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Why do we really hear a cannon at the time of iftar?

What comes to your mind upon hearing the word “canon”? I’m sure many of you will associate it with bloodshed, disputes etc. But, did you know that every year in the Holy month of Ramadan the canons are fired without any kind of war or a state of armed conflicts.

The citizen of Bhopal, a capital city of Madhya Pradesh and Ajmer city of Rajasthan see the canon fire every year during this month. This unique tradition can be traced back to the 18th century which was started by the Begum of the princely state of Bhopal. In Ajmer, the Mughals had been rehearsing this tradition which is still in practice.

Despite several centuries have gone by, the residents of these cities proudly practice this distinct culture even today. Various media reports have confirmed that this year, due to the Novel corona virus (covid-19) disease, this 200 years old practice was brought to an end.

The city of Raisen (located 40 miles away from Bhopal) resonated with the sound of canon, both at the time of Suhoor and Iftaar. During Suhoor the sound travelled up to 30 villages away. But the sound reduced during iftaar due to the noise pollution.

The Raisen Muslim festival committee this year sought permission, for canon firing, from the district administration, but were not granted the authority this year due to the lockdown.

This tradition is mostly common in the Indian cities which were ones a part of the princely state. This began in Delhi during the Mughal’s era. Two days prior to Ramadan, the dromedary riders were commanded to go all over, for moon sighting. If they were unable to sight the moon then the nobleman (also known as the Qazi) of that village would have to certify in front of the Emperor.

The emperor then confirmed the news from the ulema and later ordered the canons to be fired to announce the arrival of this sacred month. The canons were fired around 11 times. At times the skies were illuminated with fireworks too. The same was practised to mark the end of Ramadan upon sighting the moon and marking the arrival of Eid-al-fitr.

Gradually this tradition was adopted by many cities including Tonk (a city in Rajasthan), Junagadh (Gujrat), Rampur (Uttar Pradesh), Lucknow (Uttar Pradesh), Hyderabad (Telangana), Bhopal (Madhya Pradesh). The tradition of canon is slowly evolving. Many places fire the firecrackers or play siren. Even today the government officials of many countries encourage to fire canon in order to break their fasts.

In many parts of the world, the canons were fired many times, either from a fort or a hill after moon sighting. Then after the canon were fired daily for 30 days during the evening Iftaar time.

There is no evidence about where and when exact was this tradition established. Many researchers gave their own theories from different parts of the world. Some say that this tradition came from the Ottoman Empire. There are also many stories related to it, majority of which are linked to Egypt. It is said that during the reign of the Mamluk dynasty in Cairo, Egypt, a ruler conducted trial of his newly purchased canon at Maghrib (evening timing) during the month of Ramadan.

The People of that city thought it to be an indication for breaking their fast. Upon hearing this news the king ordered to fire canon during the entire month of Ramadan.
A similar tale is heard. During the beginning of 19th century where another Egyptian ruler, too, tried examining the efficiency of his canon in evening during the month of Ramadan and the people broke their fasts upon hearing the sound.

There was another ruler, Khadive Ismail, during the end of 19th century of Egypt. His soldiers were firing canon during the evening time. When the sound of the canon was heard by Ismail’s daughter Fatima, She requested her father to continue this in Ramadan. Her plea was accepted. Later, canon firing was known by Fatima’s name.

Even today the canon is fired from the Cairo’s Salahuddin fort during Ramadan after which the citizens break their fasts. These Ramadan firing canons, in Arabic is referred to as “Midfa al iftaar” (translation- canons for breaking fasts).

In another instance the ruler of Sharjah, Sultan bin Saqr Al Qasimi, in the early 19th century started the tradition of firing canon during his reign. Even today many cities including Dubai and Abu-Dhabi in the United Arab Emirates practice this unique tradition. All the countries which ones were the part of the Ottoman Empire including Bosnia, and Albania also practice the culture of opening fast after hearing the sound of the canon.

The historic city of Constatinople, located in the present day Turkey also witnesses the canon firing during Ramadan. The Holy cities of Mecca, Medina and Jerusalem resonate with the sound of canon during Ramadan. Amidst the war between Israel and Palestine, the canons are fired during the month of Ramadan, in evening, which is carried under the supervision of two Israeli security personnel in the holy city of Jerusalem.

In Medina, the citizens hear the sounds of canon from Mount Sela and Quba fort. While in Mecca the canons are fired from a mountain under the supervision of the police officials. In a book named ‘The ruling of Mecca in the era of the Ottomans’, Mohamad Ouedi mentions that in the city of Mecca, the Ottomans broke their fasts only after hearing sound of the canon. During those days the canons were fired from a height for the sound to travel as far as possible.

According to them this legacy if firing canon during Ramadan began in the Ottoman Empire as prior to them nobody ever used the canons. This tradition was the first if its kind. Those days there were no watch to keep an account of timings. Therefore the invention of canon firing not aided then to keep track on the time but also helped the sound to travel to longer distances. Therefore the canon served two purposes.

Since the Sultanate Osmania, known as the Ottoman Empire, was spread over three continents, the effect of what he started is still visible today. This is because the Islamic Caliphate of the Turkish Sultans are considered as the religious master for all the Muslims around the world. Even today Egypt, Saudi Arabia, UAE, Kuwait, Tunisia, which were part of Usmani Khilafat, have the custom of keeping and opening Ramadan fasts by firing the cannon shells.

In Beirut, capital of Lebanon, the canon firing was practised since time immemorial. But the use of canon had stopped due to the civil war which took place in the year 1980. Similarly in Afghanistan the sound of the firing canon stopped which ones came from the “sher darwaza mount” located in the capital city of Kabul. This was due the 1979 attack of the Soviet Union.

Furthermore, this tradition has been kept alive in many places in the Indian subcontinent, extending from a remote area of ​​Pakistan to Dhaka of Bangladesh. In Hyderabad, India today this tradition has ended after the TEHZEEB came into being. Not so long ago this city ones echoed with the sound of canon, from the Naubat mountains, informing people the timings of Suhoor and Iftaar.

This article was originally written in Hindi and has been translated by Mohammed Nabil. 

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Md Umar Ashraf

Md. Umar Ashraf is a Delhi based Researcher, who after pursuing a B.Tech (Civil Engineering) started heritagetimes.in to explore, and bring to the world, the less known historical accounts. Mr. Ashraf has been associated with the museums at Red Fort & National Library as a researcher. With a keen interest in Bihar and Muslim politics, Mr. Ashraf has brought out legacies of people like Hakim Kabeeruddin (in whose honour the government recently issued a stamp). Presently, he is pursuing a Masters from AJK Mass Communication Research Centre, JMI & manages heritagetimes.in.