Ep 11: Which Way Is Mecca?

How will people of faith adapt their religious practices to the space environment? How will our cultural values help us adapt to life in space?

Christian theologian Michael Waltemathe and Muslim theologian Mehmet Ozalp discuss examples of how the limitations of space will affect religious rituals and traditions. And Alaskan Native Alice Glenn describes how her community, the Iñupiat people, have adapted to live in a harsh environment that shares a lot of characteristics with space.

The transcript for this episode is below.

Imagine this: It’s been a year since you left Earth for your new life in space. The settlement is doing well. Your family has grown, your habitat is expanding, and your community is thriving. You want to acknowledge this one-year milestone with a celebration. But you’re also a person of faith, and want to express your gratitude in a quieter, more personal way, too. What do you do? How much of your culture and religion have you brought here from Earth? How have you adapted your ceremonies and rituals to life in space? How has your culture helped you adapt to life in space?

Welcome to Making New Worlds, a podcast about the ethical issues involved with settling space. I’m Erika Nesvold. Today we’re talking about religion and culture. Unlike some of the other topics we’ve covered, this one doesn’t have big, scary ethical questions and implications. But religion and ethics are closely linked for many people, and our culture and values will drive a lot of the choices we make about how to live in space. So I wanted to explore how our rituals, traditions, and values, will shift as we move off-Earth.

Let’s start off by asking, how will we need to adapt our religious practices to life in space? People of faith have been traveling to space for decades now, so we already have some real-life examples of this. You might remember Protestant theologian Michael Waltemathe from our episode on planetary protection. He provided a couple of examples of religious activities in space in the Apollo era, both of which involved Christian practices. Religious activities by NASA astronauts has always been a bit controversial, since NASA is a government agency and the United States has laws about the separation of church and state.

Michael Waltemathe: “When Apollo 8 flew around– flew to the Moon and back, and they orbited the Moon, they read from biblical scripture on Christmas Eve, 1968, and well, they basically read the story of creation, the first four verses. And then they blessed the population of Earth, and that caused quite a stir, because a couple of days later, the American Atheist Association sued the U.S. government for spending taxpayers money on religious messages from outer space. And the funny thing about that is that that went all the way up to the Supreme Court, and the Supreme Court threw it out because they said they did not have jurisdiction in lunar orbit. Which I think is a fascinating answer to that problem.”

So far, there isn’t anything inherent in the environment of space or the Moon that makes it too difficult for astronauts to practice Christianity.

Michael Waltemathe: “In the Apollo program, when Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin landed on the Moon, Buzz Aldrin had taken some wine and wafers and a silver chalice, and the first thing they did on the surface of the Moon was, they actually celebrated Holy Communion. So that ritual worked very well in lunar gravity, you could say. Also, there’s some– When you look at the footage of the Apollo missions, there’s astronauts reading biblical texts from the surface of the Moon. I think that is something that was just part of the space program at that time. Christian astronauts had brought their religion with them out there, and they performed their religion and it was part of the mission in that way.”

But what about other religions with different practices? In Islam, for example, Muslims are required to pray five times a day. These prayers have a specific format: they should be done in a clean place, and involve standing, bowing, and prostration on the ground, while facing towards the holy city of Mecca.

Michael Waltemathe: “When the first Muslim astronaut flew into space, there of course was the question, where do you pray when you’re orbiting the Earth at the speed that the ISS does? So if you have to pray towards a certain direction, which is Mecca in the case of Islam, how do you do that when you’re orbiting the Earth?”

I consulted Muslim theologian Mehmet Ozalp about this question.

Mehmet Ozalp: “I am the Associate Professor for Islamic Studies at Charles Sturt University, Australia. I’m also the director of Center for Islamic Studies and Civilization, which was established in 2010 in Charles Sturt University. And it is the only university that offers an undergraduate-level Bachelor of Islamic Studies.”

Mehmet is very interested in the practice of Islam in the modern world. He told me more about the requirements of daily prayers, and how Muslims adapt them to new environments.

