Traditionally, an Islamic garden is a cool place of rest and reflection, and a reminder of paradise. The Qur'an has many references to gardens, and the garden is used as an earthly analogue for the life in paradise which is promised to believers:
- Allah has promised to the believing men and the believing women gardens, beneath which rivers flow, to abide in them, and goodly dwellings in gardens of perpetual abode; and best of all is Allah's goodly pleasure; that is the grand achievement (Qur'an 9.72)
There are surviving formal Islamic gardens in a wide zone extending from Spain and Morocco in the west to India in the east. Famous Islamic gardens include those of the Taj Mahal in India and the Generalife and Alhambra in Spain.
The general theme of a traditional Islamic garden is water and shade, not surprisingly since Islam came from and generally spread in a hot and arid climate. Unlike English gardens, which are often designed for walking, Islamic gardens are intended for rest and contemplation. For this reason, Islamic gardens usually include places for sitting.
Fairchild Ruggles refers to the universal nature of gardening, and the basic human needs it fulfills; the needs to cultivate, to master the wild landscape, and to bring order to it. The spiritual aspects of gardening, according to this view, were a later development. She further points out the classic formal garden, known as the Charbagh (or Chahar Bagh), is but one form which exists in the Islamic civilization; a civilization which has traditionally included peoples of many faiths and cultures.
Clifford A. Wright, an author on Mediterranean cuisine, describes different garden types for different purposes:
The Muslims had different kinds of gardens serving different purposes. The bustan was the garden of the inner court of a house, a formal garden with pools and water channels. The jannah was an orchard with palms, oranges, and vines irrigated by canals. The rawdah referred in particular to the vegetable garden that produced foods for the cooks.
Persian, Arabic and Byzantine influence
After the Arab invasions of the 7th century CE, the traditional design of the Persian garden was used in the Islamic garden. Persian gardens after that time were traditionally enclosed by walls and were designed to represent paradise; the Persian word for enclosed space is 'pairi-daeza.' In the Charbagh, or paradise garden, four water canals typically carry water into a central pool or fountain, interpreted as the four rivers in paradise, filled with milk, honey, wine and water. Hellenistic influences are also apparent; the Western use of straight lines in the plan is blended with Sassanid ornamental plantations and fountains.
Many of the gardens of Islamic civilization are lost to us today. While most others may retain their forms, the original plantings have been replaced with modern ones. The garden is a transient form of architectural art dependent upon the climate, and the resources available to those who care for it.
Evliya Çelebi's 17th century CE Seyahatname (travel book) contains descriptions of Paradise Gardens around the towns of Berat and Elbasan, Albania. According to Dr. Robert Elsie, an expert on Albanian culture, very few traces of the refined oriental culture of the Ottoman era remain here today.
Çelebi describes the town of Berat:
It is a huge open town, entirely outside the walls of the fortress. It is situated in a large area along the bank of the [...] river to the east and south of the upper fortress and is covered in vineyards, rose gardens and vegetable gardens. There are 5,000 one- and two-story stonework houses with red-tiled roofs. They are well built and attractive houses with gardens and are spread over seven verdant hills and valleys. Among them are over 100 splendid mansions with cisterns and fountains and an invigorating climate.
Çelebi describes the town of Elbasan:
The open town outside the walls extends on all sides of the fortress to the foot of the hills at a distance of one hour's march. The prosperous and cheerful-looking mansions in the open town are adorned with beautiful vineyards, paradisiacal gardens and parks with their pavilions and galleries. They are two or three stories high, made of stonework and with tiled roofs. Each of them has a source of pure flowing water, a pool and a fountain with water spurting from jets. They are luxurious dwellings like those in the gardens of paradise.
Dar al-Bahr, the Lake Palace, is situated on the southern end of Beni Hammad Fort, a ruined fortified city which has remained uninhabited for 800 years. Artifacts recovered from the site attest to a high degree of civilization. During its time, it was remarked upon by visitors for the nautical spectacles enacted in its large pool. Surrounding the pool and the palace were terraces, courtyards and gardens. Little is known of the details of these gardens, other than the lion motifs carved in their stone fountains. Beni Hammad Fort is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, noted as an "authentic picture of a fortified Muslim city."
The Shalimar gardens
The name Shalimar is thought to mean, among other things, "abode of bliss" or "light of the moon". There were originally three gardens with the name Shalimar: one in Lahore, Pakistan, another in Jammu Kashmir, India and finally one, located in Delhi, which has completely disappeared.
Shalimar Gardens, Lahore
Shalimar Gardens, Lahore, was built by the governor of Lahore, with funds supplied by the Mughal emperor Shah Jahan, beginning in 1641 CE. The water is supplied by a canal dug from the nearby Ravi river. Built in the Mughal style, it is surrounded by high walls with towers in the corners. The inner face of the walls have traces of frescoes done in floral patterns. The canal passes through the gardens, which are constructed on three separate terraces at different elevations. The garden terraces are laid out in the traditional "paradise" motif of four channels converging on a central fountain, and cover a total of forty acres. 
The garden was a common feature of homes in Arab Spain. Andalusian designs emphasized privacy and coolness, with rooms opening onto a roofed, open corridor. Next to this corridor, one would typically find a verdant patio garden complete with central fountain.
Al-Azhar park, Cairo
Al-Azhar Park is a modern landmark in Cairo, Egypt. It is laid out along a central series of terraced, formal Islamic gardens. Multicolored Mamluk stonework, fountains and Islamic geometric patterns are the predominating stylistic theme of the park. It is listed as one of the world's sixty great public spaces by the Project for Public Spaces (PPS).
Distant view of Mosque of Muhammad Ali from Al-Azhar Park, Cairo.
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- ICOMOS information on Islamic gardens in Iran
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- Chapter on Mughal Gardens from Dunbarton Oaks
- How to create an Islamic garden of your own
- Petrucciloli, Rethinking the Islamic Garden