Islamic Prayers in Space
Staff Writer, November 20, 2007

How does an Islamic Astronaut Face Mecca in Orbit
Christian Science Monitor, October 10, 2007

Decisions by a conference of Muslim leaders and scientists will help a Malaysian doctor stay observant in outer space.

Allah is watching – even in outer space. And that poses a problem for a devout Muslim astronaut who is scheduled to fly to the International Space Station (ISS) aboard a Russian rocket this week.

Imagine trying to pray five times a day in zero gravity while having to face an ever-shifting Mecca hundreds of miles below. How do you ritually wash yourself without water? And, now that it's Ramadan, how do you fast from sunrise to sunset when you see a sunrise and a sunset every 90 minutes? Sheikh Muszaphar Shukor, a Malaysian astronaut, must decide before the Oct. 10 launch.

"I am Islamic," Sheikh Shukor told a press conference in Moscow, according to the Associated Press, "but my main priority is more of conducting experiments."

The young orthopedic surgeon is not the first Muslim to fly into space. In 1985, Sultan bin Salman bin Abdulaziz al-Saud, a Saudi Arabian prince, flew aboard the shuttle Discovery. Last September, Iranian-American telecommunications entrepreneur Anousheh Ansari paid the Russians an undisclosed sum (reportedly $20 million) to visit the ISS as a "space tourist." But up to now, there have been no guidelines for Muslim religious practice in space.

And so the Malaysian National Space Agency (MNSA) and its Department of Islamic Development held a two-day conference in April last year. They invited 150 scholars, scientists, and astronauts to discuss "Islam and Life in Space." The result is a recently published booklet of guidelines for the faithful Muslim astronaut.

Five times a day (before sunrise, at midday, in late afternoon, after sunset, and at night), earth-bound muezzins call Muslims to prayer. A spaceship traveling 17,400 miles per hour orbits the earth 16 times in a day. Does that mean praying 80 times in 24 hours?

The guidelines are much more reasonable: Daily prayer in space is not linked to sunrises and sunsets, but to a 24-hour cycle based on the "home" time zone of Baikonur, the Russian-leased launch site in Kazakhstan. Five meditations every 24 hours will suffice.

If interrupting work to pray is not possible, the astronaut may practice a shorter version of the prayer or combine midday and afternoon prayer times, or the evening and night ones.

The next problem: Where is Mecca?

Muslims on Earth face Mecca, in central Saudi Arabia, when they pray. The MNSA suggests that the astronaut pray toward Mecca as much as possible, or at the Earth in general. But if it becomes necessary, the astronaut may simply face any direction.

The attitude while at prayer is also an issue. In zero gravity, the sequence of the praying postures – standing, bowing, kneeling, and prostrating oneself – is difficult at best. Malaysian Islamic authorities say the astronaut should stand, preferably. If he can't stand, he should sit. If he can't sit, he should lie down. And if he can't do any of those, he's allowed to symbolically indicate the postures "with his eyelids" or to simply imagine them, according to the MNSA booklet.

Before worship, a Muslim must perform ritual washing – cleaning face, hands, arms, feet, and hair. The problem: Water on the ISS is so precious that even sweat and urine are recycled. And so the Muslim astronaut is permitted "dry ablution." In desert areas on earth, Muslims use dirt and sand to clean the hands. The astronaut will strike his palms on a wall or mirror – though this is not likely to raise any dust.

Then there's diet. Pork and alcohol are forbidden. Animals to be consumed for food must be slaughtered in a particular way. All food must be halal (allowed by Islamic law). But how can the astronaut know if the food aboard the ISS is halal? If he has any doubts, says the MNSA booklet, he should eat just enough to ward off hunger.

Meals raise another complication. Ramadan – the holy month during which Muslims abstain from all earthly indulgences (including eating) during daylight hours – doesn't end until Oct. 13.

Shukor said he hopes to be able to fast in space. The decision will be his. If he does fast, the 16-times-every-24-hours problem will be solved in the same way as the prayer question. And if he chooses not to fast in space? That's OK. But he will be required to make up for Ramadan when – after 11 days in space – he's back on Earth.


Islam is simple and easy
Dr. Wan Azhar Wan Ahmed, November 20, 2007
Senior Fellow / Director,
Centre for Syariah, Law and Political Science, Ikim

The question of ‘fixed prayer time’ is only relevant to our lives on Earth. If we are no longer on Earth, then the question of prayer times no longer becomes relevant.

