Introduction & Keynote Address

Gardens Beneath Which Rivers Flow: The Significance of Water in Classical Islamic Culture

This lecture examines various aspects of the role of water in the medieval Islamic world, dominated as it was by arid deserts, but also home to some of the world’s earliest civilisations, located in the plains watered by the Nile, Euphrates, Tigris and even the distant Indus. Special attention is given to the descriptions of water – in the Qur’an, with its evocative images of Paradise; in the hadith which tells how the Prophet Muhammad prayed for rain; and, more generally, in medieval Arabic religious literature, such as the stories of the prophets. The discussion will also focus on how water is featured in classical Arabic and Persian poetry and prose, as trope and symbol. It will examine the part that water played in the daily lives of medieval Muslims, both in religious contexts – notably the precepts of Islamic law (the Shari’a) and the use of water for ritual purification in worship, in festivals and in the ceremonies of death, as well as the symbolic associations of water as blessing, for example the waters of Zamzam and Kawthar. The lecture will also highlight the importance of water in the secular sphere. The latter encompasses, of course, water as a symbol of wealth, power and pleasure, from regattas to gardens. Irrigation and water provision will also be covered in their manifold aspects – weirs, dams, sluices, mills, canals (both above ground and below), and the various associated devices, from the Nilometer and the water-clock to the shaduf and the water-wheel, including such structures as hammams and public fountains. The lecture will also explore Muslim attitudes toward the sea, from the thriving Indian Ocean trade to the marvels of the east which forever lay just over the horizon and which are described in the literature of travel and fantasy.

Educated at the Universities of Cambridge, Oxford and Edinburgh, CAROLE HILLENBRAND is now Professor of Islamic History and Head of the Department of Islamic and Middle Eastern Studies at the University of Edinburgh. She was visiting professor at Dartmouth College in 1994 and the University of Groningen in the Netherlands in 2002. She also serves as Vice-President of the British Society for Middle Eastern Studies, Islamic Advisory Editor for Edinburgh University, and editor of the series entitled “Studies in Persian and Turkish History,” published by Routledge since 1999. In addition to her many scholarly publications, she has written articles in popular newspapers and magazines on aspects of Islam and appeared on some fifteen television and radio documentary and discussion programs in the UK, the USA and the Middle East.


Download the video here:

Part 1

Part 2

Download the audio only here