Without doubt, the gardens of paradise are the ultimate utopias of Muslim consciousness. But what does the Qur’an say about gardens, landscapes and the promise of paradise? In this essay, I give longer extracts from the Qur’an, to show the context in which garden or nature imagery are used in that text, and to trace those images and expressions back to the natural landscape of the area in which that text was revealed, the history of agriculture and the social use of gardens before the rise of historical Islam in the seventh century. My aim is to sketch the sort of landscape and agricultural practices and horticultural models that informed the Qur’anic vision, with the essential caveat that the Qur’an is a religious and moral text, not a manual of gardening, and that any reference it makes to ‘realia’ is by and large metaphorical, striking similes and exempla (aya/ayat, mathal/amthal) for the edification of the faithful.
The longue durée – the survival over hundreds of years, if not millennia, of historical echoes persisting over time, embedded in landscape or language, in typical significant gestures, modes of visual representation, lexical items, legends, folklore or proverbs – is apparent in the Qur’an’s text, and places that revelation firmly within the context of the historical cultures that flourished between the Nile valley and Mesopotamia, Yemen and Syria over the course of two millennia before the great Arab conquests of the mid seventh century. These cultures are indebted not only to the continuing self-conscious tradition of Jewish and Christian lore, but also to the chronologically and geographically more distant models from the Eastern Mediterranean, Egypt and Babylon, as well as Assyria and Iran. It remains to disentangle elements that are observed within the Hijaz or the Arabian Peninsula from those that have been incorporated along with the stock of inherited stories and exempla from further afield. In any case, the extrapolation of detail regarding gardens must be done with caution and humility: there is always a danger of over- or mis-interpreting textual evidence.