/ 20 September 2007

Islamic body rules on how to pray, wash, die in space

Malaysia’s first astronaut will blast off into space next month armed with guidelines from Muslim authorities on how to pray, wash and even be ”buried” in space.

Two Malaysian candidates, a doctor and an army dentist who are both Muslims, are undergoing training in Russia with the winner expected to be announced on Friday, ahead of the 11-day space mission which starts on October 10.

Other Muslims have ventured into space, but none during the fasting month of Ramadan which began last week, and Malaysia’s Department of Islamic Development (Jakim) is hopeful the astronaut will choose to fast during his voyage.

”Conditions at the International Space Station which are so different from those on Earth are not a hindrance for the astronaut to fulfil his obligations as a Muslim,” it said in a 20-page booklet.

”In difficult conditions, Islam has conveniences to ensure that religious worship can still be performed.”

Because the space station circles the Earth 16 times a day, theoretically a Muslim would have to pray 80 times a day while staying there.

But the guidelines stipulate that the astronaut need only pray five times a day, just as on Earth, and that the times should follow the location where the spacecraft blasted off from — in this case, Baikonur in Russia.

In the unlikely event the Muslim astronaut dies in space, the religious directives said his body should be brought back to Earth for the usual burial rituals. If that’s not possible, he should be ”interred” in space after a brief ceremony, though the guidelines failed to explain how that should be done.

The booklet covers Islamic washing rituals required before prayer, saying that if water is not available the astronaut can symbolically ”sweep holy dust” onto the face and hands ”even if there is no dust” in the space station.

There are also suggestions on how to pray in a zero-gravity environment.

”During the prayer ritual, if you can’t stand up straight, you can hunch. If you can’t stand, you can sit. If you can’t sit, you should lie down,” according to the booklet.

Muslims are required to eat food that is halaal, which rules out pork and its by-products, alcohol and animals not slaughtered according to Qu’ranic procedures are forbidden — but again in space there is flexibility.

”If it is doubtful that the food has been prepared in the halaal manner, you should eat just enough to ward off hunger,” the booklet said.

Jakim said it held a conference with the Malaysian National Space Agency last year to identify the issues and problems facing a Muslim astronaut, and compiled the results in the booklet released earlier this year.

Malaysia’s would-be astronauts were chosen from thousands of hopefuls in a nationwide contest.

The project was conceived in 2003 when Russia agreed to send a Malaysian to the space station as part of a billion-dollar purchase of 18 Sukhoi 30-MKM fighter jets. – AFP