If a random group of people were asked about their concept of heaven, it is likely that a wide variety of answers would be received. According to Lisa Miller, a recent poll revealed that 76% of Americans believe in heaven, that 71% of those people think of heaven as an "actual place," and that 19% of those who believe that heaven is an "actual place" think that heaven looks like a garden. For many Christians, Muslims, and Jews, "heaven is a perfect place, devoid of anger, lust, competition, or anything like sin." (1)
Heaven is often pictured as perfection, a place where everything is fresh, clean, pure, and beautiful. As the Bible describes it: He (God) will wipe away all tears from their eyes, and there shall be no more death, nor sorrow, nor crying, nor pain. All of that has gone forever (Revelations 21:4). Many societies and religions have tried to recreate the "feeling" of a heavenly place on Earth in the form of spiritual places in churches, synagogues, mosques, cemeteries, and chapels.
The shared Jewish, Christian, and Muslim belief in only One God has resulted in similar traditions. For example, idolatry and "false gods" are forbidden. In Christianity, statues help believers to focus on God; however, it could become a controversial point where statues or crucifixes are not supposed to be taken as God. In contrast to the idea of using a physical object to help invoke spiritual feelings, Islamic law forbids the use of statues of any sort. (2) As a result of this prohibition, Muslims used nature, in the form of gardens and designs, to invoke spiritual feelings. Mosques with unique architectural designs often have elaborately decorated interiors, and the gardens are filled with symbolism and beauty.
Islamic gardens are a prime example of the concept of heaven, Earth, and the garden blending to produce spiritual symbolic sanctuaries. "Every garden created in the Islamic world tends to be seen as a metaphor for Paradise."(3) The English word paradise comes from the Persian word Pairida za: pairi (around) and daeza (wall). (4) Thus, pairida za referred to something with a wall around it and eventually came to mean a walled garden. This word became paradeisoi in Greek and paradises in Latin. The concept of Paradise as a garden is exemplified in many Biblical and Qur'anic passages.
Islam views Paradise as the opposite of Hell and always contrasts heaven with Earth. (5) In this way, "Paradise and Hell pertain to the Return to God" and so "cannot be experienced in their fullness until after the Last Day." (6) Heaven and Earth refer to the "situation of the cosmos" from the beginning of time until the end. (7) Therefore, on the Last Day or the Day of Judgment, "heaven and earth, they will have vanished since their inhabitants will have been moved to the Garden and the Fire." (8)
Although this view is very similar to other religious views, some of its intricate and deeply religious implications make the concept unique. In contrast to Islam, Christianity teaches that a person dies and after purgatory either goes to heaven or to Hell (Luke 16: 22-23). Judaism, Christianity and Islam are all thought to have "ideas of heaven that are historically and theologically connected to one another," (9) which makes the specific differences and distinctions harder to conceptualize. In the following Qur'anic verse, the promise of a peaceful afterlife with God is placed in the context of a garden: God has promised the men and women who believe in Him gardens watered by running streams, in which they shall abide for ever, goodly mansions in the gardens of Eden. And, what is more, they shall have grace in God's sight. That is the supreme triumph (Qur'an 9:72).
Within this verse, three important aspects are visible. First, Islam promises believers an afterlife with God; second, the Paradise of afterlife has the form of a garden; and third, the Garden of Eden, also mentioned in the Bible's Old Testament, is part of Muslim belief.
In a religious sense, the Garden of Eden is seen as and believed to be the garden from which all life came. Judaism, Christianity, and Islam have different interpretations of what Adam and Eve's actions have meant for the human race, as well as where the Garden of Eden is located. (10) However, these three religions agree that the Garden of Eden is an example of heaven. According to Murata, God "created Adam for the earth, not for the Garden," and so the Islamic view of Adam's (and Eve's) "fall" from the Garden is not as negative as it is in Christianity. Rather, it is thought of more as a "slip caused by Satan." (11)
Since gardens are made up of nature, it is interesting to see how an Islamic view of nature relates to the Islamic idea of Paradise. Since nature itself is seen as spiritual in its own right, its connection as a material used to make a symbolic Paradise on Earth is very intriguing. Islamic garden construction involves using a spiritual component to build a spiritual or religiously significant product. Therefore, an Islamic garden is a reflection of God's Beauty, (12) for what better way to reflect His Beauty than by using what He has provided?
