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he emails started coming in. Not spam or junk as I initially suspected, but thoughtful advice offered in earnest, from people I didn’t know, from places as diverse as Swat in Pakistan to San Fransisco in the US. This was in response to my story, “I Fell Among Doctors”, published earlier in The News and a blog All Things Pakistan.

In that story, I had passingly mentioned about an APPNA event in Washington DC, where a Pakistani-American man, in a hurry to not miss his maghrib prayer, had asked me for the direction of the qibla. And I had, without a second thought, pointed westward, the general direction of the qibla in Pakistan whereas the qibla in North America is eastward.

In the mail I received, there were a few ‘sermons’ and a few admonitions, but most of it was advice, offered in earnest and meant to be helpful.

What surprised me, though, was the lengths to which some of the respondents had gone, and the pains they took, to explain different techniques and procedures they thought should be employed to determine the exact direction of the qibla before offering your prayers.

I had never imagined that knowing the direction of the qibla would be a problem. For me, in Pakistan, the qibla was always westward. Where I grew up, the direction of the qibla was towards a mountain behind which the sun set. A few degrees this way or that way didn’t matter, as long as one faced the general direction of the mountain. No one ever heard of a debate or dispute on the subject. Nor did anyone feel the need to employ any scientific technique to determine the precise direction of the qibla.

When I first came to the US as a young student, our campus was situated at the foot of a mountain range, the Rockies. Just like back home, here, too, the sun set behind the mountains, which I intuitively thought must be the direction of the qibla. But it didn’t take me long to realize that the qibla in the US was in the opposite direction, eastward. It didn’t require the knowledge of astronomy to figure that out.

I got used to the new orientation just as I had gotten used to driving on the right-hand side of the road.

Again, never did I hear of any debate or deliberations among the small Pakistani or Muslim community in the US on how to determine the precise direction of the qibla, to the nearest decimal, that is.

I guess, those were the proverbial good old days when things were relatively simple. We used common sense to find answers to simple questions. We hadn’t entered the age of the “rocket science”, yet. We stumbled on that branch of knowledge much later. Incidentally, in those days, we also didn’t read the label on a box of cereal to check if it contained animal protein, nor did we stop brushing our teeth for fear that the toothbrush might have animal bristles on it. We knew bristles on toothbrushes were made of synthetic fiber, thanks to DuPont who started making nylon in 1938.

The “helpful advice” that I received in my inbox ranged from simple to very complex.

One reader offered easy-to-follow advice: “qibla direction in North America”, he said, “is North-East, not just East.”

Another was more precise: “Qibla is 45 degrees North of East.”

Yet another disagreed with the number and proclaimed: “17 degrees North-East”

I wondered, which way exactly would be East, and how would I measure degrees? Carry a compass?

One reader, Mr. Ahsan Khan, from Strasbourg, France, came up with an elaborate mathematical explanation: “The physical direction of qibla Q from the place where you live Y is a vector YQ”, he said. “You can very well decompose this vector into YX (vector from your place Y to any landmark X) and vector XQ. The sum of these last two vectors, YQ+XQ will be the first one YQ.”

Mr. Khan, probably a mathematician, knew what he was talking about. But I didn’t. I wrote back, thanking him for his advice, and confessing that I had dropped mathematics as a subject at the first available opportunity in college and that I would appreciate if he could explain his formula in a simpler language. The good professor came back with a diagram of the globe, marked with points and lines, and a page-long explanation. I reproduce below only a few lines of his explanation:

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“Any point in a rectilinear coordinate can be represented in (X, Y, Z) three dimensions. Since our earth is a sphere, we better use the spherical coordinates. In this system, we use R, Theta, and Phi, where R is the radius of the sphere, in this case, the radius of the earth, which remains constant, so we simply have to know Theta and Phi of any place to know its exact position.”

You know now why I didn’t reproduce his full page length explanation.

Mr. Khan reminded me of one of our professors at Islamia College, Peshawar, who furiously scribbled chemical equations on the blackboard, like a man possessed, without pausing or looking back at the class. He would go on writing, using up the chalk to a point where it seemed he was writing with his fingers rather than the chalk. While he used up chalk after chalk, the class would pray for the bell to ring.

I decided to quietly slip out of Professor Khan’s class without seeking any further explanation.

There were several other suggestions, some referring to the latitudes, longitudes, and the angle of the tilt of the globe. However, a very simple and more useful tip came from someone in Silicon Valley. It did not involve any calculations. The gentleman sent an Internet link. All I had to do was open the link, insert my zip code, and click Enter. Instantly, I would get the precise direction to the qibla.

I opened the link, entered my New York zip code, and clicked the Enter key. Up came, on my laptop screen, a 3-dimensional map of Manhattan, showing all the streets and the landmark buildings of the city.

Emitting from my address on the West side of Manhattan, like a laser beam, showed a thick, red arrow, penetrating through the maze of streets and buildings, pointing eastward — straight to the Empire State Building.

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Empire State Building. Photo by the author

Rather than choosing any of the solutions offered, that is, carrying a compass, trying to solve Professor Khan’s mathematical equations, or facing the Empire State Building, I think I feel more comfortable with the sacred old advice: “Righteousness is not whether you turn your face to the east or the west … Rather, it is serving humanity and doing good deeds.”

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