Rivers of Paradise: Water in Islamic Art and Culture

Rivers of Paradise: Water in Islamic Art and Culture

Edited by Sheila S. Blair and Jonathan M. Bloom. New Haven: Yale University Press

One of the most frequently repeated tropes in Islamic studies is that of the central role of water in
the arid lands of the Islamic world. Scholarship on the region often describes how the scarcity of water
shaped the development of everything from individual pious practice to the construction of cities, and
this climactic determinism has created a set of assumptions that have often been taken at face value.
Thus, the publication of Sheila Blair and Jonathan Bloom’s edited volume presents an opportunity to
engage both the history and the historiography of water in Islamic society. This beautifully designed,
richly illustrated collection would be any Islamic art historian’s dream for publication – it is executed
with high-quality reproduction, excellent maps, figures, architectural plans, and elegant chapter headings in gold calligraphy by Muhammad Zakariya. It reflects the proceedings of the second biennial
Hamad bin Khalifa Symposium on Islamic Art and Culture held in Doha, Qatar, in 2007, under the
auspices of the Qatar Foundation ad Virginia Commonwealth School of the Arts. Like the conferences
that followed, “And Diverse Are Their Hues: Color in Islamic Art and Culture”; published under the
same title by Yale Univ. Press, 201 1) and “God Is Beautiful; He Loves Beauty” (Doha, October 201 1),
the topic of water was chosen for “transcending the traditional boundaries of the medium, technique, time,
and place” (p. 1) or, in other words, to address broad topics and avoid the isolating tendency of academicians focusing on subjects of interest only to specialists. It brings together some of the brightest and
most venerable thinkers in Islamic art, architecture, history, and archaeology, and it represents a signal
contribution to our understanding of the role of water in the region, while at the same time serving
as a fine coffee-table book for the non-specialist. A straightforward introduction by Blair and Bloom
introduces the overarching themes and concerns of the volume, and limited notes at the end of each
chapter combined with awell-selected glossary and bibliography aid in striking this balance between
the scholarly and the popular. In addition, the book also contributes to an ongoing conversation regarding some of the challenges currently facing the discipline of Islamic art as a whole/

But first, the trope. It goes something like this: Islam was founded in a region where the acquisition
of water was a continuous struggle, and that fact led to certain responses and preoccupations within
Islamic societies. An emphasis on water is part of the foundation of Islam itself, for Mecca was an oasis
town on the desert caravan route that connected the Mediterranean world to the east, a city whose existence was inconceivable without a source of freshwater. Other cities in these dry climates also flourished first and foremost because of their proximity to canals, rivers, and oases. The Qur’an mentions water countless times, emphasizing its role in creation, using it as a metaphor for God’s benevolence and the defining feature of Paradise, where the righteous will reside in

“gardens . . . beneath which rivers flow” (Q 9:72).

Offering water to a weary traveler expresses both hospitality and piety, and the
duty to perform ablutions before prayer mean that he provision of water was an inherent feature of
the architecture of mosques, schools, and homes. Framed by these sorts of associations, the idea of the
archetypal character of water in Islamic societies has flourished primarily in works related to garden
studies, urbanism, architecture, and painting. It was solidified ina major conference held at Dumbarton
Oaks in 1976 on “The Islamic Garden,” followed by numerous publications, particularly in the aftermath of the World of Islam Festival held that same year, that explored the cultural, artistic, and, most
especially, the symbolic associations of water

There can be no doubt that certain regions described above are arid ones, and that without water
the existence of cities, gardens, agriculture, and landscapes in Islamic lands would be unimaginable.

But this is a truism for any human settlement throughout history, and the question is to what degree
this emphasis on water in Islamic studies is historically justified in comparison with other regions with
similarly arid climates, such as southern Europe, some regions of Africa and India, or Western China.
In other words, was there a peculiarly “Islamic” preoccupation with water? This question, while never
asked directly, seems to be answered strongly in the affirmative in Rivers of Paradise. But it is notable,
and commendable, that the book does not present an un-nuanced answer, and there is much in this
collection that challenges and enriches our understanding of the role of water in Islamic world.

