Not What, but Where is Qibla?

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Back in the Spring of 2009, we received a routine request from one of our finer regular clients to perform a routine boundary and topographic survey. Sporting a brick rancher, the property backed up to an interstate highway, fronting on a somewhat secluded road but less than a mile from one of Tennessee’s largest shopping malls. We completed the routine survey, sent our routine results to the design folks, routinely billed it out and so, thought all was now in the past. Then, we got a call from our same good regular client, Mr. Bassam Issa, asking we meet him on site in order to determine the direction of the orientation of a mosque. Goes to show, nothing in this business is ever routine.

I remembered an article in the journal of the Surveyors Historical Society Backsights in which the mosque in Washington, DC faced threat of being torn down and rebuilt because of possible faulty orientation. We all are aware of the fact that people of the Muslim faith are required to face in the direction of Mecca during each of their five time daily prayers. Washington, DC is on a latitude of about North 38 degrees, 55 minutes while Mecca is about North 21 degrees, 25 minutes, slightly south of DC while facing east. The mosque on Massachusetts Avenue faces North 56 degrees, 33 minutes and 15 seconds East. It has been proven correct in its alignment.

Many religions and cultures have sited their sacred structures to align with the heavens, solar cycles and annual astronomic occurrences. Think Stonehenge. Think the Pyramids in Egypt and Central America. While studying Gothic art in college, I was taught that the nave was always at the western end of a cathedral. Proceeding east, one crossed through the transcept entering the quire or choir and presbytery on the eastern end of the church. Viewed from above, most of the medieval churches are in the shape of the cross. Oh, woe be me, only to find out this is a "paper survey". These directions are used simply to describe the different churches and cathedrals structurally on paper. On the ground, it’s a different matter. The greatest cathedral ever constructed, Chartres in France, faces approximately North 45 degrees East. Our National Cathedral in Washington, DC is on an alignment of approximately North 75 degrees East. Notre Dame in Paris is at an approximate bearing of South 80 degrees East. I read of a church in the state of Washington that faces nearly due west. Perhaps I’m wrong but I know of no western religions following alignment of their places of worship based on astronomic or geographic features.

During the prophet Muhammad’s early life, he and his followers faced toward Jerusalem during their prayers. After the prophet took over leadership of Makkah or Mecca in 630 AD, the focus or direction of prayers became the Al Ka’aba or the Kaaba. The Ka’aba was originally constructed by Abraham and his son, Ishmael (yes, the same Old Testament folks) as a monotheistic place of worship. It is a semi-cubic structure (in Arabic, ka’aba means cube) about 49 feet high and about 36 feet on the sides. Framed in silver at its southeastern base is a black meteorite. Each year, the structure receives a new wrapping of black cloth displaying quotes and writings from the holy Qouran or Koran woven into the fabric with gold threads. The Ka’aba is situated in the middle of the Grand Mosque in Mecca, but most importantly it occupies the center of the Muslim faith. At least one time in an ablebodied follower’s life, for those that can afford to do so, a pilgrimage or hajj must be made to Mecca to reverently walk in a circle around the Ka’aba. The Ka’aba is not the subject or reason for the prayers but is merely the direction or qibla (kib-lah) for prayers delivered from anywhere in the world (or beyond).

We met Mr. Issa at the site on a beautiful summer morning. He produced from his front pocket what looked to be a small and peculiar hand-held compass. The device was a qibla direction finder. The face measured about 1-1/2 inches in diameter. The compass face scale is divided into 40 (or 400) units with a painted arrow on the base pointing toward the zero unit (or Mecca). Mr. Issa instructed us to point the magnetic north needle toward the 34th unit and set our mosque base line in the direction of the painted arrow.

Panic almost set in. All I could think of was the mosque that was nearly torn down in Washington back in 1953. Bassam’s qibla finder may have sufficed for daily prayers on a cloudy day, but to orient a mosque…? I suggested we do some research and return at a later date with more sophisticated equipment. I think I sensed some relief in Mr. Issa’s countenance.

A large number of websites are devoted to the qibla, or direction of prayer. Some are tied to MapQuest or Google Earth. Online viewers can see objects on the ground (trees, walks, building etc.) that can be seen when facing the qibla for prayer. There are numerous digital qibla direction finders available, similar to a hand-held GPS receiver. Qibla location apps are even available for the iPhone.

Online I checked on a number of qibla locator websites to see if we could improve on the projection of a 3/4 inch radius line using Bassam’s unique compass and see if a true number was available. On,,, and I learned that for the exact, particular subject property address (just like MapQuest), the direction toward Mecca was 51.56 degrees or 51 degrees, 33 minutes, 36 seconds north azimuth or North 51 degrees, 33 minutes, 36 seconds East on a surveyor’s compass.

Whoa. It dawned on me that Mr. Issa’s compass was similar to the European or military mill compasses in that it was divided into 400 units. I now had to determine whether the information from the various qibla locator sites was in 360 or 400 units. Using GoogleEarth I entered a hypothetical location near Kemise, Ethiopia where the qibla went from 359 units to 0 units. Most of the locator websites report the direction in the 360-degree scale with tenth unit divisions of the degree, not "DMS".

In the FAQ section of one of the sites I learned that the values for direction given are from "true north", not magnetic north. This meant that a factor for declination needed to be applied in order to directly read a magnetic direction. Again, using the specific address of the property (again, much like MapQuest), I went to NOAA’s Geophysical Data Center website in order to obtain the "Estimated Value of Magnetic Declination". The site specific value for variation was 4 degrees, 4 minutes West. When applying the value to true north in order to arrive at magnetic north, one subtracts the variation. Therefore, 51 degrees, 33 minutes, 36 seconds minus negative 4 degrees, 4 minutes equals 55 degrees, 37 minutes, 36 seconds or North 55 degrees, 38 minutes East on a 1-minute transit. When applied to the 400-scale qibla direction finder this equates to 33.8 or 338, a fine tuning of Mr. Issa’s original 34 or 340.

