RIYADH (Reuters) - A Saudi prince who was the first Muslim in space said on Sunday the Islamic world would be proud of a budding Malaysian astronaut and spoke of his religious observance while in orbit.
Malaysian physician Sheikh Muszaphar Shukor heads to Russia’s International Space Station (ISS) on October 10 in a trip he hopes will spur his countrymen to build careers in the sciences.
Malaysia’s move into the space field has raised its prestige in the Islamic world, especially in Saudi Arabia which houses Islam’s holiest sites, applies strict Islamic law and tends to see global developments through the prism of religion.
Saudi Prince Sultan bin Salman went into space in 1985 as a payload specialist on board the U.S. space shuttle Discovery. But since then the desert state has made little headway in building a research and development sector beyond oil and petrochemicals.
Saudi commentators often cite Malaysia as their shining example of a modern, successful Islamic country on good terms with the West that can compete in science and technology.
An Iranian-born Muslim woman from the United States paid $20 million to go into orbit last year as a space tourist.
“Malaysia’s space experience is one we will all be proud of as Muslims,” the prince, a nephew of King Abdullah, told Reuters. “Malaysia had a vision and a leadership that believed in the vision and rallied people behind it.”
Shukor was selected from among 11,000 Malaysian candidates to fly aboard the ISS in a deal Kuala Lumpur arranged with Russia as part of a $1 billion purchase of Russian fighter jets.
The 34-year-old Malaysian has said he will try to observe as much of the Muslim fasting month of Ramadan in orbit as possible. Islamic law says Muslims are not obliged to fast if traveling, and can make up for lost days later.
The lunar month, during which Muslims fast from dawn to dusk, is due to end around October 13.
Prince Sultan — whose first day in orbit was the last day of Ramadan at the time — said that although he managed to pray and fast, he was not able to face towards Mecca and could not fully kneel on the ground.
“Prayers were not a challenge, but I could not face Mecca or kneel to the ground,” he said. “I did morning prayer on the launch tower — it was one of the most beautiful days of my life. And I saw the birth of the new moon on flight deck.”
He said he sought advice from Saudi Arabia’s leading cleric of the time, Sheikh Abdul-Aziz bin Baz, a bastion of Saudi Arabia’s hardline Wahhabi Islam who critics say tried to block modern technology and even denied the earth was round.
Prince Sultan said that after the trip he went to see the blind Sheikh in the mountain city of Taif, near Mecca.
“He said people needed to travel more and see evidence of the roundness of the earth. He loved it and he said a few times he wished he wasn’t blind so he could see the photographs,” the prince said.
“When I came back it was like an alarm bell, a wake-up call. I had to answer many questions and the Malaysians will have to too, on prayers and fasting,” he said.