Submitted without comment: how to pray facing Mecca from low-Earth orbit. An excerpt from “The Determination of Prayer Times and Direction of the Qiblah in Space,” by Dr. Zainol Abidin Abdul Rashid, translated from Malay by Jessica Ramakrishnan, published in the November issue of Harper’s, and also here. Presented at a conference on Islam and Life in Space.
As trips to space become commonplace, human civilization will no longer be tied to the surface of the Earth. But Muslims, wherever they are- whether on Earth or in space – are bound by duty to perform the obligations of worship.
A Muslim who wants to travel must study the techniques of determining prayer times and the direction of the Qibla ahead of travel in order to achieve complete worship. I will elaborate the method of determining prayer times and the Qiblah direction in space, primarily on the International Space Station (ISS). The ISS is more than 200 miles from the earth’s surface and orbits the earth every ninety-two minutes, or roughly sixteen times a day. Do we have to worship eighty times a day (sixteen orbits a day multiplied by five prayer times?) This seems unlikely, since it is compulsory for a Muslim to pray five times a day according to an Earth day, as determined by Allah during the creation of Heaven and Earth – no matter where in space the Muslim is located.
As for the Qiblah, for Muslims there is only one the Kaaba, located in Mecca. A Qiblah that changes in references to a specific system is not in order! It must be remembered that Allah’s creation is ordered.
A user-friendly, portable Muslims in Space calculator , could determine the direction of the Qiblah and prayer times on the ISS. Its essential feature would be the use of the Projected Earth and Qiblah Pole concepts. These are based on the interpretation of the holy house of angels in the sky above Mecca. The place is always rich with angels worshipping. As many as 70,000 angels circumambulate it every day. Thus, one virtual Qiblah pole can be taken as a universal reference to determine the direction of the Qiblah. When Earth is projected to the height of the ISS, every point on its surface is projected also, including the Qiblah point, which can be projected upwards and downwards along the Qiblah Pole. This allows the direction of the Qiblah to be determined in space and in the bowels of the Earth.