Fundamentalism in Spaaaaaaace

How to practice Islam in space?

Malaysia's National Space Agency is holding a conference to consider Muslim astronauts pray in space as the country prepares to send its first citizen into orbit.

Three of the four astronaut candidates selected so far are Muslims. Two will eventually be trained and sent into space by Russia.

Performing ablutions for Muslim prayers with water rationing in space and preparing food according to Islamic standards will be among issues discussed.

The astronaut will also visit the International Space Station, which circles the earth 16 times in 24 hours, so another thorny question is how to pray five times a day as required by Islam. Muslims also have to turn towards Mecca to pray and working out which direction that will be while hovering above the earth might be challenging.

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43 Responses:

  1. Wow. Y'know? Those are one of those obvious questions that you never dawns on you to ask until you're put in that position...

    • Okay. I just asked a co-worker, and he said simply, "Just point yourself towards Earth... That's where Mecca is."

      That seems like the answer...

      • node says:

        Works for LEO, fails miserably for, say, a Martian colony.

        • Re: Martian Colony

          "Just point yourself towards Earth... That's where Mecca is."

          I would think that applies...

          • node says:

            Sometimes Earth would be 60% above the horizon, and at other times below your feet. Its position changes with the time of day and with where Mars and Earth are on their solar rotational orbits.

            That makes it hard to point yourself at Mecca; it's no longer as simple as building a mosque that points at N 18°E, or praying towards the space shuttle's ceiling.

            • Yes. You are right... Problematic indeed.

              Luckily Xenu is everywhere. ;P

              *looking sheepish at her ignorance*

            • dichro says:

              You know, that's really not substantially different to here. Hard as it is to believe, the Earth is not flat and the direct path to Mecca is frequently below the horizon.

              The above-the-horizon-problem will have been solved on the shuttle, and the easiest below-the-horizon answer on Mars is to orient yourself along the geodesic to the nearest point on Mars where the Mecca-vector is tangential to the surface of the planet.

              Fortunately we already have highly advanced building-on-a-turntable technology to share with the Barsoomians, although people will probably have to be strapped down to deal with discontinuities in the function.

            • sherbooke says:

              From an engineering POV you need some planks, some bricks and something to work out which direction earth is relative to you. That may not be the solution that works for you.

  2. node says:

    Why not ask the Saudi astronaut what he did?

  3. omarius says:

    Surely there has been some consideration on how to perform ablutions and prepare food in places and times of dearth before now? And as far as praying, why not simply face the Earth?

    Muslims have ever been sailors. Find a Muslim who has been lost and disoriented at sea during bad visibility with little water and ask him what he did!

  4. stickyboy says:

    Depending on their altitude while in orbit and the length of the prayers, they might have to slowly point themselves in different directions during their time of reflection. Sounds problematic.

    • susano_otter says:

      Not only that, but they have to pray five times a day.

      Since LEO generally involves several revs in several hours, wouldn't they have to drop everything every few minutes to pray?

      • stickyboy says:

        Oh crap I never thought of that. I mean, what is a "day" in LEO? Normal daylight hours according to the astronauts bio clocks? Nope, too subjective and therefore liberal. Complications.

        • jkonrath says:

          I don't know about ISS, but NASA usually ties the mission clock to wherever mission control is. So if you're reading a transcript of, say, an Apollo mission, all of the times are relative to Houston.

          • jkonrath says:

            I just checked, and they sync the days on ISS with UTC most of the time. So the astronauts are usually awake from something like 07:00-22:00 UTC, and I guess you'd do your five prayers in that timeframe.

            To throw another wrench in this, they sometimes shift the sleep cycles radically to facilitate spacewalks and dockings. So if the shuttle is coming up, there's a chance you might accidentally pray only four times and go to hell for eternal damnation.

            • susano_otter says:

              Totally. And this is my biggest problem with the whole thing. Space is very demanding and unforgiving environment, and everything we do there is already operating on the thinnest of margins. What self-respecting space agency or program would have any patience at all with an astronaut whose duties could be overridden by his religious requirements at any time?