Mehmet Ozalp: “For Muslims it’s the– the direction is towards the Kaaba, the building inside Mecca. If someone is, for example, residing in Mecca or is doing pilgrimage, they would have to face in the direction of the Kaaba, the building itself. But scholars have said in the past that if you are outside of the city, it’s sufficient to just turn towards the city of Mecca. I guess you would get it just about right if you do that. Then when you look at the classical Islamic scholarship, they do talk about, what do you do if you’re on a ship and the direction of the ship is changing all the time? And they have come up with solutions to this. And they say that you start off with– facing in the direction of Mecca when that ship is in that direction at that particular time. It does no matter if the ship changes direction. You just keep your direction, it’s out of your control. While others say that if ship changes direction, you also change yourself slightly, if you can, as well, assuming that that can be done. This comes up in airplanes, you know, when someone is flying, what direction you face. Especially when you’re in the Pacific or something where you could go both directions. And then there’s the issue of curvature of the Earth. So all of this comes into play in space, as well. If someone’s in a space station, these are the things that the person has to think about: that the station is moving constantly, and that the direction would change.”

When this question came up for a Malaysian astronaut who traveled to the International Space Station in 2007, Malaysia hosted a conference of Islamic scholars to decide on this question and a few others. Malaysia’s National Fatwa Council produced a document that discussed requirements for prayer and fasting for Muslims on the ISS. Here’s Michael Waltemathe again.

Michael Waltemathe: “And if you’re off-planet or if you don’t know where you are, then you have to pray to Allah with the will in your heart to pray to Allah and not somebody else. So that is basically the rule that they apply. And the astronaut, Sheikh Muszaphar Shukor, who was on the ISS, he says in an interview, and I think it’s a fabulous quote, he says, “And that’s good, because Allah wants adoration, not acrobatics.””

But there are other aspects of the space environment that can pose a challenge for certain religious rituals. Weightlessness, for instance: how do your prostrate yourself on the ground if you are floating in space? Islam, as Mehmet told me, has a long history of adapting to these kinds of environmental limitations.

Mehmet Ozalp: “I think that Islam is a flexible religion, inherently, in its practices. It does take into account difficulties one may face. And even from the time of the Prophet Muhammad, for instance, when Muslims pray, or before praying, they have to have ablution. And what if you don’t have water? What are you going to do? So there’s something called sand-washing, you know, you tap your hands on sand and you kind of wash your limbs. So there’s flexibility. There’s always some sort of a replacement and adjustment that can be done. Because fundamentally, the purpose is to pray. And as the Quran says, God is not in the West, not in the East. God is, kind of, beyond space and time. So the direction is just to indicate, to have a unity of direction and prayer, so that you can have a congregation. Otherwise, we’re not looking for God anywhere.”

Then there’s the lack of night and day in space. A lot of rituals depend on the time of day or year, timing that’s determined by the movement of the Earth, Sun, moon, or stars. For example, the Jewish Sabbath begins at sunset, many Buddhist holidays fall on the day of the full moon, and the dates of the spring and winter equinoxes are celebrated in many cultures. Going back to Islam for a moment, the timing of the five daily prayers follows the movement of the sun across the sky. But what if there is no sunrise or sunset, no afternoon or evening?

Mehmet Ozalp: “Actually, Prophet Muhammad gave a solution to this, interestingly. In a saying attributed to him, he talks about the end of times, when there will be a day which will be like a year. Or he talks about a day which will be like a month, or like a week, like a month, like a year. So time, kind of, losing its normal sense. And his companions ask him, “How do we pray in that day?” And he says, you calculate. You work it out. So basically– This question came up for Muslims in Sweden or Norway, where there is, you know, six months there’s no sun. And the solution is that you either assume that you are in Mecca and you follow Meccan times, a 24-hour cycle, or you go with the nearest normal day, a latitude where it would give you a kind of a reasonable day where you can have proper, five daily prayers. So if you were to– If you were on a space station, that’s what you would do. You would have a certain set of times when you would pray your five daily prayers… In Mars, though, it’s a little bit easier, because Mars would have a day, as well. You know, the sun would rise. I guess depends where you land. If you land towards the poles, because there could be some frozen water or something, it’ll be difficult. Then you might do it like you were in Sweden or something. But if it’s– Assuming that it’s a normal latitude where you can have a proper day, sunrise, sunset, you can just work it out according to that. The only thing is the direction of prayer would be towards Earth.”

