The Diwan of Abu Nuwas
The Diwan of Abu Nuwas
THE LITRARY WORK
The collected poems of Abu Nuwas set in Iraq in the late eighth century c.e.; first compiled in Arabic (as Diwan Abi Nuwas) in the mid-tenth century, translated into English in 1974.
Though Abu Nuwas wrote various kinds of verse, he is most famous for his wine poems, likely written to entertain the Baghdad elite. The poems celebrate the physical and metaphysical experiences of wine drinking in a uniquely rebellious tone.
Al-Hasan ibn Hani Abu Nuwas (d. 814 or 815) is widely considered one of the greatest Arab poets of all time, largely because of his wine poems. He was born around 760 to a Persian seamstress, probably in Ahwaz province. His father, a Damascene, died while he was a child and his mother moved with him to Basra. There Abu Nuwas memorized the Quran at school and studied Islamic law and prophetic traditions (hadith). In Basra, and later in Kufa, Abu Nuwas continued his education in Arabic poetry, Arabian lore, and tribal genealogy with some of the renowned intellectual luminaries of the day. In Kufa, he fell under the sway of the reprobate poet Walibah ibn al-Hubab, who taught him poetry and with whom he had a sexual relationship. In 786 Abu Nuwas moved to Baghdad in search of his fortune. That year, Harun al-Rashid, immortalized in Islamic tradition for his asceticism and wisdom, and in the world’s imagination for ruling the stylized Baghdad of The Arabian Nights (also in WLAIT 6: Middle Eastern Literatures and Their Times), was installed as caliph. The pious caliph probably held Abu Nuwas at arm’s length. Nor did the poet find favor among Harun al-Rashid’s viziers, the Barmakids, members of a clan descended from the high priests of the Buddhist shrine in the Central Asian city of Balkh, themselves responsible for the upkeep of a number of poets. In 803 the Barmakids were suddenly and inexplicably slaughtered on orders from Harun al-Rashid. No one knows why they were wiped out, but the most popular reason that contemporaries supplied was an illicit love affair between the vizier Ja’far al-Barmaki and the caliph’s sister Abbasah. Abu Nuwas wrote an elegy on the disgraced clan. His poems are generally full of rebellious and often shocking content, which has shaped the poet’s biographical representation; in works ranging from highbrow Arabic literary anthologies to Swahili folktales, Abu Nuwas is typically portrayed as the most compelling drunk, fornicator, and blasphemer who ever lived. He would become most known for his wine poems, which embody and proclaim the bohemian mores of the elite citizens of Baghdad, then the cosmopolitan center of the medieval Islamic world. These poems reflect many of the intellectual and literary currents of Abu Nuwas’s day.
In 752 the caliph al-Mansur decided to build his capital in the center of Iraq, where the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers come closest to each other, at a confluence of trade routes that had a healthy climate and fertile soil. Al-Mansur dubbed his capital “The City of Peace,” but most people called it by the old name of the village that had been there: Baghdad. According to an apocryphal story, on al-Mansur’s orders, builders used bricks from the palace of Ctesiphon, the nearby capital of the vanquished Iranian Sasanian empire, foreshadowing a vision of cosmopolitan grandeur intended to outstrip the Persian court. At the center of the so-called Round City was the Abbasid caliph’s palace, crowned by the Green Dome and the Great Mosque. Baghdad’s quarters were divided by geographical origin and occupation, with separate housing for Arabs, Persians, and, for example, for water-carriers.
THE MOCK-HEROIC SPEAKER
The poem “Many a Nagging Shrew” is mock-heroic. For the Arab listener, the protagonist’s brave disregard for the rebuking woman and his indulgence in costly wine may well have called to mind a famous ode by Tarafah ibn al-Abd, a poet of pre-islamic Arabia. In his and other ancient poems, the hero, a warrior-tribesman, defied his nagging wife by squandering the family savings at the wine shop. He courageously demonstrated his lack of attachment to money and challenged fate. Abu Nuwas took such rebellion further than any poet before him. In many of his most original poems he adopted the pose of the majin (“he who cares not”). Although the stance of the majin permeates Abu Nuwas’s wine poems, it also generated its own genre of poetry, mujun distinguished by its offensive sexual explicitness and scatalogical lines. Such poems, often detailing the sexual conquest of a young man, were not merely crude humor. In their vulgarity and their homoeroticism, they parodied the chaste longing for an idealized woman characteristic of contemporary Arabic courtly love poetry (see Meisami).