ISLAM is not difficult. When I was teaching at the Ahmad Ibrahim Kulliyyah of Laws, International Islamic University Malaysia (IIUM), most of my students – if not all – were amazed when I remarked that Muslims are not to pray when travelling long distances on airplanes; that Muslim surgeons may choose to combine (jama’) their prayers if they are working long hours in operation theatres; and that Muslims from all walks of life may also choose to combine their prayers for reasons other than those mentioned by the Prophet Mohamed.

Now we have successfully launched our first Malaysian – a Muslim – to outer space. Proud of the achievement, I was and still am amazed to learn that this Muslim traveller was made to assume that prayers throughout his 10-day stay hundreds of kilometres above the Earth was obligatory!

What was even more amazing was a special manual for his extra-terrestrial journey had been prepared. All this may have given the impression that the religion of Islam is rigid, uncompassionate and coercive in nature. The reality, however, is quite the opposite.

I still hold firm to what I taught my students a few years ago. If the requirement for prayer is relaxed for long distance journeys on airlines, what more a journey to space! Make no mistake; I am not to be classified as a liberal, conservative, extremist, secularist and such.

According to the Quran: “Verily prayers are enjoined on Believers at fixed times” (al-Nisa’, 4: 103). The key-term here is the phrase ‘fixed time’ (Arabic: kitaban mauquta). Indeed, Muslims are duty bound to pray five times a day at specific durations.

And Muslim scholars have done enough to calculate and determine these times respectively, whether using the traditional method of measuring the length of a shadow cast by the Sun on a pole, or applying a more accurate measurement in the application of astronomical science.

In every case, be it prayers at dawn (fajr/subh), midday (zuhr), late afternoon (‘asr), dusk (maghrib), or evening (‘isya’), these prayer times are measured and determined by the movement or motion of the Earth around the Sun.

For example, while Muslims in East Java, Indonesia, perform dawn prayers at about 4.15am (local time), Muslims in Malaysia do the same at about 5.40am.

Obviously, the determining factor here is not the hands of a clock but rather the movement of the Earth as it rotates along its axis relative to the Sun.

Many seem ignorant of the fact that the question of ‘fixed time’ is only relevant to our lives on Earth. If we are no longer on Earth, then the question of prayer times becomes no longer relevant.

The question of time in relation to prayer is only relative to man on Earth. In space however, since man is no longer on Earth, time in relation to prayer does not apply.

The revolution of the Earth upon its axis relative to the Sun excludes man, for which prayer is obligatory. Man in space is not travelling at the same speed as is the revolution of the Earth along its axis.

Religious duties are very much associated with one’s location. If one were to travel from one place to another, his/her religious obligations are performed relative to the peculiarities of his/her new destination the moment he/she reaches that place.

If a Malaysian Muslim usually performs his prayers relative to the time in Malaysia, he/she must abandon this practice once he crosses the border to Thailand as the times are no longer relative to Malaysia. It is absurd to insist on praying according to the time in Kuala Lumpur while being physically in Bangkok.

Therefore, it is absurd to argue that a spaceman may apply the time of his place of departure in order for him to carry out obligatory religious duties in a place not relative to Earth.

Another example concerns an analogy of air travel. When one flies a long distance, he traverses different time zones. Take, for example, the Kuala Lumpur-London route, which represents a more than 12-hour journey covering a distance of more than 10,000km over a vast body of ocean and land.

The flight will have to traverse through seven different time zones. If one departs KLIA at 12.50pm, at a speed of over 800kph, 15 minutes after take off, the aircraft will be over the ocean, followed by land, mountains, desert and so on.

Supposing the traveller wishes to pray zuhr. As the plane traverses different time zones every 30 minutes, which time will he need to follow? Is it the time relative to Malaysia, the ocean, India or Saudi Arabia? It may not be zuhr in India although it may be in Kuala Lumpur.

Why do the Muslims of today feel the need to complicate matters when Islam is easy and simple?

Even if one is heading for Mecca to perform the pilgrimage, the question of prayer during the journey by air seems absurd. We have already said that prayer during flight is unnecessary, what more prayer in outer space

The time factor in this realm is relative to man in space. But as we have said, time for prayer is relative to man on Earth; and therefore if man is not on Earth, prayer in relation to time on Earth does not apply to him.

My point is that Islam is easy, pragmatic and dynamic; it is neither rigid nor extreme.

Muslims, regardless of their social or economic status, from royals, political leaders, corporate figures, executives, professionals, academics, administrators and so on, who have to spend hours in long meetings or other extended commitments, to surgeons, who sacrifice their time to save human lives in hours of medical operations, those having difficulty in the workplace, and even night market traders, the solution(s) for their preoccupation/predicament is there within Islam itself if they truly understand and not fall victim to a very narrow interpretation of religion.

As far as combining the prayers, I believe many have been practicing this method on many occasions prior to the modern era.