Many religions will have to consider similar kinds of accommodations as their members move into space. You may be aware of another space-related religious ruling that made the news a few years ago. Here’s Michael Waltemathe again.

Michael Waltemathe: “There’s one interesting example of the– what was it called?– the Mars One mission. Where a Dutch entrepreneur proposed sending humans on one-way trips to Mars. And the general Islamic authority of the United Arab Emirates actually issued a fatwā against that one. So, their argument was, if you go to Mars on a one-way mission, that could be compared to suicide. And suicide is forbidden in Islam. That was also their argument as the– The purpose of religion is basically saving lives. Going there deliberately to die would be forbidden within their religion.”

I asked Mehmet Ozalp if he had heard about this ruling.

Mehmet Ozalp: “Yes, I had heard about that. Well, I certainly heard about the planned trip to Mars. If they’re looking for an imam, I can go! [laughs] I’m happy to go.”

Mehmet provided some more background on this issue, and gave me his own perspective on the ruling.

Mehmet Ozalp: “The consideration about that fatwā of saying that it is not permissible to go to Mars, in a one-way ticket kind of way– It rests on the premise that in Islam, protection of life is extremely important. And one should not risk their lives if there is certain death. And I think in this case, the people who pronounced that particular fatwā thought that it would be certain death, going to Mars. I personally don’t think so… Yes, certainly, it will be quite difficult to survive on Mars. But it is possible, you know. And people are certainly going there to survive. So I think it is permissible in that respect. Certainly risky, but we can take risks in life. Nothing is certain. But the other aspect is, I guess, leaving the planet completely. Saying, “I’m going to live and die in Mars when my time comes.” I can’t see anything wrong with that, but it’s like, once again, going to another land and trying to settle in that land and take humanity’s frontier forward into– You know, certainly Mars is a creation of God from an Islamic perspective. It’s not an alien land where it will be a problem.”

But death in space will become more common, and eventually inevitable, as people begin to settle there. And this brings us to another area in society where religion plays an important role: what do we do with our dead? Christianity and Islam will likely not have too much trouble adapting their burial practices to space: Christians have practiced burial at sea for centuries, and there has been a fatwā issued about how to handle Muslim bodies in space. But other religions place a greater emphasis on preserving or cremating the body, or returning it to its homeland for burial in the ground. What if observing these traditions is impossible in space?

Michael Waltemathe: “I mean, the other thing is: What if the body is extremely important? How do you– For instance, if you’re in a self-sustainable space settlement and the person dies and you need the body as resources, what do you do with that? I mean, can you just– Now, or on Earth, you can just bury– you bury someone in the ground and we all know that it is repurposed by organisms back into the ecology. And you would probably need to do that in a self-sustaining habitat as well, but there is sort of a difference between putting somebody in a recycler and putting someone in the ground, right? So that is not so much, I think, an ethical as an aesthetical problem. But religions will have to address that.”

Michael also talked another research topic of his: Why are some Christian groups against the exploration of space? And is there a theological argument for space settlement?

Michael Waltemathe: “Joshua Ambrosius, he’s a political scientist. He’s at the University of Dayton in Ohio. He published a paper and he did research on Pew Research data, on sociological data. And his research showed that certain evangelical groups are more opposed to space exploration than other religious groups. And those are the same groups are also opposed to science. So my argument would be, if you want to talk to those groups and understand their problems with space exploration and sway them to support space exploration, if you approach them in scientific language and with scientific terms, they will probably not understand you, not listen to what you say. But if you approach them on religious terms, that is exactly where their problems come from. And then you can talk to them and understand, and maybe help solve some of their problems and get them on board in support of space exploration.”

