Facing Mecca in the Modern World

In the fifteen century, Galileo Galilei was placed under house arrest by Catholic religious authorities for considering the Copernican proposition that the Earth revolved around the sun rather than the other way around. Galileo was the unfortunate victim of being right at the wrong time.

At that time, the Catholic Church was particularly insecure about its authority in interpreting Scripture. The Protestant Reformation was challenging the Church’s exclusive franchise. The Church was in no mood to broker additional dissent. The punishment of Galileo was really not about cosmology or physics, it was about asserting control on the arbitration of Scripture. Insecurity was at the root of intolerance.

Even today, arguments against evolution by some are, at their root, less disagreements about science and more disputes about worldview and authority. In a tempestuous world of moral relativism, religious belief and ritual can serve as an important ethical anchor. Evolution and a very old universe appear on the surface to be at odds with the Book of Genesis. To some, questioning Biblical authority on what is essentially a scientific and empirical question undermines Biblical authority on moral and ethical strictures.

The same disposition seems to be undermining Islam’s collision with modernity. The Great Mosque in Mecca contains the Kaaba, the cube shaped and most sacred Muslim shrine to which adherents must turn to pray. This direction is called the qibla. The classical definition of the qibla is the “direction such that when a human observer faces it, it is as if he is looking at the diameter of the Earth passing through the Kaaba.” Traditionally, the entrances of mosques also face toward Mecca.

In Mecca, as long as the shrine is in sight, facing the Kaaba for prayer is straightforward. As Islam spread from the Arabian Peninsula, the qibla became more difficult to determine. Indeed, this geographic question challenged Islamic mathematicians and cartographers of the Middle Ages and helped give rise to algebra and spherical trigonometry.

On the surface of the Earth, Muslims have known for the past twelve centuries, the direction to Mecca lies along a great circle route. The computation of this direction in the modern world is now relatively easy. Somewhat counter to an intuition formed by looking at maps with parallel longitude lines, from North America, the qibla points to the northeast.

When the Islamic Center was built on Massachusetts Avenue in Washington, DC in 1953, the Egyptian Ambassador was concerned because the center faced 56 degrees, substantially north of east. A quick check with a cartographer at the National Geographic Society confirmed the correctness of this direction.

However, the notion of using what some mistakenly believe is exclusive Western science is offensive to some modern Muslims. These Muslims refuse to believe the qibla from North America points toward the northeast. In 1993, Riad Nachef and Samir Kadi wrote a book arguing that the qibla from North American lies to the southeast. Nachef and Kadi believe that the notion that the qibla points toward the northeast “divides the word of the Muslims and perverts the Religion.”

There is no need here to argue geography. There is no question as to the qibla from North America. However, it is clear that some portion of Islam feels so threatened by modernity and so insecure in its position that it refuses to accept even geographic computations if they seem somehow tainted by Western influences. Insecurity is again at the root of intolerance.

The real irony is that conventional notions of direction that lead Nachef and Kadi to believe that the qibla from North America lies to the southeast is based on a particular map projection by the Flemish cartographer Gerhardus Mercator. Medieval Islamic mathematicians knew better.


Abdali, S. Kamal, The Correct Qilba, 1997.

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