Taking the gravity out of prayer

Who will be Malaysia's first astronauts? And how will they perform their prayers, as Muslims, under

How will Muslims perform their religious duties in space? The question appears simple enough, but it has earth-shattering implications for Islam. The future of the Muslim civilisation, or rather what's left of it on this God-forsaken planet, depends on appropriate answers. Hence the summons to the great and the good of the Muslim world from Malaysia's National Space Agency. The agency hosted a special conference in the past week to address this all-important but hitherto neglected question.

The inquiry has acquired some urgency. Malaysia is about to send its first astronaut into space. In a reciprocal deal, which required Malaysia to purchase a handful of Sukhoi SU-30MKM jet fighters, the Russians have agreed to send one Malaysian to the International Space Station (ISS) next October.

Malaysians are nothing if not far-sighted. They like to do things in spectacular fashion, and they like to do them before anyone else. They were the first to think of building the longest flagpole in the world. It is still standing, with its record intact, in Merdeka Square, Kuala Lumpur. They were the first to think of building the longest bridge in Asia. Penang Bridge is holding on to that record, although it has faced a disaster or two since it opened in 1985. They went on to erect the tallest building in the world: the Petronas Towers in Kuala Lumpur, which opened in 1998. Sadly, that triumph was short-lived. Taipei 101 took the record to Taiwan in 2003. So they turned their attention to Mount Everest: unfortunately, it had already been climbed, yet that didn't stop the cunning Malaysians from claiming a record or two. Now they have turned their gaze towards space.

But here, too, they have been beaten. The first Muslim in space, alas, is not going to be a Malaysian. That record has already been set by Prince Sultan of Saudi Arabia, whose full name and titles are longer than the shuttle Discovery, which took him into space in 1985.

The annals of Muslim history record that Prince Sultan, who took a copy of the Koran with him, faced a number of vexing questions. From space, where was Mecca, the direction he had to face during his five daily prayers? Given that the timing of prayers is guided by the position of the sun - sunrise, noon, late afternoon, sunset and evening - how were these times to be determined in space, where the sun was either fully in the open or totally hidden? And how was he going to bow and prostrate himself in zero gravity?

The good prince turned to the most prominent religious authority in the kingdom: Sheikh bin Baz. I am very proud to be among the select and fortunate few to whom the late, great sheikh ever granted an audience. He was blind, and believed that the earth was flat. The question of prayer in space, he answered, does not arise, because nothing can leave the earth. That was that. So while we still have pictures of Prince Sultan talking by telephone to his uncle the late King Fahd, eating halal food that had been specially prepared for him, giving a guided tour of the space shuttle in God's own language, Arabic, and even reading the Koran, we have no record of him praying.

Step forward the Malaysians, who never do things by half. We cannot send our astronauts into space, says Professor Datuk Dr Mazlan Othman, director general of the National Space Agency, without full answers to this perplexing question. She has calculated that the ISS will circle the earth 16 times in 24 hours, which means that there will be 16 "days" and 16 "nights" within every 24-hour period. Does this mean that the poor Muslim astronaut has to perform prayers 80 times every 24 hours? Moreover, she asks, how will the astronaut perform ablutions, with water behaving erratically under zero gravity?

From here, the problems of fulfilling one's religious duties in space get even thornier, I am afraid. Before you can undertake your ablutions, you are required to do what is technically known in Islamic parlance as istanja. Or, to use the more colourful but easily understandable language of the Channel 5 medical drama House, "you have to clean your arse after you have pooed". For religious purposes and for all-round cleanliness, tissue paper just won't do.

Purity can be restored to the body only by means of a full and generous application of water. But how does one perform the istanja, as the London-based Muslim Weekly rightly asks, "with globules of water floating around randomly"? What happens if we have a group of Muslim astronauts in space? How will they pray in congregation? How will they stand shoulder to shoulder, and bow and prostrate in unison? They could end up in embarrassing positions, with some facing up and others facing down . . . whichever way up and down happen to be in space, with the direction of Mecca changing all the time! And what happens during the month of Ramadan? How will they fast, and for how long? The more questions you ask, the more daunting the difficulties become.

This is why I favour the Sheikh bin Baz option. He may have been blind, but he could see that God did not intend Muslims to go into space - or He, in His Infinite Mercy and Wisdom, would have equipped them with suitable biological apparatus.