The Null Device

A Muslim astronaut's dilemma

The question of how to reconcile religious practices with modern technological realities where their founders' assumptions do not hold has arisen again, as the world's first devoutly Muslim astronaut prepares to go into space, taking with him a document written by 150 Islamic scientists and scholars assembled by the Malaysian space agency on Islamic practice in space:
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.
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.
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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