The garden is constantly cited in the Quran as a symbol for paradise, with shade and water as its ideal elements. ‘Gardens underneath which rivers flow’ is a frequently used expression for the bliss of the faithful, and occurs more than thirty times throughout the Quran. Four main rivers of paradise are also specified, one of water, one of milk, one of wine and one of purified honey. This is the origin of the quartered garden, known in Persian as the chahar bagh or four gardens, which were divided by means of four water-channels and all contained within a private, walled enclosure.
Other civilisations, such as those of ancient Egypt or the Vikings, imagined paradise as a continuation of life on earth, but with none of its disadvantages. The early Muslims, however, living in one of the most inhospitable parts of the world, saw paradise as a complete contrast. After spreading out of the Arabian peninsula, they proceeded to create in their conquered lands the closest possible version of paradise on earth in superb gardens which spanned the Islamic world.
To the Muslim the beauty of the garden, and indeed the whole of creation, is held to be a reflection of God. Some of the greatest outpourings of Islamic poetry glorify this, and poets constantly used the image of the garden to describe their feelings towards a beloved. The great mystic Sufi poet Rumi used much garden imagery:
‘The trees are engaged in ritual prayer and the birds in singing the litany,
the violet is bent down in prostration.’
‘See the upright position form the Syrian rose, and the violet the genuflection,
the leaf has attained prostration: refresh the Call to Prayer!’
In the chahar bagh, or quartered garden, a central pavilion is sited at the intersection of four avenues. The pavilion provides a primary centrifugal movement outwards along the avenues and a secondary inward-directed motion through its four porches to the basin of water and the fountain - its spiritual centre - from which in turn are generated ripples of ever-expanding diameter, recommencing the cycle of expansion and contraction. The larger, centrifugal type of garden was not feasible within limited city space, so the courtyard plan is the more acceptable urban form of garden which is still capable of providing that contact with nature so highly valued by its inhabitants. The form of urban dwelling surrounding an internal courtyard became the prototype for architectural forms and is repeated in mosque, madrasa and caravanserai.
The concept of the garden as a reflection of the cosmos. On the left a centrifugal, or outward-directed, force flows out from the building into a natural paradise; on the right a centripetal, or inner-directed, force flows in to a fountain, which in turn generates ever-widening ripples, so recommencing the cycle of expansion and contraction. Taken from ‘Gardens of Paradise’ by John Brookes