Determining the direction of the Qibla 

Excerpted from  Ch. 15 "Introduction to Islam" by Dr. Muhammad Hamidullah

554. For the prayer services, one should also have a clean dress, a clean place, and know the direction of the Qiblah (Ka'bah in Mecca). With the help of an ordinary world-map

World Map

- it would be easy to find out the direction of Mecca (in Arabia, towards the middle of its Western coast); then a compass will indicate the exact position to be taken up. People in England, for instance, will turn to the South-East, those in the U.S.A. to East-South-East. It might be noted however that the world is spherical and in view of this, the shortest distance between a place and the Ka'bah is to be sought. For those in New York, it would be nearer to turn E.S.E., but for those in Alaska, North, (consult a globe). The antipode of the Ka'bah is somewhere near Sandwich or Samoa islands, and when passing this spot, on a boat for instance, all the four directions would be equidistant and the direction would therefore be left to the choice of the person leading the service, even as inside the Ka'bah. [For why the direction for North 
America is E.S.E. and not N.E., please see Footnote A]

582. (f) If and when a Muslim lands on the moon, it will obviously not be possible to face the earthly Ka'bah in the service of prayer; nor to follow the sun's rising, passing the meridian and setting on Earth. What I humbly submit to the Muslim jurists is to construct a Ka'bah on the moon, at the point which would be face to face with the earthly Ka'bah, during equinox time, during a full moon night when our satellite is just above Mecca. That is, a bit North of the centre of the face of the moon that we see. I think that would lie in the region named "Ocean of Tranquillity". I am personally so much the more convinced of this solution, since the Ka'bah is not confined to the building of the ten odd yards high, but also what is above in the atmosphere up to the heaven. In a Hadith of al-Bukhari, the Holy Prophet is reported to have said that the Earthly Ka'bah is the antipode of the mosque of the angels underneath the Throne of God, (and so exactly so that if one were to throw a stone from there, it would fall on the top of the Ka'bah on earth). The great savant Ibn Kathir (Bidayah, 1, 163) reports that there is a particular Ka'bah on each of the seven heavens, each for the use of the inhabitants of that heaven. He adds (Tafsir, on surah 52, verse 4) the name of the Ka'bah on the seventh heaven is al-Bait al-Ma'mur, and that the earthly Ka'bah is at exactly the antipode of this heavenly Ka'bah. Our Ka'bah symbolizes as a window opening on the Divine Throne. If that is so, the permanent residents of the moon may even go there for pilgimage, since coming to earth for that purpose would be too much for them. This solution may help later to determine the point of the Qiblah on other stars and planets also, if man alights and settles there. It may by the way be pointed out that the days and nights on the moon are not of about 12 hours each, but of 14 days each. The timing differs on different celestial bodies.

582. (g) Again, if one were to travel in the space shuttle around the earth, it would normally take about 90 minutes to complete the flight. The visibility of the sun will vary according to the flight from North to South or from South to North, and also from East to West or from West to East, and also the Latitude of the earth around which the space shuttle gravitates; and time of sunrise and sunset will not be once every 24 hours, but at the most once every one and a half hour, often in a shorter time still. For us earthly passengers, earthly hours of sun's rising and setting must apply, and not those of the artifical satellites, for prayer and fasting.

Footnote A :  The N.E. direction that is currently popular in North America as a Qibla direction has been calculated using spherical trigonometry. The shortest course between two points on the surface of a sphere is called a "Great Circle Route" and it is the shortest distance if one were to travel on the surface of the earth. With this method, if you were to travel on this curved line, you would continually have to readjust your direction as you traverse the curvature of the earth.  This direction has been calculated for North America to be N.E.

Similarly a Rhumb Line is calculated as the curve cutting the meridians of a sphere at a constant angle. Rhumb Lines and Great Circle Routes are the same for distances over 2,000 km. So the N.E. direction that has been calculated for North America is for both the Rhumb Line and the Great Circle Route. The N.E. direction would be correct for North America if one were to assume that the direction one faces must be calculated according to surface routes only -- i.e. that the direction one faces must be calculated on the surface of a sphere. However, the shortest distance between two points is a straight line. So if you were to draw a straight line from any city in North America to the Ka'bah, you would necessarily have to cut through the earth (because the earth is curved). The E.S.E. direction would be this type of line. If you took the Latitude and Longitude of your city and plotted it on a chart along with the Latitude and Longitude of Mecca, and then drew a straight line between those two points, then in North America, the angle would be E.S.E. Furthermore, if you calculated the distance between a Rhumb Line or a Great Circle Route and the straight line, you will see that the straight line is in fact the shortest distance. It goes without saying that if a person travelled in an E.S.E. direction over the surface of the earth, the distance would be much greater than either a Rhumb Line or the Great Circle Route or the Straight Line which cuts through the earth. 

For this reason, it seems obvious to us that Dr. Muhammad Hamidullah's chart above does in fact represent a more accurate and also simpler method for arriving at the direction of the Qibla -- Editor (Syed Mumtaz Ali)

Footnote B The calligraphy to the left hand side of this page reads: Allahu Akbar (God is Great).