The city soon became a center of trade in goods and in learning, the core of what the historian Adam Mez famously called “the Renaissance of Islam.” Its mosques and homes hosted meetings of the most influential thinkers of the age. When Arab Muslim scholars became curious about the Greek treatises in the libraries of their Christian neighbors, Islamic philosophy and theology was born. Those who sought to bend Islam to fit Aristotelian metaphysics and natural science became the first Muslim philosophers. Those who sought to bend Greek thought, on, for example, the eternity of the world, to fit Islamic beliefs became the first Muslim theologians. Scholars in Abbasid Baghdad played critical roles in shaping Islam itself, collecting and organizing traditions on the meaning of the Quran and compiling the authoritative biography of the Prophet Muhammad. Grammarians, lexicographers, and philologists took stock of the Arab heritage and arrived at new and systematic formulations of Arabic language and authoritative anthologies of literature. For the first time, historians viewed the rise of the Islamic empire in the global light of past and contemporary empires, East and West.
Although Arab armies defeated the Sasanians, some of the conquered continued to practice Zoroastrianism, the Persian Empire’s state religion. There is an image of a triumphant and universal Islam offering new converts equal footing, but the image is not accurate. In its first two centuries Islam was the religion of a ruling Arab elite. Non-Arabs (mainly Persians) who converted became clients of Arab tribes (mawali). Their attempts to move upwards in society stimulated cultural life. Intellectuals of Persian origin quickly became some of the most eloquent spokesmen for and shapers of Arab culture. Arabs were accorded special privileges and this rankled non-Arabs, some of whom, under the aegis of a movement called the shu‘ubiyah, championed the superiority of non-Arab, especially Persian, culture. But Persian was not Baghdad’s only non-Arab culture. Some Christians, holdouts for the Nestorian Christianity that most Iraqis practiced before the Arab conquests, were drawn to the new Muslim polis. Also, leaders of the ancient Jewish community of Iraq, recognizing the value of an education in Baghdad, had moved their main rabbinical academies there by the late ninth century.
Courtly culture and Abu Nuwas’s place in it
During their leisure time, the Abbasid family, their coterie, viziers, high-ranking agents in the imperial chancery, and the wealthy merchants of Baghdad enjoyed polite entertainment in opulent quarters, manicured gardens, and estates outside the city. Groups of such people might have embarked on pleasure cruises down the Tigris (Abu Nuwas describes three ornately carved touring boats commissioned by the caliph al-Amin),
Itinerant merchants, usually Jews or Christians, brought wine to the oasis towns of central Arabia before the rise of Islam. There, they hoisted flags above their tents to show that they had a supply of the costly product. The Arabic poetry of the pre-islamic period refers to wines from Iraq, Persia (the Shiraz grape is familiar to Western wine lovers), the Golan Heights, and Yemen, the fertile southern tip of the Arabian Peninsula In his delineation of the tenets of Islam, the Prophet Muhammad forbade wine (though his court poet, Hassan ibn Thabit, was the generation’s greatest wine bard). While some jurists wrangled over precisely which alcoholic beverages fell under the ban, Islamic law affirmed the ban on drinking alcohol by a broad consensus. Nevertheless, after the rise of Islam, wine was surreptitiously sold to Muslim libertines by Christians and Jews. Medieval Muslim legal discussions on the (il) legality of drinking make clear that the alcoholic beverages, both fermented and distilled, were made from a number of grains, honey, grapes, fresh or raisins, or other fruit Grape wine, however, stood as the alcoholic beverage par excellence. At a tavern, whether free-standing or attached to a monastery or royal residence, grapes were trod on by a person standing in a “press” and the juice was collected. The juice was either cooked down or allowed to ferment in the sun or tn vaults in a large clay wine jar or amphora, lined with bitumen to make It watertight and sealed with clay or aromatic plaster. Its pointed base enabled it to be stood upright in loose soil, presumably during the aging process, or set on a tripod once it was brought forth ready to drink. Examples of such jars, discovered by a German archaeological team in Iraq, measure about 32 by 8 inches. On each jar was a painted figure (a singing-girl, monk, or hunter). The painted figure is relevant to Abu Nuwas’s poetry, which sometimes describes the wine cask as a body (the wine being its soul), or as a person in general.