              It seems to me that this man can be a good muslim or a good astronaut, but not both at the same time...

              Of course, there is the argument that everybody involved with the ISS lost all self-respect ages ago anyway, which would explain why nobody has red-flagged this guy already.

              To be fair: I'm pretty sure that like most religions, Islam recognizes that people are fallible, and provides a mechanism for purification or atonement. So missing a prayer window or two probably wouldn't be a deal-breaker: just make sure you say a couple extra Hail Marys, or prostrate yourself an extra thirty seconds, or whatever, during your next prayer window, and you're back on track.

            • giantlaser says:

              Islam allows its practitioners to make up for lost prayer time - you just do them when you can.

              Most of the people in this discussion obviously have no practical experience working with Muslims. There were many times that my engineers in Iraq were at a customer site or a place where it simply wasn't practical to pray. So they didn't, and made it up later. God cares that you make the effort, not that you get it right.

        • gfish says:

          I would assume there have been Muslims above the Arctic Circle before. This can't be a new problem.

      • aphiddavid says:

        Not only that, but they have to pray five times a day.

        Not only that, but they're fucking insane; praying to imaginary things.

  5. kebernet says:

    By the Saudi Prince Reagan sent up to observe Ramadan in space on STS-51G.

    Mike Mullane's book has some great talk about this asshole.

  6. ch says:

    > Muslims also have to turn towards Mecca to pray and working
    > out which direction that will be while hovering above the earth
    > might be challenging

    this one is easy: geosynchronous orbit directly above mecca. just look down.

  7. kamaraga says:

    All jokes aside, Islam copes with many of the above "what-if's" rather elegantly and is far less dogmatic than many might believe. Although my understanding is imperfect, I'll attempt to address some questions and comments presented above.

    The general consensus is that Muslims are expected to follow Allah's will, and not just blindly follow rituals. Most rules are deliberately vague and generalized to cope with practical considerations and adapt to change. Each individual is personally responsible for making the right decisions in light of the situation. Thus an ambulance driver might choose to skip prayer to deliver a patient to a hospital based on the belief that Allah values saving a life more than observing a ritual, a view supported by quite a bit of scripture.

    Prayer times and the direction of Mecca are more like strongly-worded recommendations, rather than absolute requirements. Remember, these guidelines were established at a time when the general public didn't have timepieces or instruments to determine which way to face, so there's quite a bit of leeway. In the absence of trustworthy guidance, adherents are permitted to face Mecca in spirit, rather than in body, and guesstimate the prayer times.

    Ritual washing ought to be done with flowing water, but substitutes such as rocks are permitted if water is scarce. Ancient travelers sometimes carried a small bag of pebbles, while modern practitioners often carry disposable moist towelettes in little foil packages. In extreme situations, one can even perform this symbolic ritual by washing with a speck of dust.

    Muslims are taught that Allah is merciful and compassionate. When adherents go on the pilgrimage, they encounter fellow believers from distant lands with strange rituals and odd interpretations of the rules. This assembly forces each individual to question their own beliefs, the significance of rituals, and whether Allah is great enough to overlook minor differences in appearance when the intent is obeyed.

    • aphiddavid says:

      What about now that we have instruments and science and brains? Try writing the stupidity out of your damned religion, religions.

      • kamaraga says:

        Can science answer questions like, "Why am I here?", "What should I do?" or "What's right and wrong?" Until science can provide everyone with satisfactory answers to such questions, people will continue to seek guidance from philosophy and religion. Your opinion that some other opinion is "stupid" is just as unscientific as the religion you're making fun of.

        • Neither religion nor science can answer "Why am I here?" Ask God why he created mankind one of these days and see what He answers...

          "What should I do?" can be competently answered by anyone, independent of religion. Free will is a bitch.

          "What's right and wrong?" can be answered, as well, in the absence of religion. It's called 'ethics'.

