Finding the Qibla direction is a relatively easy affair today: qibla compasses built into prayer rugs, smartphone apps, and youtube can point us in the right direction. But do you wonder how people used to find the Qibla in the past? Behind all these glittery tools, some background is needed! (Read to the bottom to see the majestic Qibla calculating tools of the past!)
From the Early Islamic Years
At the very beginning at the time of our Prophet SAW, traditional non-mathematical methods were used. It was due south in al-Medina, where our Prophet SAW and his Companions were. Later when Islam spread, the early Muslims would use the direction of the road leaving their city towards Mecca, to determine the Qibla. Then around the 2nd century H., a symbolic world map with the Kaaba as its centre was used.
Some symbolic world maps with Kaaba as the centre. (2nd -10th Century Hijra)
As Islam spread over the world, there became a greater need for more accurate ways.
For example, the map on the left shows how geographical coordinates were taken from Makkah and the locality where Qibla was to be determined and placed on a rectangular grid map.
A straight line was drawn to determine the angle.
Magnetic… water compasses!
Magnetic compasses were first introduced into the Islamic world from China in the thirteenth century, but it was not like the ones you see today! Using a bowl filled with water and a magnetized iron needle, a compass was made. After locating the compass’s true North, one would count a specific number of degrees along the rim to determine the Qibla.
Sundials and Shadows
Another method for locating the Qibla was by using a sundial. By marking the points on a circle where the shadow cast by the sundial reaches just before noon and again towards evening, you can determine the east-west line and the north-south meridian. If one knows the difference between the longitude and latitude of Mecca and one’s own location, one can then geometrically find the qibla—at least approximately.
The Curved Triangle
The breakthrough to the mathematical methods that you see today was back in around 900CE- where Abu Al-Wafa Buzhjani (940 –998) discovered the Spherical Sine Rule.
This rule is the basis of what you see in the Qibla apps and in QIBLA WATCH because the Earth is spherical and not flat!
The determining of Qibla direction, included in Astronomy and Spherical trigonometry, is a Fardu Kifayyah- which means that within a community, it is obligatory for at least someone to have knowledge of it. And at a time when Europeans believed that the Earth was flat, Muslim scientists knew how to correct for the Earth's curvature.
Our Muslim forefathers spearheaded the intellectual advancement of mankind and proved that the Holy Qur’an and science were not opposites. The Golden Age of Islam is indeed a period of history that we as Muslims should feel proud of and have a deep desire to once again witness that great age of scientific enlightenment, inshaAllah!
One of the tools used to calculate the Qibla Direction was constructed in the 11th/17th c. A splendid example of the achievements of Islamic science, and an illustration of the central position of Makkah in Islam.