The distance between Mecca and Mars has gotten a bit longer. Religious authorities in the United Arab Emirates have issued a fatwa — a ruling that is binding on Muslims — forbidding them from taking part in a one-way manned journey to Mars planned for 2022.
Since the mission was announced, 200,000 would-be astronauts — including about 500 Muslims — from around the world have applied to be trained for the four-person crew. The mission will be financed and supervised by a nonprofit organization, not the National Aeronautics and Space Administration.
Because crew members must agree to be marooned on Mars for the rest of their lives, the General Authority of Islamic Affairs and Endowment considers it a suicide mission, despite its noble goal of making the planet more habitable for future explorers. Suicide is expressly forbidden in Islam.
The fatwa creates a quandary for potential Muslim astronauts. Retreating from a risky space mission because death in an alien world is an unavoidable consequence would repudiate the tradition exemplified by the 14th century Muslim explorer Ibn Battuta, one of the great world travelers of all time.
There are many questions about the scientific practicality and technological feasibility of the Mars mission, but there should be no religious objection to it. If, as many religious traditions insist, God created the heavens and the Earth, then Mars is a legitimate part of that created order, and is worth exploring.