Mars One and Some Perspective on the Fatwa

Mars One, the private effort to send people on a one-way journey to settle Mars, hit the news last week but not for reasons they hoped. The United Arab Emirates' General Authority of Islamic Affairs and Endowment issued a fatwa opposing Muslim participation in the project. As originally reported by the Khaleej Times, the religious scholars focused on the risky nature of Mars One's project and declared that an early death "for no righteous reason" could be punished "similar to that of suicide in the Hereafter." 

A minor media frenzy ensued. The ten thousand retweets paled in comparison to Ellen Degeneres’ selfie at the Oscars, but the story appeared on all major media outlets and in blog posts around the world. 

A few people tried to put the issue in some perspective amid the volume of “Muslims can’t go to Mars” reports. You can read an article by Abez, a Pakistani/Muslim/graphic designer/blogger/poet/mother of three, or another article by UAE Islamic scholar Sheikh Musa Furber. They explain that Islamic scholars issue fatwas to advise Muslims on how to apply the Koran's teaching in their daily lives just as the Pope or a Protestant minister explains how the Bible applies to the lives of Christians or, on a more secular level, a doctor advises a patient to eat healthy foods and exercise. In this case, the fatwa simply says that taking extreme risks that lead to early death is the same as suicide — which is forbidden by the Koran. It concludes that Muslims shouldn’t participate in Mars settlement plans that takes suicidal risks.

The UAE’s official response to the media’s “distortions” included a comment from the GAIAE’s Fatwa Committee:

Based on the texts, it is not permissible to travel to Mars and never to return if life is not possible there and the expectation of death is more than the possibility of life, due to this action exposing one to self-destruction.

In response Mars One respectfully and reasonably asked the General Authority of Islamic Affairs and Endowment to reconsider the fatwa:

If we may be so bold: the GAIAE should not analyze the risk as they perceive it today. The GAIAE should assess the potential risk for humans as if an unmanned habitable outpost is ready and waiting on Mars…. In the next ten years, Mars One is open to working with the GAIAE to assess the risk of the mission as the unmanned settlement is under construction.

This is the way Mars One responds to all of its critics: give us a chance to prove we can do it. Fair enough, but that won’t silence the critics. The fatwa says what many in the space community have said before. We have ideas — but we don't know — how to deal with the gravity, radiation, caustic regolith, entry, descent, landing, maintenance, supply and many other risks people will face on any journey to Mars. The criticism won’t stop until Mars One demonstrates the technology that will reduce those risks.