A Ramadan Odyssey: Fasting in Space
Ramadan is the ninth month of the Islamic calendar and is honoured by Muslims as the holiest month of the year. It is the month of worship, humility, solidarity, and introspection characterised by practising fasting, one of the five pillars of Islam, during the daylight hours.
For centuries Muslims have relied on the rising and setting of the Sun in order to determine fasting hours. However, the Sun’s clockwork might not be a reliable indicator in certain conditions, for example in the case of astronauts.
So what does Ramadan in space look like? How do Muslim astronauts fast and pray in unchartered territory?
Has it even been done before? How frequently does the Sun set and rise when you’re in space? What is the official ruling on performing ibadah in space and what do we know from previous experience? Continue reading to find out more!
Has it Been Done Before?
Even though Muslims form 25% of the world population (more than two billion), they make up for less than 2% of astronauts. That being said, Muslim astronauts have set out for space adventures in the past. Here’s a list of at least 11 Muslim astronauts who’ve been to space so far.
- Sultan bin Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud [June 17, 1985 (STS-51-G)]ù
- Muhammed Ahmed Faris [July 22, 1987 (Mir EP-1)]
- Musa Khiramanovich Manarov [December 21, 1987 (Mir EO-3)] [December 2, 1990 (Soyuz TM-11)]
- Abdul Ahad Mohmand [August 29, 1988 (aboard the Mir EP-3)]
- Toktar Ongarbayuly Aubakirov [October 2, 1991 (Soyuz TM-13)]
- Talgat Amangeldyuly Musabayev [November 4, 1994 (Soyuz TM-19)] [August 25, 1998 – (Soyuz TM-27)] [(May 6, 2001 (Soyuz TM-32)]
- Salizhan Shakirovich Sharipov [January 20, 1998 (STS-89)] [October 14, 2004 (Soyuz TMA-5)]
- Anousheh Ansari [18 September 2006 (Soyuz TMA-9)]
- Dato’ Dr Sheikh Muszaphar Shukor Al Masrie bin Sheikh Mustapha [October 10, 2007 (TMA-11)]
- Aidyn Akanovich Aimbetov [September 2, 2015 (Soyuz TMA-18M)]
- Hazzaa Ali Almansoori [September 25, 2019 (Soyuz MS-15)]
The Sun’s Clockwork in Space
Astronauts residing in the ISS (International Space Station) for example, experience an astonishing 16 sunsets and sunrises within a 24-hour day! This happens because the orbiting lab orbits the Earth at a flabbergasting 27,600 Km/hr, making a full circle around the Earth every 90 minutes.
What is the Official Ruling?
By now we’ve established the challenges of performing religious obligations in space by Muslims. The next logical question is what are the solutions suggested by the relevant authorities to make it possible?
In early 2007 the Department of Islamic Development Malaysia (JAKIM) released a fatwa, a formal document to provide a frame of reference for Muslim astronauts to perform their ibadah aboard the International Space Station (ISS). This special document included instructions for both praying and fasting, two essential pillars of the Islamic faith, during space travel.
According to this ruling, a Muslim astronaut has the status of a traveller while in space. Therefore, they’re allowed to postpone their fast until they arrive back on Earth. Furthermore, astronauts are also exempted from fasting during their travel on the basis that they need to be at peak performance during their travel. Therefore, if circumstances arise that may lead to complications with one’s health, especially in space the astronaut may postpone their fast to a later time.
This is permissible as declared in the following Quranic verse;
[Fasting for] a limited number of days. So whoever among you is ill or on a journey [during them] – then an equal number of days [are to be made up]. And upon those who are able [to fast, but with hardship] – a ransom [as substitute] of feeding a poor person [each day]. And whoever volunteers excess – it is better for him. But to fast is best for you, if you only knew. (Surah Al-Baqarah 2:184)
However, if an astronaut in space still chooses to fast whilst travelling they’re prescribed to obey the fasting period of their launch zone. For instance, when Dr Sheikh Muszaphar Shuor of Malaysia went aboard the Soyuz TMA-11 in October of 2007, from Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan his fasting duration would have been the same as that of the local Baikonur time zone. Finally, to break one’s fast the document also states that one may consume whatever food is available to them, even if they’re not sure if it’s Halal or not, in order to not starve oneself.
The status of a traveller also means that an astronaut can combine his/her prayers (Jamak) and make them shorter (Qasar) as per Islamic jurisprudence. As far as the timing for prayer is concerned the document also states that the prayer timings of the launch zone are applicable throughout the duration of space travel. For the issue of facing the Qibla, the council agreed that the astronaut shall try his/her best to face the Qibla.
However, since a space station is in constant motion along the Earth’s orbit it might be impossible to maintain the correct direction throughout the prayer. Therefore one should try to face the Kaba, or the projection of the Kaba, alternatively, try to face the general direction of the Earth. However, if none of that is possible then one may pray facing wherever. The document also clarifies the leniency in rules to perform prayer gestures and perform dry ablution to achieve a state of ritual purity, necessary for both, prayer and fasting.
The document goes as far as to clarify other issues of Islamic jurisprudence like caring for the deceased and the proper dress code to be observed.
What Do We Learn From Experience?
Although a lot of Muslim astronauts haven’t been very open about performing their religious obligations, we still have a few examples to learn from.
What we’ve learned from the experiences of Muslims who’ve performed their religious obligations during space travel is that it’s an exhilarating experience!
An extract from Chapter 7 of Sultan bin Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud’s book ‘Seven Days in Space – Story of the First Arab Astronaut’ reads:
“Now I feel quite exhausted, possibly due to lack of sleep, weightlessness, and loss of bodily fluids. I really feel dehydrated. I have one hour left until I can break my fast; the rest of the crew on the ship are supposed to be sleeping at that time, but they have decided to stay with me until I break my fast. What a beautiful feeling! I learned about the sighting of the month of Shawwal crescent, which meant that tomorrow will be the first day of the feast. I feel so ecstatic here on board the shuttle.” (Seven Days in Space p:161)
Experiencing Ramadan in space is altogether a different experience. Of course, there are the challenges of managing the day-to-day in space but the takeaway from experience indicates that religion and science are often complimentary.
What we understand from this is that religion forms an integral part of the lives of Muslims. No matter what course life takes the people of the Faith find a way to practise their faith without compromising their obligations. In fact, the Quran encourages followers to seek knowledge and explore. A verse from the Quran reads;
“Indeed, in the creation of the heavens and the earth and the alternation of the night and the day are signs for those of understanding.” (Surah Al-Imran 3:190)
If you want to learn more about Ramadan, head over to our blog where we answer all your burning questions!