I mentioned to Michael that this sounds a lot like issues around climate change.

Michael Waltemathe: “For instance, one of the arguments that you can find about not supporting space exploration is that end of the world is near. And if the end of the world is near, and we can expect it to happen in our lifetime, why have a space exploration mission that would take thirty years time? From thinking about it from getting the logistics done, getting the engineering done and launching the probe, waiting for it to arrive, and then for the data to come back– I mean, New Horizons probably took about thirty years to get to the point where it gave us this fabulous data that we now have. And if you fully expect the world to end in that period, why spend money on that, right? And that could be the same argument with climate change. If you expect the world to end, hey, here it comes, so you would probably need to talk to groups that have that problem in religious terms to get them to understand that: what happens if the world does not end? Or maybe make them understand what happens if this is really our duty to save the world from going down the drain?”

Mehmet Ozalp doesn’t see a barrier to settling space from the point of view of Islam, but he does think that Muslims need to start a longer discussion of what Islam in space will look like.

Mehmet Ozalp: “Apart from the personal practice of Islam, I think we need to look at it from a theological perspective. I am currently doing some work on public theology in Islam. There needs– There’s some tendency in Islamic law to take things in a granulated manner. That is, you take an issue at a time and try to address them. And sometimes that’s good, it’s flexible. But we don’t have overarching theological guidelines in that case. So my approach– I haven’t, sort of, solved this completely, but I’m sort of researching and trying to write about this– that we need to first develop a theology of space and life in space. Basically, what that would require is that you would go into the Quran, look at all the relevant verses. You would look at all the relevant saying of Prophet Muhammad related to life in foreign places or strange lands. Or even space, there could be some verses that we missed that may give very good answers in the Quran. So to read these sources with that in mind, and bring all those together and have a– develop a theology of what it means to be humans traveling to outer space and living there. So that is required, in my opinion. And then that would be the guiding theology that would be of import to addressing individual issues and difficulties that people might face.”

We’ve been talking about how we’ll have to adapt our religions to life in space. But our beliefs and cultures also help us adapt to our environments. That’s essentially the evolutionary purpose of culture. Different societies on Earth have been shaped by wildly different environments. Is there something we can learn from cultural practices in these communities that will help us live better in space?

I talked about this idea with Alice Glenn.

Alice Glenn: “My name is Alice Qannik Glenn. And I’m an Alaskan Native Iñupiaq woman, born and raised in Barrow, Alaska, also known as Utqiaġvik, which is the northernmost town in the United States. I graduated from Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University with a Bachelor of Science in Aerospace Studies, some concentration in Aerospace Life Sciences, Space Studies, and Math.”

Alice is currently in the middle of a philanthropy fellowship sponsored by the Rasmuson Foundation and Philanthropy Northwest. She gave a fascinating talk at the 2017 Starship Congress conference about what the rest of us can learn from Iñupiat culture about how to adapt to the harsh conditions in space. She pointed out some of the ways that living in the Arctic is like living in space.

Alice Glenn: “The first is, obviously, the harsh environment. They have– In the Arctic we have dark or irregular daylight, so in the winter time is three months, I think it’s November to January, of 24-hour darkness. And then in the summer, it’s 24-hour daylight, from, I think, May to June or August, or June to August. And so that seems to be– That seems to throw people off who live in a normal environment, I think. Also cold, right? So in Barrow, the temperature ranges from 60 below, Fahrenheit, to 80 above. Personally, I’ve never seen 80 above, [laughs] but I have seen 60 below… I think another one is desolation. People– If you picked someone up from, you know, mainland United States and dropped them off in the Arctic, it would look like a vast, desolate landscape. So I can see why some people would say it’s desolate. The isolation– So, a lot of villages and towns in northern Alaska are only accessible by plane most of the year… And cabin fever issues. So, when it’s cold and dark outside, a lot of people tend to stay inside and stay warm, and don’t want to brave the cold or– And so I think that’s similar to living on a spaceship for an extended period of time.”

