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Al-qibla and the New Spherical Trigonometry: The Examples of al-Brn and al-Marrkush

[Al-qibla et la Nouvelle Trigonomtrie Sphrique: Les Exemples dal-Brn et al-Marrkush]


Paper presented at Tenth Maghrebian Colloquium on the History of Arabic Mathematics (COMHISMA10),
Tunis, Tunisia, May 31, 2010

By Randy K. Schwartz1
Abstract/ Rsum
The development of spherical trigonometry as a mature discipline can be seen in the
evolution of precise methods for calculating al-qibla, the sacred direction to Mecca.
Solutions devised during the classical Islamic period grew less and less reliant on
concepts that had been inherited from Greek and Indian astronomy. This study focuses on
the calculations of al-qibla carried out by Ab al-Rayhn al-Brn in his al-Qnn alMasd (Ghazna, c. 1035 CE) and by Ab al-Hasan Al al-Marrkush in his Jmi almabdi wa al-ghyt f ilm al- mqt (probably Cairo, c. 1280 CE). In quite different
ways, each approach synthesized elements of prior traditions but in the service of a new
type of trigonometry, one that treats angles on the surface of a sphere as well as angles in
the interior.
[Le dveloppement de la trigonomtrie sphrique comme une discipline mature peut tre
vu dans lvolution des mthodes de calcul prcis dal-qibla: le sens sacr de la Mecque.
Les solutions labores au cours de la priode islamique classique sont devenues de
moins en moins dpendantes des notions qui avait t hrites de lastronomie grecque et
indienne. Cette tude se concentre sur les calculs dal-qibla raliss par Ab al-Rayhn
al-Brn dans son al-Qnn al-Masd (Ghazni, c. 1035 CE) et par Ab al-Hasan Al
al-Marrkush dans son Jmi al-mabdi wa al-ghyt f ilm al- mqt (probablement au
Caire, c. 1280 CE). De manires trs diffrentes, chaque approche a synthtis des
lments de traditions pralables, mais au service dun nouveau type de trigonomtrie,
celui qui traite des angles sur la surface dune sphre ainsi que des angles lintrieur.]

For centuries the search for precise ways to determine al-qibla, the prayer direction toward Mecca,
played an important part in stimulating the emergence of spherical trigonometry as a mature subdiscipline of mathematics. This study focuses on calculations of al-qibla carried out by Ab al-Rayhn
al-Brn and by Ab al-Hasan Al al-Marrkush, exploring their respective contexts, influences, and
roles within the development of this sub-discipline.
Of the many solutions proposed by al-Brn, the one that we will examine in his al-Qnn alMasd is a classic example of what he termed the method of the zjes. He and his contemporaries
grafted the latest knowledge of spherical triangles onto a strategy that had been used to calculate alqibla for nearly two centuries. That older solution seems to have been influenced by the Greek theory
of the sundial and the analemma.
Of the two solutions presented by al-Marrkush in his Jmi al-mabdi wa al-ghyt f ilm almqt, the one for which he claimed no credit was very similar to al-Brns. I will argue that his other

solution, by contrast, is rooted in the even older tradition of Indian astronomy and trigonometry, which
had remained especially influential among scholars of the Islamic West. In appendices, I show the
feasibility of deriving this second solution by either Indo-Iranian methods or by spherical
trigonometry, rather than by analemma techniques.
While the solutions under study were rooted in varied traditions, we will see that they shared an
important feature: all of them determined the altitude of Meccas zenith above the local horizon as the
key step in the calculation. Realizing this common feature will lead us to view al-qibla as an instance
of the more general problem of solving a spherical triangle when some of its arcs and angles are
known. Because of an explosion in knowledge about such relationships in spherical triangles, scholars
working on this problem after about 1000 CE were able to synthesize prior techniques on a higher
level. In that sense, they lived in and benefited from a world that had advanced beyond the
mathematics inherited from Greek and Indo-Iranian writings. In turn, their work on al-qibla further
contributed to what was known about triangles on the sphere, helping to stimulate a systematic
treatment of the whole subject of spherical trigonometry.
Nourished by Three Traditions
Work by David A. King and other researchers over the past several decades has established that
precise qibla determination in medieval times was essentially a part of the history of spherical
astronomy in Islam. The mathematics of the problem is easily transferred from the Earths surface to
the celestial sphere, where the task becomes that of determining the azimuth of Meccas zenith relative
to the meridian of the observers zenith.
As with mathematical astronomy as a whole, work on this problem was dominated by three main
approaches, each with its own distinctive cultural origins and its own set of tools.
One approach was rooted mainly in the zj heritage of Indo-Iranian astronomy. Zj, apparently
derived from the Persian word zeh (bowstring, chord), was the term for a handbook of
astronomical and calendrical tables based on the techniques of Indo-Iranian trigonometry. The
procedures used to create these tables exploited basic geometric relationships within the (celestial)
sphere in order to deduce relationships on the surface of the sphere. This tradition also seems to have
absorbed some Greek trigonometry, but only in its pre-Ptolemaic form: there was no Theorem of
Menelaos, no analemma, etc. On the other hand, there was a full panoply of trigonometric functions
used to specify chords within a circle or sphere, such as the sine or jy (Sanskrit, literally bowstring,
chord), and the versine, variously called utkrama-jy (literally reversed sine) or ara (literally
arrow). These terms would be translated into Arabic as jba and sahm, respectively. With his Zj alSindhind in the early 9th Century, al-Khuwrizm became one of the first Muslim scholars to take up
the zj tradition. In the earliest zjes, results were often presented simply as calculation rules or table
entries, without explanation or justification. With time, zjes in the Islamic world typically included
introductions that explained the theory underlying the tables and calculations. After 1000, with the
increasing Ptolemization of astronomy and trigonometry, the Indo-Iranian methods persisted more
strongly in the Islamic West than elsewhere in the Islamic world, preserved in the work of such
astronomers as al-Zarql (11th Century, Andalusia).2
A second approach was characterized by the use of the analemma, a Greek conceptual and
graphical technique in which two or more cross-sections of the sphere are rotated and projected into a
single plane, and related there in order to study three-dimensional relationships inside the sphere and
on its surface. For example, the celestial meridian of an observer (a great circle) and the day-circle of
the Sun (a small circle) can both be portrayed in a single plane. Diodorus, and later Ptolemy in his

