How did the Ramadan lantern become a symbol of the holy month?

The Fanous has become a worldwide symbol that represents the holy month. (File photo: AP)

Let the Ramadan festivities begin!

As Ramadan knocks on the door, cities worldwide light up and prepare for the month of fasting.

Late night malls, hotels, and offices are decorated with beautiful colorful lanterns - known as fanous in Arabic - range in size and shape.

In parts of the world, such as Egypt, the lanterns illuminate streets in a sea of color, creating a beautiful and magical atmosphere.

The Fanous has become a worldwide symbol that represents the holy month.

When you think of Ramadan, it conjures visions of young children running around and singing old Ramadan songs in the crowded streets of Cairo holding colorful lanterns alongside dried fruit carts.

But why the colorful lanterns? What do they signify for the holy month of Ramadan?

According to Dr Nasif Kayed, managing director of the Sheikh Mohammed Centre for Cultural Understanding, the concept of the lanterns originated in ancient Egypt.

He explained: “Stories state that in 358 AH during the Fatimid dynasty, when Caliphate Al-Muʿizz li-Dīn Allah arrived the first day of Ramadan, the people and children of Egypt went outside to greet him holding their lanterns."

“Before that, lanterns were just used to walk around at night, and to walk to the mosque. But when the Caliph came, the whole community went to welcome him with their lanterns. Since then it became that the month of Ramadan is more beautiful with lit up lanterns everywhere.”

There are many differing views behind the origins of the lantern.

Some argue that the concept of the fanous in Ramadan dates back to when the young children of Cairo used to carry their lanterns to light up the road for the Caliph as he strolled around the city.

Egyptian website Ahram online wrote: “At one point, Fatimid rulers issued a law requiring shop and house owners to clean the streets in front of their property and hang a lantern on their doors all night."

“Then Caliph al-Hakim (996-1021) ordered women not to leave their houses at night unless accompanied by a boy carrying a lantern. He also ordered lanterns to be hung at entrances of the haras (neighborhoods) and imposed penalties on those who failed to do so. This led to a boom in the lantern business and to the appearance of many new shapes and sizes,”

“Women used to stay up late in Ramadan, usually gathering around an older, female story-teller. On their way home, a servant would lead the way carrying a big brass oil lantern. Policemen were also told to carry lanterns during their nightly patrols.”

In modern day, with the availability of electricity and technology, lanterns are not really needed as a source of light. Instead, the fanous is used as decoration for popular Ramadan tents, gatherings, and city streets to create a more festive environment that is in tune with the holy month.

So are Ramadan lanterns a cultural or religious symbol? Symbols depicting religious holidays can sometimes be mistaken as religious rather than cultural or traditional.

Dr Nasif said: “I just think it’s important to draw a line between religious and cultural representation. In [the Islamic] religion there are no symbols, not even the crescent or the moon. For example the decorated tree is not a symbol of Christmas, but an addition to the festivities of Christmas.”

Meanwhile generations of Muslim will continue to hold on to the traditions and light up their fanous welcoming the holy month of Ramadan.


(Additional reporting Leila Alwan)

Last Update: 11:57 KSA 14:57 - GMT 11:57