Gardens: Islamic Gardens

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Islamic gardens represent cultivated spaces across the diverse span of Muslim history and geography, created and set apart from wilderness of various kinds. They were designed to enhance the humanly constructed environment, to ornament the landscape, and to symbolize cultural and religious values and aspirations. As such, they are together with architecture and the arts among the most significant and enduring of Muslim expressions of the role and relationship of nature in its broader sense to human beings. Gardens and landscape architecture in Muslim societies have been an important expression of ethical assumptions about stewardship, ecology, and beauty. This heritage of spaces and values has in recent times come under increasing pressure because of very high levels of demographic change, desertification (the degradation of formerly cultivated land), burgeoning urban growth, and general neglect.

Gardens in the QurʾĀn

The Arabic word for garden (jannah ) is used in the Qurʾān for paradise, the reward of the hereafter. There are a number of other references to the notion of the garden in the Qurʾān: al-firdaws (Q 23:11) originating from the Old Persian (paridaiza ), and al-rawda (Q 30:15 and 42:22), with reference to the lush greenery of the garden. One of the settings in the Qurʾanic narrative of creation (Q 2:34, 7:19) is the primordial garden where the first-created pair of human beings is placed. The garden is therefore also among God's creations and the theater in which the initial human drama unfolds. On one level it represents the ideal environment in which the first humans can subsist, close to God and in balance and harmony with nature. In an Arabic term referring to a Qurʾanic verse, the word ayah also signifies a sign from nature. The human trespass, the act of disobeying God's command, results in dismissal from the garden and a sojourn on earth. The promise of the return to the gardenthat is, the promised abode of the hereafteris held out as the goal of human life; but until the return, the garden remains an aspiration and expectation, even a memory, that human imagination might be able to recreate on earth. Among the main features of the garden in paradise is water, an oft-repeated reference. The Qurʾān refers to the four rivers that flow in paradise (47:15)rivers of water, milk, honey, and wine. Springs are mentioned and named, the best-known being kawthar (108:1) and tasnīm (83:27), from which the righteous may drink. Trees with fruit are to be found in abundance. Among the trees specifically designated is the lote-tree, a symbolic reference, which in Muslim tradition signifies the tree of life and knowledge marking the boundary of the "garden of refuge" (53:1415); the tūbā, the tree of blessing; and fruit-bearing trees producing grapes, pomegranates, and other fruits.

This evocative, subtle, and richly symbolic historicized garden is the promised home of the righteous; in it the once-living share eternal joy among beings of great beauty, male and female. The latter, which are called houris, are compared to pearls and are eternally virgins, providing companionship, solace and love. The dominant themes that mark the lives of the garden's inhabitants are peace, reunion with families and communities, security, intimacy, luxuryand overwhelmingly, the joy of knowing that they have pleased God and that he is pleased with them. According to the Qurʾān, the return to God is the supreme joy of the righteous.

Islamic Gardens in History

Muslim rule and territorial control expanded rapidly during Islam's first two centuries, eventually encompassing significant areas around the Mediterranean Sea as well as former Byzantine and Sassanian-ruled territories in North Africa, Spain, the Middle East and Central Asia. This diversity of landscapes, climates, and geographical settings influenced the utilization and development of land. Patterns of existing use and the availability of water were major factors in transforming the landscape to mirror the changes in control, settlement, and cultural values.

Persia had a long history of gardens that predated Islam, a tradition that Muslims adopted and continued. Many of the earlier examples of Persian gardens have not survived; recent excavations, however, provide evidence of the extensive development of gardens under successive dynasties. The original Persian garden (bāgh ) was irrigated by canals diverted from a river or stream. The new towns and cities under Muslim rule, including capital cities like the Baghdad of the Abbasids, contained several gardens influenced by the Persian pattern. Rulers continued to build gardens in newly established population centers, using existing water installations or creating new channels for irrigation. Muslim travelers' accounts from the medieval period describe a profusion of richly endowed gardens, public and private, with fountains and pavilions. One of the patterns that came to dominate the design of these gardens, though not exclusively, was the chahār-bāgh the foursquare garden, often linked to the Qurʾanic allusion to the four rivers of paradise. The Safavid gardens, particularly in Isfahan, are a fine example and extension of this foursquare style.