treatise On the Analemma, had exploited this concept as part of elaborating a theory of sundials, using
it to determine the proper location of the hour markings on the vertical meridian sundial.3 As a
consequence of the literary translation activity centered in Baghdad, this projection technique became
known to Arab scholars. In the form inherited from Greek tradition, it was purely a graphical
construction based on descriptive geometry, an analog computer rather than a numerical one. Islamic
mathematical astronomy greatly enriched the technique, however, applying it to a wide variety of
problems. Habash al-Hsib (Baghdad, c. 850) was possibly the first to use an analemma to solve the
qibla problem, describing a geometrical construction that produces the required direction as a line on a
scale drawing. He was followed in this strategy by many others, and even modern authors such as alBrn frequently included analemma solutions in their works; analemmae were also sometimes used
to derive or justify spherical trigonometric results.4
The third approach incorporated later Greek developments in trigonometry, particularly those
associated with the Spherics of Menelaos and the Almagest of Ptolemy (1st- and 2nd-Century
Alexandria). Translations of the Almagest, notably those by Ishq ibn Hunayn and Thbit ibn Qurra in
the late 9th Century, helped popularize these Ptolemaic methods. This in turn would strongly influence
the composition of zjes, beginning with the widely used Zj al-Sbi of al-Battn (Mesopotamia, c.
900). In spherical astronomy, the Ptolemaic strategy is to operate mainly on the surface of the sphere
by using theorems of spherical trigonometry per se. Originally, the Theorem of Menelaos applied to
complete spherical quadrilaterals served this purpose virtually single-handedly, but it would be
followed by results derived later, such as the Rule of Four Quantities and the Spherical Law of Sines.
The basic concept learned from the theory of sundials and analemmae in modern terms, how to
transform between coordinate systems on the sphere was transferred to a configuration of the
spherical surface in which arcs and angles could be calculated step by step, each step justified by
theorems of spherical trigonometry.5 Because this type of solution was detailed in a number of Islamic
zjes, it came to be known as the method of the zjes (al-tarq al-mustamal f al-zjt), a phrase that
might have originated with al-Brn.6 Depending upon which theorem was applied to which spherical
triangle at each step, the resulting sequence of formulae might vary somewhat from writer to writer, or
from one work to another by the same writer.
As an abbreviation, I will refer to these three traditions simply as Indian, analemma, and
spherical trigonometry. Admittedly, no iron walls separate them from one another. A single writer
might actually utilize the procedures or results of more than one tradition, even in a single treatise, and
a given result can be derived in more than one fashion. Over the centuries, there was increasing
admixture among the results and approaches of the three traditions.

Some Examples of Exact Solutions to the Qibla Problem


source
Anonymous7,ms.
IstanbulAS4830
HabashalHsib8

dateandlocation
Early9thC.,poss.Baghdad

Indian

tradition

c.850,Baghdad

analemma

alNayrz9,ms.(alSijz)
ParisBN2457
alQh10,ms.Meshhed,
Rid5412
AbalWaf,alZjal
Mjist11
alBrn,Bk.5,Chap.5
ofalQnnalMasd12
IbnMudh,Tabulae
Jahen13

alMarrkush,Pt.1,
Chap.68ofJmial
mabdiwaalghytf
ilmalmqt14
alMarrkush,Pt.1,
Chap.67ofJmial
mabdiwaalghytf
ilmalmqt15

Late9thC.,Baghdad

sphericaltrigonometry

10thC.,Baghdad

sphericaltrigonometry

Late10thC.,Baghdad

sphericaltrigonometry

c.1035,Ghazna

sphericaltrigonometry

c.1075,Andalusia

sphericaltrigonometry

c.1280,poss.Cairo

sphericaltrigonometry

c.1280,poss.Cairo

poss.Indian

tools
solidgeometry:segments
insidesphere
descriptivegeometry:plane
rotationandprojection
sphericalchords:
MenelaossThm.
sphericalarcs:RuleofFour
sphericalarcs:Ruleof
Tangents
sphericalanglesandarcs:
LawofSines,RuleofFour
sphericalanglesandarcs:
LawofSines,RuleofFour,
poss.GebersThm.
sphericalanglesandarcs:
LawofSines,RuleofFour,
poss.GebersThm.
poss.formulaefrom
astronomyandtime
reckoning

The Rise of Spherical Trigonometry


For purposes of this paper, the key theorems related to arbitrary spherical triangles are as follows
(see Figure 1):
Spherical Theorem of Menelaos:

sin a 2 sin c 2 sin b


sin c sin a sin d 2

,
sinc1 sina1 sind
sina1
sinc1 sinb2

(1)

Spherical Law of Sines:

sin a sin b sin c

sinA sinB sinC

(2)

Spherical Law of Cosines:

cos c cos a cos b sin a sin b cos C

(3)

c1

Figure 1.
b

b1

a1

b2

d2

d1

c2

a2

B
The key theorems related to spherical right triangles are as follows (see Figure 2):
Rule of Four Quantities:

sin b sin b1

sin c sin c1

(4)

Gebers Theorem:

cos A cos a sin B

(5)

