Space exploration and Islamic fatwas do not generally occur in the same news article, but a difference of opinion has emerged between Mars One, a Dutch company hoping to fund human colonization of Mars with a reality TV show, and the General Authority of Islamic Affairs and Endowment (GAIAE), a government agency for the United Arab Emirates which issues fatawa (sing. fatwa), or pronouncements on the acceptability or unacceptability of something according to Islamic law. (It is only an added bonus for English speakers that the English acronym for the group opposing the Mars One mission sounds like the name of the Greek goddess of “Earth.”) GAIAE warns that Muslims going on a one-way trip to Mars may be tantamount to suicide, prohibited in Islamic law, while Mars One has responded by appealing to the “rich tradition of exploration” in Islam, and particularly the fourteenth-century traveler Ibn Battuta. It is unusual for companies plotting science-fiction-esque adventures to appeal to medieval authors, so I couldn’t resist observing the conjunction.
The basic question is whether the planned one-way trip is tantamount to suicide. Mars One is making no plans for the people to return home, so either they will die on the way to Mars or upon landing, or they will live the rest of their days on the surface of the Red Planet, which may be a longer or shorter duration depending on how long the machinery lasts and whether any of their fellow colonists goes berserk in the relative isolation. But it believes the benefits will outweigh the risks. The GAIAE cites Qur’anic verses against killing oneself, and expresses the worry that knowingly embarking on a one-way journey which will certainly end in one’s death, probably sooner than if one had stayed on Earth, also runs the risk of falling under the Qur’anic condemnation. In other words, in this instance the GAIAE is worried to protect Muslims from the hazards of final judgment.
(Digression: Some non-Muslim observers may be surprised to read that suicide is categorically prohibited in Islam, given the news reports of the use of suicide attacks by al-Qa’ida and other Muslim terrorist groups. In fact, even suicide missions for a good cause are prohibited according to almost all interpretations of Islamic law, a point which shows how far from mainstream Islam the jihadi ideology of al-Qa’ida really is. Suicide missions became acceptable among the Assassin sect of Shiites in the 11th century, but remained largely absent from Sunni Islam until the 1983 Beirut truck bombing. Even today, as a recent poll by the Pew Forum showed, the vast majority of Muslims around the world regard suicide attacks as unjustifiable, at least when targeting civilians.)
So where does Ibn Battuta come in? Mars One’s response to the fatwa from the GAIAE cites the fourteenth-century Moroccan traveler as evidence for “the rich culture of travel and exploration of early Islam.” Moving into medieval Islamic history (and travel accounts such as that of Ibn Battuta in particular) steps into my area of specialist knowledge. Certainly Islam has an extensive history of travel, in large part driven by the far-flung success of the early conquests and the requirement that each Muslim of possible travel to Mecca as a pilgrim for the Hajj. It has much less of a tradition of exploration specifically. Ibn Battuta did make a point to say that he tried to avoid traveling the same road twice, but he himself set out on his journey as a restless twenty-year-old performing Hajj to get away from home. He also never traveled to a land uninhabited by people (although he passed through uninhabited areas). He wanted to reach the famed “Land of Darkness” far to the north, where the sun never rises, although he was in fact unable to embark. (The “Land of Darkness” was also thought to be inhabited.) And Ibn Battuta’s travels across the width and height of the Islamic world were unique, hardly a “rich culture,” at least of exploration. The dearth of medieval or modern Muslim explorers venturing “to boldly go where no man has gone before” is, I suspect, less due to a suspicion of exploration, and more due to the fact that Islam developed in the center of the Eurasian-African land mass, with lands inhabited from remotest antiquity all around them. The fact that most modern explorers were European has to do with Europe’s geographic boundary status (indeed, most explorers came from the fringes of Europe) as well as Europe’s industrialized disposable wealth.
Space colonization would raise other issues for Muslims to figure out, of course, such as how to pray in the direction of Mecca (the present system relies on the surface of a globe) and what to do with the requirement of Hajj where there is no means for travel to the Earth. I suspect Islamic legal scholars have already tackled that latter question for Muslims stranded somewhere on Earth with no means of travel, which could be generalized, and I have no doubt that they could reach satisfactory answers to the other questions as well. If we live long enough to see substantial human colonies outside of Earth’s gravity well, it will be interesting to see how these issues develop.
In the meantime, it strikes me that Mars One has made an attempt, but not a very convincing one, to respond respectfully to the GAIAE’s fatwa. They misunderstand what Ibn Battuta did, and he is the only Muslim “explorer” whom they name; for other examples they turn to Marco Polo (also no “explorer” in the modern sense, but certainly an adventurer and something of a free-lancer), and then modern American astronauts. The response also quotes the Qur’an apart from the tradition (sunna) of interpretation, as if anyone can quote it and claim its meaning for themselves. While some conservative Protestant Christians believe that Bible should be read and quoted with just its simple words, Muslim legal scholars always interpret the Qur’an in light of the long commentary tradition (tafsir) on each verse. (I also don’t see how this particularly Qur’anic verse, which says simply that the creation of the sky and the ground is one of God’s signs, “encourages Muslims to go out and see the signs of God’s creation” – emphasis mine. It’s more the fact of creation, visible from anywhere, which is the single sign. When the Qur’an encourages Muslims to do something, it uses a verb, typically in the imperative, like every other medieval text.) I doubt the GAIAE will be persuaded by this response, although they may take up the invitation to review the plans more closely. For now, the disagreement remains whether a one-way journey away from Earth, certainly ending in death before returning home, but perhaps (if they did everything correctly and everything lines up well) only after a number of years living in a new abode on a new planet, is morally equivalent to suicide.