Islamic Astropolitik

Despite Western anxieties over Muslim conquest, traditions of Islamic astronomy and the portability of ritual space in Islam find Muslims at home among the stars  

When man spread to the stars, he took his various faiths with him. On Earth, Islam faces Mecca and the black stone at the heart of the Kaaba Shrine. On Helion, we face New Mecca and a fragment of that same stone placed inside a sister shrine. But Helion is home to many people of many cultures, and we manage to coexist in peace, united by a purity of spirit.

—Imam al-Walid in Chronicles of Riddick (2004)

Astrological and cosmological inquiry by medieval Muslim and Arabian scholars (that is, they wrote in Arabic) were concerned with the link that connected the earth and the night sky, and humankind’s place in it. The religious impulse to make sense of this “place” would animate scientific debates about the stars in the ninth to 14th centuries—the “golden age of Islam.” In turn, the legacy of Muslim scientists or natural philosophers of this period would inspire Islamic practice in outer space in the 21st century, with dubious results.

For centuries, the stars out in outer space provided humanity with a sense of wonder, mystery, and the divine. Through gazing upon the stars and stripping away their distant secret, a mastery of extraterrestrial worlds and dreams of conquest became inevitable. Thus in the present century, Islamic science and space exploration would together at last arrive at a spectacular conclusion: an achievement of greater proximity to the stars to better understand humankind’s place and space in the universe. Not only would Muslims arrive in outer space, but through techno-theological discourse, they would able to make space for Islam among the stars.

From the ninth century, the science of the stars, or ‘ilm al-nujum in Arabic, touched a theological nerve that motivated the separation of astrology from astronomy. A story goes that ninth century astrologer Abu Ma’shar al-Balkhi studied the stars and their divination power until he became an atheist. Rather than a cautionary tale about scientific hubris, Abu Ma’shar’s alleged atheism in some parts spoke to a ­power-knowledge struggle between astrologers and astronomers.

Prominent Muslim astronomers, from the likes of al-Biruni to Ibn Rushd (or Averroes), rejected astrology as an inferior science with all the zeal of a fastidious peer reviewer. Steering away good Muslim men from astrological “fortune-telling,” the proper Islamic significance of astronomy was established through fixing the direction and time of daily prayers with mathematical precision.

By the time the science of star-gazing was respectable within Islam in the 12th century, its place was moving away from the auspices of the palace to the mosque. Meanwhile, an efflorescence of cosmological treatises on the poetic compatibility between Islamic eschatology and the cosmos emerged between the ninth to 13th century. Among them was an esoteric branch of Sufi theosophy that regarded the celestial world as the emanations of God.

‘Ilm al-nujum was indebted to Hellenistic and Indian astronomy and went to surpass its forebears, but not without some controversy. The allure of foreseeing the future through looking up at the night sky meant that humanity needn’t rely on God’s will to manage crops or set auspicious dates for marriages and prosperous business deals. There were also significant contentions that astral divination endorsed polytheism, among them the fact that the objects in the night sky which Muslim astronomers referred to were named after the mythological gods and goddesses of their Greek forebears.

Further whiffs of polytheism are alluded to in the ninth century writings of polymath astronomer al-Kindi, whose opinions resonated with those of astrologers of his contemporary: “the planets are rational (natiqat) spiritual beings capable of intelligence and speech, and [themselves] cause and administer everything in this world by the order of the prime Creator who controls all.” His opinions seem dangerously redolent of pre-Islamic reverence of astral manifestations of the gods and goddesses, who were imbued with anthropomorphic and humanistic qualities.

While empirical and quasi-theological criticisms were mobilized against Islamic astrology and divine reverence for the stars, boundary-pushing scientific scholarship during Islam’s Golden Age did not lead to grand inquisitions against heresy in the manner of Galileo’s later persecution in the 17th century. To the displeasure of the Catholic Church during a period of aggressive crackdown on purported blasphemy, Galileo pulled away the dark curtains of the night sky to find that other worlds existed beyond that of earth. There were mountains on the moon, sun spots, and moons that orbited Jupiter.

