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Geography 150

World Regional Geography - Lab

Tropical foilage and rice field

Maps and the Muslim World

Perhaps the central fact of Muslim life is the observation of the Five Pillars.  Even the most basic understanding of Islam and Islamic life requires you understand the five pillars.  This exercise is designed to reinforce your knowledge of the five pillars and to simultaneously teach you how to use some of the geographic tools one would need to use in order to be an observant Muslim, while getting you to think about the environmental aspects of religion

Student Learning Objectives:

  1. Students can identify and discuss the five pillars of Islam.
  2. Students can use some of the geographic tools necessary to find the qibla
  3. Students can identify and/or define cartographic projection, great circle, rhumb line, compass, magnetic declination, magnetic north pole, etc.
  4. Students can discuss some of the environmental aspects of the five pillars, particularly the relationship between seasonality and the Islamic lunar calendar.


To refresh your memory, or to bring you up to speed, take a look at the list below and answer the three questions over the information.

The Five Pillars of Islam:

  1. Shahadah – This is the profession of faith.  Muslims must affirm the singularity and oneness of Allah as God, and accept that Mohammed is the final prophet.  In Arabic, this is  said “There is no God but Allah and Mohammed is his prophet”.
  2. Salat – The second pillar requires Muslims to pray five times daily at specific times toward the Kabbah in Mecca, Saudi Arabia.
  3. Zakah – Is charity or alms-giving to the poor by Muslims who can afford to do so.  This charity must (or should be) distributed in the community from which it came.
  4. Sawm – During the Islamic month of Ramadan, Muslims must fast from sun up to sunset.  Other practices  are also forbidden during this month.  This allows the faithful to be thankful, to cleanse sins and to become more mindful of a variety of things that will make them a better person.
  5. Hajj – This is the pilgrimage to Mecca that all Muslims should endeavor to make at least once during their lives.

Question 1. Which of the following is Islam's holiest city?

Question 2: How often should observant Muslims pray each day?

Question 3: What is the name of the month during with the Sawm fast is observed?

Finding the Qibla Using a Flat Map

When Muslims heed the call to prayer, they must be clean and ready to turn their faces to the Kabbah, a sacred structure in Mecca, Saudi Arabia. For those who live near Mecca, the direction one must face is not much of an issue, but for Muslims who live in North America, some controversy surrounds which direction one must face during prayer.  This direction is called qibla. 

The source of the controversy stems from the multiple means by which one can answer the question “Which way is Mecca?”

For must of us, when we're asked which way is some other place, we would get out a map and go from there. Some Muslims, quite logically, do exactly the same thing. They get out a map of the world, they locate themselves, find Mecca, draw a straight line (called a rhumb line) between Mecca and their location. This rhumb line is then used to derive the angle one must turn from a cardinal direction (like true north or due east) to face Mecca.

The next question becomes, "Which way is north, or east?". To answer that question, one typically uses a magnetic compass, which as most folks know has an arrow that points north, and like watch-like markings that help you calculate east, west and south by radial degrees. What many folks don't know is that compasses point toward the Magnetic North Pole, not the actual North Pole. The magnetic north pole is actually south of the North Pole, in Canada and in constant slow motion.

This fact then requires you to calculate "true north" by adding or subtracting the degrees of magnetic declination, which is the difference between true north and magnetic north, which can be very great in the far north. If you want to find the magnetic declination for any place in the US, click to open this web page from the U.S. Government

Once you have figured out true north, then you can spin yourself the correct number of degrees to the right or left to get yourself facing Mecca. Luckily, most Mosques have somebody who has figured this out, and they have the qibla marked somewhere on a wall, so followers could use that as a handy reference.

Some Muslims use the process outlined above to determine the qibla.  Take a look at the images below to see what that process might look like.  The qibla for Los Angeles, Seville Spain and Abuja, Nigeria have been calculated using a flat map, rhumb line. Your task is to interpret these maps. Click on the images to open them in a separate tab or browser window. Then answer the questions below.

Maps of the Qibla using a Mercator Map and the Rhumb Line Method
Qibla from Los Angeles Qibla from Nigeria Qibla from Spain
Map showing the qibla from LA
Map showing the qibla from Nigeria
Map of quibla from Spain
click to enlarge
click to enlarge
click to enlarge

Refer to the paragraph and maps above and answer the following qustions.

Question 4: Why do you need to know the magnetic declination of a location in order to accurately use a compass?

Qustion 5: Where in the United States would knowing the magnetic declination be most important?

Question 6: Muslims in Los Angeles who use a Mercator map and a rhumb line should face in what direction in order to pray toward Mecca?

Qustion 7: According to the method used above, how many degrees from true north would one turn to face Mecca if you were in Abuja, Nigeria?

You'll have to do some math. The map shows you that you have to turn 22 degree north of due east.

Qustion 8: According to the method used above, how many degrees from true north would one turn to face Mecca if you were in Seville, Spain?

Finding the Qibla using the Great Circles and Google Earth

Another means of finding the quibla rejects the rhumb line method outlined above and uses instead the ‘great circle distance ’ to determine the quibla.  The great circle distance is the distance between two places on a sphere, like a globe. A great circle is the counter part to a rhumb line that is drawn on a flat map.  When a great circle line is projected back onto a flat map, it appears often as an arc or semi-circle. 

