The Trouble with the Qibla

Back in the 1960s, when I was a young Muslim in Los Angeles, I realized that no one in our small community had much of an idea about the Qibla direction. According to those useful but dead-boring books by such luminaries as Ahmed Galwash on how to be a Muslim, the proper way to find the Qibla was to get a Mercator projection map, put one end of a ruler on your own location and the other end on Mecca, draw a line, and presto! There was the Qibla direction.


Being a trusting sort, I assumed that was enough until my friend, the Chinese Muslim artist Hamil Ma, and I talked to an airline pilot, who said we were actually in line with Johannesburg—not a very attractive Qibla. He introduced us to the Great Circle concept, which is used in aviation.


Great-circle distance is defined as the shortest distance between any two points on the surface of a sphere measured along a path on the surface of the sphere. A great-circle route—easily demonstrated using a globe and a piece of string—forms an arc along the edge of a circular plane that bisects the sphere through its center. The great-circle course from A to B shows where you would face from A to see B, if you could. A very accurate and totally graphic method for determining the Qibla using the great-circle direction was invented by Fred Sawyer III, a mathematician and dialist. It requires polar graph paper and a ruler. Fred and I wrote a booklet in the 1980s explaining the method and tabulating results for more than 350 cities. It was never published. (Calculations of great-circle distance and geometrical illustrations of the concept are available at a number of sites online, however, such as and


Back in Los Angeles, my friend and I took our new-found knowledge to the new Islamic Center on Vermont Ave., where members were using the Mercator/ruler method and talking about how scientific it was. Their reaction was my first (but not my last) experience with Muslim fanaticism and outrage. “How dare mere converts and Asians challenge real Arabs!” people said. We were given the bum’s rush and banned from the mosque for a long time. Years later, the ban was forgotten, and when a new center was built, the mosque was oriented according to the great-circle method. Oh my!


My interest was piqued, and I decided to find out more. I learned that the direction is measured in degrees of an angle between North (or sometimes East or West) and your location’s direction to the Kaaba. The angle is called the azimuth, from Arabic samt, the direction to. (More specifically, azimuth is a mathematical concept defined as the angle, usually measured in degrees, between a reference plane and a point. In navigation, the reference plane is typically true north and is considered 0° azimuth.) The angle expressed in degrees is called in Arabic the inhiraf.


A Controversial Question

I also learned that finding the Qibla has always been a controversial question. It has been solved in a number of ways, which can be categorized as traditional or folk methods and mathematical methods. The folk methods range from, “If you can see the Kaaba, point to it,” to, “If you are in Mecca, just point the way everyone else is pointing.” But as people got farther from the Kaaba, they needed other solutions. Some believed the direction of certain wind currents held the answer. Others thought the four walls of the Kaaba could be extended metaphorically to infinity and that one need only face one of those invisible walls. Another theory held that certain stars, or the sun, would be directly over the Kaaba twice a year; sighting these celestial bodies at the right time of year provided the Qibla direction. And some believed that Muslims in the East should simply face West and those in the West should face East.


The fiqh books also addressed the issue and are full of interesting concepts. For example, if someone exercises ijtihad, he or she (but no one else) is obliged to follow the results of his or her ijtihad. (This is one of the rare incidents in which ijtihad can still be exercised by someone who is not a mujtahid.) Most mosques were built according to such determinations as these, and other similar traditional methods have been tried.


Old mosques were most probably built oriented to the Qibla using the methods available at the time. The importance of the correct Qibla is demonstrated by the fact that, when a mosque was found to be incorrectly oriented, the building itself could not be moved, so people would change their orientation inside the building instead. I remember going into mosques in Morocco, facing the Qibla wall, and then feeling hands on my shoulders, gently steering me in the proper direction—probably the great circle-orientation, which the mosque leaders would have determined after learning the longitude of the place. I remember that people still stood in rows that were parallel to the Qibla wall, but they all turned at an angle slightly more to the north and stood staggered a bit like fish scales or shingles. It worked fine.


There are many mathematical, or quasi-mathematical, methods as well. Historically, the big problem with these methods was that until the 18th century, no one could determine a region’s longitude with any certainty. The math worked, but the geography didn’t. So while the methods were advanced and correct, the results were—according to modern findings—wrong. Yet were they not, being the products of ijtihad and necessity, sufficient?


If you look at old Islamic geographic coordinate tables and their applications on astrolabes, you can find these mathematical attempts—some of them quite good, the result of thousands of hours of trigonometric calculations—tabulated and ready to use. These methods were published all over the Muslim world as manuscripts. They were calculated using the coordinates of the location (latitude and longitude), the coordinates of the Kaaba (or Mecca), and the formulae of simple spherical trigonometry to determine the great-circle course from one point to another.


