The Qibla is the direction Muslims face when praying salat. For some time during the prophet Muhammad’s (peace be upon him) time, the direction was toward Jerusalem. Then, once, while leading the prayer, during which he received instruction from God, he turned to face the Kabaa in Mecca. Those behind him turned with him. Now all Muslims face the Kabaa.
In 2006, the Malaysian National Space Agency sponsored a conference to discuss the following two problems which occur for a Muslim astronaut travelling in space: (1) the direction of the Qibla (a problem of space), and (2) the times of salat (a problem of time).
The conclusion was that a Muslim must imagine, in some sense, that he is still on Earth. For example, to determine the time of salat: “[t]he daily five prayer times is defined in a 24 hour duration (equals to 1 Earth day) following the time zone at which port the astronaut is launched (in this case, Baikonur, Kazakhstan).” Thus, it is as if the astronaut did not leave earth at all and that he is still at that precise point on earth where the times for salat may be calculated properly by following the relationship of that point to the movement of the sun, etc. To determine the Qibla: “Qibla direction is based on what is possible, prioritizing as below: i. The Ka’aba ii. The projection of Ka’aba iii. The Earth iv. Wherever.”
In both cases, the Muslim in space runs up against a problem. The only way to orient the Muslim within the Ummah (community of Muslims) is to do some imagination work.
What is particularly interesting is the way in which the body becomes the site from which orientation is made possible. For example, it was concluded that “the performance of the physical postures (such as standing, bowing and prostrating) is […] as follows: […] using the eye lid as an indicator of the changing of postures in prayer, [and] imagining the sequence of prayer.” In this case, the eye lid becomes the centrepiece – the ground – which is missing for the astronaut, and the imagination stands in place of earth time.
Is this not, then, the manner of prayer which, in some way, finds, there within and through the body, certain truths which hitherto remained too difficult to grasp for those trapped in the taken-for-granted routine of salat?