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Praying and Fasting in Outer Space

September 27, 2007

kr’s note: A special thanks to Omar Ashrafi for this article from wired magazine. Ever since I was a child, and I’m sure many people might have thought similarly, I not only dreamed of going into space, but I also pondered over the various religious issues that would pop up if one were in orbit or on the moon… or even one day, on other planets: how, where, and when would you pray? When do you start and stop your fast? When is your Eid (I mean, can you like NOT sight the moon in outer space… ) Amazingly enough, perhaps the only way Muslims can solve their moon-sighting issues is to move to outer space. But then, if you see the moon all the time, do you have to actually use calculations? Wow, that brings up a whole new host of issues…

…but, as I often do, I digress. What was once abstract is now reality, and I was impressed that the Malaysian fiqh council got together and had a conference to resolve these issues of worship in space. It’s pretty impressive.

So here’s the article in its entirety below. I dunno about you guys, but just reading this made me really, really happy for some reason. I’m so envious (the good kind, for those keeping score at home) of this guy because–mashallah–he’s going to be the first person to pray and fast in space.

A Muslim Astronaut’s Dilemma: How to Face Mecca From Space

By Patrick Di Justo


09.26.07 | 12:00 AM

Sheikh Muszaphar Shukor of Malaysia, a crew member on the 16th mission
for the International Space Station, gives thumbs-up near the Soyuz-TMA
capsule before the final test outside Moscow on Tuesday, Sept. 18,

Photo: Associated Press / Mikhail Metzel

Sheikh Muszaphar Shukor has a problem. Two problems. The first is that Mecca keeps moving.

Well, not really. It’s Shukor who’ll be moving. As Malaysia’s first
astronaut, he’s scheduled to lift off October 10 in a Russian Soyuz
spacecraft for a nine-day visit during the holy month of Ramadan to the
International Space Station.

He’s a devout Muslim and when he says his daily prayers he wants to
face Mecca, specifically the Ka’aba, the holiest place in Islam (“Turn
then thy face towards the Sacred Mosque: wherever ye are, turn your
faces towards it …. ” The Quran, Al-Baqarah, 2:149).

That’s where the trouble comes in. From ISS, orbiting 220 miles above the surface of the Earth, the qibla
(an Arabic word meaning the direction a Muslim should pray toward
Mecca) changes from second to second. During some parts of the space
station’s orbit, the qibla can move nearly 180 degrees during the course of a single prayer. What’s a devout Muslim to do?

“As a Muslim, I do hope to do my responsibilities,” Shukor says. “I do hope to fast in space.”

Malaysia’s space agency, Angkasa, convened a conference of 150 Islamic
scientists and scholars last year to wrestle with these and other
questions. The resulting document
(.doc), “A Guideline of Performing Ibadah (worship) at the
International Space Station (ISS)”, was approved by Malaysia’s National
Fatwa Council earlier this year. According to the report, determining
the qibla should be “based on what is possible” for the
astronaut, and can be prioritized this way: 1) the Ka’aba, 2) the
projection of Ka’aba, 3) the Earth, 4) wherever.

This leads to Shukor’s second problem. There are two distinct schools of thought for determining the qibla:
the commonly used Great Circle method, and the less common rhumb-line
method. Looking at a flat map using any standard projection shows that
a rhumb line (a line that cuts equal angles across all lines of
longitude) drawn from, say, the Johnson Space Center in Houston to
Mecca runs east-southeast. The numbers also bear this out — the space
center is to the north and west of the Ka’aba, so any travel to the
holy city should naturally be to the southeast.

Lay a string across a globe,
however, and everything changes. A great circle — the shortest
distance between two points on a sphere — between Houston and Mecca
initially arcs to the northeast, then curves southward to the Saudi
peninsula. Islamic scientists knew as early as the ninth century CE
that the great circle route provided the shortest path to Mecca from
anywhere in the world, even though it may in some places seem
counterintuitive (Muslims in Alaska, for example, pray facing almost
due north). Great circle formulae are at the root of nearly every online qibla compass.

Dr. Kamal Abdali, a cartographer who is also Muslim and who has written (.pdf) extensively on determining the qibla,
favors the great circle route, but adds, “Prayer is not supposed to be
a gymnastic exercise. One is supposed to concentrate on the prayer
rather the exact orientation.” He points out that in a train or plane,
it’s customary to start in the qibla direction but then continue the prayer without worrying about possible changes in position.

But how does that work in space? Mathematically, Shukor would need to
place both ISS and Mecca on the same imaginary sphere — by either
comparing the place on Earth directly beneath ISS with the real Ka’aba,
or by projecting the Ka’aba into space (the option recommended by the
Fatwa Council).

Yet the option to pray while facing a point in space brings up another
problem. Muslims face the ground to pray, in part to avoid any hint of
pagan sun or moon worship (“Prostrate yourselves not to the sun nor to
the moon, but prostrate yourselves to Allah Who created them, if you
(really) worship Him” (The Quran, Fussilat 41:37). If the Ka’aba projection happens to line up with the sun or moon, purists might believe the prayer invalid.

For now, Shukor is keeping the details of his plans fluid until he is
actually on board ISS, a point with which Dr. Khaleel Mohammed,
assistant professor of religion at San Diego State University, concurs.
“In space,” Mohammed points out, “the ritual prayer might be offset for
more of a prayer that is allowed when on jihad … for the lack of
gravity and directional accuracy makes it legitimate to do as one sees
fit. God does not take a person to task for that which is beyond
his/her ability to work with.”

Questions like these will continue as more and more religious
astronauts travel into space. When is sunset in low Earth orbit if
you’re experiencing a dozen sunrises and sunsets in every 24-hour
period? When does Sabbath begin on the moon, where the sun sets once a
month? When is the first sighting of the crescent moon if you’re on
Mars? Religious councils of all faiths will have plenty to keep them
busy for years.


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