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Space Muslims face weightless search for Mecca

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Here's a poser for our Muslim readers: if you're aboard the International Space Station and it's time to pray - how do you pinpoint Mecca?

That's the problem facing Malaysia's space agency as it prepares to send the country's first astronaut into orbit in 2007, Reuters reports. According to Zainol Abidin Abdul Rashid of Malaysia's space science institute, "following Earth time and facing in the direction of Earth are the key elements to solving the problem".

Accordingly, Zainol's got his head down with his graduate students from the National University of Malaysia to write a programme to "calculate the correct prayer times and directions for astronauts, once their positions are keyed in". He explained: "It can be set up on a computer or even a personal digital assistant, and figuring out your location is as simple as connecting to the internet."

So far so good, but what about pre-prayer ablutions and kneeling in zero grav? Cue a group of muftis who recently published some highly pragmatic guidlines to tackle these problems on Islam Online:

"According to an established principle of Islamic jurisprudence, if for any reason we are unable to fulfil a certain condition or a prerequisite on which the validity of a certain act of worship is dependent, then we must still perform the act without the condition."

Malaysia now has a shortlist of four possible astronauts, three of them Muslim, from which to pick a lucky winner to spend six to eight days aboard the ISS. The Soyuz-powered trip is a freebie offered by the Russians as part of a $900m sale of fighter planes to Malaysia, Reuters notes. ®

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