The Muslim Umayyad rulers of Andalusia continued Roman and local Spanish traditions in order to develop exquisite gardens, some of which survive in the early twenty-first century, as in the Alhambra. The excavations of the Umayyad palace city, Madīnat al-Zahra, destroyed in the eleventh century, reveal the presence of gardens, fountains, and pavilions. Most of these structures were created to reflect a symmetrical design, organized to present dramatic vistas, and also to afford a sense of privacy, intimacy, and leisure. It has been suggested that these gardens were framed within a geometrical pattern intended to reflect order, authority, and symmetry in nature as well as in society, thus simultaneously evoking religious, aesthetic, and political meanings. Another historical example of extensive garden construction is that of the Mughal period in Central and South Asia. Several of these gardens have survived in Afghanistan, India, and Pakistan. They illustrate connections with new landscapes combined with visions of spaces that mark transitions to the afterlife and the rich imagery of the Qurʾān.

The Qurʾanic image of the garden and the rich enhancement of landscape throughout Muslim history have made these concepts a fertile source for Muslim poetry and literature. Two of the classics of Persian literature, Sa'di's Rose Garden, or Gulistân (c. 1256 ce), and his Fruit Orchard, or Bustan (c. 1257), are inspired in their form as well as their imagery by garden motifs. Much of Muslim mystical poetry builds on the symbolic meanings of the garden, its geometrical design, water, profusion, greenery, the budding of the rose, the bee among the flowers, the harmony of form and essence, and the transient and created nature of the earthly garden. The archetypal space is the site of the meaning of human life, its exalted destiny as well as the focus of its memory. The garden may represent both the place of transition as well as arrival, and of ultimate repose in the world or an anticipation of the hereafter.

Islamic Gardens in Modern Times

Pressures resulting from population growth, urbanization, climate change, and economic underdevelopment have led to the neglect, degradation and even extinction of public and private green spaces across the Muslim world. Many of the emerging Muslim nation-states and societies have sought to restore and revive their gardens through local initiatives or assistance from global organizations committed to preservation, restoration, and recreation. The erosion of the heritage is now balanced by such new efforts as the landscaping around the airport in Jakarta, the Bagh-e-Ferdowsi in Tehran, the reforestation project on the campus of a university in Ankara, and the Al-Azhar Park project in Cairo. There are many other cases that need to be addressed to repair both natural and human-made disasters. The heritage of gardens is inseparable from the vitality of culture in the Muslim world and the ecological aspirations of human beings that transcend time and space.

See Also

Architecture; Geometry; Islam, overview article; Paradise.


The following studies provide useful resources for the study of Islamic gardens and their broader relationship with Muslim architecture and cultures: John Brookes, Gardens of Paradise: The History and Design of the Great Islamic Gardens (London, 1987); Richard Ettinghausen and Elisabeth Macdougall, eds., The Islamic Garden (Washington, D.C., 1970); Valérie Gonzalez, Beauty and Islam: Aesthetics in Islamic Art and Architecture (London, 2002); and D. Fairchild Ruggles, Gardens, Landscapes and Visions in the Palaces of Islamic Spain (University Park, Pa., 2000). On architecture in particular, the reader is referred to Azim Nanji, ed., Building for Tomorrow (London, 1994), and Modernity and Community: Architecture in the Islamic World (London, 2001), a publication of the Aga Khan Award for Architecture. For visual resources on gardens see the web-site,, developed by the Harvard MIT School of Architecture and Planning in cooperation with the Aga Khan Trust for Culture.

Azim Nanji (2005)