Spherical Pythagorean Theorem: cos c cos a cos b


c2

A
c1

(6)

b1

Figure 2.
c
b

Note that Theorems (1), (4), and (6) involve trigonometric functions of arcs on the sphere, but not
of angles on the sphere. Menelaoss Theorem was used ingeniously to solve important problems of
astronomical reckoning in Ptolemys Almagest and in subsequent centuries, including in determining
al-qibla, a spherical angle par excellence. However, it was a cumbersome and inefficient tool, and
spherical astronomy underwent a veritable revolution in the 10th Century when simpler theorems and
techniques were developed that would gradually make Menelaos obsolete for calculations on the
sphere.
In the late 900s, the Rule of Four Quantities, which can be derived from Menelaoss Theorem,
was developed and put to use by Ab Nasr Mansr, a teacher and patron of al-Brn. Ab Nasr used
the rule in a calculation of ascensional difference and rising time, but he attributed the result to his
predecessor Thbit ibn Qurra (9th Century) in a work on Menelaoss Theorem that has not survived.
The Law of Sines, which can be derived from the Rule of Four Quantities, was stated by Ab Nasr and
at roughly the same time by Ab al-Waf.16
Less well known, Gebers Theorem likewise arose in the East but, as the name reflects, became
most closely associated with the Islamic West. Reportedly, the result is implicit in writings by Ab
Nasr17, and later, in an 11th-Century astronomical treatise from Isfahan whose author is unknown, it
appears in a list of 14 corollaries to the Law of Sines that apply to spherical right triangles18. In the

West, Ibn Mudh al-Jayyn (11th Century, Andalusia) stated the rule, without derivation, in his Kitb
majhlt qis al-kura19, a treatise in which Menelaoss Theorem was used as the starting point in
systematically developing the modern results of spherical trigonometry. His successor Jbir ibn
Aflah (early 12th Century, Andalusia) presented the rule as Theorem 14 in his Islh al-Majist
(Correction of the Almagest), a work in which the arsenal of results for spherical triangles replaced
Menelaoss Theorem as the foundation for spherical trigonometry. Translated into Latin, the treatise by
Jbir (Geber) would exert a great influence in Europe. His proof of Theorem 14, which would
become known in Europe as Gebers Theorem, applies the Rule of Four Quantities and the Law of
Sines to a complete spherical quadrilateral.20 In Appendix 1, I show that a simpler derivation is
possible, relying only on the triangle and a single use of the Law of Sines.
The Spherical Pythagorean Theorem was derived from the Law of Sines in the 13th Century by
Nasr al-Dn al-Ts, but the latter attributed the result to al-Nayrz (Baghdad) and al-Khzin (Persia)
in the 10th Century. A generalization, the Spherical Law of Cosines, was enunciated in the 15th Century
by Regiomontanus, but we will see below that it was implicit in some of the work on al-qibla.
Al-Qnn: Four Volleys from the Heavy Artillery
For an example of the techniques opened up by the new spherical trigonometry, we turn to a
method of al-qibla calculation detailed by Ab al-Rayhn al-Brn in Book 5, Chapter 5 of his alQnn al-Masd (Ghazna, Afghanistan, c. 1035 CE). In this work and others of his that have
survived, notably the Kitb maqld ilm al-haya (c. 1000) and the Kitb tahdd al-amkin (c. 1018),
al-Brn tackled the qibla problem in a variety of different ways, including with techniques from the
Indian and analemma traditions. I focus on this chapter of al-Qnn as an example of a solution rooted
in the ancient method of the zjes, but whose justification is drawn entirely from the new theorems of
trigonometry on the surface of the sphere. They are deployed, as it were, like pieces of heavy artillery.
In explaining his method, al-Brn21 uses a diagram of the celestial sphere viewed from the
outside, with the observers zenith shown at the center and his horizon on the periphery. In Figure 3, I
adopt Kings rendering of al-Brns diagram in which Z and M are the zeniths of the observer and of
Mecca, respectively; ZPN and MPL are their respective meridians, with P the celestial pole; MZQ is
the great circle through these zeniths, with a pole at G; and JLG and JHM are the horizons of M and F,
respectively. It is assumed that we know the latitudes of the observer and of Mecca, as well as their
longitude difference; these are measured by PN = Z, PL = M, and MPZ = L. The qibla, measured
from the observers southward meridian, is q = SZM = SK.

Figure 3.
Spherical triangles
used by al-Brn
in his first pair of
steps (left) and in
his second pair of
steps (right).
Figure adapted
from King 1986, p.
86.

In Figure 4, I have augmented Kings diagram by labeling it with his own symbols 1 through 4
for the great-circle arcs determined in successive steps of the calculation, where prime () denotes
complement. This labeling can be done prior to invoking any of the trigonometric theorems. In the
spirit of preparing the ground for the heavy combat to follow, this makes it easier to follow alBrns solution and to see the broad outline of the strategy known as the method of the zjes.

Figure 4.
Spherical triangles
used by al-Brn,
with the measures
of important arcs
and angles
indicated.

Figure and
notation adapted
from King 1986, p.
86.

Z
4

q
3

In summary, al-Brns calculation has four steps:


Step 1. Use the Law of Sines with right MHP to determine 1 from M and L:
sin1 (sin L)(sin M )
sin1 (sin L)(cos M ) .

Step 2. Use the Law of Sines with right PFL to determine 2 from 1 and M:

(7)

sin M
sin1
sin M
.
sin 2
cos1

sin 2

(8)

Step 3. With the arc 3 defined by way of


3 = Z 2,

(9)

use the Rule of Four Quantities with right HJF and ZIF to determine 4 from 1 and 3:
sin 4 (sin1 )(sin 3 )
cos 4 (cos1 )(cos 3 ) .

(10)

Step 4. Use the Law of Sines with (right) FGN to determine q from 1, 3, and 4:
(sin1 )(sin 3 )
sin 4
(cos1 )(sin 3 )
.
cosq
sin 4

sinq

(11)

The solution that al-Brn had described in his Maqld22, which was written some three decades
before al-Qnn, differs in the final step. There, he used the more efficient
sinq

sin1
.
sin 4

(12)

If we look at the right FGN in Figure 4, we see that this is a case where one leg and all three angles
are known, and the task is to find the other leg q'. Formula (11) was derived ignoring the right angle
and using the Law of Sines, whereas al-Brn derived formula (12) in the Maqld by making use of
the right angle, specifically by applying the Rule of Four Quantities to right SZK:
sinHM sinSK

sinMZ sinKZ
sin1 sinq
,

sin 4
1
whence (12) follows. A simpler strategy, which I simply note here for the discussion further on, is to
apply Gebers Theorem to FGN:
cos1 (cosq )(sin 4 )
sin1 (sinq )(sin 4 ) .

