SCIENCE
Mecca: Which Way?
By Dr Rizwana Rahim
TCCI, Chicago, IL

Though not widely known, several Muslims have already been into the space so far.
Except perhaps for Sultan bin Salman bin Abdulaziz al-Saud, a grandson of King Ibn Saud, who was a payload specialist and one of the seven international crew on the American STS-51-Discovery (June 17-24, 1985), other Muslims from different countries went into space through arrangements with Russia. This collaboration included an Afghan [Abdul Ahad Mohmand (on Mir in 1988), an Azerbaijani (Musa Monorov), a Syrian (Muhammed Ahmed Faris), several Kazhaks (with Aidyn Aimbetov and Mukhtar Aymakhanov to go in October this year)].
As part of a billion dollar sale of 18 Russian Sukhoi 30-MKM fighter jets to Malaysia, Russia has agreed to train two Malaysians for space travel aboard International Space Station (ISS) next year. According to Malaysian National Space Agency (Angkasa) Director-General, Prof. Datuk Dr. Mazlan Othman, four candidates have been selected for technical and physical training: three Muslims (Dr Sheikh Muszaphar Shukor, medical doctor; Dr Faiz Khaleed, dentist; and Mohammed Faiz Kamaluddin, pilot), and the fourth, S. Vanajah, engineer, a non-Muslim.
Considering Malaysia’s 26 million, of which about 60% are Muslims and 35% ethnic Chinese and Hindus (the rest being indigenous people and Eurasians), the candidates seem to fairly reflect the national proportion. The names of the two finalists will be announced by the Prime Minister, Datuk seri Abdullah Ahmad Badawi. Malaysia is planning to send its first astronaut to the Moon by 2020.
Since ISS will orbit the earth at 28,000 km/hour, or once every 90 minutes -- that is, 16 times in 24 hours or, 16 days/16 nights in 24 hours -- Dr. Mazlan said it may pose various problems for the selected astronaut/s in preparing for and performing the daily prayers.
For instance, how to do Wazu (obligatory ablution) in the ISS micro-gravity environment with the amount of water already in short supply and severely rationed? Given the high speed of the spacecraft and its fast-changing position: How to find and face Mecca from space? When to perform the five prayers, individually (and for how long), in a 90-minute day? How does one kneel in zero gravity, when one is weightless? And then, the astronauts diet prepared by the Russians: Will it be Zabiha/Halal ?
Malaysian authorities have not yet discussed these matters with the Russians, but to seek advice on how best to deal with these matters in Islamic way, Malaysia invited 150 scientists, astronauts, Islamic scholars, academicians and others for a two-day seminar (25-26 April), on “Islam and Life in Space.” Syed Kamarulzaman Syed Kabeer of Malaysian Astronomy and Vice President of Islamic Law Association, chairman of the seminar's coordinating committee, said that though other Muslim astronauts have already been in space, this would be the first discussion of its kind from a purely Islamic perspective.
One of the more interesting developments in this regard is a computer program written by Professor Zainol Abidin Abdul Rashid of the Space Science Institute, National UJniversity of Malaysia. Using various orbital parameters, he and his students have calculated the prayer times and positional directions for astronauts in the space. "It can be set up on a computer or even a personal digital assistant (PDA),” he told Reuters, “and figuring out your location is as simple as connecting to the Internet.” He would release the program in 2007 for free download, after discussions with Islamic scholars.
In situations which are not normal (such as in the battle ground or when traveling, or one is sick and disabled or has physical health difficulties), considerable relaxation is already allowed in Islam with regard to the manner and performance of daily rituals. IslamOnline.net also re-iterated the same recently on its website: “According to an established principle of Islamic jurisprudence, if for any reason we are unable to fulfill [sic] a certain condition or a prerequisite on which the validity of a certain act of worship is dependent, then we must still perform the act without the condition.” But the Malayasian authorities want to formalize all that for space conditions, I suppose.



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