Magnetic vs. True North

Answered according to Shafi'i Fiqh by

Answered by Sidi Mostafa Azzam

  Can someone please explain the difference to me with regards to the magnetic north vs. true north. Which direction should one pray? Also, if one is travelling, can one face NE in general w/o searching for true north?

In the Name of Allah, Most Gracious, Most Merciful

In the Name of Allah, Most Merciful and Compassionate

What direction must one face in prayer?

            One must face the Kaaba.  May one face its general direction?  No.  “One must face the practically exact prayer direction” (Immaculate Raiment, 2.17).

What does one use to determine the direction?

            As for determining the practically exact direction, one may use whatever means one wishes that will give it, provided one knows how to use those means. 

Using a Compass

            If one uses a compass, the compass does not help one regarding which way to face; it one helps one find North.  Which north, though?  Magnetic North.  Therefore, when using a compass, one must already know the direction of the Kaaba in relation to Magnetic North. 

Using a Compass Given the Direction of the Kaaba

            Unfortunately, coordinates and directions are conventionally given according to True North, not Magnetic North.  If one says just “north,” the default is that it means “True North,” which is the north on maps and differs a little from Magnetic North.  The direction that one will usually find for the Kaaba means how many degrees one must turn from True North to face it.  Therefore if one wishes to use a compass while having the direction from True North, one must compensate for the difference between True North and Magnetic North. 

Magnetic Variation

            This difference between True North and Magnetic North is called the “magnetic variation.”  So if one has the direction of the Kaaba in relation to True North, one takes that direction and adds to it the magnetic variation: that is the direction that one must face using one’s compass.

Finding Out the Magnetic Variation

            The only program I know of that gives the direction of the Kaaba from Magnetic North is Monzur Ahmed’s Qibla Calc.  Unfortunately, Qibla Calc does not have a database of city names with their coordinates, so one needs to find out the coordinates of one’s location before using Qibla Calc.  One can do so by looking at an atlas.  One can also do so by searching the internet.  Prayer Minder Online has a fairly complete list of the coordinates of various cities; one just enters one’s city’s name, and it gives the city’s coordinates.

And Allah knows best.

Mostafa Azzam
( Amman, Jordan).

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