As It Happens

London's West End lit up in 'surreal moment' to celebrate Ramadan

London's mayor Sadiq Khan flipped the switch on the first-ever Ramadan display of lights last week. The celebration was the brain-child of Aisha Desai, a young Muslim woman who wanted to bring the joy of her faith to the city where she grew up.

Renowned for its annual Christmas display, Picadilly Circus being lit up for the 1st time for the holy month

Ramadan lights lit up against a night sky.
The first ever Ramadan lights installation at Piccadilly Circus. (Submitted by Aisha Desai )

When Aisha Desai was a child growing up in North London, one of her favourite things was going to see the Christmas lights in the West End every year. 

She had no idea that one day she would be on Coventry Street near Piccadilly Square, and when the holiday lights were switched on, they would be celebrating a holiday closer to her heart — Ramadan.

"It was a surreal moment. It was a pinch-me moment," Desai, founder of Ramadan Lights UK and a major force behind the display, told As It Happens host Nil Köksal. 

"I never would have thought in my years of living in the West, in London, that I would be able to see my faith represented in such a positive light, in such a beautiful way."

Lit up Christmas angels hand above a busy nighttime street
The area is well known for its annual display of Christmas lights. Here, Regent Street is illuminated with Christmas angels in December 2022. (Maja Smiejkowska/Reuters)

Mayor flipped the switch

The iconic Piccadilly Circus area is renowned for its stunning holiday lights display every December: Santas, snowflakes, angels and other Christmas-themed symbols hang above the road amidst thousands of lights. 

But this is the first time the street has been lit up to celebrate the Muslim holiday of Ramadan, despite the fact that Muslims make up the second largest religious group in the city, according to the most recent U.K. census

London's mayor, Sadiq Khan, himself a Muslim, flipped the switch that turned them on for the very first time last week. 

During the holy month of Ramadan — this year celebrated from March 22 to April 21 — Muslims fast during the daylight hours, breaking the fast at sundown with a celebratory meal.

Desai says while there are a lot of Muslims in the U.K. and in London itself, interest in the Ramadan lights has stretched far beyond just people of her faith. 

"It's been really amazing to see so many tourists take pictures, and then tourists actually asking Muslims on the roads, you know, 'What does this mean? What does Ramadan mean?'" she said. 

"It's really beautiful to see our non-Muslim neighbours taking an interest in the light."

Smiling woman with long dark hair, arms up, with Happy Ramadan lights above and behind her.
Aisha Desai is the force behind Ramadan Lights UK. She says she hopes the display will inspire people of all faiths to do the same wherever they live. (Submitted by Aisha Desai)

Reaction from around the world

Desai got the idea for the Ramadan display about three years ago. She and her sister were talking about the lights they had seen in the Middle East for the holiday, and they wondered if they could bring the sense of joy they felt there back to London.

"We said, maybe we can just start putting Happy Ramadan signs, lit up. So I crowdfunded through the community in North London, in particular — my hometown where I'm from — and that's where we started the project."

Lit up stars and moons and lanterns strung up above the street
Desai says it was her happy memories of the Christmas displays that made her want to share the joy of Ramadan lights in the West End neighbourhood. (Anna Gordon/Reuters)

She says she never expected it to come together so soon in London's iconic West End — or be met with such positivity from right around the world — including Canada.

"I've had a lot of people, individuals messaging me ... on Instagram asking if we can bring this to Canada next year and how they can replicate that, which is amazing," she said. 

"This is exactly why I wanted to do something like this. [It] was to inspire other people to do the same for their faith."

A crowd of people wearing headscarves, holding up their phones to take photos
Desai says people of all faiths have reached out to her with praise for the display, thanking her for bringing it to London. (Anna Gordon/Reuters)

Shift in acceptance of other faiths

She says she has seen a great shift in London toward the acceptance of Islam and traditions like Ramadan since she was a child. She credits the younger generation.

"There's so many other young Muslims starting such great initiatives. We have open iftars around," she said, referring to public meals where people of all faiths are invited to join and break the Ramadan fast.

"There's just so many things happening now coming from the younger generation. And it's really causing, creating, this shift…. It's a beautiful moment."

The turnout for the first night the lights came on in London was even bigger than Desai expected, with hundreds of people filling the street. 

"Everyone had the biggest smiles on their faces. And when I spoke to everyone after, they were like, 'This is such a historic moment. We have never seen something like this before. Thank you. Thank you. Thank you.'"

She responded to the praise by saying that she did it for everyone.

"This is for me. This is for my four-year-old niece. This is for my parents. This is for, you know, all walks of lives, Muslim, non-Muslim — it's for everyone," she said.

"I hope it inspires other young people of other faiths to do the same."


Stephanie Hogan

Digital producer

Stephanie Hogan is a digital producer with CBC News, based in Toronto. She writes on a variety of subjects, with an interest in politics, health and the arts. She was previously political editor for The National and worked in various roles in TV and radio news.

Interview produced by Devin Nguyen.