Looking at the Qur'an's description of Paradise, it is important to note the repetitive use of the phrase jannat tajri min tahtiha al-anhar (gardens underneath which rivers flow)." A common Qur'anic example of this is: For those who are God-conscious, with their Lord are gardens through which rivers flow (Qur'an 3:15). Fascinatingly, the Qur'an is not the only religious book that mentions water flowing; the Bible also mentions it: A river flows out of Eden to water the garden, and from there it divides and becomes four branches (Genesis 2:10). The ideas of gardens, water, heaven, and Paradise, which recur throughout the Qur'an and Bible, have very specific implications as to how Islamic gardens were formed.
Islamic gardens are connected to the spiritual side of Islamic cosmology. What makes these earthly gardens even more interesting is that they do far more than just reflect the concept of the garden in Paradise; rather, they are constructed in such a way that they echo God's words as revealed in the Qur'an.
One of the most visible and striking aspects is the wall surrounding the garden's exterior. This practice differs markedly from what we see in the West, where a garden is open to public viewing. External aesthetics are very important in the West, and one way to illustrate them is to design their gardens accordingly. In the Islamic world, however, gardens were walled off because the garden's interior was far more important than its external aesthetic appeal. One reason for the wall was to enclose tranquility, which was an intricate part of an Islamic garden, and thereby separate the sacred from the outside world. These gardens were meant for private, inner contemplation and to be a retreat from the busy, hectic outside world.
A second feature is each garden's specific layout. The idea of a four-fold separation, which is central to Islamic gardens, can be seen in both the Qur'an and the Bible. In the Bible, four rivers flow from the Garden of Eden (Genesis 2:10). The Qur'anic description of the four rivers is more detailed and very thought-provoking: (Here is) a Parable of the Garden that the righteous are promised. In it are rivers of water incorruptible, rivers of milk of which the taste never changes, rivers of wine that are a joy to those who drink, and rivers of honey pure and clear. In it there are for them [the believers] all kinds of fruits and Grace from their Lord. (Can those in such Bliss) be compared to such as shall dwell for ever in the Fire, and be given to drink boiling water, so that it cuts up their bowels (to pieces)?" (Qur'an 47:15).
A third feature is the essential presence of water. Water, a life-giving substance, is needed to irrigate plants and trees. In the more ancient gardens, prior to efficient plumbing, gardens were irrigated through systems that brought water down from snow-capped mountains. The water was distributed efficiently in a hierarchical fashion: first for drinking, then for bathing, and then for the land. (13)
Since one function of an Islamic garden was to serve as a retreat from a long day of work or the world's troubles, water helped to relax the people and cut down outside noise. There was usually a fountain or two that supplied flowing water, which added to the serenity.
Another important aspect was the garden pavilion, which typically had a "rectangular platform with open porches, probably columned, added to each of its shorter sides." (14) The pavilion was meant to provide a shaded vantage point in which everyone could sit and view the magnificent garden and contemplate inner thoughts.
Since idolatry and statues are forbidden, Islamic gardens were decorated in other ways, usually with geometric shapes. Muslims saw geometric patterns in everything, including the petals of a flower or the thorn of a rose. "The squares, circles, and octagons we see in the gardens could be there for good theological reasons: the square represents the earthly order of things, the circle indicates God's celestial perfection of eternity, and the octagon the circle squared signifies our earthly struggle to achieve everlasting unity with God's higher plans." (15)
Another decorative style of Islamic art and architecture is the arabesque, which "includes ornamentation in stylized plant forms and strictly geometrical interlacing work." (16) Many times these designs dealt with the "cosmic rhythms with alternate and complementary phases of evolution and involution, expansion and contraction." (17) Arabesque design included the idealized styling of plants and vines to create patterns. This art form, just like the gardens themselves, has a geometrical element. For example, many of the patterns were based on circles divided by six, eight, or five.
