Q. There was an incident recently where some Muslims were ejected from a flight for praying at the back of an airplane after being requested not to do so by the flight attendants. It was reported that the Muslims had requested that they be allowed to disembark for prayer thus delaying the flight, and that they also left the plane's toilet in a messy condition, presumably from their wudu (ablution). What is your opinion of this incident?
A. From a fiqh (Islamic jurisprudence) perspective, I must point out that the current airline policy of passenger safety in no way causes a problem for Muslims who are aware of the practices of their faith. Prayer is prohibited in places of public travel, such as roadways and lanes or alleys for obvious reasons. A commercial jet is essentially a little village, and its aisles fall within the category of roadways, which makes them at any time - whether the seatbelt sign is on or off - not allowable for prayer.
For matters of safety too, when a plane is in flight, since one cannot with any cogent level of accuracy predict when an air turbulence may disrupt the calm progress of the aircraft, or some emergency may arise, prayer cannot be performed in the normal ritual form. It is akin to a state of insecurity when Muslims are allowed to pray even by gesturing. Millions of Muslims have traveled aboard aircraft, and millions of observant Muslims have prayed in their seats without seeking to create a public relations disaster for an airline that sticks to certain policies.
Whether one likes to admit it or not, certain other considerations need to be taken into account. As jokes about bombs, etc. are not allowed, so too any indication of possible terrorist activity, or what may be construed as terrorist activity, cannot be condoned. The vast majority of airline travelers is ignorant of Islam, and may interpret the ritual forms of Islamic prayer as a prelude to a bombing or hijacking. In this case, they may react by harming the people at prayer. For this reason, there are two rules that apply:"The private affliction is borne to avert one to the general public, and no incipient injury and no retaliatory injury." These fiqh adages, or at least translations thereof, should shed some light on the situation.
It should be noted too that Saudi Airlines, arguably the most observant about Islamic practice, does not have a policy of accommodating prayer in its planes' aisles. Muslims either pray in their seats, or wait until they arrive at their destination to combine prayers. As far as disembarking to perform prayers, it would seem as though these people were bent on creating a maximum of disturbance through unreasonable requests. Their conduct is to be seen in light of chapter (Sura) "Al Maun" in the Qur'an, which berates those who pray so that they may be seen and deny help to those who need it. The other passengers would have probably been scared, and their rights violated since they were definitely inconvenienced because of the filthy conditions in which the toilets were left, which certainly come under the umbrella of "help" to others.
If a few Muslims who are obviously uniformed about their religion's law seek to create a disturbance before and after the mistake they made on the plane, then in all fairness and respect for the rights of others, it is incumbent on other Muslims to stand against them, for the truth takes precedence to "brotherhood in faith."
Posted July 30, 1999