Where is Mecca from space?

It’s an unexpected problem. Muslims pray five times a day, facing Mecca.

So what do you do if you’re in a space station and the direction of Mecca keeps moving? Up to 180 degrees during a single prayer?

Or, as I asked one of the Muslim table hosts at the Ramadan Iftar hosted by the Pacifica Institute in Santa Clara, what happens if you are flying westward during Ramadan, and the sundown keeps moving away? Muslims fast from sunrise to sunset during Ramadan, and I had just flown back from Charlotte, NC the day before. I believe that day lasted sixteen hours or more.

The air travel question, it seems, has already been addressed by Muslim scholars. One may break the fast when it is sunset in the location where travel began. Or, if you are traveling more than 90 miles, the fast may be suspended. Or, they remind us, fasting during Ramadan is a choice, a choice to take on a spiritual discipline.

There is an ongoing debate among Muslims whether the new moon that marks the beginning of each month must actually be sighted by someone in the community (as tradition holds), or whether it can be accurately predicted by the sophisticated astronomical calculations now possible.

The changing shape of our world presents us all with new challenges for traditions and customs developed in smaller, less mobile communities. What is essential? What is negotiable? What lies at the heart of the religious tradition and what can be left behind as we move into new realities. This is the fundamental question presented to us all by modernity and global interactions.

In the Christian tradition, St. Augustine is credited with saying, “In essentials, unity. In non-essentials, liberty. In all things, charity.” The rub, of course, is in the contests over what is essential or not…

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