The arcs used by al-Brn can be referred to as follows:

1 = the modified longitude difference between M and Z, i.e., the great arc running from M
until it hits Zs meridian orthogonally at the point H
2 = the modified latitude of Z, i.e., the latitude of H
3 = the modified latitude difference between M and Z, i.e., the arc from H to Z
4 = the distance between M and Z, i.e., the angle between the observer and Mecca.
Note that the angle 4, which is measured by MK, is the altitude of Meccas zenith above the
observers horizon, a quantity often denoted h (height). It had long been part of zj practice to use the
altitude of a star above the horizon in calculating its azimuth relative to ones local meridian. The use
of such an altitude now the altitude of a towns zenith, rather than the altitude of a star is one
element that al-Brns method shares with otherwise quite different solutions of the qibla problem,
including one of those by al-Marrakushi described below.
The Far West: Peripheral but Influential
There was intense interest in the qibla problem among scholars in the Islamic West. In Andalusia,
exact qibla solutions tended to be developed as part of more general works. The earliest known
instance is the solution presented by Ibn Mudh in his zj, known by its Latin translation, the Tabulae
Jahen.23 By contrast, Maghrebian authors often devoted whole treatises to the subject. Mnica Rius
tells of the plethora of works on al-qibla that are to be found in Moroccan libraries.24
Both Ibn Mudh and his successor Jbir ibn Aflah were adept at reducing problems of spherical
astronomy to elemental steps in which spherical triangles are solved, based on knowledge of some of
their sides and/or interior angles. In his Kitb majhlt, Ibn Mudh discussed more than 20 cases and
sub-cases of such problems of solving a spherical triangle! The important building blocks included
Gebers Theorem (which allows a right triangle to be solved using one additional angle and the
adjacent leg) and the Spherical Pythagorean Theorem (which allows a right triangle to be solved
from any two sides). Clearly, solving spherical triangles was a topic that had become an object of
systematic investigation in the West.
In his Tabulae Jahen, Ibn Mudh supplied no explanation of how he derived his qibla solution
method Some have suggested that he might have borrowed it from al-Brn.25 Here, I want to show
that the method found in Tabulae Jahen is just a special case of the triangle-solving strategies that Ibn
Mudh sets down in his Kitb majhlt, specifically, the strategy for solving an arbitrary triangle if
two sides and the included angle are known.
To show this, I will use the same notation as was used above for al-Brn:

P
L

Figure 5.
M

This is a case of solving PZM, given knowledge of two sides and the included angle. In such a case,
Ibn Mudhs strategy described in Kitb majhlt26 is to draw a great-circle arc through one of the
other vertices (say M) and perpendicular to the opposite side (or to its extension if necessary, as in this
diagram), meeting it at point H. Considering PHM, the Law of Sines yields
)
sinMH (sin L)(sin M
sinMH (sin L)(cos M ) .

(13)

Next considering PHM, the Spherical Pythagorean Theorem yields


(cosPH)(cosMH )
cos M
sin PH

sin M
.
cosMH

(14)

Next, Ibn Mudh notes that

ZH PH - PZ
ZH PH - Z .

(15)

Considering ZHM, the Spherical Pythagorean Theorem yields


cosMZ (cosMH)(cosZH) .

(16)

Finally, considering ZHM, the Law of Sines yields


sinMZH
which establishes al-qibla.

sinMH
,
sinMZ

(17)

These are the calculation steps of the qibla solution that was stated (without derivation) in the
Tabulae Jahen, and we see that they are exactly what is produced by applying the relevant portion of
Ibn Mudhs general triangle-solving strategy. It is also interesting to note by comparing equations
(13), (14), (15), (16), and (17), respectively, with (7), (8), (9), (10), and (12) that the calculation
steps are identical with those of al-Brn in his Maqld. However, the justification there is not the
same: the steps that I have just run through use a different sequence of theorems of spherical
trigonometry than did al-Brn. Furthermore, they make reference only to the original three points
(local zenith Z, Meccas zenith M, the celestial pole P) and one auxiliary point (H); by contrast, recall
from Figures 3-4 how many points and triangles were called into play in al-Brns proof.
Thus, in considering possible sources for such solutions of the qibla problem as found in the
tradition of the Islamic West, it seems that one should consider not only the possibility that these were
simple borrowings of the method of the zjes from the East. One should also consider the possibility
that Ibn Mudh and others could have derived their calculation steps from their own consideration of
the problem, especially by deploying the new theorems of spherical trigonometry to the general
problem of solving spherical triangles.
Maghrebo-Andalusian and Mamluk Influences on al-Marrkush
Among those enriched by the spherical astronomy traditions of the Islamic West, I include the
astronomer Ab al-Hasan Al al-Marrkush. Ahmed Djebbar writes that al-Marrkush likely was
born in Marrakech or the vicinity, and was educated there and later in Andalusia and in Mamluk
Egypt, where he ultimately emigrated.27 Djebbar counts 10 works known to have been written by this
author, the most important being a general treatise in mathematical astronomy, Jmi al-mabdi wa
al-ghyt f ilm al-mqt (Summation of Principles and Results in the Science of Time-keeping),
written in approximately 1280.
It was exactly during this earliest period of Mamluk rule in Egypt and Syria that ilm al-mqt (the
science of astronomical time-keeping) arose as a distinct subdiscipline of astronomy, with alMarrkush apparently the first practitioner. This science was initially directed at solving the problem
of calculating times of prayer, but soon encompassed all of the other practical problems involved in
spherical astronomy, including qibla calculation. A new profession that arose in Egypt at this time and
spread quickly was that of the muwaqqit associated with a mosque, who applied the solution
techniques identified by ilm al-mqt in order to furnish usable results to the muezzin and others.
I have not yet been able to consult any of the Arabic manuscript copies of the Jmi that survive
today, but rely instead on the published French edition of the work.28 That edition is divided into two
parts, Calculations and Constructions, published as two separate volumes. Part 1, running 87
chapters, presents formulaic methods for calculating key quantities of astronomy and geography,
together with worked examples. In Chapter 87, he presents a table of proportions summarizing many
of his formulae. In Part 2, he shows geometric constructions of instruments for determining many of
the quantities dealt with in Part 1.
From clues in the Jmi we can infer that it was indeed written in Cairo; for instance, the worked
examples of qibla calculation use latitudes and longitudes for observers in or near Cairo. Nevertheless,
the work shows more influence from the scientific heritage of the Islamic West (al-Marrkushs
homeland) than from that of Egypt or further East. For example, the author makes no mention of his
Cairene predecessor Ibn Ynus (late 10th Century), who had worked on many of the same problems.29
On the other hand, he often quotes by name from Western predecessors such as Jbir ibn Aflah, whose