          • kamaraga says:

            Neither religion nor science can answer "Why am I here?" Ask God why he created mankind one of these days and see what He answers... // It depends on what you're willing to accept as an answer. If you were expecting to receive the explanation in the form of concisely-written technical manuals and a series of weekly face-to-face meetings with the Boss, then I understand your concern. However, a lot of people have to make peace with answers that aren't as clear.

            "What should I do?" can be competently answered by anyone, independent of religion. Free will is a bitch. // Answering questions is easy, but living with their consequences is a bitch and that's why many people seek trustworthy guidance.

            "What's right and wrong?" can be answered, as well, in the absence of religion. It's called 'ethics'. // That's as useful as saying that the answer to "1+1" is a number. In four years of ethics classes at the university, I don't remember any two people ever agreeing on anything, except that they were too tired to continue an argument. I frankly wonder if the classes did more harm than good. Many people seemed to interpret the case studies we analyzed as clear historical proof that screwing people over was very profitable and carried surprisingly few penalties if one hired a good spin doctor.

            • aphiddavid says:

              It depends on what you're willing to accept as an answer.

              If god existed and gave a shit, he certainly be good-answer capable. In the past, when clear answers are absent, we see that people make up a lot of goofy bullshit myths. They thought sacrifices would stop comets, famine and disease. They thought the earth was flat and universe centered; Etc, etc. Maybe we don't have all the answers, but that doesn't mean making them up is conclusive.

              Answering questions easy, living with consequences a bitch ...that's why many people seek trustworthy guidance.

              And trustworthy guidance is imaginary people and listening to the voices in your head tell you what you want to hear? Right.

              It's called 'ethics'. // That's as useful as saying that the answer to "1+1" is a number... I don't remember any two people ever agreeing on anything

              I don't agree with your bullshit examples and interpretations. Most people in an argument don't jump up and say, I was 100% wrong. You win. I'm a fucking idiot. They silently change views, to avoid embarrassment.

              The majority of people agree on what's right and wrong, the majority of the time. One rule is that any view, no matter how ridiculous, will have one supporter. So, you may not get 100% to agree on one thing vs another in a debate, but the majority concensus is typically right. Unfortunately, most people are fucking stupid, and rely on religion to tell them what to do. That makes them less ethical.

              You're just concluding that ethics doesn't help, and so religion must be the way. Fuck you. I don't agree. I've been not killing and not lying for years without religion. Listening to head voices and vague, never-changing myth books is not the fucking answer to an ever-changing world.

              Anyway, let's get back to religions' dumb rules. You said there's leeway because the Mecca-spotting technology at the time was lacking. It's not anymore. So, strap yourself into your goofy ass spinning orbital prayer machine, jackass.

              • kamaraga says:

                I've been not killing and not lying for years without religion.

                What keeps you from killing people? Is it historical examples, parental advice, personal experience, first-hand accounts, government laws, fear of reprisal, desire for mutual safety, gut feelings, philosophy, compassion, etc? I hate to break it to you, but that's exactly what those myth books talk about in great length. It's certainly not as simple as "thou shalt not kill". When an atheist and a theist don't not to kill each other, their decision isn't directly supported by either science or scripture, but by their individual choices.

                Listening to head voices and vague, never-changing myth books is not the fucking answer to an ever-changing world.

                Isn't this whole thread discussing how the spirit of a faith can be adapted to practical reality and that there is a historical precedent for doing so?

                If god existed and gave a shit, he certainly be good-answer capable.

                If God wanted you to have the answers, why would He give you the ability to make your own decisions? Wouldn't it be easier for Him to just make you a fleshy automaton that obeyed orders? Wouldn't that suck? Therefore if God didn't provide these answers, maybe it was out of love rather than hate?

                In the past, when clear answers are absent, we see that people make up a lot of goofy bullshit myths. They thought sacrifices would stop comets, famine and disease. They thought the earth was flat and universe centered; Etc, etc. Maybe we don't have all the answers, but that doesn't mean making them up is conclusive.

