Life on Mars: Space Programs in Muslim-Majority Countries
Space programs in Muslim countries pose unique religious challenges.
October 21, 2014The United States is not the only country with an active space program. Across the Muslim-majority world, states pursue such programs to spur scientific advancement, provide a context for missile development, or merely inspire young people toward world-class excellence.
But pursuing such a program raises a surprising number of religious questions. In 1985, Saudi Arabian Prince Sultan bin Salman Al Saud, the first Muslim in space, had to find a substitute for praying toward Mecca while he circled Earth at nearly 300 miles per minute. Malaysia’s first astronaut could not rely on sunset and sunrise to define fasting hours during his 2007 Ramadan space flight. To help inspire people back home, he also shared YouTube videos of himself performing prayers in zero gravity—where traditional pre-prayer washing with water becomes impossible.
More recently, some UAE clerics have ruled against the permissibility of travel to Mars, conceding the scientific benefits but arguing that without a way to get back, the journey would be akin to suicide.
The efforts to think through the religious implications of space travel are more than mere scholastic arguments. They are also part of a broader effort by governments to demonstrate that not only is there no conflict between faith and modernity, but also that religion has important and positive things to say about science and technology. It is not quite a return to the Golden Age of Baghdad, when Arab science led the world, but it is a start.
This piece is a part of Mezze, a monthly short article series spotlighting societal trends across the region. It originally appeared in the Middle East Program's monthly newsletter, Middle East Notes and Comment. For more information and to receive our mailings, please contact the Middle East Program.