Wednesday, July 10, 2019

Do Mosques Face East?

Last week I attempted to answer the question Do Cathedrals Face East?. Of course Christianity is not the only religion which expects its adherents to pray in a specific direction. In Islam the qibla is the direction that Muslims should face while praying. The qiblah is the direction facing towards the Kaaba in Mecca.

Above are the aerial images of six of England's most notable purpose-built mosques. All six mosques have a similar orientation and each has a wall facing in a south-easterly direction - in the direction of Mecca. The Fazl Mosque in London seems to deviate most from the orientation of the other mosques. This may be because it was London's first purpose-built mosque (1926).

Mosques around the world have a mihrab set into a wall which indicates the direction of Mecca. Mustafa Yilmaz in Historical mosque orientation in Turkey explores some of the historical methods used to determine qibla through the ages. These changing methodologies is one reason why mosques have slightly different orientations from each other, so that even mosques in the same towns might have mihrabs pointing in different directions.

Pantazis & Lambrou claim, in Investigating the orientation of eleven mosques in Greece, that the three most common methods of calculating the qibla direction are "Basic spherical trigonometrical formulae; Stellar observation; and Recording the solar shadow." Pantazis & Lambrou found that all the eleven Greek mosques that they investigated had a southeastern orientation with a usual deviation of between 6 and 10 degrees. They explain these deviations as being a result of the historical limitations in qibla calculations when the mosques were built.

Because a Mosque's mihrab is orientated towards Mecca mosques in the same country are therefore likely to be orientated in similar directions. However, because of historical changes in how this orientation is determined, there may still be some deviations in the orientations of mosques. It is also worth noting that it is far more important that the mihrab faces towards Mecca than for the actual Mosque building to be orientated towards the Kaaba.

1 comment:

Slartibartfarst said...

Interesting post. Thanks.
You say that "Of course Christianity is not the only religion which expects its adherents to pray in a specific direction.", but, - speaking as a skeptic who is interested in all religio-political ideologies - actually Christianity does not seem to require the one who is praying to have any particular geographic orientation when praying. Rather it is a spiritual orientation and they are praying TO an omnipresent God, so I suspect that Google Maps won't be able to track that direction too precisely. (God is not in any particular place, being omnipresent.)
In terms of the geographic orientation of Christian architecture (e.g., churches), they were traditionally built so that the assembly faced East, symbolic of the Christ, the Light of the World, represented by the rising sun. It was also common to pray facing Jerusalem, as was also the case with Jews and Muslims, for a time. For Europeans, this usually meant facing East, or south east.
By comparison, Jews in prayer throughout the world face the holy city of Jerusalem during prayer. If they are in Jerusalem they will face the temple mount.
Islam is prescriptive in this matter. One of the Fiver Pillars of Islam is Prayer. In the pillar of Prayer it says "five times a day, Muslims face toward Mecca to pray."
This should take the direction of the kiblah (also qibla), which is the name for the direction of the Kaaba in Makkah (also Mecca), which is currently in the territory of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.
– ORIGIN C17: from Arab. 3ibla ‘that which is opposite’.