Ramadan in Art and Literature: From Ramazaniye to Ramy
The observance of Ramadan marks a significant time in the calendars of Muslims around the world who welcome it as a month of increased worship and re-orientation towards the human being’s true purpose. However, throughout history this month has held a certain cultural significance too and part of this has been documented and celebrated in works of art and literature. What follows are examples of “Ramadan as subject”, featured in creative works spanning thousands of years and thousands of miles.
The Fanoos (969)
The fanoos, which is the Arabic for lantern, is now commonly used as a decorative item during Ramadan across the Middle East. It also appears in countless greeting cards and adverts for the month. There are many stories seeking to explain the origin of the fanoos as a symbol of Ramadan, but they all point to Cairo. The most popular theory begins in the year 358 AH (or 969 AD) when the people of Cairo were expecting the arrival of al-Mu’izz li-Din Allah al-Fatimy during the night. To ensure an illuminated entrance for the ruler, the people were ordered to light the path by holding candles and lanterns. When the ruler arrived and walked through the town admiring the beauty and design of the lanterns, he told the people to light them every night.
Another tale describes how the people of Cairo would accompany their ruler to the Mokattam hill for the sighting of the moon. They would pass through the old gates of Cairo: Bad el-Nasr, Bab el-Fetouh and Bad el-Dahab and along the way children would joyfully hold the fanoos and sing songs welcoming the start of Ramadan.
Perhaps the most curious origin story begins in the 10th century in which the ruler deprived women from leaving their homes for the entire year. An exception was made during Ramadan when women were allowed to attend prayers and visit relatives and neighbours after sunset. A condition was attached, women could only move around if accompanied by boys carrying the fanoos to light their way and to notify men that a woman was passing through.
Over time the Egyptian fanoos spread across the region and became a Ramadan tradition in many other cities, most notably in Damascus, Aleppo and Jerusalem. But the tradition remains strong in Cairo and the foonas industry is situated in the Taht ElRab, close to Al-Azhar.
The Travels of Ibn Jubayr (1182)
While the obligatory aspects of Ramadan are well-known, the month is celebrated differently throughout the world. These peculiarities and differences were documented by travelers and one such example is Ibn Jubayr, the famous traveler from Al-Andalus who was born into a noble family from Valencia in 1145.
Ibn Jubayr was in Mecca during Ramadan and described suhoor: a muezzin was assigned to remind people about the time of suhoor and would start to supplicate, signaling that people should have their pre-dawn meal. Ibn Jubayr further describes how lamps were lit for people that lived a distance from the Sacred Mosque and could not hear the muezzin. During the time of suhoor, two lamps would be lit and raised, then lowered and extinguished before the calling of the adhaan.
Furthermore, Ibn Jubayr describes how during taraweeh, candles and lanterns were sent to the haram by merchants and were lit until the entire mosque was brightened and shining with light.
“Procession at the end of Ramadan” from The Maqamat (1236)
The Maqamat is an Arabic collection of 50 anecdotes and stories written in a mix of verse and literary prose by al-Hariri al-Basri (1054 – 1122). Describing his work, al-Hariri wrote that it was filled with “Language, serious and light, jewels of eloquence, verses from the Qur’an, choice metaphors, Arab proverbs, grammatical riddles, double meanings of words, discourses, orations and entertaining jests.”
During al-Hariri’s lifetime, his text which is regarded as one the highest forms of the Arabic language, was not illustrated. However, by the 13th century, illustrated editions began to appear most notably the edition from 1236. This edition was illustrated by al-Wasiti, a painter and calligrapher from Baghdad. Not only does it contain a miniature entitled “Procession at the end of Ramadan”, this particular manuscript was also completed in Ramadan.
Ramazaniye (15th – 18th century)
In Ottoman social life beginning in the 15th century, divan poets began using Ramadan as the subject of poetry known as Ramazaniye. They would be presented to the sultans, viziers and rulers during the month by poets such as Endernûnlu Fâzil and this literary form had become widespread by the 18th century. Concepts such as iftar, suhoor, fasting, oil lamps and Eid are discussed in their religious, cultural and folkloric aspects. Furthermore, it has been suggested by scholars such as Hulusi Eren, that the Ramazaniye composed by 18th century poet Nedîm, is significant for its reflection on the social life and social structures of the time.
