'A positive light': Muslims in London feel seen and represented as a magical Ramadan display lights up the heart of the city
This Ramadan lights illuminated one of London’s most famous hot spots in celebration of the Islamic holy month. It caused waves of “heart-warming joy” across the UK’s Muslim community who, for the first time on such a grand scale in their home country, finally felt “seen”.
Ramadan Lights UK, founded by Aisha Desai, led the initiative located in Piccadilly Circus, where 30,000 thoughtfully placed, sustainable lights hang. The milestone marked the first time Ramadan lights of such a “spectacular” scale hung in Europe, according to London’s Muslim Mayor Sadiq Khan, who switched them on before the holy month began.
"The response from the Muslim community to the installation, which is also expected to light London’s skies for the next two Ramadans, has been positively overwhelming"
Ramadan, which began on the evening of 22 March, sees many Muslims fast from sunrise to sunset daily before celebrating Eid al-Fitr, the holiday which marks its end.
Aisha says the response from the Muslim community to her installation, which is also expected to light London’s skies for the next two Ramadans, has been positively “overwhelming”.
London is now the first major city in Europe to host a spectacular light display to mark Ramadan. It’s a true symbol of how our capital celebrates our diversity. pic.twitter.com/w2YZMHMW8T— Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan (@MayorofLondon) March 21, 2023
“I couldn’t be happier… it is completely such a surreal moment… it’s gone global… people are messaging me from Canada, New York, Europe, South Africa, saying… we feel so proud to be Muslim, we feel represented,” Aisha told The New Arab.
“It’s a project very close to my heart… I'm grateful that my niece can grow up and see her holy month represented and feel excited by it. I am just so grateful by the grace of God this has happened,” she added.
Taking inspiration from the Islamic lunar calendar, Aisha opted for the installation to depict the phases of the moon. She also took inspiration from and re-imagined ancient Arabian lanterns to include, as she set her sights on replicating the “magical” atmosphere of Ramadan she had previously felt in the Middle East, in her own hometown.
“It’s a project very close to my heart… I'm grateful that my niece can grow up and see her holy month represented and feel excited by it"
The Ramadan Lights UK founder also opted for the sign to read ‘Happy Ramadan’ as opposed to traditional Arabic greetings including ‘Ramadan Mubarak’, in order to “be inclusive” and help raise awareness of the month among London’s non-Muslims community members.
What gave Aisha the drive to make this year’s installation happen, was the success of her previous, smaller installations, which unveiled a keen demand across London for more Ramadan recognition.
Aisha’s smaller installations were placed near London's busy North Circular Road in 2021, and in north London's Henley’s Corner, one of the city’s busiest roads, in 2022.
“Once I saw the traction, it was like wow people want this, people need this, that’s how it came about,” Aisha said.
Aisha brought her 2023 vision to life in collaboration with the Aziz Foundation and the Heart of London Business Alliance, who are responsible for the West End’s annual Christmas lights.
Brainstorming between the collaborators began roughly eight months ago and after settling on the design, a contract was signed for the lights to overhang Aziz family-owned buildings in Coventry Street, Piccadilly Circus for three years.
The success of Aisha's previous installations didn't just motivate her but formed part of the reason why the Aziz foundation was so keen to get involved.
“I was really enthused by the Ramadan Lights installation in Finchley, North London and was always keen to upscale this into hanging lights in central,” Aziz foundation Programme Manager Aftab Ahmad told The New Arab.
He added that the Islamic value of doing greater good for one’s community also played a role in the foundation’s decision to partake in the initiative.
“It was important to us to create further awareness about Islam and publicly celebrate the holy month. Christmas often feels like the most exciting time of year to be in London... we hope that the Ramadan lights will help British Muslim children feel the same way about Ramadan and give an opportunity to everyone to be a part of Ramadan celebrations,” Aftab explained.
Both Aftab and Aisha believe initiatives such as the lights also contribute to combatting Islamophobia.
“It seems like something so simple but it's so powerful… it's definitely representing us in a positive light and I think it will spur young Muslims to start their own initiatives,” Aisha said.
“Islamophobia stems from misconceptions about what Islam is and who Muslims are – initiatives like this help combat that by inviting people of all faiths and none to engage with Islam and learn what it’s really about,” Aftab added.
Aftab also highlighted that the increased presence of Muslims and their contributions to British society indicates a “growing acceptance” of Muslim festivals, and Ramadan itself.
Many Muslims in the UK also feel that through the initiative, their faith has been embraced with open arms.
“It's so heart-warming and I feel so happy to be finally represented in a positive light,” student Masa told The New Arab, as higher education consultant Sayed remarked that the lights feel like “an open celebration of this holy month”.
PhD Student Amr also labelled it a “brilliant initiative to show appreciation and respect to the Muslim community in the UK”.
"Seeing so much open-mindedness towards other cultures and religions is so important and much needed, bringing more love and light or our lives"
Many people living in Britain who aren’t Muslim have also gushed about the “enlightening” installation, praising it as a celebration of London’s diversity.
“I found that very enlightening and such progress in favour of positive multiculturalism…. this is part of the reasons why I live here. Seeing so much open-mindedness towards other cultures and religions is so important and much needed, bringing more love and light or our lives,” Lucie, who made a move from France to London, told The New Arab.
“They’re beautiful. We love to see it,” Norfolk-based Molly added.
While the lights continue to light up Piccadilly Circus and bring both Muslim and non-Muslim community members together in celebration of Ramadan and in bridging gaps of understanding, Aisha reflects on the achievement and scale of her project.
“I love my community so much… This is for every single one of us. I live in London, one of the most amazing cities in the world, and I’m represented. Wow. It's an incredible achievement for all of us.”
Aisha Aldris is a London-based journalist who writes on social and humanitarian issues alongside culture and the arts
Follow her on Twitter: @aishaaldris