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How the Qibla Direction Was Determined in 624 CE and Now

by Farida Haji

Masjid Al Qiblatain: Mosque of the Two Qiblas

Zohor of 15 Sha’ban 2H (February 624 CE) in Madina changed the course of history. A test of faith and a moment of obedience shifted our focus from Jerusalem to Makkah. Allah guided Prophet Muhammad ﷺ amid his salah to turn upon the true Qibla, the Kaabah.

قَدْ نَرَىٰ تَقَلُّبَ وَجْهِكَ فِى ٱلسَّمَآءِ ۖ فَلَنُوَلِّيَنَّكَ قِبْلَةً تَرْضَىٰهَا ۚ فَوَلِّ وَجْهَكَ شَطْرَ ٱلْمَسْجِدِ ٱلْحَرَامِ ۚ وَحَيْثُ مَا كُنتُمْ فَوَلُّوا۟ وُجُوهَكُمْ شَطْرَهُۥ ۗ وَإِنَّ ٱلَّذِينَ أُوتُوا۟ ٱلْكِتَـٰبَ لَيَعْلَمُونَ أَنَّهُ ٱلْحَقُّ مِن رَّبِّهِمْ ۗ وَمَا ٱللَّهُ بِغَـٰفِلٍ عَمَّا يَعْمَلُونَ

Verily, We have seen the turning of your (Muhammad’s) face towards the heaven. Surely, We shall turn you to a Qibla (prayer direction) that shall please you, so turn your face in the direction of Al-Masjid Al-Haram (at Makkah). And wheresoever you people are, turn your faces (in prayer) in that direction. Certainly, the people who were given the Scripture (i.e., Jews and Christians) know well that, that (your turning towards the direction of the Ka`abah at Makkah in prayers) is the truth from their Lord. And Allah is not unaware of what they do). 

[Al-Bakarah 2:144]

The command of the shift in the Qibla is mentioned thrice in the Quran. Verses [2:144], [2:149] and [2:150]. This event set a reaction of criticism and doubt among followers and other communities alike. The Muslims shared the direction of the Qibla with the Jews and the Christians. Only a handful of companions turned to the direction to which Allah lead his Messenger.

The Qiblatain Mosque, one of the oldest mosques in Islamic history has been rebuilt multiple times and until today has two mihrabs, one facing Baitul Maqdas and the other towards Bait Allah. The former has been sealed. From any part of the world, Muslims offer prayers in the same direction — the center of the world, the center of our faith, the house of Allah.

How Was the Qibla Determined?

This is a divine miracle of the Prophet ﷺ. Yet there is a burning question: how to find the Qibla? Islam started spreading far and wide through Saudi Arabia, Africa, and China, building majestic mosques with unique methods to determine the direction of the Qibla.

The Two Norths

To understand the determination of the Qibla, we need to know that the North we see on the compass is not the only one.

  1. True North: True North is a fixed geographical position on the Earth’s sphere at the North Pole.
  2. Magnetic North: Magnetic North is determined by the magnetic fields of the Earth and is ever-changing.

7 Old and Modern Methods to Find the Qibla

1. The North Pole Star / Polaris

The Polaris or the North Pole Star is stationed less than a degree away above the North celestial pole. It revolves around the north pole in a small diameter of 0.53°. The fixed position of this bright star has made it an excellent navigational tool since ancient times. If you can spot a Pole star, you can tell the direction you are facing without a compass.

2. The Sun

The simplest way to identify cardinal directions is by tracking the movement of the sun. This isn’t entirely accurate as the position of the sun changes through seasons. However, it does provide a sense of direction towards the Kaabah.

3. Observation by Shadows

There are two days every year, 27 or 28 May and 15 or 16 July. An astronomical phenomenon, where the Sun is exactly over Makkah at noon, causing shadows of vertical objects to fall towards the Qibla. So if you are standing in front of the sun your shadow will fall towards the Qibla.

4. The Indian Circle

This method requires values of latitudes and longitudes and reading shadows that are cast by the sun at a particular location. Evaluation of the Qibla is based on the comparison of the coordinates of Mecca, and the location from where the Qibla needs to be determined. It is fascinating — find the coordinates of your city and compare them with the image below to determine the direction of your Qibla.

The Indian Circle Method to determine Qibla direction.

The latitude and longitude of Mecca is 21° and 38°. For example, the latitude and longitude of Singapore is 1.3° and 103°.

Therefore, when compared to the coordinates of Makkah (refer to picture above), the Qibla falls in the Northwest. To confirm, try and compare your Qibla with the Qibla feature in the Muslim Pro app. Let us know in the comments if you managed to find it!

5. Compass

The invention of the compass was another milestone in the study of geography. Multiple types of compasses fall into two broad categories: magnetic and gyro.

A needle or card points itself towards the magnetic poles of the earth in alignment with the magnetic fields of the earth.
– Marine Compass
– GPS Compass
– Solid State Compass

 A non-magnetic compass that maintains the direction of the Poles based on the rotation of the earth’s axis.

A gyrocompass is electrically powered and widely used on ships.

The Astro Compass is used in the polar regions where magnetic and gyrocompasses are unreliable. It provides accurate readings based on time and geographical positions.

6. Spherical Trigonometry

Trigonometry helps calculate unknown angles and distances from known or measured angles in geometrical figures. Thus, trigonometric functions help calculate degrees of latitudes and longitudes.

The difference between True North and Magnetic North gives us Magnetic Declination. To determine the qibla correctly, one must be able to plot the degrees of the latitude and longitude of their location. Magnetic North is ever-changing, so is the declination.  When a compass is placed on a leveled surface it will point towards the Magnetic North.

Therefore, to accurately turn towards the Qibla, one must compensate and modify the angle of the qibla according to the coordinates through trigonometric calculations.

7. GPS

The Global Positioning System (GPS) accurately determines a geographical location, anywhere on earth. There are innumerable other uses of this system. The most important being navigating locations and time. Anybody with a GPS receiver can use this system.

Since 2018, all cellphones have GPS chips embedded in them. Hence making life a lot easier.

Muslim Pro App Qibla Finder

The Tech Way

Fourteen hundred years ago, Allah directed his messenger to face his house and to pray. The change happened swiftly, between 4 rakaats of salah. There was no consultation with cartologists to identify how far Prophet Muhammed should turn to face Makkah. It was indeed a miracle.

However, geoinformatics, a new discipline of exploring and learning multiple aspects of geography and earth sciences, made it possible for individuals like us to pray in the right direction. The advent of technology simplified the methods of locating the Qibla for us. The Digital and Solid State compasses found in phones and tablets make Qibla finding almost accurate and incredibly easy.

So, if you have a phone, internet, clean water, a clean place, and niyyah for salah, you will be able to find the direction towards Bait Allah. Even better, type ‘closest mosque near me’ in your search bar — we have the technology, let’s use it to get closer to Allah!