Explanation of Great Circle Directions

While prescribing turning to the Qiblih for the Obligatory Prayers, Bahá'u'lláh also draws upon a statement from the Qur'an in addressing our physical orientation for other prayers:

`To God belong the East and the West; whithersoever ye turn there is the presence of God. For God is All Pervading, All Knowing.' [2:115]

Since He draws a distinction between the two types of prayer, it seems that we really ought to give a bit more thought to the specific orientation for Obligatory Prayers.

For those who live a long way from Bahjí it is almost always a great shock when they first learn how counterintuitive the true Qiblih direction is from their location. The immediate reaction is usually to reject the information as being either nonsensical or irrelevant. People would much rather turn toward a direction which, to them, feels like where Bahjí should be, than to modify their deep-seated beliefs about what direction actually means on a spherical planet. The result is that Bahá'ís, over most of the world, effectively are turning in random directions when they pray.

All of this confusion stems from a nearly universal use of flat, Mercator-like map projections of the world. For all practical purposes, five hundred years after Columbus, most people still perceive the world as flat. Just a few minutes with a globe and a piece of string can easily disabuse a person of these naive notions of direction. Merely by placing the string on the globe so that it touches the origin and destination of the route, and then tightening the string so that there is no slack, while keeping it touching the origin and destination points, will illustrate quickly the shortest route between the two points. Few of us ever feel moved to try this--the experiment requires a little bit of our time to hunt down a globe and a piece of string, and is therefore inconvenient.

The first point to realize is that compass directions have only local relevance. When an airliner flies from Chicago to London, the pilot does not just set a compass direction and maintain it until the arrival at the destination. In flying directly to London, the direction which the compass shows will change continuously along the entire route. The airliner could fly along a constant compass direction, but it would take it far out of its way, and would burn a great deal more fuel. Over short distances the difference is small, but over thousands of miles it costs a lot of money to fly so far off the shortest intended course.

A flight path with a constant compass direction is called a rhumb line. This is the type of path that most people imagine when they attempt to turn themselves toward the Qiblih. Plotted on a flat Mercator map, a rhumb line looks straight, but when plotted on a globe, the rhumb line is decidedly curved.

It is clear that one may take an infinite number of paths between any two points on the globe and reach the intended destination, but if one is going to maintain the same sense of direction to the Qiblih which is experienced by someone who is within sight of the structure, one can do so only by following what is called a great-circle path. On the surface of a globe, the shortest (direct) distance between two points is along the great-circle route. The initial (local) compass direction of this route is the same as the straight line direction through the earth between the two points. In fact, the great-circle route is just the geometric intersection of the plane, which passes through the origin and destination points and the point at the center of the Earth, with the sphere of the Earth.

To quickly see how faulty our naive perception of direction is, imagine that there is a circle of people around the shrine of Bahá'u'lláh, with everyone facing the shrine. Now, imagine all the people begin to back up.

Concentrate on the individual who is facing directly south. That person is walking backwards directly north. Just before he reaches the North Pole he is still facing south. As soon as he passes beyond the North Pole he is facing north, even though he is still facing in exactly the same direction with respect to Bahjí.

The same thing happens to all of the other people circled around the shrine. They remain pointed in exactly the same direction with respect to Bahjí, but their compass direction changes continuously as they get farther and farther away.

Again, the easiest way to begin to visualize these things is to look at a globe. If you don't have a globe, you might pay a visit to your public library which probably does have one. If not, you can take a felt-tipped pen and draw yourself one on an orange, a ball of clay, or whatever. Our faulty intuitions can be retrained with just a little effort.

While many Bahá'ís may see this exercise (as well as this web page) as trifling or inconsequential, this perspective might be veiling them from a grand global metaphor latent within this law. Just as a compass needle is drawn to align itself with the magnetic poles of the Earth, when once Bahá'ís throughout the world fully comprehend the Earth as a sphere, they will be able consciously to turn themselves, in prayer, toward the direction of Bahjí, the Earth's spiritual pole. We will then be able to witness, in our mind's eye, a global, never-ending choreography of people around the world, throughout the 24-hour day, turning themselves in prayer toward Bahjí. With our current flat-Earth approach to the Qiblih, all we can visualize is chaos as people point themselves in effectively random directions in accord only with their own imaginations.

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