The firing of the cannon in the Muslim holy month of Ramadan was to notify worshipers that it was time to break their fast. Although the cannon is still used in many cities in the Arab world, it no longer serves its main purpose but rather is a symbolic tradition.
“The method of firing the cannon was to announce it was iftar time, because at that time there were no watches on hands and clocks in houses,” said Dr. Mohamad Ouedi, professor of Modern Arab History at the Institute of Diplomatic Studies in Saudi Arabia. “Also, modern technology, such as devices that amplify sound, did not exist at the time.”
Fasting during the month of Ramadan is one of Islam’s five pillars. Worshipers must refrain from eating and drinking from dawn until dusk.
The Muezzins in Saudi Arabia would call for prayer from four minarets, each in a different direction – North, South, East and West, said Ouedi, who wrote a book in Arabic entitled “The ruling of Mecca in the era of the Ottomans”. Those responsible for shooting the cannon would observe Mecca and wait for the call, following which they would fire the weapon from a higher region or cliff, he added.
“There weren’t a lot of residents at that time, so the sound would resonate and reach them through the mountains… the [sound] of the cannon would reach most of the city [of Mecca],” said Ouedi, adding the Ramadan cannon is still fired in Saudi Arabia to signal it is time to break the fast in Islam’s holiest city but it is only a matter of “honoring tradition.”
It is not clear when exactly Muslims started using the cannon. Some say it started during the era of the Mamelukes, while others argue that the tradition started during the rule of the Ottomans.
“The tradition started during the Ottoman period because the cannon was not properly created and used until then,” Ouedi said, adding that if in fact cannons were used to signal the end of fast during the era of the Mamelukes, then it must have been at the end of the period.
“I would expect that if [the tradition] were present at the time of the Mamelukes, then it must be at the time when they coexisted with the Ottomans.”
“The Ottomans built and used cannons to conquer Constantinople.”
However, according to professor of Social and Religious Affairs at Egypt’s Al Azhar University Abdel Ghani Hindi, the tradition of the Ramadan cannon was first used during the time of the Mamelukes.
“It started during the time of the Mamelukes and continued into the Ottoman period,” he said without specifying when exactly the tradition began.
But Hindi shed some light on Ramadan traditions before cannons were used, saying that at the time of Prophet Mohammed, Muslims would “observe the shadows.”
“They would observe the shadow of a stick-like object, and in that way, they would be able to tell if it were time for prayer,” he said, adding: “They would also be able to tell [if it was time for Iftar] if they were not able to differentiate between the colors of a white thread and a black one.”
Hindi said that the tradition of the cannon still takes place in Cairo, where they also fire the weapon at sunrise to signal it was time to start the fast.
As for other traditions of Ramadan, such as the lantern, he said that this all falls within the “spirit of the holy month.”
“The lantern, for example, is still used today as one of the symbols of Ramadan. In the old days, it was actually used to light the way for people heading to prayer,” Hindi said.
“Who knows, maybe in the future, we’ll have an electronic cannon [to signal it is time to break the fast].”
The United Arab Emirates used the cannon to announce the time of iftar for the first time in Sharjah under the rule of Sultan Bin Saqr al-Qasimi, who ruled from 1803 until 1866, Director of the Emirates Center for Heritage, History and Culture told Gulf News.
“The exact date when the cannon was introduced is not known, but it is common knowledge that it was used to announce the breaking of the fast at one point during the reign of Shaikh Sultan Bin Saqr,” Al Badi said. He, however, also said that he believed that cannon no longer had “practical reasons” but was a matter of preserving tradition.
“The Ramadan cannon has become symbolic and it is an important aspect of our folklore,” Al Badi told Gulf News.
In this day and age when we can simply download an app on our smartphones to tell us when to break our fast, some may believe that the Ramadan cannon no longer serves a purpose. However, in the Arab world, where people hold on tightly to their traditions, the Ramadan cannon seems to be one that will not be going anywhere.
Dana Moukhallati is a Shift Editor at Al Arabiya English. She tweets @Dana_Mk