                Quantum Mechanics states that there are finite limits to certainty and that the only difference between a fundamental constant and goofy bullshit is the probability computed by an experiment, which might be wrong. As for your examples, I'm afraid they prove man's stupidity and greed rather than the faults of religion. Demanding that frightened people make sacrifices is a classic tactic for fleecing them and making them dependent, it's called an insurance racket, not a religious order. People accurately calculated the circumference of the earth over two thousand years ago, and accepted that it was round long before, but did this knowledge correlate to a decrease in the awful things that people did to each other? Were the problems you cited really caused by lack of answers or by human nature?

                the majority concensus is typically right. Unfortunately, most people are fucking stupid, and rely on religion to tell them what to do.

                Majority consensus is merely the opinion of the moment and varies over time and culture. What one group thinks is "right" is a crime to another, at least until the next political regime change. Would the "Founding Fathers" even be able to recognize today's America if they came over in a time machine? Life's uncertainty and turmoil leads many people to seek higher eternal truths rather than accept today's ephemeral fashions.

                You said there's leeway because the Mecca-spotting technology at the time was lacking. It's not anymore.

                No, I think folks in this thread have repeatedly argued that that the technicalities of the ritual are secondary to it's intent.

                • aphiddavid says:

                  What keeps you from killing people? Is it historical examples, parental advice, personal experience, first-hand accounts, government laws, fear of reprisal, desire for mutual safety, gut feelings, philosophy, compassion, etc?

                  All those things you listed have nothing to do with religion and ridiculous myths. Thanks for pointing it out. I've read some of those religion books a little, and they're fucking retarded.

                  Isn't this whole thread discussing how the spirit of a faith can be adapted to practical reality and that there is a historical precedent for doing so?

                  Fuck adapting myth books written in stone to reality. It's like Nostradamus. It's bullshit. Try starting fresh.

                  If God wanted you to have the answers, why would He give you the ability to make your own decisions? Wouldn't it be easier for Him to just make you a fleshy automaton that obeyed orders? Wouldn't that suck? Therefore if God didn't provide these answers, maybe it was out of love rather than hate?

                  Dubious dilemma. It's not as magically clear to me as it is to you, since you're an idiot, who seams to have all the incoherent answers. Try this: Maybe he doesn't give a shit. Maybe there is no god. Maybe he's got better things to fucking do than talk to you through your bible. That's fucking insane. I don't know what sucks about there being no god. Is your life that pathetic that you have to believe in imaginary friends? Some people actually like being alive and reality.

                  Demanding that frightened people make sacrifices is a classic tactic for fleecing them and making them dependent... Were the problems you cited really caused by lack of answers or by human nature?

                  Appeal to fear is what religion is all about, pal. Yes, people have stopped comet sacrificing now that we know they still come on time, and mean no harm. Science didn't stop the church from punishing people for their facts, though. Like Galileo: "The Earth is firmly fixed; it shall not be moved." --Psalms 104:5

                  Life's uncertainty and turmoil leads many people to seek higher eternal truths rather than accept today's ephemeral fashions.

                  You're probably as wrong as the comet mystics. Things should change. Religious texts don't. Yes, maybe the interpretations do, but then so should the text.

  8. xoder says:

    I attended a panel at Lunacon this year that discussed this very issue, albeit for Jews and finding the Sabbath. Apparently, the law used to be that a Jew shouldn't go someplace where he couldn't keep track of the Sabbath (i.e. above the Arctic Circle), but then it was brought more in line with the laws pertaining to long ocean voyages: use the clock of departure port. Therefore, American Jews in space celebrate the Sabbath on Saturday for Florida.

    • kamaraga says:

      Either you misunderstood what they were saying, or these panelists were from an extremist sect. Remember that not all Jews believe in the same things.

      "the law used to be that a Jew shouldn't go someplace where he couldn't keep track of the Sabbath." I don't think so. Jewish laws addressed this specific problem thousands of years ago. Israel has terrible sand storms that obscure the sky and make it impossible to judge sunset and sunrise. The rules provide hardship allowances and even clauses similar to, "If all else fails, have a trustworthy elder make a judgment call. If they're concerned that they erred, they can ask The Lord of Hosts to forgive them on the Day of Atonement." Jews have lived in Russia and Scandinavia for over a thousand years, and have adapted ancient solutions to cope with the Arctic Circle problem a very long time ago, and I have a hard time imagining someone questioning their Jewishness over this.

