“Does this look like Paradise?” This was one question I never ceased to ask back in the days when my family and I went picnicking in a beautiful garden in Lagos. Green grasses, tall whispering palms, roses and hibiscus, sunflowers and cherry blossoms, colourful chirping birds, beautiful insects and refreshing waterfalls… I would sit and stare at the beauty of it all and wonder whether Paradise looked just the same. Nature really did play a big role in bringing me closer to Allah I as I began to fall head over heels in love not only with the humble gardens around me but also with the fascinating description of gardens in the glorious Qur’an. It was not only an avenue to meet new friends from different tribes and cultures; it was also an atmosphere that invoked a sober mood and a tranquil spirit in everyone.

Looking into the many roles that gardens play not only individually, but also communally across the world, I came across Mark Bryant, an environmental researcher and development officer for the study of Islam at the University of Cardiff, based in the UK. I decided to have a close chat with him to find out how much gardening has helped Muslim communities become green.

Wardah: Is there any nexus between communal gardening and Muslim culture?

Mark: With the diversity of Muslims in the UK, it is problematic to talk about any unified ‘Muslim culture’. Muslim communities in Britain today are made up of people from many different ethnic, linguistic and racial backgrounds. The length of time that Muslims have been coming to the UK from abroad means there is generational variety. This rich diversity can be reflected in the differing ways in which British Muslims see their relationship with the natural world and, in particular, gardens. However, environmental commentators such as Hossein Nasr and Faziun Khalid have pointed to a strong Islamic environmental ethic that is an intrinsic part of the religion and, of course, it is to an eternal garden that Muslims strive. Qur’anic descriptions of Paradise are of a garden and, indeed, the Arabic word ‘jannah’ means both garden and Paradise. All this could suggest that there should be a nexus between communal gardening and Muslim culture.

Wardah: In the lecture you delivered recently on whether or not British Muslims are green, you stated that some Muslim communities are still skeptical about taking up the gardening project. What do you think could be the reason for this and is there a possibility that this could change in the future?

Mark: Despite the connection to the natural environment I mentioned earlier, we found an inconsistent attitude by British Muslims to gardening activities. This is undoubtedly related to the diversity of backgrounds I mentioned earlier. For instance, it was reported to us that there had been a trend towards immigrant families concreting over their back gardens. A respondent explained that: “The vast majority of these people came from rural areas where they struggled to survive as subsistent farmers. When arriving in the UK, many turned their backs on agriculture or horticulture. Land was considered the cause of their deprivation and misery and they wanted nothing else to do with it”. Despite the strong imperative for Muslims to take care of their environment, it is an obligation that many are unaware of. However, the results can be transformational through initiatives where the Islamic environmental ethic is explained. I would therefore say that more projects are needed to reconnect people with the natural world. Schools should be encouraged and supported to give students the opportunity to experience growing plants, as many environmental attitude changes have traditionally begun through concentration on the next generation.

Wardah: Are there benefits that accrue from the art of gardening that Muslim communities can benefit from both spiritually and as regards their lifestyles?

Mark: It is well known that people living in deprived urban areas can benefit from community gardens. The lack of access, education and exposure to the natural environment leads to a disconnection from the natural world. Reconnecting people with nature has proven benefits to their general health and wellbeing as well as giving them a more informed understanding of many of the environmental issues of our day. These benefits are common to all. However, there are ways in which Muslims would benefit particularly from community garden involvement. For example, statistical data tells us that British Muslims suffer from a range of cumulatively disadvantaging socio–economic circumstances to a greater extent than all other faith groups in the UK. Therefore, awareness of their Islamic obligations towards the environment can be a very strong and motivating factor for Muslims. In addition, their enjoyment of the experience can be enhanced by their developing an awareness of the spiritual rewards of their efforts.

Wardah: Do you think that Muslims should begin to give more serious consideration to communal gardening as opposed to individual gardening or should they be encouraged to practise both simultaneously?

Mark: The simple answer to this question would be that I feel either one or the other or both are equally desirable. Really, the first step is to reconnect with the natural environment. In my opinion, people who are disconnected from the natural world around them cannot be expected to be able to understand how inexorably tied up they are in its fate. The British are renowned as a “nation of gardeners” and there is a great tradition of such activities to break down many barriers. For many British Muslims, access to gardens would be an issue and so the building of community gardens can form an important part in addressing this need. An inclusive approach is needed wherein community gardens are built for the whole community and not just one section. In our research, we did come across an example in Blackburn where a community garden was open to all but had been initially set up by local Muslims. This project seemed to have made a very positive impression on an initially skeptical non–Muslim community.

Wardah: Do you also think that the art of communal gardening should be a responsibility which the mosques should take up for and on behalf of the community?

Mark: As a hub of religious activities and identity, I think the mosques do indeed have a role to play in developing environmental awareness amongst the Muslim community it serves. In our research, we came across a couple of eco–mosques that were promoting environmental awareness, including the South Woodford Islamic Centre in London that claimed to be the first carbon neutral mosque in the UK. The Shah Jahan Mosque garden in Woking can serve as an example of how even a mosque garden can be a community partnership. However, our findings show a great lack of understanding of the significance of the Islamic environmental ethic by British Muslim religious leaders and, as such, is not prioritised or widely promoted.

Wardah: What advice would you give to other Muslim communities across the world looking to start up this project in the nearest future?

Mark: As my research was specifically on Islamic gardens in the UK, I can’t really speak for Muslim communities across the world. However, I feel it is worth repeating some of the fundamental points I stated earlier. People should be reminded of their responsibility as stewards of the natural world in order to provide a counter–narrative to the dominant view which puts so much emphasis on the Hereafter. Indeed, the argument can be made that by disregarding our responsibility to the environment we are, in fact, jeopardising our position in the Hereafter. Also, people should be made more aware of some examples of the rich cultural heritage of sustainable development that existed at various times in the history of Islamic civilisations. In this time, when so many look to the West for environmental solutions, it is important that Muslims living around the world are made aware of the potential they have in playing their part in tackling the problems we face. For example, as water becomes an increasingly global crisis, the still extant 800 year old water management system installed in the Palms Garden of Elche, Spain, serves as an example of a heritage Muslims can be proud of.


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