Divan of Hafez (1527)
The Divan of the 14th century Persian poet Hafez is well known and contains ghazals (sonnet-like verses), ruba’is (quatrains), qasidas (odes) and qit’as (fragments).
By the 16th century, however, copies of the Divan began to contain illustrations. Amongst the most celebrated is the copy which includes a miniature by painter Soltan-Muhammad Iraqi depicting a meal being served and prayers being recited upon the sighting of the new moon ahead of the Eid ul-Fitr.
Mughal Miniature (1610)
This miniature painting depicts Emperor Jahangir attending the Eid prayer at the mosque of Ajmer with his son Prince Khurram (later Emperor Shah Jahan).
Miss Tully’s Letters from Tripoli (1783)
While the accounts of Ramadan recorded by Muslim travelers are far more authoritative, there are some interesting observations found in travelogues and letters authored by non-Muslims. One such example are the letters from Miss Tully who was the sister in the law of of the British Consul in Tripoli and who had access to the Bashaw/Pasha and his family.
She describes Ramadan in June 1783,
“During the whole of this fast the true Mussulmans taste nothing from sun-rise till sun-set. A guard is appointed merely for the purpose of passing through every part of the city at dawn of day, which is the hour when the Moors announce their adan, or first prayers. This guard warns the people in time, to make a hot meal before sun-rise, that they may be enabled to wait for food till sun-set. The people are summoned by a most uncouth noise made by this guard, who carries with him a tin vessel or box, with pieces of loose iron it it…
Those who can, sleep the greatest part of the day; but the Bey and the rest of the Bashaw’s sons divert themselves in riding out on the sands, almost every day during the Ramadan. After several hours hard racing they retire to lazero, or afternoon prayer, to one of the Bashaw’s palaces out of town, and undressing themselves bathe in a Gebbia (a large reservoir of spring water in the garden, shaded with mulberry trees). This is all the refreshment they take in the most violent heats. They never fail to be in town by sun-set, the hour of breaking the fast.”
Miss Tully also gives some details on the Beiram or Eid ul-Fitr,
“During the feast, every night all the mosques are illuminated. The town not being otherwise lighted, but totally dark, shews to great advantage, the bright glare for several rows of lamps around the top of each high mosque. The coffee bazar, I before mentioned, is illuminated from one end to the other, during every night of the feast, till after one or two o’clock in the morning. We walked in it one evening during the Beiram, till after twelve o’clock; it was, on each side, crowded with the first people in the place, most of them richly dressed. The perfumes of amber, orange flowers, and jessamine, were much too strong to be agreeable. From the immense quantity of lamps the whole place as was light as during the day. After they have broken the fast at sun-set the great Moors all assemble here for recreation, to talk of the news of the day, and to drink coffee.”
The Mahya Lights (1854)
In 1854, the French writer Theophile Gautier described what he saw from his hotel in Beyoglu, Istanbul:
“On the other side of the Golden Horn, Constantinople glows and sparkles, like the crown of carbuncles of an oriental emperor. The minarets blaze with rows of lamps from all their galleries; and from spire to spire run, in fiery letters, verses of the Kuran, written upon the azure as on the pages of a Divine book.”
Guatier had witnessed the Ottoman Ramadan tradition of mahya lights – lights strung between a mosque’s minarets depicting flowers, fountains, Allah’s Names, phrases from the Quran and messages such as “Welcome Ramadan”. In addition to providing a spiritual message, the mahya lamps also illuminated the Istanbul streets for people eating and socializing after iftar.
Some claim that the tradition began in 1616 when Hafiz Ahmet Kefevi, a calligrapher and imam’s assistant at the Fatih Mosque, hung the first mahya between two minarets of the Blue Mosque. Initially oil-lit, today mosques in Istanbul use LED lights to continue the tradition and there are five master electricians who install and maintain the mahya lights for the five main mosques of Istanbul.
