As we move into the Holy month, this is a time to remember all the important lessons that Allah (SWT) has for us at this time, lessons about self-control, charity, submission, and obedience. Ramadan is also a time for a reflection on our place in the world and a chance to gain a broader perspective.
As Muslims, we are all part of a global community of over one billion souls, with prayer times spanning across every time zone and devotions said in countless languages. When we reflect thusly, it is tempting to first think of ourselves as small or even insignificant, but in reality, we should be joyous, knowing that as we partake in the practices and rituals that our particular community links to the Holy month, we are sharing just one note of a symphony that plays out across the world.
To help gain some perspective on that symphony, and perhaps offer insight into some of the other sections of the tune playing out elsewhere, consider the following four objects from around the world that all play a vital role in Ramadan celebrations elsewhere.
All across the Middle East, in countries such as Lebanon, Egypt, and the United Arab Emirates, Ramadan each year is considered incomplete without the firing of a ceremonial cannon.
Known as Midfa al Iftar, debate among historians centres around whether this practice started in the tenth or nineteenth century of the common era. In both cases, though, it is agreed that it began in Cairo. A cannon is fired as the sun falls below the horizon to signal the end of the day's fast, and that it is time for Iftar.
Even in an era where the exact time is but a glance of a smartphone screen away, and the moment of sunset can be known for weeks in advance down to the millisecond, this tradition is still extremely popular, persisting to this day.
For Muslims in many countries, especially Egypt, hanging the Fanous lantern has become a symbol that represents everything that is good and joyous about the Holy month. The exact shape and size of a Fanous lantern can vary, but in general, they are very colourful and eye-catching.
Once again, the origins of this tradition are lost to history. Some historians think that it comes from the Fatimid dynasty in Egypt, where the children of the city would all come rushing to visit when the Caliph came to visit on the first day of Ramadan, carrying lanterns.
Others trace its origins to laws that Fatimid rulers passed saying that shop owners and housekeepers were all required to hang lanterns outside their property every night. Later, these laws went further, stipulating that women could not leave their houses at night unless they were accompanied by a boy carrying a lantern. Lanterns were required at the intersection roads of neighbourhoods, and strict penalties were enforced upon any community that failed to obey. Naturally, this all produced a dramatic boom in the lantern making industry, and with their new found wealth, lantern craftsmen came up with newer, more elaborate, and more colourful designs.
With the arrival of Ramadan each year, women would stay up late, often gathering around an older female teller of tales, each accompanied by a child wielding a lantern. With all this extra activity, there were more people in the street, meaning the need for more nightwatchmen, who were also all wielding lanterns.
Even though modern technology offers many more efficient alternatives, lanterns remain a staple of the Egyptian Ramadan tradition, as well as in many other countries in the Muslim world.
In the United Arab Emirates this tradition is called Hag al Laila. In Kuwait, it is called Gerga’aan. The latter happens two weeks into Ramadan, while the former happens a month beforehand. The major commonality between the two is the involvement of children, neighbourhood front doors, and sweets.
In the UAE, children are encouraged to knock on their neighbour's doors and say the words “Atoona Hag Al Laila” which means “give us sweets for tonight”. The children's families will then share important Quranic stories and accounts with them, all in an effort to explain why Ramadan is an important time of year.
In Kuwait, children dress in traditional garb, ring bells and knock on the doors, parade their costumes, and sing important holy songs in exchange for candies, chocolates, and other sweet treats. The origins of this practice are not certain, but some think it is linked to the Prophet’s daughter Fatima, who was known to have travelled around her home town handing out sweets during the first ever Ramadan. These days, many Muslims see these traditions as an important means of providing young children with fond memories of a righteous time to hold close to their hearts in the future.
One of the most important aspects of Ramadan is the need to get up early. When fasting through the daylight hours, any possibility of missing suhoor could mean going very hungry and tired throughout the day. In Morocco and Turkey, people have come up with impressive community-driven solutions to this problem.
Moroccan towns and villages will designate a particularly community-minded individual with the title Nafar. Early in the morning, before the sun has come up, they will stride up and down the highways and byways, adorned in a gandora, slippers and a hat, blowing an enormous horn to wake everyone up for suhoor. Sometimes, they will also be accompanied by a Tebbal - someone playing the drums.
Turkish traditional marching drummers date back to the beginnings of the Ottoman Empire. During Ramadan, thousands of dedicated people will gather up their traditional Ottoman imperial garb, which includes a fez and an ornately decorated vest, and march through the streets of towns and villages banging a huge double-headed davul drum.
These traditions supposedly date back to Bilal Ibn Rabbah, a close companion of the Prophet, who was said to have walked the streets singing songs during the first Ramadan. Everyone woke in time for suhoor because he had such a booming and beautiful voice.
As Ramadan arrives, and we perform our own personal rituals, alongside those of the wider community, think upon the Ummah and the great and beautiful thing that is its utter and complete diversity.
Thank Allah (SWT) for this gift and our ability to bring our own small contribution towards it. As you think on these communities, think on the ways you can help them carry these traditions on into the future, and even let new traditions form. At this time, when Zakat brings such contributions to the forefront of everyone's mind, consider giving your divine contribution through Muslim Aid and help to bring about a rewarding, blessed Ramadan for all.