Through his telescopic lenses, Galileo pried into the chambers of heaven. His anti-theological conclusion, which echoes Tycho Brahe and Nicolaus Copernicus, that the earth, and by significant extension, humankind, was not at the center of the universe, eventually led to a life and death in house arrest.

The age of Islamic astronomy preceded the invention of the first telescope. But Muslim astronomers and astrologers might have escaped intellectual persecutions because of Islam’s theological acceptance of parallel worlds, some seen and others unseen with the naked eye (alam-ul-Ghaib). The theological basis for parallel worlds was a springboard for cosmological speculations about otherworldly spaces and their extraordinary qualities. Rather than a hidden universe, argues the 12th century physicist al-Razi (and friend of astrology), there must a multiverse to accommodate worlds unimaginable and yet to be perceived by the human mind and eye.

The idea of multiverses in Islamic cosmology enables us to think about the  interplay between the different mobilizations of the term space at the service of Islam, both celestially and ritualistically. “Space” in these two respects is as much a cultural construct as it is an experiential “reality.” It may be both inhabited or uninhabited, seen or yet to be seen. Ritualistic space relies on the mapping of celestial space for the prescription of prayer times and end of Ramadan. However, the dynamic imagined between celestial space and ritual space on earth has been significantly transformed by the development of modern astronomy and space exploration.

Medieval Arabian astrologers developed a systematic belief that celestial bodies circulating in outer space and the great expanse of the universe regulated the geographic space inhabited by humanity and its rituals. But in the past 50 years, space exploration and sophisticated mapping of the stars have made conquest and colonization of outer space possible, irreversibly upending the power and mystique that the unfettered expanse of outer space once had.

In Islam, there is a “portability” of ritual that allows worship and holiness to take place anywhere. There is no practice of consecrating and deconsecrating in Islam. On earth, Muslims can make any place “Islamic” enough for worship. But what about in outer space? The theological guidelines created in 2007 by Islamic authorities in Malaysia on essential Islamic practice offer some clues on daily prayer, dealing with (lavatorial) impurities, and preparation of the dead in Earth’s lower orbit.

Malaysia’s first astronaut may have performed the first Islamic prayer in outer space and proved the portability of Islamic ritual space. However, purists might argue that the act of prayer will not be valid if not performed on earth’s terra firma. Muslims face, kneel, and prostrate on the ground during prayer to avoid semblances of pagan sun or moon worship (“Prostrate yourselves not to the sun nor to the moon, but prostrate yourselves to Allah Who created them, if you (really) worship Him.” (The Quran, Fussilat 41:37))

The idea of Muslims taking up “space” in outer space is an interesting one, one that has connotations of conquest. Representations of Islam in science fiction depict a religious dystopia where despotic Muslim rulers dominate the solar system. Philip K. Dick’s The Eye in the Sky (1957) features the eponymous eye that, as it turns out, is a less than benevolent Islamic God. The novel’s hero wakes up to a world where the sun circles the earth and an American version of fundamentalist Islam, Babiism, governs every aspect of human life. Followers of Babiism are compelled to propagate the faith as an expression of “jihad” because religion is practical. In this religious dystopia, prayers are used to fix cars and pay one’s salary.

In Donald Moffitt’s Crescent in the Sun (1989) and A Gathering of Stars (1990), Islam dominates the solar system. There is an interplanetary power struggle for the caliphate, one that the Emir of Mars is vying for. Muslims of an alternate future in Dick’s and Moffitt’s visions inhabit a future gone horribly awry—a religious dystopia where brutal intolerance pervades outer space and scientific rationalism never happened.

By contrast, other science-fiction writing and films portray Islam as a progressive force in an alternative or future world. In fact, the earliest Islamic science-fiction writing, published by Bangladeshi writer Rokeya Sakhawat Hussain in 1905, portrays a feminist utopia where women reject the tradition of purdah, or female seclusion, and govern a world of anti-violence and flying cars. In Chronicles of Riddick (2004), New Mecca is the capital city of the economic powerhouse planet, Helion Prime. It is the destination of the interplanetary pilgrim, Imam al-Walid, who finds in New Mecca a safe and spiritual refuge in a universe under siege from brutal religious fanatics, the Necromongers.