In conclusion, Islamic gardens intrinsically contain two aspects: architectural and cosmological. Architecturally, they resound with religious symbolism in both their design and form. It is important to remember that "the perfection and 'economy' of the cosmos, however, is not to be judged by human standards at all." (18) Although Islamic gardens are mirrored after Qur'anic verses and ideals, the gardens are by no means meant to be the archetypical Paradise.
Richard Ettinghausen, realizing that there has to be a reason why the Islamic garden "was such a ubiquitous art form in the Muslim world," posits three reasons for this "propensity." First is the "idea of Paradise as a reward for the Muslim faithful," which is well-documented in the Qur'an. Second, many gardens and designs pre-dated Islamic times, and, he continues, "in Islam there exists both a sacred, visionary, and a secular, hedonistic tradition, each centered around a special garden of the highest beauty." Third, the "influence of horticulture" or, in other words, the need for the environment and geography, was an important consideration. (19)
Islamic gardens, although a very important way for Muslims to be in touch with Paradise, are "only a sensual symbol of God's everlasting beauty." (20) The following Qur'anic verse shows that no matter what their location, each person should be able to see God's wonderful creations: We shall show them Our portents on the horizons and within themselves until it will be clear to them that it is the Truth. Does your Lord not suffice, since He is Witness over all things? (Qur'an 41:53).
Finally, gardens add to a person's life by providing stress purification as well as spiritual purification. In a way, they enable people to escape their life and move to a better place: Paradise. Through garden architecture, people have attempted to reflect a cosmic order and thereby enhance and transcend daily life. For Muslims, whatever is seen on Earth comes from God's own greatness, and therefore: "For all believers, there is an understanding that there would be no gardens, no rivers and no fruit in this world if it were not for their archetypes in Paradise." (21) Thus Islamic gardens are not just for the growth of God's plants, but also for the growth of the Islamic cosmological ideal.
1 Miller, Lisa. "Why We Need Heaven," Newsweek, 12 August 2002, 44-49.
2 Lehrman, Lewis, Becoming a Successful Artist, (North Light Books, 1996)
3 Brend, Barbara, Islamic Art (Harvard University Pr., 1992).
4 Moynihan, Elizabeth B., Paradise as a Garden: In Persia and Mughal India (New York: George Braziller, Inc., 1979), 1.
5Sachiko Murata and William C. Chittick, The Vision of Islam (New York: Paragon House, 1994), 80.
8 Seale, Allan, New Life for Old Gardens: Designs for Reviving Your Garden (Sterling Publications, 2002).
9 Jeffrey Russell, A History of Heaven: The Singing Silence (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1997), xiii.
10 John Prest, The Garden of Eden: The Botanic Garden and the Re-Creation of Paradise (London: Yale University Press, 1981), 15.
11 Murata and Chittick, The Vision of Islam, 142-43.
12 John Brookes, Gardens of Paradise: The History and Design of the Great Islamic Gardens (New Amsterdam: The Meredith Press, 1987), 19.
13 Ibid., 193.
14 Elisabeth B. Macdougall and Richard Ettinghausen, eds. "The Islamic Garden," Dumbarton Oaks Colloquium on the History of Landscape Architecture IV (Washington, DC, Trustees for Harvard University, 1976), 72.
15 William Howard Adams, Nature Perfected: Gardens through History (New York: Abbeville Press, 1991), 62.
16 Titus Burckhardt, Art of Islam: Language and Meaning (World of Islam Festival Trust 1976), 56.
17 Ibid., 57.
18 Seyyed Hossein Nasr, An Introduction to Islamic Cosmological Doctrines (Boulder: Shambhala Publications Inc., 1978), 124.
19 Macdougall and Ettinghausen, eds., "The Islamic Garden," 6-7.
20 Ibid., 39.
21 Emma Clark, Underneath Which Rivers Flow: The Symbolism of the Islamic Garden (London: The Prince of Wale's Institute of Architecture, 1996), 16.