explanation of the Ptolemaic term sphaera recta he cites in Chapter 32 on calculations involving right
ascension. Less explicit references are made to the astronomy of al-Zarql and Ibn al-Kammd.
Unfortunately, as is the case with the Tabulae Jahen of Ibn Mudh and many other works from the
Islamic West, al-Marrkush does not provide in his text any explanations (or diagrams) justifying the
procedures that he describes, beyond occasional cross-references to steps already discussed on
previous pages.
Franois Charette notes that the Jmi became the standard reference on mqt in much of the
Middle East.30 King tells us that it had a significant influence on later works of mathematical
astronomy in the Islamic East, for example those of Ibn al-Shtir and Shams al-Dn al-Khall in 14thCentury Syria. He believes that al-Khall, muwaqqit for the Umayyad Mosque in Damascus, might
have made use of this work in producing his magnificent qibla table, which struck King as the most
sophisticated trigonometric table known to me from the entire medieval period.31 In the introduction
to the table, al-Khall states that he knows no method of qibla calculation superior to that found in
Chapter 67 of al-Marrkushs treatise, which al-Khall refers to under the variant title of Rislat alJayb (Treatise on the Sine Quadrant).32

Qibla Calculations in the Jmi al-mabdi


In his Jmi, al-Marrkush presents two different methods (Chapters 67 and 68 of Part 1) for the
Determination of the Azimuth of Any Place. As is the case with al-Brn in al-Qnn, he refers
generically to the place whose azimuth is wanted, although his worked examples always use Mecca.
In terms of the actual calculation, al-Marrkushs method in Chapter 68 is in fact identical to that
of Ibn Mudh in the Tabulae Jahen (and al-Brn in the Maqld). Nor does he claim the technique of
Chapter 68 as his own, commenting at the close of the chapter:
This latter method is the one that we have found in the writings of ancient and modern
authors, who include no other [methods]. That of the previous chapter is entirely our
own, even though deduced from their same principles, and it has the advantage of being
easier and coming closer to the truth.33
Thus, he might simply have drawn the technique in Chapter 68 from a work by an earlier author such
as Ibn Mudh or al-Brn. Alternatively, he might have applied some of his own analysis to the
problem, possibly using a result such as Gebers Theorem, which we noted earlier can be used to
derive the final step of the procedure. In any case, I interpret Chapter 68 as likely reflecting the
tradition of determining al-qibla through the application of theorems of spherical trigonometry, even
though the reference to ancient and modern authors seems to suggest al-Marrkushs awareness that
his actual calculation steps correspond closely to those that had been used in the method of the zjes for
a much longer time, going back more than four centuries.
As just noted, al-Marrkush claimed the method of Chapter 67 as entirely his own. It is certainly
quite different from that of the succeeding chapter.
Multiply the cosine of the latitude of the place whose azimuth is wanted by the cosine of
the latitude of the place where you are; the product will be the al. Take the versine of the
difference in longitude from the place where you are to the given place, and multiply it
by the al; then subtract the product of this multiplication from the sine of the meridianal

altitude, in the place where you are, of the parallel [i.e., small circle] through the zenith of
the other place, the said altitude measured on your meridian: the remainder will be the
sine of the altitude of the zenith of the other place above the horizon of the place where
you are. Find the azimuth for that altitude using the methods explained previously, this
will be the azimuth that is wanted.34
There are thus two steps in this method, and they can be rendered in algebraic form using the symbols
Z and M for the respective latitudes and L for the longitude difference:
Step A. Determine the altitude h of Meccas zenith above the local horizon:
sinh sin( M Z ) cos M cos Z versL .

(18)

Step B. Determine the azimuth q using the methods explained previously, viz. those in Chapter
62:
(sinh)(sin Z ) sin M

cos Z
cos Z
.
cosq
cosh

(19)

Comparing these two steps to those we have discussed previously, it is clear that the method of
Chapter 67 is not the method of the zjes. However, it does share with that method the strategy of first
calculating the altitude h = 4 of Meccas zenith above the local horizon as a major step in
determining its azimuth. In this regard, Step A accomplishes the same result as al-Brns Steps 1-3,
while Step B accomplishes the same result as his Step 4.
A somewhat similar method of qibla determination was provided, also without explanation, in
Chapter 28 of the Hkim Zj of Ibn Ynus (Cairo, late 10th Century). There, the altitude h is found in a
manner similar to al-Marrkushs Step A. On the other hand, Ibn Ynus then converts the altitude
into the azimuth q in a different way, in fact in a manner identical to the final step in al-Marrkushs
Chapter 68, which we noted earlier is also used in al-Brns Maqld.35
Chapter 67, like much of the rest of al-Marrkushs manuscript, has features that strongly suggest
an influence from the older Indian zj heritage of spherical astronomy (especially time-reckoning), a
heritage that we noted earlier had particularly lasting influence in the Islamic West and whose writings
typically omitted explanation and theoretical discussion. Al-Marrkush uses quantities ubiquitous in
that tradition:

He refers to the quantity cosM cosZ as al-al. In Chapter 40 he had already defined and
discussed al-al as cos cos, where is the declination of an arbitrary star and is the latitude
of the observer. Clearly, by thinking of Meccas zenith as if it were a star, he was putting to a
different use this quantity that was already ubiquitous in Indian and Islamic astronomy (al-al =
source, foundation, germ, taproot).