The most intriguing theme is that of water as a symbol of Paradise, a linkage derived from literary sources and by far the most durable, and clichéd, model for the symbolic role of water in Islamic
culture (an incisive critique of the Paradise theme can be found in Laura Parodi’ s review of D. F.
Ruggles, Islamic Gardens and Landscapes [Philadelphia, 2008], Journal of Islamic Studies 21 [2010]:
439-43). By its very title, Rivers of Paradise (borrowed from the Qur’anic quotation noted above)
seems to validate the mainstream discourse on paradisiacal imagery and thus to reveal a particularly
textual historiographical emphasis. In this, the volume would not be unusual: despite more than thirty
years of challenges to textual primacy in postmodern art-historical scholarship, the field of Islamic art
on the whole has remained devoted to a text-based interpretive model. This is no doubt due, in part, to
the astonishing diversity of textual source material generated by a highly literate Islamic civilization,
although, ironically, one of the main problems that has consistently faced Islamic art historians is the
fact that few of these countless authors wrote directly about art before the modern period. There was,
as is often (and anachronistically) noted, no Vasari and no Vitruvius in Islamic art, and the limits, the
methods, and even the necessity, of interpretation, have become one of the most frequently debated
issues in the field (for recent historiographical debates, see Sheila Blair and Jonathan Bloom, “The
Mirage of Islamic Art: Reflections on the Study of an Unwieldy Field,” The Art Bulletin 85 [March
2003]: 152-84; Finbarr Barry Flood, “From the Prophet to Postmodernism? New World Orders and the
End of Islamic Art,” in Making Art History: A Changing Discipline and Its Institutions, ed. Elizabeth
Mansfield [London, 2007], 31-53). But, in fact, Rivers of Paradise counterbalances the mainstream,
textually based paradisiacal interpretation embraced in several of its essays by also engaging with a
wide range of scholars from fields as varied as archaeology, ecology, historic preservation, and architectural history and theory.

If one looks only at evidence from religious texts, the association of water and Paradise seems airtight. But, as shown by Carole Hillenbrand’s opening essay, a more wide-ranging survey of the literary
sources reveals that Islamic societies have myriad associations with water. Hillenbrand begins with the
religious texts, with their clear evocation of the connection between water and Paradise. However, she
quickly moves on to interesting discussions of the role of water in Muslim legal, scientific, and geographical treatises, followed by a nuanced analysis of water in imagination and symbolism as expressed
in fantastical travel writing (such as Sinbad the Sailor), and ending with abrief but eloquent analysis
of poetry. The survey makes clear that even in the literary sources, water was regulated by a complex
subfield of Islamic law, was used for divination and magical practices, and was an important part of
Islamic mystical thought. In poetry, it served as a powerful metaphor for the beauty of the human body,
of the emotion of love, and of both life and its destruction.

This demonstration of the complex associations of water in literary sources is a welcome departure
from previous Qur^anically derived reductionist trends on this subject, and it is continued and deepened in the second essay by Yasser Tabbaa, on images of water in Arabic poetry and gardens. His
primary argument, that there was reciprocity between gardens and garden poetry, is one of the most
promising new conceptual approaches in the field (for a compelling recent study, also focused on water
architecture, see Shirine Hamadeh, The City’s Pleasures: Istanbul in the Eighteenth Century [Washington, 2007]). This reciprocity was “such that as gardens and fountains became increasingly viewed in
poetic terms, the gardens themselves may have aspired to these literary ideals” (p. 60). In this model,
poetic ekphrasis carried descriptions of garden ideals westward from Baghdad to Sicily and Spain,
the poetry thus playing a key role in the transfer of ideas about garden architecture. Tabbaa rejects the
notion of Paradise as a static historical concept and proposes it as a “human construction that varied
according to historical and cultural traditions” (p. 78). This subjectivity is made possible, as Tabbaa notes, by a range of regional studies in Islamic art and architecture that have emerged in the past few
decades – meaning that for the first time we may begin to quantify the diversity of Islamic gardens. He
supplements previous research on cAbbãsid and Andalusian gardens by fitting them into a diachronic
framework and provides critical new insight into medieval palace and citadel gardens and fountains in
Syria, a period and a place that, until now, was virtually unexplored in garden studies.

Much of this diversity must be credited to the next contributor, D. Fairchild Ruggles, who in collaboration with an international group of scholars, including Attilio Petruccioli (author of II Giardino
Islamic : Architettura, natura , paesaggio [Milan, 1994] and Gardens in the Time of the Great Muslim Empires: Theory and Design [Leiden, 1997]), has spearheaded an ecological and socio-historical
approach to water and gardens in Islamic culture. Here, in her typically delightful prose, Ruggles
presents medieval knowledge of water management and contests the paradigm of the universal aridity
of Muslim lands by pointing out that in many regions of the Islamic world, the “challenge was not lack
of water but uneven precipitation” (p. 101). Thus, issues of water collection, storage, and regional distribution come to the fore. The mosque of Cordoba, with its vast cistern under the courtyard and roof
designed with runnels for water collection, is singled out as a model of environmentally friendly water
management, and Ruggles skillfully links medieval Cordoba to both its Roman past and to the regional
network of wells, aqueducts, and waterwheels, built under the Spanish Umayyads, that crisscrossed
medieval al-Andalus. Akey point underscored here and elsewhere in Ruggles’ s work, most recently
her Islamic Gardens and Landscapes (Philadelphia, 2008) and Gardens , Landscape, and Vision in the
Palaces of Islamic Spain (University Park, PA, 2006), is the way that medieval Muslims preserved
and advanced the hydraulic engineering of the Roman past, and this connection is welcome in a field
that often assumes cultural and technological rupture with the coming of Islam. Ruggles’ s ecological
and socio-historical approach enriches the discourse on water by demonstrating both the variety and
the sophistication of regional water-management practices in the Islamic world.

After this promising start on a regional and diachronically nuanced socio-cultural model, several
more empirically minded essays follow. A propitious theme is broached in two essays by Linda Komaroff and Venetia Porter: the role and meaning of objects related to water. Komaroff’s typology of water
vessels opens with an intriguing and little-studied question: how, or if, the form of Islamic objects
reflects their use-life. Arguing against the usual taxonomic classifications by date, dynasty, place, and
medium, Komaroff asks instead what we can know about how water vessels were used. She begins,
promisingly, by citing the example of Italian Renaissance maiolica studies, which have demonstrated
that changes in form reflected complex changes in diet and dining habits (see Richard Goldthwaite,
“The Economic and Social World of Italian Renaissance Maiolica,” Renaissance Quarterly 42 [1989]:
1-32). But Komaroff’s essay, despite its commendable ambition to read the social world of these
objects into their form, emerges as itself a kind of taxonomie article: primarily a formal analysis with
some speculation about their use, derived from poetic inscriptions. Still, Komaroff’s essay is important,
because it charts the territory and lays the groundwork for further inquiry into socio-cultural interpretations of water vessels, a critical first step and something only a handful of scholars have approached
previously. Venetia Porter’s essay on rock crystal amulets likewise provides much new empirical information, along with intriguing literary and epigraphic evidence for the use of stones in ceremonies to
bring rain and other magical practices, which helps to situate the stones in a socio-cultural context;
but one wishes for a more subtle interpretive framework, particularly of the poems and phrases that
appear on these objects. Both of these essays show how much promising material remains, as yet,
open for hermeneutic consideration in Islamic art, particularly in the realm of objects that derive from
archaeological contexts, where human meaning and intentionality can often be reconstructed based on
associated information. Such sources represent an informative counterpoint to evidence provided by
textual sources.

Several subsequent articles deal with various aspects of public water architecture, primarily fountains. Howaydal-Harithy’s contribution on sabïl-kuttâbs (public water houses /Qur’an schools) in
Mamlûk Cairo provides a solid typology for the development of the form over time, from humble
fountains inserted into the facades of mosques and madrasas to elaborate, free-standing structures that
marked the patronage landscape of the city. Paying homage to Stephen Humphries’ s seminal article