Rivers of Paradise: Water in Islamic Art and Culture. Edited by SHEILA S. BLAIR and JONATHAN M. BLOOM. New Haven: YALE UNIVERSITY Piss, 2009. Pp. x + 364, richly illus. $85.
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 and 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, 2011) and "God Is Beautiful; He Loves Beauty" (Doha, October 2011), the topic of water was chosen for "transcending the traditional boundaries of 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 a well-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 fresh water. 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 meant that the 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 in a 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 he 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...