Islamic Controversies Down Under

"In the face of severe challenges to their survival and well-being, Muslims, everywhere on the globe, get entangled on non-issues against each other"

Islamic Controversies Down Under

I am a frequent traveler to a small town called Griffith in New South Wales, Australia, where my daughter resides with her family. Irrigated by the canals drawing waters from the Murrumbidgee River, Griffith, along with its nearby sister-city of Leeton, is a very productive agricultural area, producing copious amounts of grains and fruits. It has vast fields growing rice, wheat, cotton, oranges, grapes, almonds and many other grains and fruits. There are large cattle and sheep farms as well as a huge chicken-processing factory. The labour-intensive farm-work attracts a considerable number of workers; including Muslims from Pakistan, Malaysia, Indonesia, Afghanistan, Egypt, Morocco, Turkey and a few other nations. Griffith is a microcosm of the Muslim world.  

As during my previous visits to the town, I go for my Friday prayers to a local mosque. This is the only mosque in the area and a gift to the community by a Pakistani farmer. The late Mr Ikram Riaz (d 2019) came to the area about two decades ago. Having worked as a farm hand, he eventually bought a large piece of agricultural land comprising a few thousand acres. He was a religious man and absence of a mosque irked him. He bought a medium sized store in the town and converted it to a mosque that can accommodate 200 people in the main hall, 10 women in a side room and another 50 worshippers in the open courtyard. A retired Egyptian medical doctor, who is an Al-Azhar University graduate, serves as the Imam of the mosque. He used to work in the same hospital where this author’s son in law worked and we became friends. During my previous visits, he would insist on taking me to the mosque for the Friday prayers; a practice that he continues during this visit too.

The mosque is also the place where the traditional Muslim propensity for quarrels over religious beliefs is practiced with vigour.

The first such question of dissent rose on the issue of sighting the moon. The Ulema Council of Australia (yes, a body for Islamic religious matters exists here) headed by a Grand Mufti consists largely of imams of different areas They are mostly of Arab origin and go along with the lunar dates practiced in Saudi Arabia. As mentioned above, the Imam in Griffith mosque is an Egyptian Arab whose ideas about moonsighting match with those of the management of the mosque and the Ulema Council. They start Ramadan with the dates proposed by the Ulema Council, but a sizeable number of Muslims from India, Pakistan, Malaysia and Indonesia prefer to follow the declarations in their own country, which is a day later. While it may not seem to be a serious issue, it offers difficulties in practice. The days of odd nights in the last ten days, for instance, get mixed up. There emerge two nights for Laylat-ul-Qadr. There was once a big issue for the day of Eid but now the mosque is only open for the Eid as declared by the Ulema Council.

Had there been two mosques in this city, these issues could have been settled but the local civic authorities have refused to allow another mosque, considering that the low number of Muslims in the town doesn’t justify that. Even the very small Shia community was denied permission for a separate mosque, when the committee for the existing mosque, all Ahl-as-Sunnah of course, agreed to let the Shias hold their prayers separately in the same venue. Now, in theory, the mosque is open to all sects but in practice it is frequented by the Ahl-as-Sunnah only.

The Egyptian Imam delivers the Juma khutba in the English language. He brings in a handwritten text, divides it into two parts and reads them out in the two khutbas. While the Arab worshippers accept khutba in English as a matter of necessity, those from Pakistan and India regard it as heresy. This author has travelled and lived all over Pakistan from Gilgit, Skardu and Swat to Pasni and Badin but has never heard the khutba in any language other than Arabic. When objections were raised, the Imam explained that although there is a difference of opinion on this between the four schools of Islamic jurisprudence, it is considered appropriate that khutba be delivered in the language understood by the worshippers, which in the case of Australia would naturally be English. He informed that the Ulema Council of Saudi Arabia also supports this understanding. Finally, the issue was settled in favour of English but new worshippers always display unpleasant surprise.

