Science and Technology

Mapping the Direction to Makkah: A Cartographic Perspective

Knowledge of locations and directions using the stars was almost instinctual for Arabs during the pre-Islamic era. Being an illiterate nation, using the pen to record information was very limited and hence the art and science of map-making was almost non-existent. It was not until Islam, that the use of the pen became a necessity of everyday life. The importance of keeping written records became evident especially when the Muslim Empire expanded beyond the Arabian Peninsula. In a very short time the Muslims were able to conquer scientifically more advanced nations such as the Byzantine and Persian empires. Geographical records and maps, inherited from the ancients were translated into the Arabic language and modified to encompass the Islamic vision of the world of geography. Elements of nature such as the wind, the mountains and seas that were previously feared by nations are no longer gods to be worshiped, but rather signs of Allah's creations to be studied.

Geographic information was both descriptive and literal in nature, supported by maps. Mathematical equations that can determine locations of the stars were engraved on mechanical tools such as the astrolabe. Records of the use of spherical trigonometry in geography can be traced back to the ninth century CE (third century AH).1

While Islamic teachings encourage scientific research in general, the second pillar of Islam, that is prayer, demands awareness of time and location. In order to perform the prayer correctly, a person has to pray five times a day, according to specific timings while facing the city of Makkah. The sacred direction (qibla) toward Makkah also influenced other aspects of the Muslim life such as architecture and burial rites. The concept of sacred direction was not new; Jews and Christians used Jerusalem as a geographic center for their religion.2 During the early revelations of Islam, Muslims used Jerusalem for the same purpose as well. The Islamic teaching later changed the sacred direction to Makkah and made it a condition for correct prayer. This drove the Muslims to a higher level of sophistication in solving the problem of determining directions.

Two major approaches to determine the direction to Makkah can be recognized. The first is the folk astronomy (ethnoastronomy) where the scholars of the sacred law of Islam (fuqaha’) have a major influence on interpretation and are related more toward the spiritual aspect of the problems. The second is the mathematical method where a high level of calculations and technical solutions were applied by professional scientists.3

This paper argues that the gap between the two approaches is not large and their historical evidence shows an actual merging of the two approaches. Such evidence is found in many maps and calculations of Islamic literature throughout history. The two seventeenth-century Iranian maps introduced by David A. King (1999) of the Old World (discovered in 1989 and 1995) with Makkah at the center, as well as similar maps found in (Harley and Woods 1992) are good examples. Qibla tables and mechanical devices such as the astrolabe are other examples.4 The vast number of mosques built by early Muslim immigrants in the Americas with the correct direction to Makkah is a very good indication that the difference between the two approaches is minimal and that the confusion over the correct direction is very limited.5

In modern times, with the implementation of computer technology, producing maps in various projections becomes a matter of choice. Once geographic information is recorded in digital form, maps can be produced in any desired projection. While the same technology enhances our geographical knowledge by introducing it in a visual form, for the layman it can be confusing when it comes to directions. Modern maps, made from a western perspective, do not necessarily provide or display information such as great circles centered on Makkah. For a casual map user, the direction to Makkah from the United States on a Mercator projection map seems to be to the southeast. This confusion extended in some cases to professional geographers who, when asked for directions to Makkah, used the thumb line as a solution.6 Part of the problem is due to a lack of scientific understanding of the Islamic teaching regarding the prayer direction.7

In a previous paper,8 the author introduced the concept of the prayer circle (PC) and prayer direction circle (PDC) system to help simplify the problem. This paper combines these concepts with spherical triangulation and cartographic design to offer a visual solution to the problem by using Geographic Information Systems (GIS).

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