The subject of the present interview is his new book, An Illusion of Harmony: Science and Religion in Islam. Edis has a lot of insightful things to say about the state of Muslim science, including a few tidbits about creationism, so I recommend reading the whole thing.
Actually, though, it was the beginning of the article that caught my eye:
In October, Malaysia’s first astronaut will join a Russian crew and blast off into space. The news of a Muslim astronaut was cause for celebration in the Islamic world, but then certain questions started popping up. How will he face Mecca during his five daily prayers while his space ship is whizzing around the Earth? How can he hold the prayer position in zero gravity? Such concerns may sound absurd to us, but the Malaysian space chief is taking them quite seriously. A team of Muslim scholars and scientists has spent more than a year drawing up an Islamic code of conduct for space travel.
The image of serious and intelligent people getting worked up over God’s opinion of such trivia reminded me of an experience I had during my sophomore year of college. I was living in a suite with five other people, one of whom was an Orthodox Jew named Dov. When Hanukkah rolled around, he invited me to join him and his girlfriend as they lit the traditional candles.
For any goyim who might be reading this, let me explain that the Hanukkah menorah consists of eight candle holders, with a ninth that is set off in some way from the others. The offset candle is called, phonetically, the “Shamash.” On the k-th night of Hanukkah you place candles in k of the holders, with one additional candle being placed in the Shamash holder. You then light the Shamash, and use it in turn to light the other candles.
Now, when I was a little kid Jew, the conservative synagogue where I went to Hebrew school made a big production about the placement and lighting of the candles. The rule was something like this: you place the candles in from right to left, and then light them from left to right. Alas. it might have been exactly the opposite. I couldn’t remember which one it was, but I remembered it was viewed as an issue of some import.
But then I saw Dov placing the candles in haphazardly, showing no respect at all for the whole left-right business. Somewhat uncomfortable, I asked him whether the candles were supposed to be placed in the menorah left to right or right to left.
He looked at me like I was insane. After some impressive eye rolling he said emphatically, “No one cares which way you put the candles in or which way you light them! You can do it any way you want” And he finished putting in the candles, said the traditional blessings, and lit the candles.
The moral of the story? Genuinely religious people don’t waste their time worrying about ritualistic minutiae. It is the ones who want everyone else to think they are really pious who do that.