Iftar cannon resound through ages
It has survived the passing of time and changing technology. The firing of the Ramadan cannon, or midfa al iftar, that announces the breaking of the fast is a tradition as endearing as it is enduring.
It is a tradition still practised in most parts of the Muslim world, including the UAE. The cannon is first fired to herald the beginning of the holy month, and then each day to announce the breaking of the fast at the sunset prayers of maghrib.
The blast is an echo of simpler times, before most people owned a clock or watch and there were no loudspeakers or TV channels to announce maghrib. But in an age of iPhones and prayer applications, the Ramadan cannon remains as popular as ever.
Its origins are uncertain. Some historians believe the custom dates back as far as 10th century Egypt, when one of the Fatimid caliphs ordered a cannon be placed on Cairo's Muqatam Hill so all Muslims would hear the signal to break their fasts.
A more popular story is that it began about two centuries ago in the rule of the Mamluk Wali, Khosh Qadam.
It was said the Wali was given a cannon and that his soldiers tested it by firing it one sunset. By coincidence, this happened at the end of the day's fasting in Ramadan.
When the people of Cairo heard the boom they took it as sign they could end their fast, and were so thrilled with the idea that they thronged to the palace to congratulate the sultan.
Seeing an opportunity to endear her father to the people, his daughter Hajja Fatimah urged him to fire the cannon every day for iftar.
He agreed and the tradition of midfa al iftar was born, with the local nickname Hajja Fatimah.
To this day, a cannon is placed on the plateau of Muqatam near the Citadel to announce iftar.
The custom was first observed locally in Sharjah and later in the other emirates except for Abu Dhabi.
Abdul Aziz Al Mussalam, director of the heritage division at Sharjah Department of Culture, said Sheikh Sultan bin Saqr Al Qasimi introduced the tradition to Sharjah during his reign, between 1924 and 1950.
"There used to be four midfa iftar in the emirate, one in the old Sharjah fort and the other three were in placed in front of forts in Kalba, Khor Fakkan and Dhaid," says Mr Al Mussalam.
"These cannon would fire three times to announce the advent of Ramadan and Eid. As for the Bedus or those who lived far from the towns, rifles were shot to alert them of the event."
He says that while Sharjah was the first emirate to introduce electricity, mosques were still not equipped with loudspeakers until the 1970s.
"The imam had to climb the minaret and call the adhan, and in most cases his voice would not carry very far. So the cannon was invaluable to announce the breaking of the fast."
The practice of firing cannon was discontinued in Sharjah in the 1980s but reintroduced in 1995.
Today Sharjah Police are in charge of the tradition, held with great fanfare at Al Majaz waterfront, one of nine locations where cannon are taken each day.
The firing is covered by a special TV programme and police distribute food to spectators to break their fast.
In Dubai the cannon was introduced by Sheikh Rashid bin Saeed, the late Ruler of Dubai, in the early 1960s. The task of firing the guns was entrusted to Dubai Police and it has remained under their supervision to this day.
After joining the force as a recruit in 1975, Maj Gen Abdul Rahman Rafiee was entrusted with firing the iftar cannon.
Now the director of the community affairs department, Gen Rafiee laughs when he remembers the first time he fired the cannon.
"When we fired our first shot the sound was so scary that we all ran for cover," he says.
In the early days only two cannon were used. One was placed in front of Al Ras area in Deira, near the public library, and the other in Zaabeel. The cannon were very old, relics from the First World War.
"The cannon were made in 1917 and they created such a loud bang that the whole of Dubai would hear it," Gen Rafiee says. "Kids in particular were enamoured of the cannon.
"When we moved into position we would find so many of them eagerly waiting for us and it was quite a task to keep them away."
The cannon-firing team were ready at the their positions two days before the expected start of Ramadan, waiting for the moon to be sighted.
"After that, the Ruler of Dubai would order the cannon to be fired to herald the holy month," Gen Rafiee says. "Later during the month we would be on standby to announce Eid Al Fitr and would also fire the cannon after the Eid prayers."
The old guns caused a lot of problems for the team.
"We had to tow one of the cannon from Bur Dubai where it was stored, to Al Ras through Al Maktoum Bridge," he says. "Because it was so old, one of its wheels got loose and we nearly ended up dumped in the sea."
So in 1980, Dubai Police decided to replace the old cannon with newer models.
"It was very difficult to find any spare parts for them and the blank shells we used were no longer being produced. These cannon now stand proudly in front of Dubai Police Museum."
Today the police use sound cannons, made in the UK in 1945, says Maj Mohammed bin Mussabah from the Armory division of Dubai Police.
"The cannon fire blank shells that have the power of 170 decibels and can be heard from 10 kilometres away," Maj Bin Mussabah says. "As the city grew, the number of cannon was increased to four.
They are now positioned in the Musalla Deira area, Musalla Karama, outside gate four at Al Safa Park and in front of Burj Khalifa.
This year police decided to move the cannon from Al Ras area to Burj Khalifa and the ritual of firing it has already become a tourist attraction, said Maj bin Mussabah.
For Gen Al Rafiee, and older Emiratis, the midfa al iftar reminds them of simpler times, while for the younger generation the cannon's roar is a living testament of their past.
Updated: July 17, 2013 04:00 AM