment with strict, orthodox Islam of the myopic clerics and the accompanying pull to alternative forms of spirituality. The political quagmire in which Yoga has been embroiled into by some of the clerics, has been regrettable: however, it is expected that after the International Yoga Day, they too would realize it’s worth.
The orthodox must know that according to Maulana Azad, India is a Dar-ul-Aman (Land of Peace) and we have a shared more commonalities than differences in our cultural heritage despite being proud of our individual religious traditions. Maulana coalesced with the truth of the intrinsic creativity of Vedantic vision with the Islamic doctrine of wahdat-e-deen (unity of religion) and sulah-e-kul (universal peace).
Yoga, according to Ashraf F Nizami’s book Namaz, the Yoga of Islam (published by D B Taraporevala, Mumbai 1977) is not a religion. Rather, it is a set of techniques and skills that enhance the practice of any religion. Nizami writes that in namaz, various constituents like sijdah is like half shashankasana while qayam is vajrasana in the same way as as ruku is paschimothanasana.
Even Father M Dechanel wrote a book on Christian yoga recording that practicing yoga is encouraged because it is a way towards the realization of Christian teachings.
According to Badrul Islam, a yoga instructor at a government academy in Dehradun, one of the most obvious correspondences between Islam and yoga is the resemblance of salat (five-time prayer a day) to the physical exercises of yogaasanas .
The root meaning of the word salat is ‘to bend the lower back’, as in yoga; the Persians translated this concept with the word namaz, from a verbal root meaning ‘to bow’, etymologically related to the Sanskrit word namaste.
Since the yogic metaphysic of Advaita Vedanta is in perfect accordance with the Islamic doctrine of tauhid (God’s oneness), there is perfect compatibility between Islam and yoga on the highest level. The ‘Book of Sufi Healing’ by Hakim G M Chishti clearly states that life, from its beginning till the end, is one continuous set of breathing practices.
The enigmatic and most revered Qari (one who melodiously recites Quran) Abdul Basit of Egypt, whose recitation of the Quran is considered the best till date, practiced breathing exercise exactly similar to pranayam and was able to recite a surah by holding his breath for such a long duration that even the medical experts were amazed. However, someone did tell the Qari that he did it with anulom/ vilom, the breathing exercises of yoga but he had no qualms about it.
Nowadays, yoga is commercially promoted for health to repelling diseases. In fact, less exercise owing to long office hours on computers is one of diseases of modern world. Cars, motorcycles and computers are our main pulse beat of contemporary life. People no longer think about physical and spiritual exercises, which make a good excuse for Muslims to be offered yoga practice.
Besides, many western societies are materialistic and for limitless monetary gains people would fall prey to rat race and superiority whereas their spiritual sides remain void. Forms of yoga such as Patanjali, Tantra, Sankhya and Dhyana , among others, are non-religious as even the atheists can practice them. Yoga today is a way of life for the followers of all religions.
World renowned yoga instructor, Shamshad Haider is from Lahore, Pakistan and teaches yoga to boys and girls in almost all major schools of Pakistan from Swat to Islamabad and is effort is highly appreciated by one and all. Even in the Middle East and Iran, yoga is a pet with Muslims in 47 countries.
Most Muslims in India are dazed that the all-encompassing credentials of yoga need to be debated. Let’s appreciate that at this time, the pro-yoga fatwa by the renowned Darul Uloom Deoband seminary has given it a clean chit and Swami Ramdev has also given the green signal that Muslims can substitute “Allah” for “Ohm”, but was it really required?
Quite interestingly, the word Ohm, according to Urdu or Arabic alphabet, is formed from three Urdu alphabets — “Alif”, “Wao” and “Meem”. If we consider the abbreviations of these, “Alif” means “Allah”, “Wao” or “Wa” means “and” while “Meem” means “Mohammed”. It shows that Ohm is a confluence of Allah and Mohammed. May be some super-pious will also frown upon me on this word play.
*Commentator on social and educational issues, grandnephew of Maulana Abul Kalam Azad