Gardens of Islam


Throughout the Islamic world there prevails today an excessive passion for concrete only matched by an equally strong contempt for greenery. Everywhere the observer is struck by the sight of greenery in fast retreat; forests devastated for commercial purposes, or for no purpose at all; orchards uprooted for urban expansion; gardens and green areas left to abandonment, vandalised, often depository of urban waste; and so on. Also common amongst the Muslim communities settled in the West is to make the concreting of their garden their first deed on the purchase of a new house. Muslim streets are, in fact, easily recognisable in most urban places, thoroughly concreted, no greenery to be seen. Somehow, the impression left to any neutral observer by this is that Islam is fundamentally hostile to greenery, and the colour of its flag, green, has been usurped.   

Nothing, though, could be further from the truth, as will be seen in this chapter. And nothing highlights Islam’s love for greenery than this  instance from early Islamic history noted by Harvey. During the first Muslim military campaigns, Harvey notes, Abu Bekr, the first Caliph (632-634), in setting the war machine in motion, gave the order that no palm trees were to be destroyed, no cornfields burnt, no orchards cut down.[1] Unlike the Greeks, who ravaged the fields of the fellow Greeks with whom they were at war, cutting down their olive groves, the Muslims were at pains to avoid destruction and, as soon as possible, restored peaceful government and prosperity to the countries they overran.[2]


Today’s Muslim twin passion for concrete and hate for greenery is a new phenomenon in Islamic society. Without elaborating on this too much, this could be due to the fact that today’s Muslim ruling elites, one country or two excepted, so obsessed with all aspects of the material, and devoid of any sort of vision that deviates from the crude or vile, have an excessive passion for concrete and an absolute contempt for all things naturally beautiful. This attitude, of course, they force upon their people, just as they force other deviant practices, via the media, education and so on. De-Islamising Muslim society by these elites, previous colonising powers, and other forces, has had its effect, too. The violence inflicted by invaders: crusaders, Mongols, Timur, and Western colonial powers, and subsequent, secular, Westernised elites in power has forced Muslims to deviate considerably from their former antecedents and deeds whether with regard to respect for water as a scarce resource, love for sciences, gardens, environment etc, in order to survive.  De-Islamising society has destroyed from within Muslims and Muslim society what was intrinsic to Muslims: extreme precision, order, cleanliness of streets and cities, etc. All these have been suppressed in the course of history, and by force. The instance highlighted in the preceding section of how Muslims were forced to de-bath, that is to destroy their baths, has been generalised to all other aspects of Islam. The brutal colonial occupation, and loss of fertile lands to colonisation, has forced Muslims to turn into deforesters par excellence, a remarkable instance seen in Algeria, in particular, following the French colonisation. From great preservers of greenery prior to the French occupation, the Algerians turned into the greatest deforesters of all after 132 years of French presence.[3] The trauma caused by Mongols, crusaders, occupation, etc…has ended in killing many early noble features of Muslim society, such as the love for books. In Baghdad  in 1258, in Aleppo  in 1398, when it was taken by Timur the Lame, the massacre of people and the destruction of books were, indeed, equally violent in tenor.[4] And the same in Spain, courtesy to the Church, which had Muslim books burnt in mass auto da fe.[5] Somehow in the Muslim psyche, books and loss of life became very much associated. Never would Muslim society have the same love for books as it did in the early centuries of Islam.

These shifts in the Muslim psyche and attitude relate to every aspect of Islamic civilisation, including gardens and gardening, for indeed, the barrenness and hostility to greenery common amongst most Muslim societies today is in very sharp contrast to what prevailed in early Islam, a love, a passion for gardening, mixed with the art of gardening.

[1] J. Harvey: Medieval Gardens  (B.T. Batsford Ltd; London; 1981), p. 37.

[2] Ibid.

[3] See, for instance:

 -C.R. Ageron: Histoire de l’Algerie contemporaine, 3 vols (Presses Universitaires de France, 1979).

-C.A. Julien: Histoire de l’Algerie Contemporaine (Presses Universitaires de France, 1964).

-H Alleg et al: La Guerre d’Algerie (Temps Actuels, Paris, 1981).

[4] See:

 E. Gibbon: The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire; vol 6.

J. Glubb: A Short History; op cit.

[5] H. C. Lea: The Moriscos of Spain (Burt Franklin, New York; 1901; 1968 reprint).




Early Islamic Passion for Gardens and Gardening and its Source
In the words of garden historians, the inhabitants of the early Islamic world were, to a degree that is difficult to comprehend today, ‘enchanted by greenery’. In ‘a civilisation, which thought of itself as a garden, gardening was naturally an esteemed art,’ notes Armesto.
‘In a mountain of lush greenery,’ [says Marcais,] ‘Nature finds its home. Here, no place for vegetal mosaics laid on the ground as in Europe, but pieces of orchards where fruit trees and ornamental plants cohabit in a sort of green disorder where ease and abundance prevail. Trees of almonds, pomegranates, peaches, cherries, oranges, lemons, entangle their branches in the middle where rises the darker obelisk of a cypress tree.

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The Islamic Garden
Abu Uthman Ibn Luyun al-Tujibi of Almeria (1282-1349) composed in 1348 within the last years of his life a poem in simple verse, which has been known to the outside world as the ‘Andalusian Georgics.’ It is in fact a masterpiece of compression, scientifically abbreviated from the best earlier sources, Muslims and non Muslim. Sections on soils, water and levelling, manures and labours such as ploughing are followed by a detailed treatise on propagation of all kind and of the various categories of plants. In all more than 150 species are named, over 30 of them grown for the beauty of their flowers or for their scent. Somewhat unusually for a work in verse, this is fully referenced in over 350 notes directing to the sources.

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The Place of Water
Water played the most significant role in Islamic gardens just as it did in every aspect of early Islamic society. Early Muslims (8th-13th centuries) developed a whole legal system around water, even water tribunals. This particular matter will be highlighted in the chapter on agriculture. The importance of water is further highlighted by the fact that all of Muslim treatises on agriculture, whether Maghribi, Andalusian, Egyptian, Iraqi, Persian or Yemenite, Bolens points out, insist meticulously on the deployment of equipment and on the control of water.


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Garden Literature
In the following part, under the chapter on agriculture, there will be plenty on Islamic farming and botanic literature, so, here, the interest in such literature will be kept minimal, just enough to illustrate the Muslim use of scientific writing on gardens and gardening.

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Impact on History
The Islamic garden impacted considerably on the subsequent history of the Western garden, and was itself to be impacted upon, but in the very reverse manner, by Western history.
The great value of Islamic botanical treatises was recognised in Christian Spain, where translations of some of them into Castilian were made as part of the great programme of scientific works initiated by Alfonso X. Of these, a substantial part of the versions of the works of Ibn Wafid and Ibn Bassal has come down to our times. The Majmu fi’l Filaha (Compendium of Farming), was attributed to Ibn Wafid (Abenguefith) but in fact was a work by Al-Zahrawi, and was translated to two romance languages, Catalan and Castilian. This work had great influence on the ‘Renaissance’ work of agronomy, the Agricultura General of Gabiel Alonso Herrera (d. c. 1539).

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