Architecture is closely tied to religion, even in our modern age (De Wildt et al. 2019
). For thousands of years, faithful Sunni Muslims have dutifully prayed toward the holy city of Mecca five times a day (Shia, three times a day). Ilci et al.
) have reported that “Facing towards the qibla … is one of the six conditions or requisites of the prayer for being valid. In other words, if a person does not turn his/her face to the qibla direction within an acceptable declination, his/her prayer is invalid according to scholarly consensus” (p. 1642). However, could early Muslims in the first two or three centuries of Islam accurately determine the qibla? Brubaker
(2019, p. 17
) has mentioned the work of Dan Gibson, who claims that Mecca was not the original holy city of Islam, although Brubaker does not take a firm position on that claim. However, Petersen
) has stated that “Many early mosques were not built to a correct qibla orientation …” (p. 240). King
) acknowledges that many early mosques did not face toward Mecca, the city (p. 246). That might imply that qiblas were not able to be measured accurately, which is an empirical rather than philosophical question, a question that can be investigated scientifically. The point of contention is not that some early mosques do not appear to point toward the city of Mecca (most scholars seem to agree on that) but on how to explain that issue, especially with respect to technological limitations at that earlier time.
) noted, Dan Gibson
) has created considerable controversy over his claim that “Islam’s first Holy City was Petra, not Mecca” (Lecker 2014, p. 465
), after reviewing Gibson
), invites a response to Gibson, saying “Gibson’s evidence is just begging for a response” (p. 426), echoing Waugh
’s (2012, p. 201
) similar earlier comment that the qiblas of the earliest mosques did not seem to consistently face Mecca, an issue “which surely begs for explanation”. Indeed, there have been responses to Gibson and to earlier scholars who also argued against Mecca as the first holy city. Countering such assertions are many others (Saifullah et al. 2001
; King 1993
). For example, Saifullah et al.
) argued that “A small, defiant, and largely discredited group of Orientalists have argued that the early mosques were not oriented toward Makkah … a theory that challenges the Muslim belief that the earliest mosques were directed toward the K’abah” (p. 1). Furthermore, Saifullah et al.
) argued that during the beginning of Islam “the tools for accurately determining the direction were not available at all” (p. 15). Later they claim that determining the qibla in early mosques was “as one can easily see, was only a rough guess” (p. 17). They conclude that “In the early centuries of Islam, Muslim[s] did not have tools to determine the qibla with precision” (p. 19). Similarly, Ilci et al.
) stated that “During the first two centuries of Islam, when mosques were being built in different geographic locations, Muslims did not have sufficient scientific background to find the direction of qibla” (p. 1643). For his part, David King
) takes issue with Gibson’s ideas, noting in various places that Gibson is an “amateur” (p. 347) and his documents “non-scholarly” (p. 347). His work is “an insult to Muslim and Western scholarship” (p. 347). King claims that Gibson’s text (Gibson 2017
) “is of the kind one would expect from a first-year college student” (p. 349). Rather, King argues that “Muslims for the first two centuries used folk astronomy, particularly astronomical horizon phenomena, the cardinal directions and solar risings and settings at the solstices; the reason they did this was because the Ka’ba itself is astronomically aligned and they wanted to face an edifice, the Ka’ba, not the town of Mecca” (p. 349). Furthermore, King has argued that “the earliest Muslims could never have aligned mosques accurately toward the modern direction of Petra, or, for that matter, toward the modern direction of Mecca either” (p. 351). More specifically, he argues that “the first generations of Muslims had no means whatsoever for finding the direction of Petra accurately to within a degree or two, not the least because they had no access to any geographical coordinates, let alone modern ones, and no mathematics whatsoever” (p. 354). In a different article, King
) argues that “In the first two centuries of Islam, when mosques were being built from Andalusia to Central Asia, the Muslims had no truly scientific means of finding the qibla” (p. 253). Anderson
) agrees, stating that “Hence, the only explanation for any early mosques accurately oriented toward either Petra or Mecca—if indeed any exist—is coincidence.” Instead, King argues that many mosques simply faced south or in some other direction (rising summer or setting winter sun) or tried to align with the axis of the Ka’ba. King concludes that we need to “identify the diverse ways that were used for finding the qibla in each location” (p. 361) and that Gibson’s ideas are “complete nonsense” (p. 363), even though “His followers will surely believe everything he writes” (p. 366). In another paper, King
) argues that Gibson “has no qualifications”, “no understanding”, “seems oblivious”, “has erred monumentally”, and has reached “false conclusions” (p. 9). Elsewhere, King
) has asserted that Gibson’s “crackpot theories” are “crazy and potentially dangerous” (p. 26).
I tend to become uneasy when I observe ad hominem attacks on scholars with whom one may differ, especially when a person is labeled “discredited” without specific evidence. However, good science (and history) depends on good measurement, sound reasoning, and effective statistical methodology. It is one thing to claim something, another entirely to provide systematic and scientific/statistical evidence for that claim. As Lecker
(2014, p. 467
) has noted, a qibla towards Petra might also be one directed towards Jerusalem, so the ability of architects in ancient Islam to determine their direction of prayer accurately enough to distinguish between nearby target cities remains an open question (King 1986
). Ordinary lay persons might question the ability of ancients to be able to determine qiblas, or the directions of prayer to holy cities accurately, as they lacked so much of the technology available to us today. As noted, King, Anderson, and presumably many other scholars would agree.
Such controversies are occurring, of course, in a contentious background in which some political interests in the West have been ideologically attacking and denigrating Muslims and Islam, possibly out of fear and their own insecurities (Sharify-Funk 2013
), a process with a long history (Firestone 2019
; Ismail and Mat 2016
). Naturally, Muslims resent such attacks and have vigorously analyzed them and defended against them (Bazian 2018
; Haddad and Harb 2014
; Khan et al. 2019
; Larsson 2012
; Mohammed 2018
). Although some may see science and statistics as a tool of the oppressor who wants to merely “display” objectivity [falsely] (Khan et al. 2019, p. 7, point number 20
), I prefer to see science and statistics as a way to at least partially control for bias and to improve objectivity if done well, even though I also recognize that research can be distorted to conform to political objectives (Schumm 2015
; Schumm and Crawford 2020
). In other words, I agree with Sharify-Funk
), who recognized that “critical examination is needed” (p. 465) when dealing with emotionally charged issues. The use of statistics is one way to critically examine arguments that can be discussed in terms of specific data points.