Gardens in Islam
The underlying theme of the Islamic garden is the concept of the chahar-bagh or four-fold garden. Classically, the chahar-bagh is constructed around a central pool or fountain, with four streams flowing from it, representing the four main elements of life. The Prophet Muhammad (pbuh), describing his miraculous journey to heaven, mentions four rivers: flowing with wine, milk, honey and water. The number four has an inherent symbolism reflecting the natural world. The symbolism of an Islamic garden represents a universal theme ? that of the understanding of nature and the universe.
The quadripartite plan based on the chahar-bagh is developed in gardens all over the Islamic world. The Taj Mahal in India is placed at the head of a large chahar-bagh. The gardens of the Generalife and the Alhambra palaces in Spain both have a series of courtyard gardens based on the chahar-bagh design.
In an Islamic garden the emphases are on water and shade not surprisingly as many of the early Islamic gardens were created in hot and arid areas. Gardens in Islam, unlike the great gardens in the English tradition, are not so much places for walking in, as places of rest and quiet contemplation hence the need for a place to sit is also an important consideration. The aim is to strive towards spiritual and physical refreshment, to draw closer to God through quiet contemplation and to echo the Qur?anic phrase ?gardens underneath which rivers flow?.
The Islamic garden, based on its Qur?anic archetype, is a place of retreat, shelter, abode, away from the tensions of everyday existence. There are many references in the Qur?an describing paradise as a garden, and in creating gardens on earth based on heavenly descriptions, man shows his desire to attain the highest state of being, his promise from God as reward for righteous struggle. Flowing water, fountains and rivers are the most memorable descriptions one has after reading the Qur?anic references to paradise.
The vision embodied in the Islamic garden is a universal one and it should appeal to everyone from whatever background or religion. The Islamic garden is an embodiment of a ?spiritual vision with universal appeal?. Although the idea of paradise as a garden predates Islam, it was nevertheless the religion of Islam which emphasised these ancient and universal truths and gave them the new spiritual meaning.
Calligraphy in Islam is considered to be the highest art form, not least because it represents the writing of the Divine Script. The Islamic calligrapher is the most revered of artists because his work is seen as the purest form of religious expression. Unlike much of Islamic art, which remained anonymous, calligraphy was often signed by its artist. Islamic calligraphy is an empowering and sacred form of visual expression portraying the message of the Qur?an, which was revealed in the Arabic language.
The use of calligraphy in Qur?anic inscriptions was commonplace, used as it was to adorn buildings, ceramics and textiles. It has even extended to non-Arabs whose languages used the Arabic script, such as the Persians and Turks.
The Arabic script underwent a gradual process of refinement which gave rise to distinctive regional and dynastic styles. The main calligraphic styles are the Deewani, Kufi, Naskh, Riqa, Taliq and Thuluth. The Kufic script has come to be highly regarded as it is used as the primary mode of writing the Holy Qur?an.
As Islamic art was mainly decorative rather than figurative, one of the areas that flourished was ceramics. This took off mainly in the Ninth Century during the Abbasid Rule, where the technique of lustre painting was used to elevate pottery to the status of luxury goods.
The lustreware is probably the greatest achievement of Islamic pottery and one of the three main types of ware; the others are tin-glazed ware and slip-painted ware. The perfecting of the techniques and experimentation with light and shadow achieved the glimmering glazes which illuminate the geometrical and arabesque embellishments. It also provided inspiration to other far eastern and western potters. To this day many of the work of Italian, French, English and Spanish potters are heavily influenced by Islamic pottery and the precedent it established in the field. An example of such influence is the Islamic arabesque designs and lustreware used by the Spanish in creating the famous Hispano Moresque ware.
Ceramics and pottery produced under the Islamic empire not only adorned palaces and homes for cultural purposes but also fulfilled an important religious function. The Islamic potters played an instrumental role in the great architectural achievements of the Middle East that outshone those of the Roman and Byzantine empires. The decorative ceramics tiles used to construct the exterior and interior of mosques, monuments and palaces made the stone walled castles of the west look very plain in comparison.
The most important architectural building constructed under the Islamic faith was the mosque, highly regarded as sacred and the ?house of God?. These mosques followed the key principle of Islamic monotheism in the way they were constructed, decorated and furnished to symbolise beauty and the after-life.
A common feature in mosques is the minaret situated in one of the corners of the structure for the purpose of performing the call to prayer. The Mihrab sites the location from which the Imam leads the daily prayers. The Minbar, or pulpit as it is also known, is the site from which the speaker gives the sermon to the congregation.
However although Islam undeniably created a new more decorative form of achitecture with extensive use of calligraphy, arabesque and geometrcal designs never seen before, it also drew inspiration from the Roman, Egyptian, Byzantine and Persian/Sassanid models. For example the Hagia Sophia in Istanbul influenced Islamic architecture and for almost 500 years was used as the principal model for many of the Ottoman mosques i.e. the famous Suleymaniye Mosque.
What is most fascinating and beautiful about Islamic architecture is that it embodies all the main ornamentation and decorative techniques from floral motifs, geometry, ceramics to calligraphy, symbolic of the rich cultural heritage of the vast Islamic empire. The Islamic principles that govern all aspects of life are shown at their best in the close relationship between the arts and architecture. This is most evident in the great mosques situated around the world with the best situated in the Middle East.