The Wisdom of Islamic Gardens
The idea of a garden has always been central to Islam for reasons that are at once hopeful — because nature is so beautiful — and deeply melancholy — because life itself can never be made perfect.
For Islam, the world we inhabit will always be mired in khaṭīʾa or sin. No human enterprise or institution can ever be without significant degrees of dhanb or wrong-doing: jealousy, stubbornness, rage and lack of forgiveness predominate. Only in the next life can we hope to escape the irritation and the agony; only in jannah, or paradise, will we be assured of true contentment. In paradise, according to the Qur’an, there will be flowing rivers, flowers, incorruptible waters and unchangeable milk, golden goblets, ‘virgin companions of equal age’ and rows of cushions set out in the balmy shade of fruit trees.
Yet because this might all be a long way off, Islam recommends an unusual technique to prevent us from losing our poise and despairing: we should become bustani or gardeners. The enlightened should redirect their frustrations with the state of humanity towards the construction of a hadiqa, or walled garden. Within its limited circumference, with due modesty, it can be endowed with many of the qualities of the eventual garden of paradise. Our garden should have flowing water, some reflecting pools, symmetrical flower beds, fruit trees and places to sit. Everywhere that Muslim civilisation spread, gardens developed along with it, and in the drier regions, where nothing would grow, flowers and trees were represented on carpets, which functioned as miniature mobile gardens that could be carried on the back of a camel. When the Muslims reached southern Spain, the climate allowed them to create pieces of horticulture which astonish and seduce us to this day.
A telling observation about gardening is that almost everyone over the age of sixty-five is concerned with it, and almost no one in their late teens has ever evinced the slightest interest in it. The difference isn’t coincidental. A person’s enthusiasm for gardening is inversely correlated to their degree of hope for life in general. The more we believe that the whole of existence can be rendered perfect, that love and marriage can be idyllic, that our careers can reward us materially and honour us creatively, the less time we will have for beds of laurel or thyme, lavender or rosemary. Why would we let such minor interventions detain us when far greater perfection is within reach? But a few decades on, most of our dreams are liable to have taken a substantial hit, much of what we put our faith in professionally and romantically will have failed, and at that point we might be ready to look with different, and significantly more sympathetic, eyes at the consolations offered by cyprus trees and myrtle hedges, geraniums and lilies of the valley. No longer will gardening be a petty distraction from a mighty destiny, but rather a shelter from gusts and squalls of despair.
Islam is appropriately wise in its ambitions. It doesn’t tell its followers to plough themselves a farm, nor does it advise them to focus on a window box. The scale is carefully calibrated: neither too big to mire us in unmanageable expense and bureaucracy, nor too small to humiliate and sadden us. The garden becomes a perfect home for our remaining pleasures in a troubled world; it’s where we can repair to contemplate islands of beauty once we have come to know and sorrowfully navigated oceans of pain.