So it’s dark and cold, and you’re cut off from the rest of the human population. Yep, sounds a lot like space. In fact, one of the concerns about long-term spaceflight is that humans might be psychologically unable to endure these kinds of conditions. But Alice points out that for her people, it’s just their way of life.

Alice Glenn: “Attitude is everything. You can’t just complain about the darkness or the cold. Like, nobody does that, because who are you gonna complain to? The person that lives there, too? Like, what– You’re not gonna get anything done, you’re not going to convince anybody of anything. It’s just wasted time, you know?”

Alice gave me some examples of how the Iñupiat people have adapted to thrive in their environment.

Alice Glenn: “First and foremost, of all of the people that I’ve spoken to, and a couple of people that I interviewed, the main adaptation is adaptability. Iñupiat culture, economy, and the environment are ever-changing and the people have learned to adjust to external forces. Just from thousands of years of living there, to colonization, and now, you know, climate change and stuff. So I think that’s the biggest thing, biggest asset that we have, is adaptability… Another one is preparedness. Harsh weather is known that, you know, we know that it’s going to be cold and harsh outside, so we need to be prepared for it. That’s just all you can do, really. And you need to be prepared for white-out conditions, snowstorms, all of those things. So that’s another one.”

These two qualities, adaptability and preparedness, will definitely be vital in a future space settlement, and in fact they’re already highly valued traits in astronauts working in space today.

Alice Glenn: “And I think the third is really important. And it’s definitely something that everyone knows at home. And it is about cooperation and community. Everybody knows that the community is better than an individual. More people is better than just one and the more help that you have, the better you’re off. Nothing big gets done alone.”

This sense of the importance of community seems like something that will make or break future space settlements. Not just in terms of how well the community handles life-threatening problems, but also in terms of how well the people in the community adjust to living in space. Survival is one thing, but if we want these settlements to endure, the people living there need to be happy. And how do you increase happiness in a community? Throw a party!

Alice Glenn: “We have a big focus on community gatherings back home. It’s important to be with your family, be with your friends. We have a bunch of events that go on throughout the year. The first, my favorite, is the Christmas Games. So like, you know, it’s December and it’s really cold and dark outside. For a whole week, we have just a gathering of everyone, of every age to compete in some Native games that we put on. And you can win money. Like, there’s money given to first place, second place, and third place. And it’s so much fun. So another adaptation to confinement is just getting with your people and interacting with one another and gathering.”

Alice says this is how her people adapt to the isolation and confinement of the Arctic, too.

Alice Glenn: “You don’t stay home. Nobody is alone all the time. It’s not healthy. Iñupiat people know that, so they have a bunch of gatherings. In addition to the Christmas games, we also have Kivgiq, which happens every three years. It’s called Kivgiq, which is a messenger feast celebration, yeah. And so what happens is, people from all of the surrounding villages and now, since it’s gotten so big, even further in, all over the state of Alaska and even parts of Russia and Canada, we invite all of these people to our hometown, and we all just share stories, Eskimo dance, and give gifts to people that we haven’t seen in three years. And it’s, you know, it’s a big social gathering, everyone’s happy, everyone’s dancing. It’s beautiful… We have this thing called Nalukataq in the summertime, where we all get together and we share our whale harvest with the entire community. The whaling crew shares their whale harvest to everyone and we do a blanket toss celebration, serve food, serve coffee and tea, and, you know, everyone’s– Even if it’s cold, it’s pretty cold in the summertime, still, but we still are out there and celebrating and getting together.”

Being able to enjoy each other’s company is even more important in a cramped environment like a space station or underground habitat. You can’t get away from each other! Alice told me about her dad, who grew up in California but then came back to Alaska to learn about the Iñupiat way of life from his uncles and cousins. He’d spend all summer with them, hunting and camping and getting reacquainted with his culture.