Better-quality astrolabes and quadrants include a quadrant section for sines and cosines, and sometimes for tangents and cotangents as well. This provides a graphic-mathematical method for finding out these elements of trigonometry, though expressed differently than we would today. This information can be used to work out equations for solving the Qibla problem, among others. Some astrolabes have a quadrant section with pre-calculated graphs that show the sun’s altitude for each day at the time when the shadow of a vertical pole or plumb line will be in the direction of the Qibla.


A Conceptual Issue

Now that it is possible to determine the Qibla with mathematical precision, the problem becomes conceptual. How does the Qibla question sit in one’s mind? What is most comfortable to one’s understanding?


The learned savants of the madhhabs (approaches to fiqh) differ on this question, as they should. There are multiple paths to one truth, through fiqh. The whole thing is enlightenment. We live in a time and place in which no single madhhab can or will be supreme. None may dominate; all may participate. Whoever is interested in Islam and its problems needs to be aware of what his or her madhhab suggests. Certain national preferences in madhhabs need to be considered as well. Bear in mind that there are also multiple approaches within each madhhab. (No, the madhhabs are not monolithic, nor are they “systems.”) The downside of following a particular madhhab, however, is becoming fanatical about it and attempting to impose it on others. We must never use knowledge to hurt others. When we do that, we get stuck in the ugliness that is the wrong side of certainty. In my view, there is no such thing as a “generic Islam”—Islam off the shelf, buy it, unwrap it, and then apply it. That is the do-it-yourself approach, or really, the do-it-the-way-I-tell-you approach, which is largely the American standard so far, alas.


Personally, I am most comfortable with the mathematical great-circle approach. If asked, I would advocate this approach for a number of reasons, not the least of which is that, if I were to design a mosque, people of other madhhabs and other requirements could use it. When I am in that great circle, north-east, here in Northern Virginia, I am physically—not just metaphorically or symbolically—oriented to the Kaaba and I am comfortable. The world is a sphere; a sphere is mathematically comprehensible.


These issues should not nag you when you try to pray. When we are guests, we pray in the same direction as our hosts without asking what angle of inhiraf they use. For example, if two differing Malikis pray together in the preferred direction of one of them, the other might repeat his prayer in his own preferred direction. This is out of love and respect for the person and for the fiqh. A religion, ultimately, is people. Love promotes respect; respect promotes love. As the Ottoman Turkish maxim goes, Ashk olmayinja, meshk olmaz, or, When you don’t love what you’re doing, there’s no point in working to perfect it.


Unfortunately, this is not always evident. For example, when I read Port in a Storm: A Fiqh Solution to the Qibla of North America, by Nuh Ha Mim Keller, I didn’t feel a breath of love or respect in it. Although Sh. Keller and I both prefer the mathematical great-circle method, his approach was to hammer the idea into the poor reader’s head with icy certainty. The book is a commendable effort, and there are many good aspects to it. I believe the content is correct and useful, but the tone put me off. Instead of imparting wisdom and guidance in the inimitable way of our great scholars, it was a thinly veiled attack on other approaches to finding the Qibla direction.


A case in point is this outrageous statement in the Azhar fatwa on page 215 (my translation): “The salat of he who prays in any direction besides the great circle direction, as ascertained by his own reasoning, is valid insofar as it was done previously to this fatwa.” The fatwa concludes (again, my translation): “It is incumbent on all the Muslims to quit quarrelling and disagreeing amongst themselves, and to accept as compulsory what the ulema have decided in this matter and that it is not allowed to disagree with it at all and in no way.”


This is simply staggering in its implications. I was not aware that Al Azhar had been granted the right to act as policeman and dictator over Muslims here in America. I think we could accept advice from Al Azhar (which is not, as the jacket copy suggests, the oldest institution in the Muslim world) but not be dictated to. If that is Sh. Keller’s attitude, it explains all. No thank you.


Open Minded, Open Hearted

Let’s not fool ourselves: This Islam is a difficult religion. In my long life, with my eyes wide open, I have found that Islam simply makes no sense when it is dominated and directed by rigid, blinkered, persecuting, and hard-hearted approaches. Religious idealists whose religion is their idealism remind me of those old socialists who, when their ideologies failed, held that it was because socialism hadn’t been applied strictly enough. No thank you.


A religion is only as good as the people who practice it. When a religion is dominated by dull, anti-intellectual populists and heartless, persecuting moralists—as is often the case with the American Christian Right and the Islamist Salafi movements—the religion itself will embody those qualities. But if the tone is set by people who are seeking truth, people who are open minded and open hearted, the result is a rich, engaging, attractive, and welcoming religion that is tuned for the times.


A great poem in Arabic, an Ottoman calligrapher’s favorite, speaks clearly of this attitude:


“I am perplexed by You, so take my hand, O guide for those who are perplexed by You.”

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Mohamed Zakariya Arabic Calligraphy - Islamic & Arabic Calligrapher