Islamic Lifestyle 

How accurate is your app’s qibla finder? A service in Malaysia makes house calls to calculate prayer direction

| 28 May, 2019
 Ahmad Mustakim Zulkifli
How accurate is your app’s qibla finder? A service in Malaysia makes house calls to calculate prayer direction
Muhammad Amir (right) is calculating the solar azimuth using a pipe fitting and marking the line of the sun shadow on the floor, while Taufek Tamali (left) is observing the process. SALAAM GATEWAY/Ahmad Mustakim Zulkifli

KUALA LUMPUR - Taufek Tamali and his family moved into a new corner home a year ago but for many months couldn’t find a solution to an everyday need.

The mobile app he and his wife used to locate the qibla kept giving them different prayer directions to the Kaaba in Mecca.

“We relied on the app because of its availability. But we get different directions depending on which part of the house I put my phone. Even my wife’s phone showed different directions than mine,” Taufek told Salaam Gateway.

For some time, they used the mid-point between the qibla direction shown on his and his wife’s phones. After some time, however, he decided to put his mind at ease with a qibla locating service he found on Facebook. 

“I want to be as precise as possible, as it involves one of the most important pillars of Islam,” said Taufek.

The service, called Qibla Project, is an initiative of the Selangor Astronomers Association, whose member Muhammad Amir Ashraf Rosdin promptly arrived at Taufek’s doorstep

CALCULATING THE QIBLA

Muhammad Amir started by finding a spot on the lawn of Taufek’s home. Using an instrument made out of hollow PVC pipes, that looks like a capital ‘T’ mounted onto a capital ‘H’, he marked the shadow cast on the ground from the suspended pendulum attached to the top ‘T’ horizontal bar.

“That’s how we calculate the solar azimuth,” said Muhammad Amir.

The azimuth angle is the compass direction from which sunlight comes from. For example, at solar noon, the sun is always directly south in the northern hemisphere and directly north in the southern hemisphere.

The azimuth reading taken from outside Taufek’s home is then ‘transferred’ into the house via two laser beams.

“From the initial location, we use two leveling lasers to mark a parallel line inside the house,” Muhammad Amir said.

Malaysia_Qibla Project by Selangor Astronomers Association

Levelling lasers are used to mark the line inside the house that is parallel to the line outside the house. Other data will then be keyed into a Microsoft Excel programme to locate the qibla direction. SALAAM GATEWAY/Ahmad Mustakim Zulkifli

“The azimuth reading will be keyed into Microsoft Excel, alongside other data such as time of measurement, the coordinates of which the azimuth is calculated and the date of azimuth reading.”

The direction of the Kaaba from inside the house, taking into consideration all relevant factors as Muhammad Amir specified above, is calculated by a formula programmed into Excel by a member of the astronomers association.

Finally, Muhammad Amir marked the qibla with an arrow sticker on the ceiling.

“We could not do it when it was cloudy or raining. In fact, there were instances when I had to come to the same house twice or three times because of the weather,” he said.

Each qibla sticker comes with a serial number unique to each astronomers association member to allow for easy tracking back to who determined the prayer direction.

The Qibla Project service is available in Malaysia for 50 Malaysian ringgit ($11.94) per house.

DIFFERENT PHONE, DIFFERENT DIRECTION

Mobile apps use geo-location to determine the qibla. “Location services use the network connection and or the GPS receiver of your device,” according to one popular app.

However, some mobile phones are not in-built with compasses, which may throw off the most accurate direction to the Kaaba in Mecca.

Even if they do come with compasses, said Muhammad Amir, directions can still be distorted by metal objects that willdeflect the magnetic needle.

“As for smartphone apps, they will show different directions depending on different areas of the house. There have been cases where a family of six use their smartphone app on their respective smartphones, and all of them received different directions,” he said.

Muhammad Amir is one of 50 certified members of the astronomers association, which was formed in 2008 to gather Muslim astronomy enthusiasts around the state of Selangor. The association first provided courses such as qibla finding in jungles or out at sea, and calculating prayer times using more traditional methods. Last year, it decided to start the Qibla Project due to demand.

The first of its kind, the association offers the service for private homes since the state’s Mufti Department only provides it for public buildings and prayer rooms.

The association’s secretary, Abdul Latip Ibrahim, said that although the margin of difference may be small, it is not negligible when it comes to performing the second pillar of Islam.

“Based on our finding, for every 1,000 houses that we visit, only 20 percent have their qibla direction right.

“We have visited 3,000 houses out of 4,000 requests for our service since last year,” Abdul Latip told Salaam Gateway.

He said that deviation of one degree from the right qibla in Malaysia means 122 kilometers away from the direction of the Kaaba.

“Some of the houses that we go to even have deviation of as large as 45 degrees, far exceeding the allowed margin of deviation of three degrees as decided by JAKIM (Department of Islamic Development Malaysia),” added Abdul Latip.

The margin of deviation for the qibla in Taufek’s home was around 20 degrees, according to Muhammad Amir’s calculations.

Qibla Project is available mainly in Selangor, which borders Kuala Lumpur, but the association is looking to increase the number of certified members to meet increasing demand from concerned Muslims such as Taufek, said Abdul Latip.

(Reporting by Ahmad Mustakim Zulkifli; Editing by Emmy Abdul Alim emmy.alim@refinitiv.com)

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