In A Nutshell
If we know anything about Islam, it’s that its followers are required to pray towards Mecca five times a day. Sounds simple right? Well, maybe if you’re on Earth. Orbiting the planet at 27,000 kph (17,000 mph) it’s a whole different ball game. After two Muslim astronauts encountered problems in orbit, 150 Islamic scholars called a meeting and produced a detailed set of guidelines for Muslims praying in space.
The Whole Bushel
When Sheikh Muszaphar Shukor blasted off to the ISS in 2007, he was the first Malaysian and only the third practicing Muslim to visit space. But he wasn’t really able to focus on the honor, as his journey was marked by an improbable amount of thorny theological quandaries.
As a devout Muslim, how would he know where to turn to face Mecca from orbit? With a sunset and sunrise occurring on the ISS every 90 minutes, when should he fast for Ramadan? With water at an absolute premium in space, how would he ritually wash himself? To answer his questions, Malaysia called a conference of 150 Islamic scholars, who produced possibly the first religious guide to worshiping in space.
Approved by the country’s National Fatwa Council (thus making it official, at least in Malaysia), the document sets out the rules for a new generation of Muslim scientists intent on heading for the stars. Among its recommendations were mentally projecting Mecca’s holy mosque (the Ka’aba) into space to avoid praying to the floor and using local time at the launch site to determine sunrise and sunset. A damp cloth or symbolically striking a mirror were decreed to be acceptable stand-ins for ritual washing, while the Halal problem was got around by advising space-faring Muslims to eat only enough to ward off hunger.
As others have pointed out, many of these rulings open up further paradoxes for taking religion into space. What happens when a team of Muslims from different launch sites works together in space? Do they designate one launch site for sunrise and sunset or all work on different time zones? Other issues have yet to be addressed. A new Islamic month starts with the first sighting of the crescent moon: Will that include the moons of future planets we may explore? These are just a few of the issues in the cards for the future.
Intriguing as it is, if Malaysia’s conference above teaches us anything, it’s that space exploration is going to be even more complex than we thought; especially if we choose to take our religions with us.