The current reality of how Muslims make space for Islam in outer space is far more prosaic. Several Arab countries have founded space programs, mostly for the purpose of operating satellites. The future of Islam on other celestial bodies is imminent: Malaysia aims to send a Muslim astro-ambassador to the moon by 2020, while the United Arab Emirates have announced to launch an unmanned mission to Mars by 2021.

But not everyone welcomes the imminent era of Muslims in space. A religious organization in the United Arab Emirates has issued a fatwa against human settlement on Mars on the grounds that it is akin to “suicide,” an act forbidden in Islam. The target of the fatwa, Mars One, a Dutch nonprofit organization whose mission it is to establish a human colony on Mars by 2025, has challenged accusations of engineering a suicide mission with a savvy Islamic riposte. Explorers of Mars, it claimed, traverse new terrain in the footsteps of the famed 14th century Muslim explorer-­scholar Ibn Battuta and abide by the Quranic instruction to “go out and see the signs of God’s creation in the heavens and the earth.”

From decentering humanity’s cosmic uniqueness, discourse on outer space now takes on an imperialist slant. To know and gaze upon the heavens is to conquer. Outer space is now up for human colonization. It is the ultimate frontier, a journey into an inhabitable unknown. It is no longer a spatial expanse just for the telescopic gaze. With the secrets of outer space “unveiled,” to borrow a popular imperialistic expression, it is fit for colonialist missions and orbital exploitation.

Orbital exploitation claims not only celestial space but also terrestrial ones. Space technology for the purposes of media communications and (military) surveillance has entered the “interstices of the active percipience of everyday life” according to the techno-optimist and cultural geographer Nigel Thrift.

The gap between Islamic dystopias in science fiction and space endeavors by Arab and predominantly Muslim nations may be quite wide, but the simultaneous difference and similarities in celestial endeavors have been productive in developing the discourse on astropolitik of Islam. A neologism for our times, astropolitik was coined in a text by ex-CIA intelligence analyst Everett Dolman as a “how-to” introduction to the domination of outer space. Dolman’s astropolitics can be summed up in some of his most memorable lines:

Who controls the Lower Earth Orbit controls near-Earth space. Who controls near-Earth space dominates Terra (Earth). Who dominates Terra determines the destiny of humankind.

As a cultural construct, outer space for the Muslim space explorer and terrestrial dweller is the next frontier of power and knowledge. The legacy of medieval Arabian science of the stars on theological guidelines for Islamic practice may certainly legitimize such a link between power and knowledge. Since the vindication of Galileo, forms of knowledge about outer space have desacralized, diminishing its mystique and divinity, and turned worlds beyond earth the domain of humans rather than the gods. And in the current age of information and surveillance, accumulation of knowledge of extra-terrestrial space that overlaps military, media, and scientific usage spells a new kind of imperialism across a vertical axis.

All of this comes to show that outer space is conceived as an extension of the earth’s geography. Outer space as a cultural construct comes into being, in the words of Doreen Massey, through “the sum of relations, connections, embodiments, and practices.” Through its relation to earth, the “space” of outer space is both terrestrial and extraterrestrial.

Human geography and imaginings of space thus require vertical mappings as much as traditional horizontal ones to fully conceive humanity’s place between the earth and the stars. Media theorist Lisa Parks and artist Ursula Biemann describe our relationship with orbits as being about “uplinking and downlinking, [the] translation [of] signals, making exchanges with others and positioning the self.”

A critical geography of outer space has yet to fully explore the astropolitics of Islam. Understanding how Muslims “make” space across the horizontal and vertical axes is a fine start for further (space) exploration. In years to come in a world (or worlds) no longer the stuff of science fiction, a new kind of language to articulate power relations in outer space may well emerge, one that remaps religion among the stars.