played polo, watched horse races, hunted antelope, with trained falcons, saluki hounds, or cheetahs in tow. Returning home, assembled guests might have played sophisticated literary games displaying their detailed knowledge of the Arabic language, listened to songs of unrequited love performed by singing slave girls and their accompanists, and drank wine. Literary accounts and miniatures suggest that wine was brought forth with great ceremony. In festive clothing, the vintner, his assistants, and guests were surrounded by candles and sweet-smelling herbs. The vintner broached the amphora with a special tool and strained it into smaller vessels. Guests were offered small samples before the drinking began in earnest. One particularly fastidious vintner of the Umayyad period is said to have washed his hands every time he opened a jar and to have given everyone a fresh napkin after each drink. Such reports, along with Abu Nuwas’s odes, point to a sophisticated appreciation of wine, despite the prohibition. In an atmosphere given also to a refined philological taste, lyricism, and eroticism, a good poet, particularly one as unburdened by conventional pieties as Abu Nuwas, could be the life of the party.
Poets and other men of letters enabled this courtly culture to exist. Philologists tutored youthful caliphs, teaching them to savor novel usages of obscure Arabic words. Anthologists collected entertaining and astonishing anecdotes illustrating the machinations of fate, providing rich conversation pieces for elite soirees. Writers of ornate prose (mainly non-Arabs) honed their skills through their work as secretaries in the imperial chancery. Poets composed grand odes in praise of the caliphs’ piety, bravery, and generosity, in praise of their subordinates, and in praise of prominent members of society. Such poetry was only prudent on the poet’s part, since courtly culture enabled the poet to subsist. If the addressee appreciated an ode composed on his behalf, a poet could garner prestige and a substantial monetary reward. A patron brazen enough to refuse a poet payment might find himself, his tribe, and his mother the subject of witty and obscene lines of invective. The efflorescence of literary life that took place in this period depended on the desire and ability of wealthy individuals to patronize writers.
For Abu Nuwas (like most professional poets of his time), composing panegyric poems for patrons was his bread and butter. After the fall of the Barmakids in 803 he found work in the entourage of the Inspector of Land Taxes. He had to accompany his new employer to Cairo, Egypt (in 805 and 807).
When the caliph Harun al-Rashid died in 809, Abu Nuwas proved to be a boon companion to his shiftless and hedonistic son, the caliph al-Amin. Al-Amin’s mother, Zubaydah, who wanted to ensure the continuation of the dynasty, noted her son’s lack of interest in the opposite sex with concern. Zubaydah is said to have devised a strategem whereby young women sought the caliph’s favor by wearing boys’ clothing and painting moustaches on their faces with aromatics. Abu Nuwas described them in an often excised line of a famous poem, as girls “who had two lovers, a sodomite and an adulterer” (Abu Nuwas, Diwan Abi Nuwas, vol. 3, p. 3; trans. M. Wagner). Such cross-dressing became the rage in Baghdad, as evident from Abu Nuwas’s collected poetry (diwan spelled with a w for Arabic pronunciation). There is a section in it devoted to ghulamiyat (“poems on girls dressed like boys”). An impending civil war cast a shadow over al-Amin’s frivolity. While al-Amin’s brother, al-Ma’mun, believing that his sibling had usurped his rightful place, mustered an army in the volatile eastern province of Khwarazm, al-Amin affixed jeweled earrings to a fish in his private pond. Al-Amin is said to have sat in a lean-to made of fragrant wood, draped with silk and red gold, drinking wine from an oversized goblet while his brother besieged the capital. Among the particulars of al-Amin’s debauchery used by al-Ma’mun to rally his troops was his brother’s association with the poet Abu Nuwas.
Al-Mas’udi provided a gripping account of the civil war that erupted in 813 between the brothers al-Amin and al-Ma’mun in his history Muruj al-dhahab wa-ma’adin al-jawhar (The Meadows of Gold). According to this history, al-Amin was defended by tens of thousands of “rowdies” (ay-yarun), who wore nothing but loincloths and palm-fiber helmets, rode other rowdies as steeds, and defended Baghdad with stones, spears, and similarly crude weapons. The siege devastated Baghdad and al-Amin was killed. Despite al-Ma’mun’s earlier rhetoric against Abu Nuwas, the poet apparently survived the regime change. He probably died in Baghdad a few years later as a result of an illness.
