DAVID A. KING
In the Qur’ān. Muslims are enjoined to face the sacred precincts in Mecca during their prayers. The relevant verse (2.144) translates: ‘turn your face towards the Sacred Mosque; wherever you may be, turn your face towards it…’. The physical focus of Muslim worship is actually the Ka‛ba, the cube-shaped edifice in the heart of Mecca. This formerly pagan shrine of uncertain historical origin became the physical focus of the new religion of Islam, a pointer to the presence of God.
Thus Muslims face the Ka‛ba in their prayers, and their mosques are oriented towards the Ka‛ba. The miḥrāb, or prayer-niche, in the mosque indicates the qibla, or local direction of Mecca. In medieval times the dead were buried on their sides facing the qibla; nowadays burial is in the direction of the qibla. Islamic tradition further prescribes that a person performing certain acts, such as the recitation of the Qur’ān, announcing the call to prayer, and the ritual slaughter of animals for food, should stand in the direction of the qibla. On the other hand, bodily functions should be performed perpendicular to the qibla. Thus in their daily lives Muslims have been spiritually and physically oriented with respect to the Ka‛ba and the holy city of Mecca for close to fourteen centuries.
Muslim astronomers devised methods to compute the qibla for any locality from the available geographical data, treating the determination of the qibla as a problem of mathematical geography, as the Muslim authorities do nowadays. However, mathematical methods were not available to