Paintings by Azim Azimzade (1930s)
“Ramadan in the House of Varli” or “Ramadan of the Rich People” (1932) is a painting by Azim Azimzade (1880 – 1943), an artist and caricaturist from Azerbaijan. Azimzade was self-taught and began his career in 1906 producing works that comment on social contradictions and customs in Azerbaijan. Though his work largely contained negative images, he often offset them with sharp humour and soft satire. This particular painting is often contrasted with Azimzade’s 1938 work “Ramadan of the Poor People”. When viewed together some interpretations highlight the representation of the spiritual superiority of the poor.
Naguib Mahfouz at Sidi Gaber: Reflections of a Nobel Laureate, 1994-2001
Mahfouz reflects on his youth and writes,
“From early boyhood I never studied during the holy month of Ramadan, although this was the month during which I read more than at any other time. My reading, however, had nothing to do with my studies, and reading was my great joy during this month, greater than at any other time of the year. During the fast I could give free rein to my passion for reading, but not for any school literature.
I carried this habit into my adult life, so that I never wrote during Ramadan, just as I never wrote during the summer months. When Ramadan fell in summer, I thus gained one month of writing during the year, as opposed to one month less when Ramadan occurred in winter.
One year, while still a university student, I read the whole of the Holy Qur’an. This was a very special reading, very different from reading it on ordinary occasions. Another year I read the Life of the Prophet by Ibn Hisham, and I remember reading Selected Arabic Literature by Dr. Taha Husayn, Sheikh al-Sakandari and Ali al-Garem, which contained selections of Arabic poetry and prose from the pre-Islamic era to modern times. I also read al-Zayyat’s History of Arabic Literature, as well as a book I greatly treasured containing brief outlines on the histories of Sufi sheikhs and selections of their writings. I remember that during my first years at university I read plays by Bernard Shaw, the poems of T.S. Eliot, and any new publications by Al-Aqqad and al-Mazni. I read the Islamiyat of al-Aqqad and Taha Husayn’s autobiography.”
Ramadan Sonnets by Daniel Abdal-Hayy Moore (1996)
This collection of poems by the late American poet (1940 – 2016) are “an imaginatively inspired record of the month, its small epiphanies and grim endurances, heading out from its physical constraints to contemplate a vast panorama”. Below is an excerpt from a poem in the collection entitled “Headache”:
when the food finally comes showering at the
end of the fast and turns all things back to
Technicolor again, and we feel
the old soft-shoe lightness in our step again and the
old brightness in our smile,
the cornucopia dome of the sky turned
earthward again, the arid stretch
suddenly fertile, fruits and
flowers as if by
cinematic magic fill our
floodgate of generosity opened to the
full, then our
selves expand past identity with one
hollow-pitted stomach dusty in the
hot rays of a pitiless sun
to a non-entity whose single characteristic is
gratitude and whose
every pulse is animated by the
Single Provider of all this
and every life’s
Sant Yàlla by Youssou N’Dour (2003)
In November of 2003, during Ramadan, Senegalese musician Youssou N’Dour released a new album entitled Sant Yàlla. The album’s name means “praise God” in Wolof, N’Dour’s native language and the lingua franca of Senegal. Musically, it was a radical departure from N’Dour’s typical mbàllax dance rhythm and instead makes use of Senegalese kora and percussion players who are accompanied by an Egyptian orchestra under the baton of Fathy Salama. The songs are devotional in nature praising Allah and venerating Sufi saints and marabouts of Senegal.
The album was not without controversy and a documentary entitled Youssou N’Dour: I Bring What I Love was released in 2008 exploring the cultural controversy around the album’s recording and its release.
Soulful Ramadan by Tompi (2010)
To non-Bahasa speakers, the lead single from Indonesian singer Tompi’s 2010 album sounds like a fun pop song about love. With a groovy beat and catchy melody it is something of a surprise to learn that the song is in fact about Ramadan (as as is the rest of the album). The chorus is about the joy of Ramadan and lyrics include:
“Prostrate in the middle of the night
Do dhikr and pray
Call the name of Allah
And don’t forget to give zakat
Purify the soul
As a human being on the fitra”
Madame Secretary (2014 – 2019)
In the fourth season of Madame Secretary, the annual White House Iftar is fictionalized. A dialogue between the titular character Elizabeth Adams McCord (Téa Leonie) and her husband (Tim Daly) occurs at the beginning of the episode:
Elizabeth: Do you know who held the first iftar in Washington?
