Wednesday, April 26, 2006

Religion can't have it both ways

I came across a remarkable news story this week.

As Malaysia plans to put its first astronaut into space, care of a perk that came bundled with a pricey military contract with Russia, the issue of Islam in space has been seriously broached for the first time.

The issue is how can an astronaut hope to conform with the guidelines for prayer as dictated by one of the five pillars of Islam.

First off, the devout need to wash themselves before prayer, but this could prove a difficult, messy and expensive exercise in zero-G. Water is a precious commodity in space, and hygiene is not such a problem in such a sterile environment.

Secondly, the individual needs to face Mecca. However, Mecca could be speeding past below their feet (or knees, as the case may be), making it a hard target to pin down.

Thirdly, kneeling is not such an easy exercise in zero-G.

Finally, prayer times are associated with sunrise and sunset – which are very different concepts when you’re in space. Furthermore, sunrise and sunset might be more frequent in Earth orbit, but consider a trip to Mars, or even through interstellar space. The sun might not set for months or years in those conditions.

Of course, the more pragmatic thinkers – of which Islam has its fair share – consider these conditions to be flexible in cases where they’re simply impossible to maintain. The prayer itself is far more important than the minutiae of the process, especially in such extraordinary circumstances.

I’m sure traditionalists are somewhat less forgiving though.

For me this raises a fascinating question of the application of religion in modern times and the extent to which the word of the Qur’an, Bible, Torah etc should be taken literally.

We all know there’s no small number of individuals who place tremendous faith in the literal word of their holy texts.

These individuals need to consider the example of the Muslim in space.

If concessions are made to allow prayer without going through all the rituals under a strict interpretation, then does this mean different conditions allow for different interpretations of the holy texts?

If so, then this raises the further issue of other instances where the texts might be reinterpreted, or even discarded, because of differing circumstances.

Take the consumption of pork, for example. Pigs were once fairly unhygienic creatures, and it’s understandable that some cultures would have discouraged their consumption for health reasons. Sensible advice in some environments and some ages. However, these days, with modern farming practices, there’s no health risk to eating pork.

Many Muslims and Jews still stick to the abolition of pork even though they know there’s no health risk. They base their decision on tradition, faith or culture. I’m sure a Jewish or Muslim reader would have a lot more to say about this, and I’d love to hear from you if you do.

Yet you can’t sidestep some issues. Like prayer in space. Or like coveting thy neighbours ass. How many other issues could be revised in light of modern day conditions and the development of our culture. Think if the Internet existed in the time of Jesus or Mohammed that they might have a thing or two to say about it?

The principle of taking a holy text as a literal guide to life is as ludicrous as taking a single drawn circle as a representative of all perfect circles. There’s far too much contingency in any scripture – and even the universal truths that may be buried within them could be marred by being tied to an inappropriate context.

You can’t have it both ways. If some elements of the scriptures or their interpretations can be revised, then they all can.


At 1:48 am , Anonymous Anonymous said...

you look cute in your photo.


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