What is the direction of Mecca ?

Muslim prayers have a geographical angle that is not found in other religious traditions. The holiest place in Islam is the Kaaba, a mosque in Mecca, and observing Muslims fulfill their daily prayers literally in front of this place. But finding out what way to pray is not as simple as it seems — especially in the very strange case of Tematangi, an isolated atoll from French Polynesia.

In the Qur’an, the direction Muslims are called to face when they pray is called the qibla, which means “direction” in Arabic. The need to correctly calculate qibla was a factor that led to the development of sophisticated mathematics and geography in the Arab world during the so-called “Islamic Golden Age”, between the 8th and 13th centuries.

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On a flat Earth, the calculation of the qibla would be Easy: You would use a “rhumb line”, a standard bearing line that crossed all longitude meridians at the same angle. If you pray in Anchorage, Alaska, for example, you would face Mecca by face roughly west-southwest. But here’s the problem: the Earth is round. Most scholars of Islam, from the Middle Ages until today, have recommended believers to pray using a so-called “big circle” to find the least distant path to Mecca. By this calculation, a Muslim in Anchorage would face almost north to pray! (Check a globe if you don’t believe me on it.)

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Qibla’s math becomes even more delicate when you’re not on Earth. Nine Muslims went to outer space during a series of United States and Russian missions, and when a Muslim astronaut is in low Earth orbit, the position of Mecca can change by almost 180 degrees before completing a prayer. A 2007 survey of Muslim scientists commissioned by the Malaysian space agency recommended that Muslims sharing space do their best “according to what is possible”. Sometimes, the scholars said, just facing roughly in the Qibla of the Earth is all we can do.

Which brings us (finally!) at Tematangi solitary atoll, formerly called the island of the Bligh Lagoon because the infamous Captain Bligh (of Mutiny on the Bounty) was the first European to discover it. Thirty miles northwest of Tematangi is the point of the Earth that is exactly antipodal (or opposite) to Mecca. In other words, Muslims praying off the coast of Tematangi could, in theory, face any direction they wanted and have a correct qibla to the Kaaba. But the place is in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, so there are probably not many things.

Source: Adapted from DecnTraveler

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