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.

By , Contributor to The Christian Science Monitor

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."

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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.

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