Sheikh Muszaphar Shukor has a problem. Two problems. The first is that Mecca keeps moving.
Well, not really. It's Shukor who'll be moving. As Malaysia's first astronaut, he's scheduled to lift off October 10 in a Russian Soyuz spacecraft for a nine-day visit during the holy month of Ramadan to the International Space Station.
He's a devout Muslim and when he says his daily prayers he wants to face Mecca, specifically the Ka'aba, the holiest place in Islam ("Turn then thy face towards the Sacred Mosque: wherever ye are, turn your faces towards it …. " The Quran, Al-Baqarah, 2:149).
That's where the trouble comes in. From ISS, orbiting 220 miles above the surface of the Earth, the qibla (an Arabic word meaning the direction a Muslim should pray toward Mecca) changes from second to second. During some parts of the space station's orbit, the qibla can move nearly 180 degrees during the course of a single prayer. What's a devout Muslim to do?
"As a Muslim, I do hope to do my responsibilities, " Shukor says. "I do hope to fast in space."
Malaysia's space agency, Angkasa, convened a conference of 150 Islamic scientists and scholars last year to wrestle with these and other questions. The resulting document (.doc), "A Guideline of Performing Ibadah (worship) at the International Space Station (ISS)", was approved by Malaysia's National Fatwa Council earlier this year. According to the report, determining the qibla should be "based on what is possible" for the astronaut, and can be prioritized this way: 1) the Ka'aba, 2) the projection of Ka'aba, 3) the Earth, 4) wherever.