Ramadan cannon: The history behind a cultural phenomenon

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The Ramadan cannon is an integral part of the rich fabric which constitutes Islamic culture in Middle Eastern society. This tradition is cherished by many Islamic countries across the Arab world. In some areas, the task is taken up by military personnel who are tasked with firing the cannon at sunset sharp, signaling the moment when Muslims may break their fast during Ramadan.

Ramadan cannon

This enduring ritual became a unique characteristic distinguishing Ramadan in the region. During the holy month, Muslim families gather right before sunset awaiting the cannon’s boom as they enthusiastically prepare iftar. Children often cheer “Iftar cannon, fire!” before and after the cannon sounds; a phrase that is music to the ears of everybody, especially kids. Children also set off fireworks before sunset in order to reenact the sounds of the cannon, a phenomenon which has traveled into many Egyptian homes and created a popular ritual in the country.

Old Ramadan cannon

Origins

History shows that Muslims during the Prophet’s time used to eat and drink from sunset until bedtime. When they started using the call to prayer (adhan), the Prophet’s companions Belal and Ibn Maktoum excelled in performing the ritual as it became their guide in announcing the start of iftar during Ramadan.

Though many Muslims racked their brains attempting to invent different methods to announce the moment to break fast besides the adhan, their efforts were in vain.

Haja Fatma’s iftar cannon

A tale from history suggests that Cairo witnessed the first firing of the Ramadan cannon. At the sunset of the first day of Ramadan in 865 AH, Mamluk Sultan Khashqdem wanted to test a new cannon. He fired the cannon accidentally at exactly the time of sunset giving people the impression that the sultan did this on purpose in order alert worshipers to iftar. Masses of people went to the sultan’s headquarters to thank him for this successful innovation. When the sultan saw their happiness, he is said to have decided on continuing to fire the cannon at sunset. It is also said that he had subsequently decided to fire it at suhour (the last meal you eat before fasting during Ramadan) and imsak (abstinence from suhour).

Haja Fatma’s iftar cannon

Another story says that mere coincidence led to the emergence of the Ramadan cannon and that there was no intention to use it this way at all. It is said that during the time of Khedive Ismael, some soldiers were cleaning one of the cannons and they fired it by mistake at sunset on a day during Ramadan. People thought the government was following a new tradition to announce iftar, making it the talk of the town. Supposedly, Khedive Ismael’s daughter, Haja Fatma, learned about this incident. She was famous for her love of charity and science, and is known for having donated her land to establish Cairo University. Fatma liked the Ramadan cannon idea and issued a royal decree to use it at iftar and imsak along with other official holidays.

The Ramadan cannon was firing live ammunition until 1859 AD when a switch was made to use blank ammunition due to urban expansion in the castle’s surrounding areas.

At the beginning of the 1980’s, Egyptian authorities decided to fire the cannon from Saladin citadel at iftar and suhour during the entire month of Ramadan. However, at the start of 1990’s, the Egyptian Antiquities Authority asked the interior ministry to stop firing it there for fear of damaging the place, which is considered an open Islamic museum. Until today, Egyptians hear the sound of the Ramadan cannon on radios and TV channels. It is regarded as a genuine Ramadan legacy and a time-honoured tradition.

The Ramadan cannon

Traversing borders

Since Cairo was considered the beacon of light among Arab world capitals and the favourite destination for orientalists and travellers, the idea of the Ramadan cannon spread from the Egyptian capital to other Islamic countries. The innovative idea traveled to Jerusalem, Damascus, and then Baghdad at the beginning of the 19th century. It moved from Baghdad to Kuwait wherein the first cannon in the country’s capital was setup during the reign of Sheikh Mubarak Al-Sabah in 1907. It also reached other Gulf States, before oil extraction began, and then moved to Yemen, Sudan and sub-Saharan states in Africa. Later, the Ramadan cannon reached the Far East, and the idea was implemented in Indonesia in 1944.

Ramadan cannon in a Gulf country

The moment of firing the cannon of Ramadan, Sheikh Zayed Mosque.