(Japan Economic Newswire Via Thomson Dialog NewsEdge)KUALA LUMPUR, April 25_(Kyodo) _ How do Muslim astronauts pray five times a day in space when a "day" in orbit is only 90 minutes? How does one determine where Mecca is in a constantly moving space station?
These were some of the questions Islamic scholars and scientists wrangled with in a seminar Tuesday, as Malaysia, a Muslim country, prepares to send its first citizen into space next year.
Following a nationwide selection process, Malaysia has shortlisted four candidates who will be sent to Russia next week for a final test to pick two future astronauts.
Only one will go into space in 2007 as part of a scientific mission on the International Space Station. Of the four candidates, three are Muslims.
"Our astronaut will stay in the International Space Station for about seven to eight days. Among the important needs of this astronaut, should he be a Muslim, is a guide on how to perform the prayer ritual in space," Mohamad Ruddin Abdul Ghani, permanent secretary of Malaysia's Science, Technology and Innovation Ministry, said in a speech at the "Islam and Life in Space" seminar.
At least one Muslim astronaut has gone into space before. Saudi Prince Sultan Salman Al-Saud orbited the Earth for a week in 1985, as a payload specialist on board the U.S. space shuttle Discovery.
But this is believed to be the first time Muslims are exploring the issue of life in space.
Muslims are required to pray five times daily, turning toward Mecca during prayer.
But as Zainal Abidin Abdul Rashid of Malaysia National University pointed out at the seminar, the space station circles the Earth 16 times in 24 hours, with a sunrise and sunset occurring about every 90 minutes.
"Does this mean we have to perform 80 prayers a day," he said in his seminar paper.
He proposed that Earth time, especially the time zone in Mecca, be used as the reference point to determine the prayer schedule.
On the issue of "qiblat" or the direction of Mecca, suggestions range from installing a special rotating seat so that the Muslim astronaut could turn easily toward Mecca, to using calculator that can determine qiblat direction and the prayer schedule.
Then there is also the question of how to perform ablution, a ritual cleansing of the body, with water-rationing in space.
Also, how does one do the prayer ritual of kneeling and prostrating under zero gravity?
Another Islamic scholar, Abdullah Ibrahim, stressed that Islamic laws are not always rigid, saying in his seminar paper, "Islam provides for flexibility under abnormal circumstances."
For example, he said, one cannot float around and pray at the same time, but one can be excused from the kneeling and prostrating rituals provided one straps oneself firmly in one's seat during prayer.
But on the question of ablution, it is not clear how the issue is resolved. Abdullah said water can be replaced with dust or ash according to the Quran, the Islamic holy book. But as Ruddin noted in his speech, there is no ash in the space station.
Ruddin also raised the question of halal food in space, which Malaysia wants to discuss with Russia about.
Ruddin said the resolutions from the two-day seminar will be presented to the Organization of the Islamic Conference, the world's largest Muslim grouping.
The space program is a tradeoff to Malaysia's $900 million purchase of 18 Russian Sukhoi Su-30 MKM fighter jets in 2003.
Saiyad Nizamuddin Ahmad from the American University of Sharjah in the United Arab Emirates hailed Malaysia's space program as an "inspiration" to other Muslim nations.
"The Muslim world suffers from a lot of problems, especially with its image because of issues like terrorism. We need to have some kind of inspiring example that comes from our own Muslim world, not looking all the time at the U.S., England and the European countries," he told reporters on the sidelines of the seminar.
He urged Muslim countries, especially the rich, oil-producing countries, to allocate resources to initiate their own space programs.
Malaysia has expressed hopes to put a man on the moon by the year 2020.