Ground control to Allah – let my people go to Mars

From the files of really cool ideas comes the Mars One project.  If you haven’t heard of it, Mars One is a Dutch based company which hopes to establish a permanent colony on Mars beginning in 2024.  The plan is to begin sending unmanned missions in 2018 to bring supplies and build living space for colonists before sending manned missions.  Ambitious doesn’t even begin to describe the Mars One project.  The company put out  a call for volunteers to be colonists, and they haven’t been disappointed.  Over 200,000 applicants from all around the world have come forward, hoping to be a part of the first manned mission to another planet.

Oh, by the way, one of the ways Mars One is limiting cost is by making it a one-way trip.  Their plan is for volunteers to travel to Mars, establish a colony, and die there.  That’s not a detail that’s buried in the fine print, either.   The Dutch company has made it clear from the beginning that while they have a plan in place to get supplies to support a colony on mars, there’s no feasible way to get enough resources for a return trip.  Yet they still have over 200,000 volunteers who are ready to leave Earth forever to put down roots in one of the harshest environments imaginable.

I love this idea.  It just fills me with joy to see someone attempting a pie-in-the-sky type plan.  It’s so ambitious, so exciting, it makes me feel like I’m living in a science fiction novel.  Even if the project fails miserably, never even manages an unmanned mission, the fact that they’re trying is admirable.

And let’s be clear, the likelihood that this mission will succeed is miniscule.  The massive amount of funding this project will take just to get the colony set up is staggering, and that doesn’t include maintaining the colony once it is established.  The project plans to get funding through numerous sources including sponsorships, crowd-funding initiatives, and merchandising.  Their main source of income, however, will ideally be through reality TV.  The project plans to make a show out of the colonist selection, training, flight, and eventual settlement, and use the TV revenues to fund the project itself.  I can’t say I’m not a little worried that the first off-planet colony established by the human race might include a confession cam.

However, early estimates to just get four colonists to Mars run up to around $6 billion.  That’s a lot of money to put together, especially without any government funding.  To date, they haven’t even reached $1 million.  Or to put it another way, the haven’t yet reached .017% of their needs, and those needs are a conservative estimate.  In contrast to the $6 billion estimated for Mars One, NASA has said that a manned mission to Mars would take 18 years and $100 billion.  NASA, of course estimated such a high number because they planned for a return trip, something the Mars One plan forgoes.

So what does any of this have to do with religion?  Funny you should ask, Mr. Rhetorical.  It turns out that some Muslim clerics have decided that going to Mars is prohibited by the Quran.  According to a fatwa [1] committee under the General Authority of Islamic Affairs and Endowments (GAIAE),

“Such a one-way journey poses a real risk to life, and that can never be justified in Islam… There is a possibility that an individual who travels to planet Mars may not be able to remain alive there, and is more vulnerable to death.”

According to some this committee of clerics, to go to Mars would put you at unnecessary risk.  Therefore, if you die you would have virtually committed suicide.  That can’t be allowed.  But, wait!  Why would dying on a mission of exploration be tantamount to suicide?  Because according to these clerics, you would’ve died for “no righteous reason.”  According to some guys whose only expertise is telling people how a single book should run everybody’s lives, establishing a colony on another planet isn’t a righteous reason to die.

So in the case of the Mars One mission, a group of clerics sat down with their Quran, and decided that going on a one-way trip to Mars would be suicide, and therefore against the teachings of Islam.  Interestingly, the committee didn’t even limit their opinion to Islamic teaching, but claimed that they spoke for all faiths, saying,

“Protecting life against all possible dangers and keeping it safe is an issue agreed upon by all religions and is clearly stipulated in verse 4/29 of the Holy Quran: Do not kill yourselves or one another. Indeed, Allah is to you ever Merciful.”

I don’t quite see how that could be the case, though.  Many religions, including Islam, venerate martyrs.  To give your life for your beliefs is considered one of the highest virtues possible.  The Quran makes it clear that martyrs earn immediate reward in heaven.  This is the precedent that inspires more extreme Muslims to suicide bombings or worse.  In all fairness, I can’t say that the clerical committee that issued the fatwa against trips to Mars have ever endorsed those types of killings, and I think it’s fair to assume they haven’t.

But if going to Mars isn’t “righteous”, what is?  It depends on who you ask, but there are those that think it’s righteous to mutilate young girls.  There are some who think it’s righteous to execute atheists like me.  Some even think it’s righteous to punish women for going out without their head covered.  There’s a lot in the Muslim world that’s considered righteous, and much of it would not only be considered immoral, but even cruel without religious backing.

But not settling a new planet.  That couldn’t be righteous.

I couldn’t disagree more.  Humanity has filled the earth.  We have nowhere else to explore, no where else to colonize.  There’s nowhere left of this planet for us to go.  Every single form of life we known exists in one place in the universe.  We can theorize about life elsewhere, but we don’t actually have proof that it’s out there.  And this one single rock floating through space is vulnerable.  Until we can find another planet on which life – and hopefully human life – can thrive, we are at  the mercy of an unkind and uncaring universe.  One meteor, one massive volcano, one massive disaster could wipe out humanity – and therefore the only potential intelligent life in the universe.

And let’s be clear, a disaster of this magnitude isn’t just a possibility, it’s an inevitability.  Given a long enough timeline, this will eventually happen to Earth.  So the only question is: will humanity have found a way to spread to another planet before it does?  The Mars One plan, as flawed as it is, is a step in the direction of an interplanetary diaspora that is the only hope for humanity’s long term survival.  But according to some Muslim clerics, that would go against the will of Allah.

Mars One itself responded to the fatwa, and in a much more accommodating fashion that I could manage.  Members of the company wrote a response suggesting that the Quran encourages exploration.  They pointed to verse 30:22 that says,

“…and among His Signs is the creation of the heavens and the earth, and the variations in your languages and your colors: verily in that are Signs for those who know.”

The release then said,

“The Muslim world has a rich tradition of exploration. The verse from the Quran [above] encourages Muslims to go out and see the signs of God’s creation in the “heavens and the earth”. The most influential example of this was the Moroccan Muslim traveller Ibn Battuta, who from 1325 to 1355 travelled 73,000 miles, visiting the equivalent of 44 modern countries.”

But the adventurous spirit of early Islam seems to be missing today.  The clerics who issued the fatwa apparently think allah is incapable of understanding the difference between an explorer putting his/her life on the line to expand the physical and intellectual boundaries of humanity and ending your life by your own choice.

Or perhaps they’re just worried they couldn’t extend their influence from that far away.


1. As a quick aside, allow me to explain what a fatwa is.  For westerners, we tend to hold a mistaken opinion about what that word means.  Most of us have only encountered the term in the context of a death sentence or condemnation.  Most famously, Ayatollah Khomeini of Iran issued a fatwa calling for the death of author Salman Rushdie after the publication of his book The Satanic Verses in 1998.  Death sentences, however, are not what most fatwas are about.  A fatwa is better described as a religious ruling, similar to a court ruling in the U.S.  Fatwas are basically opinions from authority.  For example, if a Muslim has a question about a certain belief, he can ask a cleric who will return an official answer.  It’s similar to a court ruling.  A lawyer giving can give their opinion about a certain law, but an actual court opinion carries more weight.  To say that a fatwa is a death sentence is similar to thinking that any court opinion is an order for execution.  While a court ruling can order someone’s execution, that’s not the only kind of ruling there is out there.


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