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Whose knowledge needs to be followed and whose knowledge can be ignored: muhaddithun (transmitters of Muhammad's (alleged) sayings), fuqaha’ (legal scholars), muwaqqitun (scholars calculating, tabulating or measuring time, the prayer direction towards Mecca, the beginning of the month) or munajjimun (astronomers/astrologers depending on the concrete task and context)?


Sonja Brentjes


A particularly sensitive or easy to exploit issue where religious beliefs and mathematical knowledge crossed roads and often also swords, metaphorically or at times even physically in form of humiliations, dismissals or arrests, was the determination of the direction towards Mecca or short the qibla.  King, Rius, Dallal and others have written about such debates, conflicts and outbursts of enmity between scholars and their royal patrons when different prayer directions were favored and vocally defended by different factions in town. Although the conflicts appear often to rage between religion and ‘secular’ knowledge or their respective representatives, this is not really the case. The debates are rather very detailed and include arguments, issues and methods of all four fields marked by the actors in this section’s header: hadith, fiqh, ‘ilm al-miqat and astronomy. Not surprisingly, the problems raised by the different perspectives do not exhaust the issues that caused quarrels about where to find the correct direction towards the Ka’ba.

In his book, Islam, Science, and the Challenge of History, Dallal discusses, among other things, the relative authority of religious knowledge and scientific knowledge. His case study rests on the debate about the proper qibla for Fes in texts written by religious scholars of different disciplinary affiliations from the fourteenth to the early eighteenth centuries. The authors of these texts quote, sometimes in quite some detail, opinions of scholars from the twelfth and the thirteenth centuries.[1] The first insight that can be derived from this situation concerns the lack of closure in this particular case. No party apparently could muster enough authority to gain the support of a majority or at least of a qualified minority. Thus, at the end of the day some kind of co-authority existed in the intellectual and cultural spaces in northern Africa. Expressed in general terms, which, as I will argue below, based on Rius, fail, however, to capture the issues at stake adequately, ‘Islam’ did not shut out ‘science’ and ‘science’ was not able to convince by the certainty of its proofs. Neither negative nor positive control succeeded fully in producing a single, unified, coherent view on the problem. The socio-cultural framework for this open-ended coexistence again is the insertion of the mathematical sciences into the training of students of law, hadithtafsir and the languages. The closure that was missing in regard to the problem and its different solutions was achieved in regard to the membership of the opponents in the same educational system and the knowledge it offered. Leaving the issue of closure and moving to the various particular arguments, questions and worries, we discover that general closure, i.e. the acceptance of one and only one qibla for all of North Africa, was considered by some not as the goal, but the error.  The argument offered was the variability of nature in the too vast region. The demonstration of the argument’s soundness consisted in the change of the qibla of Fustat attributed to some of the companions of Muhammad.[2] Later disputants directed their criticisms primarily towards issues created by humans, above all religious scholars, and argued mostly within the framework of the religious sciences.  Examples are the application of a hadith about the North African qibla which was considered as valid only for Medina and Syria as a generally valid prescription, the silence of the authoritative religious scholars about methods for finding the qibla with the help of the stars and the sun, the many, quite substantial differences in direction between the mihrabs of the mosques and the important question as to which mistakes needed correction and under which conditions such a correction should be undertaken.[3]Simplicity and avoidance of civil unrest ranked highest for some participants in the debate. They acknowledged the soundness of mathematical methods, but found them inaccessible for themselves and the general populace. Hence solutions needed to be found that were mathematically sound and simple enough to be comprehensible for everybody. The corrections should not be too costly, both in terms of social peace and more narrowly of money. Hence, small deviations of the prayer direction from the certain (yaqin) solution should be remedied by teaching the believers to turn slightly away from the direction of the mihrab. In cases of gross mistakes, counsel from the experts should be sought. If no unrest was likely the mosque should be rebuilt according to the correct solution.[4] But not everybody agreed to this approach. Other scholars wished to find closure in the sense that they insisted that the authority of the Muhammad's companions (often simply called the Companions) was the only necessary argument for accepting a visibly wrong qibla (due south in Fes). Their opponents answered that it was astronomy and geometry that decided which qibla was right or wrong. Since this discussion took not only place in a religious framework, but had immediate consequences for the believer, both sides looked for religious arguments as tools of defense. Proponents of the scientific viewpoint asked for fatwas confirming their position. Defenders of a non-mathematical approach pointed out that geometry was no legal obligation for the believer and thus could not have negative consequences. Those who tried to compromise between the two sides offered a macerated version of the mathematical terms that defined the problem. Rather than looking for the azimuth of Mecca, they taught it sufficed to know the jiha(an angle between 60° and 90° indicating the general direction) of Mecca.[5] The perhaps most interesting argument in favor of the application of astronomical and mathematical methods to achieve a correct and precise value of the qibla, not a very generous approximation, is one made by a scholar of Fes at the end of the seventeenth century. He believed that education, i.e. positive control, was the key to solve the century-old problem. Better knowledge of the elementary procedures to determine the qibla for any given locality and skills in reading tables and other parts of the many extant texts on the topic would be easier and faster to gain than the understanding of more complex legal works.[6] For him, closure was easy to achieve. The certainty of geometrical proof equaled the absolute reliability of the consensus of the Companions, while the consensus of the jurists was fallible and uncertain. Hence, the religious scholar from Fes concluded: in matters of the value of the qibla, the astronomers/ astrologers take precedence over the jurists.[7] Positive control in form of teaching geometry, arithmetic and astronomy to every student was, however, not possible to enforce by the norms of the madrasa system. These matters were available to the interested and curious student, but they were not obligatory. Soft positive control needs extra-educational support for being successful beyond the small group of experts, in particular rewards for correct knowledge and its application. One such extra-educational support in the case of the qibla was to regulate the building practices in a given locality. The late-seventeenth century scholar from Fez claims that some kind of standardization existed in large cities where it was against the law that a person could build a mosque who did not know how to determine scientifically the qibla.[8]

