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How does an Islamic astronaut face Mecca in orbit?

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

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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.

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