Space Travel: Marred by the lack of a Consensus

June 1st, 2014 | by MuslimScience
Space Travel: Marred by the lack of a Consensus

By Dr. Parandis Tajbakhsh


The 21st century has witnessed some of the bitterest wars and crimes against humanity, crimes that a group of humans commit against another. Our planet, of course, is familiar with far more brutal mishaps, but it is now witnessing an alarming crisis which is unique, in that it is not brought about by one group of homo sapiens against another, but is a consequence of the collective actions of all humans, which is now threatening the survival of humanity’s future generations. Global warming and environmental crisis is a novel phenomenon, which is jeopardizing the future of the human race, as well as other inhabitants of the only habitable planet in our solar system.

A migration to preserve life

While many are trying to revert the effects of global warming and familiarize people with their responsibilities towards environment by emphasizing the concept of anthropocentrism, a small group are being more ambitious and believe that notwithstanding the current efforts, the environmental crisis on Earth, along with the ever increasing population and depletion of resources, will make an unprecedented migration inevitable; sooner or later a new abode must be prepared for the human race, if they are to survive.

Just as 60,000 years ago, our ancestors left Africa and opened a new chapter in the life and development of homo sapiens, it is hypothesized that soon mankind will step on Mars in an attempt to colonize this desolate planet. Our red neighbour, with only half the radius of Earth, is believed to have enjoyed much warmer temperatures in the past and possessed a thicker atmosphere with abundant water.


Terraforming can render Mars habitable

Currently, the conditions of Mars are hostile to human life, but some are convinced, that it is possible to modify the Martian climatic conditions to make it hospitable for terrestrial species, through an operation known as terraforming. Terraforming is the process of engineering a planetary environment to produce a new habitat for terrestrial life forms. By terraforming the Mars over the course of a few centuries, a new dwelling for the human race can be prepared.

Recent measurements by NASA show that an enormous body of frozen water exists in the Martian Southern pole. One theory suggests that most of the Carbon Dioxide, CO2, available in the thick atmosphere of the primitive Mars, became trapped in the form of carbonate rocks. Frozen Carbon dioxide, otherwise known as dry ice, is also abundant on the surface of the planet. By triggering a process to release carbon dioxide into the thin atmosphere of Mars, mainly consisting of CO2, the so-called “runaway greenhouse effect” will warm up Mars, which is orbiting the Sun just right outside the habitable zone, where life can survive.

The release of CO2 not only warms up the planet, but also thickens the atmosphere, which in turn keeps water in liquid state. At this stage, oxygenation of the atmosphere can be achieved by the use of bacteria engineered to convert carbon dioxide to oxygen. It is ironic that one of the major keys to terraformatiom of Mars, is exactly the agent responsible for the global warming crisis: the green house gases.

The ethics and the fatwa

While the science of making Mars habitable may exist, in principle, terraforming has been the subject of some criticism from an ethical point of view. The opponents of terraforming argue that by doing so, we may well cause a mass extinction of the indigenous life that might exist in the microbial form on Mars. In addition, many are convinced that the money directed to such ambitious projects must be spent here on Earth, to acquire a better understanding of the Earth’s ecosystem. Interestingly enough, there is also some religious objections to taking up abode on planets other then the Earth. One such criticism was made by an Islamic religious organization a few months ago in the United Arab Emirates.

While space exploration is not alien to the Muslim World, the current fatwa by an Imam in the UAE forbade Muslims from participating in a ‘one way mission to Mars’ by MarsOne, a not-for-profit Dutch organization. Over five hundred Muslims registered as potential volunteers to “establish a human settlement on Mars” that constitute a colony of 24 astronauts on Mars, by the third decade of the second millennium by “using only existing technology”. Volunteers were heeded of the “major risk factor” and possible “loss of human life”. In February of 2014, just after the candidates chosen to go for the second round of selections were announced, the issue of a fatwa brought these Muslim space enthusiasts to the headlines of the media. A committee under the General Authority of Islamic Affairs and Endowment (GAIAE) issued the fatwa on grounds of the detrimentality of the proposed mission.


A test case for an uncertain future

Of course, Mars One does not plan to terraform Mars, but only to set up a facility within which it provides Earth-like conditions for the human colony, but this could be a first step towards greater things to come. The reaction of GAIAE to this mission, however, makes an interesting test case for how some Muslim scholars may perceive the next generation of space exploration missions and how their interpretation of the teachings of Islam on morality and ethics, influence their attitudes on space exploration.

Salman Hameed, a professor of integrated science and humanities at Hampshire College, believes that there are risks involved in many actions of humans, from driving a car to climbing a mountain to taking a one-way trip to Mars. He argues that the particular attitude behind this fatwa requires a cut-off risk value for an action to make it un-Islamic, an idea which is absurd. Hameed says: “Before global travel got easy, many humans took one-way trips to other parts of the world. I’m sure those actions were not considered suicides”. He asserts: “one can potentially argue that not establishing a human presence on another planet is like committing a mass-suicide on Earth. If there is a global catastrophe, all of humanity will be trapped on Earth. Whereas, the step of establishing permanent presence on another planet increases the odds of long-term survival of human species.”

An opportunity for modern Ijtihad

Clearly, Muslims belonging to a variety of denominations do not abide by such fatwas – generally religious edicts on specific situations – as hundreds are issued by different religious bodies each month. The significance of this incident, however, lies in that such stances might play an important role in policy making of the governments of many Muslim countries and influence their decision as to whether they play an active role in future missions of space exploration.

In other words, this is not necessarily a specific situational issue, but a bigger question that requires a more careful evaluation. It highlights the need for a thorough examination of the ethics of space exploration, with the goal to come to an agreement on certain Islamic guidelines on ethics and moralities of space colonization. If there is an opportunity and a need for a modern day ijtihad (Islamic Jurisprudence term for ‘independent reasoning’ that draws upon the scripture and basic principles to address questions of importance to society), it is probably that of marshalling resources to save the dying planet or the human race, or both.

While the time isn’t there yet, a planet in peril may one day necessitate a mass exodus of humans to another planet and a lack of consensus on whether that’s Islamic, may leave Muslims both ill-prepared and unable.


Dr. Parandis Tajbakhsh has a Ph.D. in Astronomy and Astrophysics from the University of Toronto and a Master of Arts in Science and Technology Studies from the York University, Canada. She is interested in the relation between science and religion and in particular science and Islam. She is the author of the blog.