During my last visit four years ago, some Malaysians came to the Imam with their Qibla Apps on their smart phones and pointed out that the Qibla of the mosque was misaligned, and that it needs to be turned left by thirty degrees. This question had not been raised during the previous five years of the mosque’s existence. The Imam tried to explain that it didn’t really matter as long as the general direction, along the west-facing wall, was correct. The objectors were not satisfied and called for a formal meeting. The imam requested me to accompany him to settle this great issue.

I did some research and found that in the initial days of Islam, Qibla direction didn’t worry much the Muslims, who established mosques as far as west Africa, Central Asia, China, Indo-China and the Indian peninsula. In late 19th century, Ahmad Dahlan, from Java in Indonesia, travelled to Makkah and became involved with the Islamic revivalist movement known as Wahabism. In Hijaz, he had learnt astronomy and, on return, found that most of the mosques in Indonesia faced due west instead of northwest in the correct direction of 291°-295°, depending upon their location. To his disgust, he found that Kauman Great Mosque, the great Javanese mosque built in the 1770s, too was off from the Qibla direction by over 20 degrees. He tried to have it reoriented but was rebuffed. He then built a new mosque with the correct Qibla direction – which was burned by his opponents. However, with his later success with his Muhammadiyah movement (roughly equivalent to Pakistani Jamaat-i-Islami), he was able to reorient the Kauman mosque. Unknown to the local Imam in Griffith, the Malaysians and Indonesians now objecting to the Griffith mosque were followers of the Muhammadiyah.

Qibla direction poses some other problems too. If one opens up google-map and draws a line from around the Great Lakes area in US and Canada, or from further up north, to Makkah, the trajectory would follow a great circle in a northerly or northeasterly direction, across over the polar region and descend to the Holy Mosque. It implies that the Qibla is to the northeast, whereas conventional wisdom would suggest the direction to be the southeast. In any case, from anywhere on the spherical Earth, there would be two opposite directed lines to Makkah; one shorter than the other but both correctly aligned. On the 141.5°W longitude, which is the directly opposite meridian of the one passing through Makkah, and equidistant to the Haram from either opposite direction, both westerly and easterly directions would be legitimate. This longitude, incidentally is very near the border between Alaska, USA and Yukon, Canada.

During the research, it became apparent that most of the mosques built before the 20th century were misaligned. In the mosque meeting, it was explained that because of various methods used to determine Qibla direction, not all mosques are aligned with Kaaba. In Cairo, the correct direction for Qibla is 135° but older mosques have used 90°, 117°, 127°, 141°, 156°, 180°, and 204°. In Samarkand, the mosques have directions of 180°, 225°, 230°, 240°, and 270°. The great mosque of Kairouan in Tunisia, built in 670 AD, faces 147°, whereas the correct direction should be 110° to 113°; a direction that none of the mosques in that city follow. According to Saudi authorities, in Makkah itself, some 200 mosques are misaligned. None of these cities have seen objections in this regard. The Imam tried to explain the doctrine of jihat al-ka'bah, which means that the Qibla direction is acceptable as long as the general direction is correct.

However, all these historical and doctrinal arguments offered by the graduate of Al-Azhar, and augmented by those of an Air Force veteran with satellite imagery expertise, fell flat to the minds of the orange pickers. They threatened to boycott the mosque. They also got backing from some Pakistani farmworkers. Consequentially, as has happened so often in the history of Islam, the voices of logic gave way to the dogmatic views. The prayers lines, that had been perfectly aligned along the western wall, are now skewed by about ten degrees.

It is unfortunate that in the face of severe challenges to their survival and well-being, Muslims, everywhere on the globe, get entangled on non-issues against each other. Instead of focusing on education and technology, they are attracted to mutually destructive and unfruitful, doctrinaire and procedural issues. This author is also pleasantly surprised that the great defenders of faith in Pakistan, who exploit every known controversy, have not caught up with this issue, as many of the mosques in our country too would be following a general rather than the exact Qibla direction.

I also hope that they do not read this piece!

Parvez Mahmood retired as a Group Captain from the Pakistan Air Force (PAF) and is now a software engineer. He lives in Islamabad and writes on social and historical issues. He can be reached at: