I always find it strange when I encounter those Muslims that sneer at their brethren who profess a love of gardens — common though these detractors are — writing them off as middle-class liberals (that meaningless insult of our era). It is not that for many of the poorest people around the world the garden is their sustenance, although this is undoubtedly true; it is the imagery of the garden that features so prominently within our tradition. Gardens beneath which rivers flow. Great gardens of luscious vegetation. The garden is a metaphor for all that is good, beautiful and desirous.
How strange then, that for some Muslims authenticity is found in urban sprawl, be it the poor ghetto of Muslim Cool or the marble, glass and steel visions of modern Arabia. The lovers of gardens are characterised as limp believers, somehow emasculated or weak. The tough, authentic Muslim would rather chop down the palm in the mosque courtyard, than water it and seek its shade. The Muslim who loves his garden is either a feminist, a sufi, middle-class, or — worst of all — all three. He is all that went wrong in Andalusia.
So a confession. I am a lover of gardens, both of the world and the hereafter. Our tradition speaks of each — Tis He Who produces gardens, both cultivated and wild, and palm-trees and crops of diverse kinds, both similar and dissimilar — and so I feel no shame in pursuing both.
For the first four years of our married life, my wife and I lived in a cramped flat in the roof of a big old converted house in west London. In summer it was like an oven, the large Velux windows in the sloping walls magnifying the heat of the sun like a greenhouse. In winter, the roof leaked, collecting a reservoir of water between the felt tiles and the plasterboard ceiling above us. It was no dream dwelling, but it was home and we were content through those years. Only, one thing was missing.
To compensate for our lack of garden, we teamed up with friends who lived a fifteen minute walk from our flat and together rented an allotment, which we shared for three years until they emigrated. When we started, we were the joke of the other allotment holders, because the only tools we possessed were a screwdriver and a hammer. The screwdriver, it turned out, was quite an effective tool for eking out the dandelions on the plot; the only problem was there were about five thousand of them. Over the months that followed, we gradually established a set of garden tools, built ourselves a shed and began to establish a garden retreat for our two flat-bound families.
When we began thinking about buying a house, it soon became clear that there was no way we would be able to afford anything in London, without both of us surrendering to the world of full-time employment for the rest of our lives. Much is made of a woman’s right to work, but the reality of life in London is that she has to work if there is to be secure shelter above her head at night. We had no choice then but to look for a place away from the urban sprawl of our capital city and consider one of its satellites instead.
We found our little market town almost by accident — or by divine decree, if you will. We were on our way to view some properties in a large town further north, when all of a sudden I had an urge to veer off down a country lane at the sight of a single signpost. Arriving in the town, we stopped at a newsagents, bought a map and asked the shopkeeper if there was a mosque in the vicinity. He thought there was and suggested some directions. Not only was there a mosque, we were soon to learn, but the Muslim community of the town was on the verge of completing a new, purpose-built place of worship. That was enough for us, I suppose, in our naive state of the time that did not distinguish between types of mosques and types of Muslims.
From then on, we settled for looking for a house here, our driving criteria being that the house we bought would have a garden. And soon enough we found the place. The house wasn’t up to much: it was run down, had no central heating or double-glazing, and was far from the house of my dreams; but its garden somehow won our heart. From this alone I concluded that there must be a reason why the Qur’an uses the imagery of the garden to appeal to man’s natural inclinations. This garden offered privacy, a place to retreat to, character and a view over fields on the opposite side of the valley. Even in midwinter, in the dampness and darkness, and the chilly cold, it convinced us that this would be our home.
Six years on, with a lot of hard work, the garden has come alive as our little sanctuary from the world. But more than that, slowly-slowly, it has become an extension of our home. In an evolution, reminiscent of Geoff Hamilton’s Ornamental Kitchen Garden that obsessed me in the 1990s when I should have been getting into Bay Watch and the Nintendo PlayStation, it has become a key ingredient in the culinary adventures of the kitchen. We shall never be able to produce crops to sustain us through the year, but in the beds of herbs lies that extra flavour that transforms a tired stew or plain salad into an enjoyable delight. From the garden derive soups, sarma and Black Sea delicacies, not to mention those early morning tealess teas.
For some in our time, paradise on earth is polished white marble, beneath which tubes of cooled water flow, decoratively clad reinforced concrete and towers of polished glass and steel. For others a barren, harsh landscape will best represent their sunnah. But for my part, the garden seems to be well-rooted in this tradition. So excuse me if I don’t apologise for this little obsession of mine.