Henry: Thomas Jefferson, 1805.
Elizabeth: That’s right. Do you know what Jefferson didn’t do?
Elizabeth: That’s right. Which means I am about to outdo one of our Founding Fathers. Why don’t you chew on that, Jefferson.
Guests at the iftar include Muslim charity founders, scientists, civil servants and a Turkish minister who is invited as the guest of honour. The depiction of Ramadan and the White House Iftar serve to drive the plot of the episode but its inclusion in a mainstream television series is not insignificant.
The Moor’s Account by Laila Lalami (2014)
The Spanish Narvaez expedition to Florida in 1528 sailed across the Atlantic in search of gold. However, 600 people died and only four survived: three Spaniards and a Black Moroccan slave, Estebanico. This novel is a counter-history told from the perspective of Mustafa/Estebanico and goes back and forth between Morocco and the New World, with Ramadan being a device to connect the two places. For example, Mustafa connects the thirst he has in the journey in the Land of the Indians to the thirst he used to feel in Ramadan and while finally quenching his thirst,
“I dropped on my knees, tipped the container, and drank and drank and drank until my stomach began to ache. It was the same kind of pain I used to get when I broke the fast on the first night of Ramadan, a feeling of being at once satiated and yet still thirsty. An odd feeling, bit not altogether unfamiliar, and it made me dizzy.”
TV channels in Pakistan, like many other Muslim-majority countries, typically shifts its programming to content that is religious in nature. Programming includes religious talks, Quranic recitation and charity pledges but dramas are also produced. Hum TV’s Sawaab is an example and centers around a young housewife Nimra (Sana Nawaaz) who lives in a joint family and struggles with her in-laws and ignorant husband all the while partaking in fasting and serving her family during Ramadan.
Ramy (2019 – present)
Ramy was created by and stars Golden Globe-winning actor Ramy Youssef who plays a fictionalized version of himself, in a series that centers around the lives of an Egyptian-American family living in New Jersey.
Acclaimed as creating a space for authentic Muslim voices, Ramy explores a millennial’s struggle to find a spiritual meaning as a Muslim and to balance his faith and his desires. Nowhere is this struggle made clearer than in Season 1, episode 5 entitled Do the Ramadan. Ramy strictly observes the sacred month by fasting and praying regularly, yet in the middle of Ramadan, he embarks on affair with a married but lonely Muslim woman he meets at the mosque. Even fans of the show were left a little astounded at this turn of events, with one user on Reddit writing, “To me it was annoying and made no sense. Why would a hijabi from the mosque that has a kid and is married have sex with a random man in the middle of Ramadan?” Another wrote, “Lol, I thought that was a pretty wild plot choice. He really pushed people’s comfort zones with that one”.
Ahead of the Season 2 trailer that premiered in Ramadan 2020, Youssef said via his Instagram page, “I like meeting characters at their insecurities and flaws. I can connect to those people. This show is about those small, incomplete moments that are funny and human to me. I’m not trying to make us look good or bad. Just showing where some of us are at.”
In reviewing the artworks associated with Ramadan throughout history, it is clear that the primacy of the month has transcended different art forms and is constantly being updated. It is also curious to note that while earlier art tended to focus on the spiritual aspects of the sacred month, modern interpretations lean more towards balancing obligations with the familial and socio-political aspects of life. While some might dismiss this trend, it is worthwhile pointing out that any creative engagement with the month is a welcome pushback against the ever-growing move to commercialize Ramadan. Even the most superficial, mundane or outrageous observations on what this month means to a community or an individual is preferable to mindless consumerism fueled by companies and social media influencers alike.
A look back also reminds us of the myriad ways we connect our spiritual life to our creative life and that the possibilities and that could emerge from this union are endless.
Many thanks to Yaseen Kippie, Sulaiman Wilms and Riefqah Shabodien for pointing me to Ibn Jubayr, “Madame Secretary” and “The Moor’s Account” respectively.