Take a look at this quick video of a great circle being drawn in Google Earth by clicking on the link below.

The video is saved as an Adobe Flash file, so if it doesn't load, you'll need to download and install Adobe Flash. It's free and small.

Locating the Qibla using Google Earth. (may take as much as a minute) You may want to press F11 in your browser to go to full screen and F11 to quit full screen.

Question 9: Using the great circle method, what is the approximate angle between true north and the great circle line that runs between Northridge and Mecca?

Finding the Qibla using the Qibla Locator

Next, open the web site Qibla Locator. It is designed to help Muslims find the qibla from anywhere. They note "without a compass", though if you don't know which way is true north from where you are standing, then you might still need a compass. Luckily, in much of Los Angeles, streets are laid out on a grid that is tied to the cardinal directions, so Reseda Boulevard actually runs pretty much toward 'true north'.

When it opens, the software will estimate your location from your IP address. Very clever. Next, enter the ZIP code 91330. That's the ZIP code for California State University, Northridge. Click on the "Locate" button.

Take a look at the map. The line extending away from the point marker in the center of the map, should be at about the same angle from true north as that which you saw in the video above.

Make a note of the information in the box to the right of the map under the heading "Qibla Direction". The "degrees" reported in the information box is the number of radial degrees east of true north.

Answer the following questions.

Question 10: What is the distance between CSUN and Mecca?

Question 11: What is the number of 'degrees' and direction indicated in the information box for CSUN?

Question 12: What method of determining the qibla does the website use?

Enter "London, England" in the dialog box and click "Locate". Answer question 13.

Question 13: What is the quibla in degrees from true north for London, England?

Now enter "Moscow, Russia" and click "Locate". You'll note that the degrees from north is around 176. Answer question 14.

Question 14: Use the drop down menu to complete the following sentence: "Moscow is almost directly _____________ of Mecca"

Thinking about the Cultural Ecology of Religion

Read the following paragraphs and answer the question below.

Another geographic or environmental component of Islam, or any religion for that matter, is its environmental context. Islam, like Judaism and Christianity, is a religion with a hearth in the Middle East (Southwest Asia).  Because of this, it has elements that an environmental determinist geographer would argue are caused by Islam's hearth location in the desert.

Please note that environmental determinism is a largely discredited. Instead, most geographers today argue instead that culture is influenced by geography and environment, but we are just as likely to ignore these influences.

Think about some of the environmental contexts found in the Bible. The flood story which recounts a time when it rained 40 days and 40 nights may not seem as dramatic to a person from the rainforest of the Amazon or from the monsoonal areas of Asia. They might think, "What's the big rains here everyday." Consider how the story of Moses and his desert crossing sounds to someone from the mountains of Peru, the tundra of Siberia or the rainforests of Borneo. They might ask, "What's a desert?"

One specific element of Islam that seems heavily influenced by its low latitude hearth place is the yearly fast during the month of Ramadan.  Ramadan, like all Islamic months, is a lunar month because they use a lunar calendar called the Hijri calendar.  In the United States, and much of the world, we use a solar calendar, so our years are 365 days a year, except on leap year. The Hijri calendar is used mostly for religious purposes.

The Hijri calendar has about 354 days, and its months are about 28 days.  Because of these differences, the Islamic year is 10 or 11 days shorter than a solar year.  Also because of this discrepancy, Islamic months are not tied to any single season of the solar year.  Ramadan, therefore is about 11 days earlier in the solar year than it was the previous year.

  • In 2009, Ramadan will begin on the 22nd of August.
  • In 2008, Ramadan began on September 2nd.
  • In 2007, Ramadan began on September 13th

Though Ramadan has in recent years been in the summer and moving deeper into fall and towards winter, it was a decade or so ago, Ramadan was in the spring.  Basketball fans may remember that Muslim basketball stars Akeem Olajuwon and Kareem Abdul Jabbar both played in NBA while fasting.  Olajuwon even once won the NBA player of the month award for his play during a February that overlapped largely with Ramadan.

Having a month of daytime fasting that changes season every 10 years or isn’t much of a problem for Muslims who live in the low latitudes where the length of a day varies little from winter to summer.  However, in the very high latitudes, and especially above the Arctic circle, exactly when Ramadan falls during the solar year presents an interesting question.  If Ramadan is during the winter months, when the day is short, (only a few hours or nonexistent) it would not be difficult to fast.  However, when Ramadan comes during the summer months when days are very long, or in some cases 24 hours long, then fasting no doubt becomes a much greater challenge. 

Answer the questions below.

Question 15. Estimate the day Ramadan will begin in 2010. Select from the answers in the drop down menu below that best matches your estimate:

Qustion 16: In what American state would a summertime Ramadan present the most challenge?

Question 17: In what American state would a wintertime Ramadan present the least challenge?

Question 18: What is the name of the largely discredited theory that environmental conditions force culture to develop in specific manners? (Fill in the blank below)

Read this note: According to various experts on this, the solution to this conundrum is for Muslims who find themselves at high latitude during Ramadan is to pick out a place with a more regular sunrise and sunset (perhaps even Mecca) and fast according to the timetable in that place.

When you are confident in your answers, select the name of your instructor from the drop down list and enter your name (first name first, last name last).

Then click submit.











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