This represents what is known about the life of Abu Nuwas with some degree of certainty. A much larger corpus of stories about Abu Nuwas revolves around his poems. Drawing on the poems, the Egyptian literary critics Abbas Mahmud al-Aqqad and Muhammad al-Nuwayhi developed psychological portraits of the poet. Al-Aqqad concluded that Abu Nuwas’s obsession with wine resulted from his narcissism and al-Nuwayhi diagnosed Abu Nuwas as having an Oedipal complex that led to homosexuality. A poet who became caliph for one day, Ibn al-Mu‘tazz (d. 908), judged Abu Nuwas’s celebration of sodomy as a literary affectation, arguing that he was “more heterosexual than an ape” (Ibn al-Mu‘tazz, p. 308). More recently, John Mattock found some of the sexual and alcoholic images in Abu Nuwas’s wine poetry so inherently improbable that he saw the poems as the imaginings of a celibate teetotaler. Another scholar, James Montgomery, saw in Abu Nuwas’s obsession with wine and his guilty poems of contrition the symptoms of alcoholism. Therefore, the question of whether or not Abu Nuwas was a drunken and debauched homosexual or simply the author of many poems treating such themes resembles the proverbial chicken and egg. In any case, these stories were clever and entertaining, ensuring Abu Nuwas’s place in posterity.
Most collections of Arabic poetry (diwans) were originally organized alphabetically by the letter that ended each verse of a poem. In contrast, Abu Nuwas’s diwan was divided by genre: panegyric poems, elegies, invective, courtly love poems on men and women, poems of penitence, hunting poems, wine poems, and salacious poems. Abu Nuwas’s innovations were primarily in the last three genres. Within these, most aficionados of Arabic poetry would point to Abu Nuwas’s wine poems (khamriyat) as the source for his mighty reputation. While wine and its consumption might play a small part in a number of poetic genres, wine poems devote their undivided attention to this subject.
Contents summary—the wine poems
The centerpiece in a wine poem is often its finely chiseled and vivid description of wine. A patterned narrative repeats itself with variations in Abu Nuwas’s wine poems: brief description of the revelers, arrival at the drinking venue, conversation with the proprietor, bringing the wine cask, breaking it open, pouring the wine, mixing it with water, drinking, and drunkenness. The dynamic narrative contrasts with the description of the wine, a moment when time nearly stands still. A number of Abu Nuwas’s wine poems paint a vivid picture of the drinkers, the setting (often a verdant garden), the cup (finely chiseled with scenes from ancient history), and the beautiful sight of the deep red wine’s admixture with water.
Featured in the following poem is an extended description of wine, which likens the intoxicant to a woman:
What a wonderful night I spent, sleepless
until dawn broke.
We were given a wine, the “daughter” of a
By excessive sediment, stored in earthen jugs.
Her pourer picked the grapes that made her:
red and black, like irises and pupils,
When she is decanted, it looks as though
saffron and blood mingled together,
Her pourer protected her in amphorae so that
she had nothing to fear ...
... for fifty years, until she aged, her color
having become darker than grape leaves.
Noble men, hawks, fought over her, their
faces as red as anemones,
Her pourer brought her forth and she was
like saffron-infused perfume,
Flashing like lightning bolts that shone from
the decanter’s hollow,
She was as white as glittering swords and the
drinkers gave her a position of responsibility,
She was brought forward, bubbling, spurred
on by a fickle youth who walked gingerly.
The drinkers hurried to break her hymen
with a sharp-edged implement,
Blood flowed from it like a nosebleed from a
It looked like a solitary flame blazing in mid-
air, when the wine touched the water,
And the foam that gathered around the rims
of the goblets was like chokers of purest
What a night spent in the company of a
group of people who committed no sin other than telling stories and speaking eloquently,
Who were given drink from a vintage wine
that stalks the brain and takes it by force,
The sound of the decanter, poured into the
cup, was like an old man’s cackling and choking.
(Diwan Abi Nuwas, vol. 3, pp. 218-19; trans. M. Wagner)
The poem begins with the narrator promising to provide an account of a night out with his friends. He focuses on describing the wine they were served. There is a sequence to this description: grapes are picked, the wine is aged, brought forth in an amphora, the amphora is pierced, the wine is poured off into a decanter, then into cups containing some water, then drunk. The narrator also praises his drinking companions.
