How to face Mecca when floating in space?

Sheikh MuszapharWe interrupt your regularly scheduled programming to bring you this interesting religion news from the Associated Press out of Malaysia: Malaysian cosmonaut Sheikh Muszaphar Shukor will be part of a Russian crew heading to the International Space Station next month. Sheikh Muszaphar, a medical doctor, was a finalist in the Malaysian Angkasawan space program (space camp for adults). He has trained in Star City, Russia, for 18 months and ended up chosen for the top spot on the crew. He's also a model and does commercials. He will be Malaysia's first person in outer space.

But that's not the most interesting part of the story, according to the AP. Sheikh Muszaphar is a Muslim and takes his faith seriously, which raises the interesting question of how he will determine the direction of Mecca when he prays. And how in the world is Sheikh Muszaphar supposed to kneel when there is no gravity?

"I do agree that I am a Muslim, I am Islamic, but my main priority is more of conducting experiments," the 35-year-old astronaut said. "As a Muslim, I do hope to do my responsibilities, I do hope to fast in space."

After months of discussion and two international conferences, the Islamic National Fatwa Council came up with guidelines as to how Muslim astronauts should observe daily rituals. The rules were published in 12-page booklet titled "Muslim Obligations in the International Space Station."

Observant Muslims are required to turn toward Mecca -- located in Saudi Arabia -- and kneel and pray five times a day. However, with the space station circling the Earth 16 times a day, kneeling in zero gravity to pray -- or facing toward Mecca for that matter -- makes fulfilling those religious obligations difficult.

Malaysia's National Fatwa Council ruled that Muslim astronauts will not be required to kneel to pray if the absence of gravity makes it too hard. Facing Mecca while praying will be left to the "best abilities" of the astronaut, the council said.

Why did it take two conferences and so much talk to come up with such basic and sensible rules? The story doesn't tell us what the controversies and sides were, which is too bad.

Space travel has always posed interesting theological questions to people of all faiths. Politician-fighter pilot-ordained Presbyterian elder-corporate executive John Glenn faced a difficult life-or-death situation in 1962 when questions arose about whether the heat shield on the Mercury Atlas 6 might fail. Friends assured Glenn's mother that if Glenn died in space, God was still in control of Glenn's soul outside the Earth's atmosphere.

Sheikh Muszaphar's spiritual challenges and questions will hopefully rest at how and where he should pray while in space.

Time had a great article in 1969 about the spiritual issues in space travel. Apparently space travel was a hot topic for pastors in their sermons, and -- believe it or not -- politics played a part back then in theological issues:

Certainly one of the biggest spiritual problems posed by man's conquest of space is the new perspective that he will have from which to contemplate himself and God. Although the question is not a new one, man's journey in the cosmos raises again the issue of whether he and his planet enjoy the special favor of God, as set forth in Scripture. Space exploration, suggests Dr. Bernard Loomer of Berkeley Baptist Divinity School, "may reinforce the idea that man may not be the most important thing in creation. Say that out there we find persons superior to us, as we consider ourselves superior to dogs?"

... The Rev. Jules Moreau, professor of church history at Seabury-Western (Episcopal) Seminary in Evanston, Ill., suggests that the moral issues of imperialism and religious elitism, which were raised by Europeans when they began colonizing the rest of the world, also confront modern man as he prepares to colonize space. A modest but perplexing dilemma would result from the discovery of intelligent beings elsewhere in the universe. The question then would be: Should Christians attempt to convert their celestial neighbors? Extraterrestrial evangelism might not be necessary, suggests Dr. Per Massing of the Boston University School of Theology. "If God has revealed himself to people on another planet," he says, "that revelation must be essentially in agreement with that which he revealed to us -- given the assumption that the Christian faith in its essence is true."

There's no mention in Time's article about the troubles a Muslim could have in praying toward Mecca. I guess it wasn't an issue back then to the publication's predominantly American readership. It makes me wonder what other issues could be raised in a thorough study. Unfortunately the issue hasn't been explored that significantly since. Perhaps it's time for an update?

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