There is an ongoing controversy among Muslim brethren concerning just what direction is the true direction. Some believe that basically facing just south of the rising of the sun will point you in the proper direction. On a Mercator projection (a flat surface) one should face just south of due east. Mecca is at roughly North 21 degrees; the Dry Tortuga, one of our most southern possessions off of Key West, is at North 24 degrees. However, we live on a sphere, not a plane. The prevalent method to locate Qibla is to follow the shortest distance between two points, or the great circle of airline flight. This is not a new idea (followers of Islam have known thi
s for centuries) hence, the northeast heading to Mecca from Washington, DC or Tennessee.

As common as finding a Gideons’ Bible in the night stand of an American hotel, when one checks into a hotel in a predominately Muslim country, simply opening a dresser drawer will help to determine the qibla. Usually, there is a decal on the bottom of a drawer in the dresser pointing to the proper direction. The religion is more concerned with the efforts and meaning of the prayers than with a precise orientation of those prayers. On an overcast day, in an unaccustomed venue, a mere generalization of direction in good faith is acceptable. A publication usually accompanies the small compasses like Bassam’s. In it are the "index" numbers for major cities and countries across the globe. These index numbers coincide with the units on his pocket device. These publications are updated every 10 years to account for the annual changes in magnetic variation.

There is even a world projection devoted to the qibla. In 1909, an English cartographer, James Ireland Craig, working in Egypt created a projection to help his newly acquired friends locate the qibla. Known as the Craig retroazimuthal projection or Mecca projection, it is centered on Mecca and avoids distortions found in other projections. There is a simple equation using this projection based on one’s latitude and longitude to orient the qibla.

In 2006, Malaysia convened a conference of 150 scholars and scientists in order to address the qibla and an orbiting astronaut. During the course of a single prayer in space, orbiting the earth, the qibla can change by as much as 180 degrees. A devout Muslim, Sheikh Musazphar Shukor was scheduled on a mission aboard the International Space Station and was worried about the "movements of Mecca". The findings of this conference was an ordered set of priorities, the astronaut should: 1) face the Ka’aba, 2) face a projection of the Ka’aba, 3) face the earth, or 4) face "wherever" (source: Patrick Di Justo, Wired, September 26, 2007).

In February 2003, Mrs. Zahida Parveen launched a product to challenge Coca-Cola’s dominance in the world. In Derby, England, Mrs. Parveen introduced Qibla Cola. It is a fact that many Muslim nations have a distaste for multinational American-based corporations similar to Coca-Cola. Mrs. Parveen’s idea was a huge success and her cola is now in nearly every continent on the globe. The idea that sets her product apart is the fact that she gives 10% of her sales to Islamic charities. Vancouver, British Columbia is the nearest venue to sample and sip some Qibla Cola.

Time to go back to Tennessee and to the field. Now was the time to place the qibla on the face of this earth. Using a 1953 Gurley transit (ironically the same year of the DC mosque’s near destruction), we employed the following methods on the site. We aligned 0 (zero) on the compass face scale with the red register line on the north end of the compass needle. I then turned an angle right (northeasterly) of 55 degrees, 38 minutes. A nail was placed at a random distance (approximately 200 feet) on this line. The scope was plunged. A reverse observation was made on the same point, complimenting the first angle. This showed we had no collimation error and that our cross-hairs were in adjustment. We then moved up the line to our foresight point and sighted our origin point. The reading on the compass was just slightly greater than South 55 degrees, 30 minutes West. Thus we were assured there was no pesky local attraction on the compass needle. We then broke out our contemporary equipment and tied down the two points just established with the transit. This is the line we applied to our survey in order for the architect to orient the proposed mosque.

There is a check. Several websites state, "…it is not advisable to determine qibla using a compass…" They suggested that a more reliable method that has been used for centuries should be employed. For nearly the entire span of time of Islam and at any location across the globe, observers can be assured that at anytime in any given year, the sun is directly over and above the Ka’aba in Mecca. This occurs on May 28 at 9:18 UT and on July 16 at 9:27 UT. At anywhere on the earth one stands at these precise times (correcting for time zones, etc.) by facing the sun, he or she will be facing Mecca. The favored method is to set up a tall stick or staff and mark the direction of the shadow at the precise time. Minarets work nicely; their shadows produce a solid long line on the ground.

Something tells me our work will be checked using the shadow method, as well it should be. I hope I can participate in the check, although applying the five-hour time difference to arrive at Eastern Daylight Savings Time, it will be about a quarter past four in the morning in eastern Tennessee. Perhaps a system of pro-ration for daylight measurements using shadows, time and different days has already been established, but nothing was mentioned in the articles I researched. Meanwhile, I’m pleased that due to some basic research, fundamental calculations and careful observations, we are assured that a group of folks will be comfortable knowing their prayers are being conducted in the manner prescribed by their holy book. After all, we’re land surveyors, and this is just part of what we do every day. Routine.

C. Barton Crattie holds a BFA degree from Murray State University and is a licensed surveyor in Georgia and Tennessee. He currently serves on the Board of Directors for the Surveyors Historical Society.

A 1.765Mb PDF of this article as it appeared in the magazine—complete with images—is available by clicking HERE