Likening the wine to a woman is a signature technique of Abu Nuwas’s wine poems, characterized as the “erotic-in-bacchic” (Kennedy, pp. 26-36). According to this poetic logic, buying the wine turns into paying a young bride’s dowry and breaking open the wine jug becomes defloweration. This current of sexual violence recurs in the poem when the wine takes the drinkers’ brain by force, figuratively raping them. This poem is replete with blood-red imagery, ranging from the flushed faces of the drinkers to spilled blood, breaking the hymen, and a nosebleed. When considered in conjunction with the wine’s own electric luminescence, heat, and aggression, such images inject a note of mock-heroism into the poem, the drinkers calling to mind warriors, the poem invoking a variety of dangers to life and limb. There is a serious undertone to the imagery of combat. Together the images and language effect a relatively dark tone, suggesting that for Abu Nuwas, the world of wine was, while festive on its surface, a deadly serious realm, fraught with implications for man’s confrontations with the vicissitudes of fate.
Another example of a wine poem follows. This time the wine acquires a quasi-religious aura: it is exceedingly old, perhaps having witnessed great events of prophetic and profane history. It is luminous and monks might serve as its attendants.
HOMOSEXUALITY IN THE MEDIEVAL MUSLIM WORLD
Islam forbids homosexual sex (liwatah). Nevertheless, by the ninth century, Islam’s strict separation of the sexes and the burgeoning traffic In “youths” created the social circumstances for a considerable loosening of these strictures, (Singing girls—concubines similar to the hetairai ancient Greece—were also bought and sold.) Male heterosexuality extended to taking the active role in sex with an effeminate and socially inferior male adolescent This proclivity is amply documented in premodern Arabic literature, a vast corpus that contains the most voluminous and frank treatment of mate homoeroticism in all of world literature. This is not to say that Islam’s ban on homosexuality was overturned. Most sources insisted that a young man who had sprouted a beard could no longer have sex with an older man. In addition, a stigma attached to the passive partner in homosexual sex. Abu Nuwas, who described his love of young chancery secretaries, sons of respectable Baghdadis, and monastic novices in his poetry, probably expressed his genuine sexual preference. Yet he cannot be said to have been “homosexual” or “gay” in a modern sense, as his was a predilection not uncommon among (usually married) heterosexual men of his time, place, and social status. Among Sufis (Muslim mystics) the singing of homoerotic lyric poetry and “gazing upon a beardless youth” (al-nazar bi ‘l-murd) figured prominently in their sacred concerts (sama).
Many a nagging shrew, full of good advice,
seeks this impious rebel’s repentance.
One such woman hurried to set me on the
right path but my nature, my personality, and my chosen course are thoroughly crooked.
When she harangued me, I shooed her away
and she left with her heart a-flutter.
Know that I have diligently conditioned my
heart to find following the right path unacceptable.
I have devoted many mornings to an ancient
wine like saffron-infused perfume, secreted away for ages in the churches of Dabiq [a village near Aleppo],
Boasting myriad colors when it spreads out in
the glass, silencing all tongues,
Showing off her body, golden, like a pearl on
a tailor’s string,
In the hand of a lithe young man who speaks
beautifully in response to a lover’s request,
With a curl on each temple and a look in his
eye that spells disaster.
He is a Christian, he wears clothing from
Khurasan and his tunic bares his upper chest and neck.
Were you to speak to this elegant beauty, you
would fling Islam from the top of a tall mountain.
If I were not afraid of the depredations of He
who leads all sinners into transgression,
I would convert to his religion, entering it
knowingly and with love,
For I know that the Lord would not have
distinguished this youth so unless his was the true religion.
(Abu Nuwas, al-Nusus al-muharramah, pp. 173-74; trans. M. Wagner)
The poem’s outrageous and carefully cultivated rebelliousness is striking—a fact that was not lost on the pious Caliph Harun al-Rashid, who is said to have ordered the poet jailed upon hearing it.
The poem begins with the speaker shooing off a woman concerned for his soul. He then accounts for some of his sins: mornings spent served fine wine (described in detail) by a Christian youth, whose beauty testified that Christianity was the one true faith (an ironic ascription).
This poem successively thumbs its nose at heterosexual propriety, Islam’s ban on alcohol consumption, its condemnation of homosexual sex, and Islam itself. Abu Nuwas’s wine poems, like this one, often describe the physical charms and coquettish behavior of serving boys or singing girls. In the conclusions of some poems, the poet-reveler boasts of having penetrated the server, with or without his consent.
