The Islamic Paradise Gardens and the Garden Within

by Emma Clark, Writer, Lecturer and Islamic garden designer

All Islamic gardens on earth are, to a certain extent, both a foretaste and a mirror of the Paradise gardens as described in the Qur’an, the Jannat al-firdaws, janna meaning garden and firdaws meaning paradise.

The Aga Khan Centre’s ‘Making Paradise’ Exhibition is clearly not an attempt to recreate a literal Islamic Paradise Garden since it is installed in the heart of the Centre where there is no natural light or running water. Rather, the exhibition’s aim is to give a little taste (dhawq in Sufism, the inward dimension of Islam) of the celestial garden through an exhibition of artworks hung on the walls around a central conceptual fountain with floral ‘waterfall’. The artworks on display are created from a variety of media and are all inspired by different aspects of the Gardens of Paradise.

The fact that the Exhibition is placed in the gallery at the heart of the Centre may be seen as a reflection of the inner Paradise garden which lies within the heart of each one of us. As the great 13th century mystical poet, Jalāl ad-Dīn Rūmī wrote, “The real gardens and flowers are within, they are in man’s heart and not outside.” In order for our inner garden of the heart to bear spiritual fruit as it were, we need to remember God through prayer, meditation and the invocation of His holy Name, dhikr ‘Allah. It is written in the Qur’an “Verily in the remembrance of God do hearts find peace.” (13:28).

The Principal elements of the Gardens of Paradise

Water and Shade

The two principal elements of the Islamic Paradise gardens are water and shade. Here in the exhibition we are not able not accommodate running water but we do have a central fountain, representing one of the fountains in the celestial gardens. Its central cascade is not of water but of arcing strips of beautiful cut-out white paper flowers and foliage.

There are many symbolic meanings attached to water in an Islamic garden. Not only is it the source of all life on earth, but in the garden it represents the eternally-flowing waters of Paradise. Importantly, water is symbolic of the soul – sometimes restful in a still pool, sometimes energetic when it is flowing fast.
Shade protects us from the heat of the sun as well as from the rain when it falls too hard; therefore, symbolically it represents mercy from Heaven, shielding us from extremes of weather.

Four-fold Design and the symbolism of the number four

The third element of the Islamic Paradise gardens is the four-fold design, the chahar-bagh (chahar meaning four and bagh meaning garden in Persian) inspired by the four gardens of Paradise described in Chapter 55 of the Qur’an, Surat al-Rahman, the chapter of the All-Merciful.

Four rivers are also mentioned in the Qur’an, one of water, one of milk, one of honey and one of wine (XLVII:15). Islamic gardens on earth often have four water-rills or pathways representing these four rivers of Paradise. An example of this may be seen in the Garden of Light at the top of the Aga Khan Centre.

Enclosure and the colour Green

The word ‘paradise’ actually means ‘enclosed by walls’ (from the Persian pairidaeza) and jannah means hidden and secret as well as garden. Enclosure is a fundamental quality of a true Islamic garden since it offers an inner tranquil haven, originally separated by walls from the harsh desert environment.

Today, for most of us, the walls separate our own small gardens – if we are fortunate enough to have one – from the noise and distractions of the city. The enclosed garden (like the famous 1911 children’s novel The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett) is a lush, fertile and green sanctuary. It is no accident that green is the colour associated with Islam since green is the colour most often used in the Qur’an to describe the Paradise Gardens. It is the colour of spring and re-birth, growth and renewal as well as symbolically the colour of hope and of mercy.

Trees, fruit, flowers, scent and bird-song

Trees provide the longed-for shade, as well as fruit while flowers provide colour and scent. “Sweet-scented herbs” (rayhan, literally translated as the herb basil) are mentioned in the Qur’an and here in the exhibition we are fortunate to have an especially created perfume as well as a ‘soundscape’ of birdsong, together providing further elements to the powerful sensory experience.

Each of the four gardens contains its own fruit-bearing tree: the olive, the date-palm, the fig and the pomegranate. We have fine artworks depicting these celestial trees and fruit installed on the walls of the exhibition.

Divine Unity

A vital element of the Islamic garden is the balance and correct proportion between all of the above elements. This is central to the profound beauty of the garden and results, not from an amalgamation of different ingredients, but from the pre-existing order and harmony, that is, the Divine Unity which penetrates all aspects of life on earth. Ultimately, it is this principle of Unity (Tawhid), which gives an Islamic garden its particular serene beauty. As Titus Burkhardt has stated so clearly: ‘Islamic art … is essentially the projection into the visual order of certain aspects of Divine Unity.’¹

Peace and Contemplation

There is only one word spoken in the Qur’anic Paradise Gardens and that word is Salaam, Peace (19:62); and there is no doubt that in these difficult times dominated by the covid pandemic most of us long for some serenity and peace in our hearts and minds. It is hoped that this small ‘Making Paradise’ exhibition may give a little taste, not only of the beauty and symbolism of the celestial garden, but also of its essential peace – and in so doing open the visitor’s eyes and heart to the rich history, culture and spiritual significance of both the Islamic garden and Islamic art as a whole.

  1. Titus Burckhardt, Art of Islam, Language and Meaning, World of Islam Festival Trust 1976, p. 46