Sunday, October 14, 2007

Islam in the 21st century

My father used to pose two questions about the Jewish sabbath to me for pondering. The sabbath begins Fridays at sunset and end the next day at sunset. If a Jewish person were to live exactly at the South Pole and use the clock to time when to begin and end observing the sabbath, which time zone would he choose? If he were to instead time the sabbath using the actual setting of the sun, a single sabbath would last for months instead of hours in the winter.

Space travel creates a similar dilemma for Muslim astronauts. With the start of Ramadan, Islamic astronauts must fast from sunrise to sunset. That's only ninety minutes in orbit. And the praying postures -- standing, bowing, kneeling, and prostrating -- are a challenge in zero gravity.

To address such issues, the Department of Islamic Development in the Malaysian National Space Agency (MNSA) held a two-day conference in 2006. The conference produced A Guideline of Performing Ibadah at the International Space Station (ISS). The solutions they came up with for Ibadah seem quite arbitrary. It's as if religious symbolism is suddenly irrelevant when it's inconvenient.

For example, if the schedule on the ISS conflicts with the daily prayers, Muslim astronauts could perform them "in Jamak (combined) and Qasar (shortened), without the need to Qadha' (compensate) the prayer." It's as if the Department of Islamic Development prioritizes the ISS mission over Islamic duty. "Using the eye lid as an indicator of the changing of postures in prayer" is their solution to prayer in zero gravity. You can't make this up, folks! Insofar as determining the direction of Qibla (facing Mecca during prayer) is concerned, if you don't choose one of their first three options, you can face "wherever."

The timing of the prayers and fasting are both dealt with the same way. The Muslim astronaut calculates it according to a 24-hour cycle based on the time zone of where they launched off the planet. Although a pragmatic approach, what does this say of the validity of the religious symbolism behind the Earth-based rules?

A Muslim must perform ritual washing before worship. They can't get away with it on the ISS because the only thing more precious than water is oxygen. Instead, they perform tayammum (dry ablution) "by striking both palms of hands on a clean surface such as wall or mirror." Again, I'm not making this up!

Pork and alcohol are prohibited in the Muslim diet. If there's any question as to whether or not the food served on the ISS is halal (anything permissible under Islamic law), the Muslim astronaut is permitted to eat on a "basis of not to starve." That's very thoughtful of the MNSA. Visits to the ISS typically last well over forty days.

We also learn from the Department of Islamic Development that, "according to Islam, traveling to space is encouraged." Apparently, Mohammed had foresight centuries ahead of his time. I'm curious to know on which passages of the Q'uran this edict is based.

So the next time you think the Amish have it tough in contemporary American society, try being faithful to Islam in the 21st century.

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