Last week, mainstream media, blogs, and social media were abuzz about a fatwa. While fatwas normally do not attract much attention within the Muslim world, this one managed to grab the attention of droves of Muslims and non-Muslims worldwide. In just the past twelve days, it was picked up by numerous western and Arab media outlets and mentioned over 10,000 times on Twitter. Despite the large number of different media outlets who repeated the story, the content of all of these reports and tweets led back to the exact same solitary newspaper article. A primary source was given for the fatwa, but the text of the fatwa could not be found on their website. Within days, the primary source issued an official press release through government channels disavowing any connection to the fatwa.
Sadly, none of the media outlets who jumped on the bandwagon to repeat this story have reported on its disavowal, which essentially pulled the rug out from under the entire fatwa story. Although mentions on Twitter have dropped to a slow trickle, the story about how members of an official fatwa council for the United Arab Emirates’s General Authority of Islamic Affairs and Endowment (GAIAE) forbade Muslims to make the one-way journey with Mars One continue to circulate.
GAIAE’s press release was issued through WAM, the official Emirates News Agency. The press release states in unequivocal terms that the Agency has no connection with “corrupting a question and its [associated] fatwa on the ruling of humans making a one-way voyage to Mars that the media has been spreading and attributing to the Agency.” They clarified that a question had been presented to their fatwa council about making a one-way voyage to Mars. Their reply to the question was that “[b]ased upon the legal texts and matters of scholarly consensus, it is not permissible to make a one-way voyage to Mars if survival during the trip is not possible and if the likelihood of dying exceeds the likelihood of living, due to it exposing the individual to death.”
If we look at the reasoning given in GAIAE’s own press release and the reasoning attributed to them in the source article, it is difficult to understand why there was such an uproar about their conclusion. Islam forbids suicide, whether performed on the face of the Earth, in the depths of its seas, soaring its skies, while in its orbit, or out in outer space. We expect muftis to forbid any activity which is expected to result in death since preservation of life is among the highest objectives of Islamic law, and it is unlawful to engage in activities that present a significant risk to life or limb.
Imagine if instead of traveling off planet to Mars, we asked the same muftis about two diametrically opposite scenarios involving traveling by plane to a deserted island.
In the first scenario, we ask the muftis about boarding a rickety airplane, taking off without filing a flight plan, and flying far out over the ocean to an uncharted and uninhabited island devoid of shelter, provisions, or resources required to sustain life; and then jumping out of the airplane without a parachute. Not only do we expect them to reply that participating in the above scenario is unlawful since the chance of death is near certain and clearly exceeds the chance of life, but we would also find it completely appropriate and reasonable given the details of the scenario. (Indeed, we would question their knowledge of Islamic law and their concern for life if they did not prohibit such risky and reckless behavior.)
For the second scenario, we ask the muftis about boarding a well-tested airplane, filing a flight plan, and flying far out over the ocean to a well-known uninhabited island where we had built a fully-functioning, fully-provisioned outpost located amongst vast quantities of natural resources capable of rendering it possible to achieve a permanent and sustainable habitat; and then gliding down to the pre-built runway. Here we would expect them to say that it is permissible since the risks of the earlier scenario have been mitigated through planning, leaving the chance of life far exceeding the chance of death.
Now that we have answers to these two “desert island” scenarios as benchmarks, we can ask which one of them Mars One resembles most, and whether the Mars One trip will most likely result in life or in death. We can start by looking at its goals, roadmap, and the risks and challenges involved.
Mars One is a non-profit organization established in the Netherlands by Bas Lansdorp. The goal of the project is to establish a permanent, sustainable human colony on Mars. If things go according to plan, by 2018 an unmanned mission will be sent to test some of the technologies related to human habitation and survival. In 2020, an unmanned rover will be sent to choose a building site. Later, in 2022, six cargo missions will be sent to the rover’s chosen site; these missions will provide the materials needed to construct an outpost capable of meeting its inhabitants’ needs in a sustainable and self-sufficient manner. Outpost construction will be finished by 2023. Starting in 2024, teams with four crew-members will be sent to the outpost, spaced out in two-year intervals. Additional cargo missions will be sent so existing teams can expand the outpost to accommodate and sustain a larger colony. Crew members will spend their time performing construction, maintenance, and research. One of the research questions paramount to the sustainability of the colony concerns conceiving and bearing children on Mars. The risks of space flight are expected to be similar to that of climbing Mount Everest. It is clear from Mars One’s documentation that they are undertaking a great deal of planning and testing to mitigate risks and ensure the success of the project.
So which of the two “desert island” scenarios is most similar to Mars One: the one where death is near certain or where life is expected? Clearly it bears close resemblance to the second scenario where expectation of living exceeds the expectation of death. Indeed, the Mars One trip doesn’t bear much resemblance to the first scenario at all. Unfortunately, the original article and all its offshoots indicate strong dismay that GAIAE would forbid the first scenario at all (in spite of it being totally appropriate given its inherent dangers), or portrayed GAIAE as though it had treated Mars One as the first scenario, when its fatwa merely provided guidelines for when a one-way trip would be permitted and when forbidden – without mentioned Mars One let alone pronouncing it forbidden.
It quite unfortunate that so much has been made out of this story given the negative impressions it has left in the minds of many regarding Muslim scholars in general, and the reputation of the UAE’s General Authority of Islamic Affairs and Endowment. Even if GAIAE or any other mufti had given a fatwa, a fatwa is a non-binding legal opinion and no Muslim has a moral or legal obligation to follow it. The question now is whether any of the media outlets that repeated story will ever report the fact that what they portrayed was disavowed by its source, and that they never did rule out the types of trips intended by Mars One.