      "laws pertaining to long ocean voyages: use the clock of departure port." I don't think so. Thousands of years ago when the rules were codified, ancient sailors didn't have accurate clocks that they could sync to a departure port. Sailors used the position of the sun as they saw it, just like everyone else. Clocks and alternative means of calculating solar transitions are only permitted under hardship conditions, which is why the astronaut got the exception.

      I'll go out on a limb here and suggest that folks who become too focused on the mechanical details of time and place in these rituals are missing the real point: "Thou shalt keep the Sabbath holy".

  9. booya_king says:

    These are rules I learned as a practicing muslim. So pardon the overuse of 'you', but it keeps the text short.

    Islam is flexible. For example, pork is banned, but if it's the only food available to keep you from starving, you can eat it. Same goes with everything else; you follow the rules as best as you can unless it comes to the point where it is difficult for you to obey.

    Rules regarding prayer directions are simple. If you know where Mecca is, you pray towards it. If you don't, you pray towards the setting sun. If you have no orientation at all (worst case scenario), point anywhere. It's the intent that counts. If maintaining an orientitation is a difficult task, don't worry about it.

    If you can't do the positions (like say you're sick), you can do it sitting down or lying down. If you're doing something you can't just stop (like doing a 10-hr long distance swimming marathon), you do it in your head. Again, it's the intent that counts. I don't think it's possible to do all the positions (stand, bow, prostate, sit) in zero-G, so the best solution should be to strap yourself to the bed, and pray by intent.

    Even the times of prayer are flexible. If you're on a long journey (defined by travelling more than 60km), you can two-in-one your prayer AND shorten it. Yes, you can also do replacement prayers. It has to be flexible for space travel, because one prayer time, Maghrib, is defined to be done in the duration of a sunset. In an orbiting space shuttle, that's 13 seconds. Not possible. Following a mission clock makes more sense.

    The purpose of ablutions is to clean yourself. One ablution can last as long as you keep yourself clean (and I'd bet there'd be a riot in the ISS is someone doesn't keep himself/herself clean) The rule is, as long as you're clean, you can do prayer. So a good bath counts as ablutions if you intend it to be so.

    • jwz says:

      So, you and a couple other folks have said how Islam is actually totally practical about this... and yet, I quote, "Malaysia's National Space Agency is holding a conference"...

      Which suggests that some are taking a, shall we say, less pragmatic approach.

      • thumperward says:

        Tolerance towards improvisation doesn't mean that you shouldn't plan for things. It makes sense to have a policy on this sort of thing if it's going to happen quite a bit.

        This whole thing is still one massive reference to an Interstellar Overlord song though.

        - Chris

      • loosechanj says:

        Malaysia's National Space Agency is holding a conference"

        I'm totally picturing that Family Guy episode with Chris up in a tree reaching for the moon saying "Almost there..."

      • giantlaser says:

        Of course some are. There are dogmatic types in every religion. And plenty of Muslims who don't believe in the flexibility <lj user="booya_king"> refers to.

        No consensus will come out of this conference. The discussion is more important than an agreed-upon conclusion.

      • booya_king says:

        Unfortunately, pragmatism and national interests seldom work well together. The cosmonaut selection is a very public spectacle here, so powers-that-be has to allay possible public concern. Especially with the religious parties watching and hoping for something to cry foul about.

        <lj user="giantlaser">'s assertion is pretty bang-on. It's more practical to discuss that with people responsible for the actual launch, since any results from the conference will have to be crosschecked with mission parameters. Since that's overruled.... I really hope they have real experts in that conference, instead of people more interested in the 'national comfort level'.

  10. aphiddavid says:

    Blah, blah, blah. I would like to send them all into orbit too. Booom.