Similarly, versL can be thought of as an adaptation of the quantity vers(t), where t is the hourangle of the sun. Indian time-reckoning techniques called upon vers(t) routinely.36 More
generally, the versine function itself, used to find the length of certain line segments inside the
sphere, is a marker of Indian usage in trigonometry.37

The discussion of Step B (Chapter 62) likewise is formulated in terms of an arbitrary star and
an arbitrary observers zenith. The ratio sinM/cosZ, which appears there, can be thought of as
an adaptation of the quantity
sin

sin
,
cos

known as the arkgr (Sanskrit, literally sine of the suns amplitude).38 This ratio is used to
determine , the rising or ortive amplitude (saat al-mashriq), defined as the angle on the
observers horizon circle between the sunrise point and the East point. Al-Marrkush had
already defined and discussed the ortive amplitude in Chapter 58.
Adapting to the qibla calculation such procedures routinely used in astronomy and time-keeping had
additional practical advantages, since in many cases special tables existed for compound quantities
such as al-al and saat al-mashriq.
In his treatise on the sundial, Thbit ibn Qurra had stated (without derivation) a procedure similar
to that in equation (18) in the course of discussing the relationship between the solar altitude and the
hour-angle.39 King cites other such instances in Islamic astronomy.40 Likewise, solar formulae akin to
equation (19) can be found in the aforementioned Zj al-Sindhind of al-Khuwrizm41 and in the
Kitb.al-Zj al-Sbi of al-Battn42.
Since, however, al-Marrkush claims to have deduced the method in Chapter 67 on his own, using
the same principles as found in the method of the zjes, it is difficult to believe that he simply lifted
the technique from another work. The way he converts altitude to azimuth in Step B, although perhaps
novel as part of a qibla calculation, appears to be a standard Islamic inheritance from Indian
astronomy. Apparently the same cannot be said of Step A, which raises the question how alMarrkush might have derived it.
King shows how all of these formulae can be derived from the analemma.43 However, for the
reasons discussed above, it appears to me that al-Marrkushs work might be closer to the Indian or
even to the spherical trigonometry tradition than to that of the analemma. I conjecture that he might
have derived Step A himself, either from solid geometry inside the sphere or from spherical
trigonometry on the surface. To demonstrate the feasibility, I carried out such derivations and have
included these in the Appendices:

In Appendix 2, the derivation from solid geometry makes use of two diagrams: the meridian
circle of the observer and the day-circle (madr al-yaumiyya) of the zenith of Mecca. Precisely
this pair of circles is known to have been used, for example, in a qibla calculation by alGhandajn (near Shrz, possibly 13th Century).44

In Appendix 3, the derivation from spherical trigonometry makes use of the plane trigonometric
sum formulae, the Rule of Four Quantities, the Spherical Law of Sines, the Spherical
Pythagorean Theorem, and Gebers Theorem.

From the standpoint of efficiency, if we compare the methods of al-Brns Book 5, Chapter 5 and
al-Marrkushs Chapter 67, it appears that the latter is the more straightforward, especially if use were

made of tables for the standard astronomical and time-keeping quantities involved in the latter. This
might be what al-Marrkush means when he writes of his method that it has the advantage of being
easier and coming closer to the truth. I conjecture that closer to the truth might reflect a belief on
his part that in cases where the longitude difference L is obtuse, his algorithm is more likely to yield
correct results without modification.
On the Horizon: A Spherical Law of Cosines
The technique described by al-Marrkush in his Chapter 67 is of further interest because both of
the steps involved (which I have labeled A and B) are only slightly disguised versions of the Spherical
Law of Cosines.
In the plane, the Law of Cosines establishes a relation between the measure of any interior angle C
of a triangle and the lengths a, b, and c of its three sides. The corresponding law for the sphere is given
in equation (3).
Figure 6 makes clear that:

any exact formula for computing h (the altitude of Meccas zenith above the local horizon)
from the latitudes Z and M and the longitude difference L is functionally equivalent to the
Spherical Law of Cosines, because it establishes a relation between the interior angle L and
the three sides.

any exact formula for further converting h to q (the azimuth of Mecca for the given locality
with respect to the local meridian) is also functionally equivalent to the Spherical Law of
Cosines, because it establishes a relation between the interior angle 180 q and the three sides.
P
L

Figure 6.

Z
Z

M
180-q
h'
M

Thus, we know in advance that when stripped of their disguises, as it were, steps A and B of alMarrkush (and respectively steps 1-3 and step 4 of al-Brn) will each reveal themselves to be the
Spherical Law of Cosines.
What is remarkable in the case of al-Marrkush is the slightness of the disguises. Consider the
formula that represents his step A:
sinh sin( M Z ) cos M cos Z versL

cosh sin M cos Z cos M sin Z cos M cos Z versL


cosh cos M cos Z cos M cos Z cos M cos Z (1 - cosL)
cosh cos M cos Z cos M cos Z cosL
cosh cos M cos Z sin M sin Z cosL

This is the same as (3), the Spherical Law of Cosines, except written with different letters. Next,
consider the formula that represents his step B:

(sinh)(sin Z ) sin M

cos Z
cos Z
cosq
cosh
(cosh)(cos Z )(cosq ) (sinh)(sin Z ) sin M
sin M (sinh)(sin Z ) (cosh)(cos Z )(cosq )
sin M (sinh)(sin Z ) (cosh)(cos Z )cos(180 - q )
cos M (cosh )(cos Z ) (sinh )(sin Z )cos(180 - q )

Again, this is the same as (3), except written with different letters.
Seen in this broader framework, the problem of exact qibla determination amounts to the problem
of solving an arbitrary spherical triangle, given two sides and the included angle. The Law of Sines is a
nonstarter in such a situation, since neither given side is opposite from the given angle. Starting with
the Law of Cosines supplies the third side, and the desired angle can then be found in a number of
ways, such as with another application of the Law of Cosines or with the Law of Sines. Thus, applying
the Law of Cosines twice in succession first forward to determine a side, then in reverse to
determine an angle is a canonical solution to the qibla problem; and al-Marrkushs work in
Chapter 67, with its steps A and B, makes this all but explicit.
For presenting the first proof of the Spherical Law of Cosines, credit is often given to the German
astronomer Johann Mller, known as Regiomontanus. He systematically developed plane and spherical
trigonometry, for the first time in Christian Europe, in his Latin treatise De Triangulis Omnimodis,
which was written in 1462-64 but published only posthumously in 1533. In Book IV, a discussion of
problems involving the solution of spherical triangles draws explicit analogies with the solar-altitude
problem, the same one that we have seen underlay al-Marrkushs work on al-qibla. Then, in Book V,
Regiomontanus uses the Rule of Four Quantities and the Spherical Law of Sines to prove the Spherical
Law of Cosines in the following form:
versB
1

