Finding Mecca: Mapmaking in the Islamic World

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Finding Mecca: Mapmaking in the Islamic World


The Islamic tradition of mapmaking dates almost to the very dawn of Islam, driven in part by the necessity for all Muslims to face Mecca during their daily calls to prayer, and by the need to properly orient mosques to also face Mecca. Over the centuries, Islamic mathematicians and cartographers brought mathematical cartography to new levels of sophistication, drawing on their own research as well as incorporating many tools from the Greek and Hindu cultures. The result of this mixture of science, mathematics, religion, and cultures resulted was unique collection of maps and tables.


Islam, which literally translates as "submission," is a religion dating to the beginning of the seventh century a.d. Within 30 years, Islam had spread throughout the Arabian peninsula. Within three centuries, it had been established from the western coast of Africa through the Indian subcontinent. The rise of Islam corresponds roughly with the decline of the Roman Empire, and Arabs had extensive contact with both the Greek intellectual legacy from Alexandria, Egypt, and with the Hindu civilization of the East. It must be pointed out that Arab refers to the people living in a certain part of the world, Muslim refers to followers of the religion of Islam, Islam refers to the religion itself, and Islamic refers to the activities and properties of followers of Islam. Not all Arabs were (or are) Muslims, and not all Muslims are Arab. In fact, the majority of Muslims live in the Indian subcontinent and in Indonesia, and many Arabs are Jewish or Christian, as well as Muslim.

Islam requires certain obligations of all Muslims, including the requirement to pray several times daily while facing Mecca. It is also common for mosques to be constructed so that worshipers face Mecca while they pray. To fulfill both these obligations, it is essential to know in which direction Mecca lies.

As Islam spread across Africa and Asia, Muslim cartographers and mathematicians began working to develop accurate maps and tables that, for any location in the known world, could help the faithful know in which direction Mecca lay. These cartographers enlisted the help of mathematicians skilled in the use of spherical trigonometry and adapted the best mathematical tools they could find to their purposes. The result was a cartographic tradition different from those of Europe or Asia, since the main focus of Islamic maps was more to locate Mecca from any point in the world than it was to help describe the world.

However, there was more to Islamic mapmaking than just helping the faithful find Mecca. Arab traders ranged widely. Accurate information about coasts, topography, towns, and other features was important for them, and these features were included in many maps. Arab astronomers also devoted a great deal of time to mapping the locations of stars and the wanderings of the planets, and Arab mariners helped map coastlines as they sailed the oceans. In their cartographic efforts, Muslim mapmakers developed new ways of depicting the world, helped to better define some basic concepts (such as the length of a degree of latitude), and constructed incredibly lengthy and accurate mathematical tables of calculations and results.

Part of this latter effort was an outgrowth of the Arab penchant for "universalism." The mathematicians preferred to spend time constructing a universal table of directions and distances to Mecca that could be used from anywhere in the world, rather than constructing individual tables for each separate city or country in which Muslims found themselves. However, the universal approach was a long and tedious process. The longest single table we know of had nearly 500,000 entries, which were all calculated by hand and copied (also by hand!) for each new user.

Perhaps the most interesting artifacts from the Islamic cartographers of this time are two Persian maps that did not come to light until 1989 and 1995. These maps were quite advanced for their time. Although they probably date to the eighteenth or nineteenth century, many of their features almost certainly date to the eleventh century or earlier, suggesting the cartographers of that age had an even more sophisticated understanding of spherical trigonometry and other mapmaking techniques than was previously suspected.

In general, Islamic maps from this time are no more and no less accurate than comparable maps from other cultures. It must not be forgotten that knowledge of the world was still very much in its infancy, and ignorance of many facets of geography was nearly universal. One example of this is that, almost invariably, European and Islamic maps showed a long, eastward projection from the southern tip of Africa that enclosed a major portion of the Indian Ocean. Another example is the nearly universal practice of forcing known geographic features into a map that was either aesthetically pleasing to the cartographer or that fit certain preconceptions of the times. However, this should not take away from the genuine advances made by Islamic cartographers during the time period that was known in Europe as the "Dark Ages."


Islamic cartographers and their advances left a notable mark on their society and others. Arab and Muslim traders traveled to Europe, throughout Africa, and as far east as China. This helped them to spread their maps through most of the known world, and their position at the junction between East and West helped them to convey innovations from one sphere to the other. The primary impact of this mapmaking tradition was in the areas of geodesy (determining the size and shape of Earth), applying spherical trigonometry to cartographic problems, and developing new and useful coordinate systems for mapping Earth.

By saying "projection," a cartographer is referring to the method by which the spherical surface of Earth is portrayed on a flat piece of paper. Probably the best-known projection is the Mercator projection, in which the outline of Earth's surface is simply spread over a square, with lines of latitude and longitude drawn like the lines marking the squares on a chessboard. The major problem with the Mercator projection is that it is extremely inaccurate at high latitudes-objects farther north or south from the equator begin to look increasingly (and erroneously) large. Early Muslim cartographers did not face this problem, because over relatively small areas that are not far north or far south, a Mercator-like projection does not introduce many inaccuracies. However, as their religion spread, it became increasingly necessary for later cartographers to construct maps that would show believers living anywhere from Europe to China how to face Mecca. To do this, cartographers turned to mathematicians to help construct new map projections using spherical trigonometry.

These projection methods greatly improved the accuracy of Islamic maps, and the maps made using these techniques were widely used and copied for centuries. In addition, the same mathematical techniques used for mapping the outer surface of Earth could be used to map the "inner" surface of the night sky, and Muslim astronomers made some finely detailed star maps. Maps made to show the position of Mecca with respect to other parts of the globe could be used with equal facility to show foreign coasts, trade routes, and other geographic phenomena. As a result, Muslim maps became valuable tools for traders, sailors, and astronomers, in addition to the Islamic faithful.

Another problem addressed by Islamic mapmakers was that of defining the length of a degree of latitude or longitude. The answer to this important question proved surprisingly difficult to determine. In fact, centuries later, expeditions were dispatched to the mountains and jungles of Peru and to the northern wastes of the Scandinavian peninsula with the sole purpose of precisely measuring this quantity.

The driving force behind the cartographic advances of Islamic mapmakers was a need to help their religious brethren accurately locate Mecca from anywhere in the known world. With this starting point, Muslims used mathematical and geographic techniques learned from Hindu and Greek cultures to develop their own mapmaking techniques. These techniques led to maps that were generally superior to those that had preceded them, and the same techniques were later employed to construct maps that were also put to use by Muslim traders and explorers. As well as proving valuable to the Muslim world, these accurate maps were also important to the development of other nations to which the maps were taken.


Further Reading

Harley, J. B., and Woodward, David, ed. The History of Cartography, Vol. 2, Book 1: Cartography in the Traditional Islamic and South Asian Societies. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1992.

Hourani, Albert. A History of the Arab Peoples. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1991.

King, David. World-maps for Finding the Direction and Distance of Mecca. Koninklijk Brill NV, Leiden, The Netherlands, 1999.

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Finding Mecca: Mapmaking in the Islamic World

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