Alice Glenn: “But he said you learn to develop an inside attitude. So when you’re camping and you’re you know, you’re in your cabin your family and stuff, you learned that it’s a– you have to have a different attitude. Because you can’t act the same way that you would inside as you would outside. So you learn to not be bothered by the unpleasant habits of, like, your family member and your cousins and your, you know, all of that. ‘Cause, I mean, you can be bothered by it, but you need to learn to not– let it not affect you as much as it normally would, you know. It can’t cause any problems, you know, it’s just not worth it, [laughs] really.”

If Alice and I were looking at the same desolate Arctic landscape, we’d probably have two very different reactions to it, because of the different cultures we grew up in. I would feel lonely and isolated, but Alice would feel a connection to home.

Alice Glenn: “There’s such an important emphasis on community. Never really alone, although we may be disconnected in some ways from the rest of the world. We have kinship with one another and we are in touch with others through time and space, through traditional knowledge from our elders and contact with one another within each of our communities. So there’s a big tie to the land and tie to the people that lived there before use, our family that lived there before us and our ancestors. Although you may feel or look like you are alone, in this vast Arctic landscape, there’s just the knowledge, knowing that your people have lived there for thousands of years and it’s not the first time that you– you’re not the only person to have stepped on this ground. It’s just, it’s very connecting, spiritually and socially, I think. So you don’t ever really feel alone when you know all of this in conjunction and everything’s connecting.”

So maybe this is what our descendants will feel when they look out across a bleak Martian landscape, or out the windows of a space station into the vast emptiness of space. Maybe they’ll feel that strong connection to their community, to their home, where we would feel isolation and fear. They’ll make new traditions and rituals, timed to their new sunrises and sunsets, and celebrate holidays on new calendars.

There are cultures around the world, like the Iñupiat people, who have valuable knowledge on how to build and maintain thriving communities in harsh environments. I asked Alice how she thought we could incorporate this knowledge into our future space communities.

Alice Glenn: “That’s a really good question, one that I hadn’t thought of, really, or at least seriously, until you asked me and sent me that email. I think that the biggest thing that I take from that question is just what Starship Congress was about, that space is for everybody, and when you say everybody, you mean all of these different cultures. I think that, you know, if I were able to go to space as an Alaskan Native Iñupiaq woman, I would know some of these things. I would know some answers that someone else might not know or they might know something that I don’t know. And it just– In diversity, and having a diverse group of people included in the conversation, and in space, and everything, I think that’s just paramount. Because you can’t be sending all the same people to space, you know, and expecting to come up with new ideas. And it seems, you know, very– like such a simple answer, that you just need to have diversity. And it just never seems to be that way. I mean, I guess it– the ISS is a collaboration of nations, which is great. But you’re right, I think that there are some voices that are left unheard. And oftentimes, maybe, they have the specific answers. So the biggest thing is diversity and space is for everybody, and it– That would be my answer.”

So what do you think? How would your most important traditions and rituals change if you lived in space? What kinds of new traditions might we develop in our new societies beyond the Earth? And what cultural values in our communities here at home could help us thrive in space?

Join the conversation on Facebook at facebook.com/makingnewworlds. Or hit us up on Twitter @makingnewworlds. You can also visit our website at makingnewworlds.com.

Michael Waltemathe has co-edited a book called Touching the Face of the Cosmos: On the Intersection of Space Travel and Religion. If you’d like to learn more about Islam and its adaptation to the modern world, Mehmet Ozalp has published three books: 101 Questions You Asked About Islam, Islam in the Modern World, and Islam Between Tradition and Modernity: An Australian Perspective. You can find Alice Glenn’s Starship Congress talk on Youtube. I’ll put the link up on the website.

This has been Making New Worlds, a podcast by me, Erika Nesvold. Our intro and outtro music is by Herr Doktor.