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Malaysian astronauts told: Space is no bar to prayers

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As Malaysia prepares to send its first astronaut to space, the country's space agency planners find themselves facing an unusual problem: when your religious observances are dictated in large part by the sun, how can you keep the faith while orbiting the Earth?

The country has had Islamic scholars working on the problem for a year, and have come up with a set of guidlelines to help their astronaut to meet his religious obligations when he arrives at the International Space Station later this year.

So far, only two muslims have travelled to space: Prince Sultan bin Salman of Saudi Arabia, who took a trip on the space shuttle Discovery in 1985, and more recently Anousheh Ansari, who travelled to the space station last year on a Russian space tourist ticket.

It is not known how those trailblazers kept up their practices, but The Times reports that Malaysia is insisting that its astronauts do not use the trifling inconvenience of being aboard the ISS as an excuse to slack off from prayers.

Mustafa Abdul Rahman, the head of its Department of Islamic Development said: “Circumstances on the ISS that are different from circumstance on Earth are not an obstacle for an astronaut to fulfil a Muslim’s obligations.”

The as-yet-unselected-astronaut, who is scheduled to travel to the ISS in October 2007, will most likely be aboard the space station during the holy month of Ramadan. During this period, Muslims traditionally do not allow food or drink to pass their lips while the sun is up. So Malaysian authorities have tried to work out exactly how their astronaut will know when he can and cannot eat: after all, when orbiting the earth, there are several sunrises and sunsets in each 24 hour day.

Other puzzlers that the scholars have tackled include: how do you make sure your astronauts can get their five daily prayer sessions in when Mecca isn't in the same relative position for more than a spilt second? How do you hold the prayer position when you are floating in free fall? When water is so scarce, how can you make sure you clean yourself properly before each prayer session?

For the record, the guidelines say that fasting can be made up for upon the astronaut's return to Earth, non-Halal food may be consumed only to "restrain hunger", and daily prayers? Well, they can be performed "according to the capability of the astronaut". ®

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