As indicated above, Dallal did not discuss the entire complexity of the debates about the different qiblas in the Maghrib. Rius showed namely that scholars with sound knowledge of astronomy like Athir al-Din al-Abhari (1200-1265) did not always endorse the application of accurate scientific methods nor did all religious scholars believe in the certainty of scientifically achieved results.[9]These two issues of applying scientific methods and ascertaining the accuracy of their results were not merely answered in the negative due to lack of particular knowledge and the low level of astronomical, geometrical and arithmetical education among the common people. Their negative treatment derived also from adequate judgments about shortcomings of such methods and some of their particular components. Some religious scholars understood very well that the longitude difference between two cities could only be determined reasonably accurate when people in both cities observed a total lunar eclipse at the same agreed upon moment (for instance the beginning or the end of the totality) and then determine how much time passed or passes between this moment and Local Noon (the Sun’s highest altitude at that day). The difference between these two time measures gives the longitude difference between the two cities (1 hour = 15°). In the late tenth century, Ibn Yunus, for instance, wrote an easy to follow instruction of how to proceed in such a situation to achieve a reasonably accurate result. Observations of a lunar eclipse contemporaneously in two cities are known, however, only for two cases: Baghdad and Mecca commissioned by caliph al-Ma’mun (see above) and Baghdad and Ghazna executed by Abu Rayhan al-Biruni (Ghazna) and Abu l-Wafa’ (940-998) (Baghdad) in the second half of the tenth century. Hence, the reservation of religious scholars was justified in regard to both aspects, i.e. the number of actually executed ‘precision measurements’ and the number of longitude values determined by one of the methods applied by the experts in such a situation. This point was eloquently and knowledgeably highlighted in the fourteenth century by Ibn al-Banna’ (d. 1321) who thus rejected the samt al-qibla as obligatory knowledge for every Muslim declaring that the jiha was what could be and hence had to be known.[10]

Other important issues related to the debates about whether astronomical, geometrical and arithmetical knowledge was to be applied when looking for the qibla of some location, were of a political nature. According to Taqi al-Din al-Maqrizi (1364-1442), the Fatimids determined the beginning of each month on the basis of astronomical tables.[11] Rius seems to suggest that the appreciation shown by the Isma’ili dynasty for mathematical methods strengthened their rejection by Maliki jurists.[12]

Hence, while neither mathematical nor religious knowledge about the qibla was suppressed, but continued to co-exist well into the modern era, the reasons for preferring one or the other or combining certain methods of the first set of disciplines with certain elements of the second were manifold. In contrast to the often recited hadith about seeking knowledge even in China, scholars debating about the qibla often favored a half-line the Surat al-hajj (verse XXII,78), i.e. he “has not placed upon you in the religion any difficulty,” justifying with it the disregard of mathematical and instrumental knowledge.[13] Those who favored the application of rigorous scientific knowledge and the usage of instruments did so often due to religious reasons, not in order to promote the mathematical and technical education of the populace. While neither case should be mistaken for negative or positive censorship, the arguments and activities of both groups restricted the acquisition of such knowledge to a fairly small group of (male) Muslims, namely those to spent some years at a madrasa or reading relevant manuscripts with a private teacher. Insofar, simplifying the rules for praying to the lowest common denominator constituted an effective barrier against a wider distribution of scientific knowledge.

[1] Ahmad Dallal, Islam, Science and the Challenge of History, New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 2010, p. 3.

[2] Dallal, Islam, Science and the Challenge of History, p. 3.

[3] Dallal, Islam, Science and the Challenge of History, pp. 3-5.

[4] Dallal, Islam, Science and the Challenge of History, pp. 4-5.

[5] Dallal, Islam, Science and the Challenge of History, pp. 5-6.

[6] Dallal, Islam, Science and the Challenge of History, p. 7.

[7] Dallal, Islam, Science and the Challenge of History, p. 8.

[8] Dallal, Islam, Science and the Challenge of History, p. 7.

[9] Mònica Rius, La Alquibla en al-Andalus y al-Magrib al Aqṣà, Anuari de Filologia (Universitat de Barcelona) XXI (1998-99) B-3, Institut “Millás Vallicrosa” d’Història de la Ciència Àrab, Barcelona 2000, pp. 86-7, 212.

[10] Rius, La Alquibla, pp. 225-9. Having talked to Paul Walker, University of Chicago, recently about the application of mathematical methods to issues like the beginning of Ramadan by the Fatimids it appears that it is not certain whether the Fatimids did indeed employ them in any systematic manner. Walker suggested that this was not very likely during their Egyptian period since they tried not to alienate their Sunni population. He conceded, however, that they may have employed them in their early North African time when they tried to enforce various of their beliefs on the local population. Obviously, a systematic investigation of Fatimid efforts to impose their calendar in North Africa is needed to clarify the historical background of this critique at Fatimid mathematical practices by later Maliki scholars.

[11] Rius, La Alquibla, p. 212.

[12] Rius, La Alquibla, p. 57.

[13] http://quran.com/22/78; accessed 22 August 2011; Rius, La Alquibla, p. 88.