Don’t worry if you miss Mecca

According to research carried out by Indonesia’s highest religious authority, the Ulema Council, Muslims in Indonesia have been praying in the wrong direction for months, facing Somalia when they should have been facing Saudi Arabia. Muslims have been issued with new directions to ensure that when they pray they are facing Mecca, Islam’s holiest site, the direction all Muslims turn to five times a day when they offer their prayers.

I’m sure my Indonesian brothers and sisters feel like they’ve had their prayer mats pulled from under their feet. I can understand how they’ve ended up in this situation; it’s not always easy to locate the qibla (the location of Mecca) when trying to pray. I should know, as over the past eight years I’ve often struggled to find the qibla, flying around the world working as an aid worker trying to suss out which direction to pray in. I really could have done with a Matnav to locate the qibla: “turn right at the wardrobe move your shoulder east of the hotel mini bar … arriving at destination on the right”. In fact, I’m developing a prototype of the Matnav, and the call to prayer is one of the apps you can download on the device along with hotspots to avoid in Europe where niqabs and burkhas are not welcome. I plan to unveil the Matnav on the next series of Dragons’ Den. At times I felt like my chances of accurately locating the qibla were as slim as the England team locating the back of the net during the World Cup. Ok, maybe not that slim.

Over the years I’ve found myself unraveling my prayer mat and praying in a field in Tajikistan — working out the direction of the qibla by following the sun as it sets in the west. I’ve prayed in a women’s prison just outside St Petersburg, Russia, among opened crates of the Russian equivalent of industrial strength Cillit Bang, used to mask the smell of the cabbage soup served in the canteen (it didn’t work) and I’ve prayed harder than I’ve ever prayed in my life while boarding an internal flight from Medan, Indonesia to Banda Aceh one week after the tsunami on Indonesia’s notorious Garuda airlines. The airline allowed me to board with my colleague’s boarding pass. He happened to be a black man with short dreads. It truly was a miracle that we landed in Banda Aceh. The pilot could be heard clapping when he ”landed” the plane.

Many Muslims on the move probably have more chance of wining the jackpot at Mecca Bingo than they have of ensuring they really are facing Mecca when praying. Draconian anti-terrorism measures mean that some Muslims don’t feel comfortable carrying a good old-fashioned compass to locate the qibla, because as we all know a compass is an essential part of any self-respecting terrorist’s tool kit to plot the downfall of the west. These days, carrying a compass can lead to bit of situation.

Ultimately, what matters is the intention of the individual who seeks to submit to the almighty and offer the obligatory prayers five times a day. If you happen to be 100 miles out or a few inches left or right of the qibla, Muslims ask God to forgive then for any mistakes made during prayer and that our prayers are accepted with the sincere intentions in our hearts when we stand, kneel and bow down in prayer.

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