.
versb vers(a-c) sina sin b

To derive this from the solar-altitude calculation is merely to recall definitions. No trigonometric laws,
not even the planar sum formulae, are needed:
sinh sin( M Z ) - cos M cos Z versL
cosh cos( M Z ) - sin M sin Z versL
1 - cosh 1 cos( M Z ) sin M sin Z versL
versh vers( M Z ) sin M sin Z versL
sin M sin Z versL versh vers( M Z )

versL
1

.
versh vers( M Z ) sin M sin Z
The possibility of Regiomontanus borrowing results from al-Battns works has been hotly
debated, but his indebtedness to mathematical astronomers of the Islamic West needs to be considered
more carefully. It is striking, for example, how closely some of his exposition seems to follow that of
Jbir ibn Aflahs Islh al-Majist: major results for spherical triangles (Rule of Four Quantities, Law of
Sines, Gebers Theorem, Spherical Pythagorean Theorem) are developed sequentially as theorems 12,
13, 14, and 15 in Book I of the Islh al-Majist and respectively as theorms 15, 16-17, 18, and 19 in
Book IV of De Triangulis Omnimodis. Eberhard Knobloch believes that Regiomontanus borrowed
wholesale from Jbir ibn Aflah and Ibn Mudh, in addition to other Arab authors.45
Conclusion: From a Singular Problem to a Broad Study
Our examination of a handful of methods for calculating al-qibla has revealed the varied
techniques involved, but also the common features shared between them, notably the use of altitude
above the local horizon as a key intermediate step. We noticed that over time, distinct traditions
increasingly came into contact with one another and their results were interrelated, to the point where
they were often invoked in one and the same treatise.
We found that skills and results originally rooted in the solution of one specific problem of
astronomy or geodesy were gradually viewed in a more general context. By treating the zenith of
Mecca on the celestial sphere as if it were the Sun or a fixed star, results from spherical astronomy
could be adapted to help calculate al-qibla. The Greek discovery of correct hour markings on a
meridian sundial, and several Indian formulae for tracking star movements and reckoning time, were
prime examples of this.
In our historical survey of the problem, we noted that early spherical trigonometric solutions of the
qibla problem relied on Menelaoss Theorem for the complete spherical quadrilateral, which freed its
users to work on the surface of the sphere rather than the interior. But this in turn was made obsolete
by more-general results for spherical triangles discovered c. 1000 (the Sine Theorem, etc.), which
revealed relationships not only among the arcs but among the surface angles involved. Such
discoveries allowed Islamic scholars to go well beyond what had been absorbed from Greek and Indian

astronomy, and eventually to elaborate a general theory of spherical trigonometry that was independent
of any specific application.
A. I. Sabra, in a preliminary assessment in 1987, argued that al-Ghazzl (1058-1111) had proposed
an instrumentalist view of knowledge that
confines scientific research to very narrow, and essentially unprogressive areas. We may
rightly admire the ingenuity, inventiveness, and computational prowess in some of the works
of the muwaqqits on time-keeping and the qibla, but we have to realize that breakthroughs, if
such were at all possible, could only have occurred elsewhere for example, in geometry
and theoretical algebra, in observational and theoretical astronomy and in various branches of
theoretical science []46
Our work here suggests that, at least in the case of mqt, the relation between theory, on the one hand,
and practical applications in the service of Islam, on the other hand, was more complex than is
indicated in Sabras assessment. The seemingly unique problem of finding al-qibla became part of a
broad study of how to solve spherical triangles. The resulting techniques not only made use of new
results such as the Sine Theorem, but they themselves constituted an incipient version of the Law of
Cosines, a crown jewel within this science.

Appendix 1. Gebers Theorem Derived from the Law of Sines

Gebers Theorem states that in a spherical triangle with a right angle, if we consider the other two
interior angles, then the cosine of either of these angles is the product of the cosine of the opposite side
and the sine of the third angle.
A

Figure 7a.

P
a

Figure 7b.

Consider an arbitrary spherical right ABC with right angle at C.


If the measure of arc BC is less than 90, then extend it to a pole P of the arc AC (see Figure 7a).
Applying the Spherical Law of Sines to ABP, we get:
sin PB
sin PA

sin PAB sin PBA


sin (90 BC)
sin 90

sin (90 CAB) sin (180 CBA)


cos BC
1

cos CAB sin CBA


cos a
1

cos A sin B
cos A cos a sin B , QED.

If the measure of arc BC exceeds 90, then consider the point P on it that is a pole of the arc AC
(see Figure 7b). Applying the Spherical Law of Sines to ABP, we get:
sin PB
sin PA

sin PAB sin PBA

sin(BC 90 )
sin 90

sin (CAB 90 ) sin PBA


cos BC
1

cos CAB sin PBA


cos a
1

cos A sin B
cos A cos a sin B , QED.

Finally, if the measure of arc BC is 90, then the result is trivial.

Appendix 2. Al-Marrkushs Calculation Derived from Solid Geometry

Let Z and M denote the zeniths of the observer and Mecca, respectively, and R the radius of the
celestial sphere. If the great-circle arc ZM is extended to Zs horizon, then the angular length of that
extension is called the altitude h of M above Zs horizon. We want to determine h or, just as good, the
semi-chord Rsinh from M to the plane of Zs horizon.

.
Z

day-circle of M
equator

D
N

M
Z

day-circle of M

A'

meridian of Z

R cos M

S horizon of Z

U C

M
A'

Figure 8b.
Figure 8a.

Figure 8a shows Zs meridian circle and, in profile, three important planes passing through it: that
of Zs horizon, that of the celestial equator, and that of Ms day circle, i.e., the small circle through
M parallel to the equator. The pairwise angles between the three planes are denoted as Z (the
complement of the local latitude) and M (the latitude of Mecca). Note that the radius of the day-circle
is BD = BOcos M = Rcos M .
To define T, refer to Figure 8b, which shows the day-circle with its center D, its intersection B with
Zs meridian, and its two intersections A' with Zs horizon, which are analogous to sunrise and sunset
points. T is the point on the radius BD that has the same height as M above the plane of Zs horizon.
Thus, its height TU measures the sought-for quantity Rsinh.
From Fig. 7b, note that
TB DB( vers BM)
TB R cos M versL .

From Fig. 7a, note that

BC BOsin( M Z ) Rsin( M Z )
AB BC/sin Z BC/cos Z Rsin( M Z ) /cos Z
AT TU/sin Z TU/cos Z .

From either figure, note that


AT AB TB .
Thus,
TU/cos Z Rsin( M Z ) /cos Z R cos M versL
TU Rsin( M Z ) R cos M cos Z versL

Rsinh Rsin( M Z ) R cos M cos Z versL


sinh sin( M Z ) cos M cos Z versL ,

QED.

Appendix 3. Al-Marrkushs Calculation Derived from Spherical Trigonometry

With the same notation as in Figure 4, apply the Rule of Four Quantities to ZIF:
sin ZI

sin ZF
sin PL
sin PF

sin ZI

sin (PF ZP)


sin PL
sin PF

sin ZI

sin PF cos ZP cos PF sin ZP


sin PL
sin PF

sin ZI cos ZP sin PL cos PF sin ZP

sin PL
sin PF

Applying the Spherical Law of Sines to PLF, we get


sin ZI cos ZP sin PL cos PF sin ZP sin F

Applying Gebers Theorem to PLF, we get


sin ZI cos ZP sin PL cos PF sin ZP

cos P
cos FL

Applying the Spherical Pythagorean Theorem to PLF yields cos PF cos PL cos FL , so
sin ZI cos ZP sin PL sin ZP cos PL cos P

sin h sin Z sin M cos Z cos M cosL


sin h sin Z sin M cos Z cos M (1 versL )
sinh cos( Z M ) cos Z cos M versL
sinh sin( M Z ) cos M cos Z versL ,

QED.

Endnotes
1.
2.
3.
4.
5.
6.
7.
8.
9.
10.
11.
12.
13.
14.
15.
16.
17.
18.
19.
20.
21.
22.
23.
24.
25.
26.
27.
28.
29.
30.
31.
32.
33.
34.

Department of Mathematics, Schoolcraft College, 18600 Haggerty Road, Livonia, MI 48152


U.S.A. E-mail: rschwart@schoolcraft.edu.
Rozhanskaya 1990, pp. 143-145.
Berggren 1985, pp. 11-13. Neugebauer (1969) summarizes Ptolemys analemma on pp. 214217, and lists further sources on p. 226 ad. 87.
On analemma solutions of the qibla problem, see Kennedy and Id 1974; Berggren 1980.
Berggren 1985.
Sams and Mielgo, 1994.
King 1993, pp. 84-85, 112-115; Berggren 1985, pp. 4-5.
The original has not survived, but the solution was reported in a letter by al-Brn. See King
1986, p. 85; Kennedy and Id, 1974.
King 1986, pp. 85-86; al-Brn (Debarnot) 1985, pp. 62-63; Van Brummelen 2009, pp. 197201.
Berggren 1985, pp. 2-4.
al-Brn (Debarnot) 1985, pp. 20-21.
The solution in its original Arabic is found in al-Brn (Krause) 1954-56, Vol. 2, pp. 523-525.
Summaries in English are given in King 1986, p. 86 and Berggren 1986, pp. 182-186. Book 5,
Chapter 6 gives a qibla solution based on an analemma construction.
Sams and Mielgo, 1994.
A French translation of the chapter is found in al-Marrkush (Sdillot) 1834-35, Vol. 1, pp.
321-323.
A French translation of the chapter is found in al-Marrkush (Sdillot) 1834-35, Vol. 1, pp.
319-321.
For a discussion, see al-Brn (Debarnot) 1985, Chapter 1.
Sams 1980, pp. 60-61.
Hairetdinova 1986, p. 141, items (vi), (x).
The result appears in Villuendas 1979, p. 42 (Arabic text) and p. 126 (Spanish text). This
passage appears on folio 13 (verso) of the original Arabic manuscript.
The proof is summarized in Lorch 1995, p. 8.
For my sources, see note 12.
The solution is reproduced, in Arabic with French translation, in al-Brn (Debarnot) 1985, pp.
252-255.
The qibla solution from the Tabulae Jahen is summarized in Sams and Mielgo 1994.
Rius 2000.
E.g., see Sams and Mielgo 1994, pp. 15-17.
The passage in Kitb majhlt that addresses this case is redacted in Villuendas 1979, pp. 5455 (Arabic text) and pp. 135-136 (Spanish text). This passage appears on folio 17 (recto) of the
original Arabic manuscript.
Djebbar 2005, p. 122.
For my source, see notes 14-15.
King 1983, p. 540.
Charette 2003, p. 9.
King 1975, p. 82.
King 1975, p. 99.
My translation from the French.
My translation from the French.

35.
36.
37.
38.
39.
40.
41.
42.
43.
44.
45.
46.

King 1975, pp. 110-111.


See, e.g., Hairetdinova 1990, pp. 218-219.
King 1993, p. 115.
Bhskara I (Sastri) 1957, p. LXXXII.
See Garbers 1936, pp. 16-17 (Arabic text) and pp. 42-43 (German text).
King 1975, p. 101 fn. 20.
Van Brummelen 2009, p. 167.
Delambre 1819, p. 17.
King 1975, pp. 101-105, 110-111.
Suzuki 1986.
See Knobloch 2000. Some details can also be found in Knobloch 2002, pp. 280-283.
Sabra 1987, pp. 241-242.

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