Flirting with the Devil
Non-Muslims were not subject to the Islamic ban on wine production and drinking. Though expressly forbidden from selling wine to Muslims, the Christian, Jewish, or Zoroastrian tavern-keeper is a stock character in Abu Nuwas’s wine poems. One poem expresses a degree of empathy for the restrictions under which Jews lived in his time. However, for Abu Nuwas, of religions other than Islam, Christianity is the most richly associative. In his poems (and, broadly speaking, in medieval Arabic literature), the monastery serves as the scene for debauchery, the crack of its wooden clapper sounding a call not to ascetic devotion but to the cup. Scattered throughout his wine poems are the names of many monasteries and out-of-the-way taverns in Iraq, particularly around Baghdad, and in Syria, where a Muslim could find wine. In “Many a Nagging Shrew,” as in other poems by Abu Nuwas, the young monastic novice who serves the wine to the speaker appears to arouse his carnal interest. Abu Nuwas also seems to have reveled in the sheer impiety of a Muslim drinking the day away in a monastery. One of his poetic vignettes alludes to the significance of wine in the sacrament of the Eucharist, the consumption of wine and bread to remember Jesus’ death, when the poet drinks the winelike saliva from a Christian boy’s mouth. (Drinking saliva is a stock metaphor for kissing in Arabic poetry.) While in this instance Abu Nuwas showed some familiarity with Christian practices, in general he saw Christianity negatively as all that was contrary to Muslim piety.
In an ironic line, the drinker explains that his reluctance to apostasize stems from his fear of the depredations of “He who leads all sinners into transgression.” The leader of all sinners into transgression is Satan (called lblis in the Islamic tradition). As in Christianity, the Satan of Islam tempts man to sin. This role assured Satan a supporting role in Abu Nuwas’s poetry. The most remarkable of such poems is a dialogue between Abu Nuwas and the Devil, in which Satan tries to entice the poet to “repent” of his (temporarily) upright behavior. In a different poem, Abu Nuwas threatens Satan that if the Devil does not make a lovely young man fall in love with the poet, he will give his undivided attention to studying the Quran. Such witty dialogues were highly ironic (and probably very funny) in a society where Satan was not thought to have had any redeeming qualities.
Poetry as protest
The great Islamicist Ignaz Goldziher, contemplating Abu Nuwas’s poetry, concluded that “In Islam we find the phenomenon of a people’s poetry being for centuries a living protest against its religion” (Goldziher, p. 35). While one might argue that this scholar threw too wide a net in including all Islamic poetry, his question remains: why was Abu Nuwas embraced by a civilization whose social and religious norms he took pleasure in flaunting? The Quran heaps opprobrium upon poets for being people “who say what they do not do” (Quran 26:226). For poets like Abu Nuwas, this statement of God’s became a defense. (Abu Nuwas is said to have won release from a jail term with this verse.)
Abu Nuwas’s scatalogical compositions can be explained with reference to the place of humor in classical Islamic civilization. Al-Tha’alibi (d. 1038) offered something of an explanation of why his poetry anthology, The Unique Pearl of the Age, contained so many salacious poems by quoting a verse that said every house needs a toilet. Yet Abu Nuwas’s wine poems, shot through with the grave and hoary themes of heroic struggle in the face of death, honor, violence, and beauty, as well as allusions to Muslim theology and scripture, present a more serious challenge to Muslim society. The scholar Andras Hamori perhaps offered the best explanation for the paradox when he defined Abu Nuwas as a ritual clown. This may also explain Abu Nuwas’s appearance in The Arabian Nights as a kind of court jester and his guises as an eloquent trickster in folktales from Morocco to Zanzibar. Abu Nuwas reminds modern readers, familiar to one extent or another with the severe and puritanical aspect of contemporary Islam, of the following historical truth: a variety of intellectual trends, including strong elements of humor and self-criticism, once flourished in the metropolitan center of an exuberantly self-confidant Islamic empire.
Sources and literary context
The poets of pre-Islamic Arabia, eloquent spokesmen for the experiences and tensions of a nomadic life, lived in an extraordinarily harsh physical environment. For these distant predecessors of Abu Nuwas, wine served as a potent symbol for man’s struggle against death. A poet might liken the singular taste of wine, an imported luxury, to his beloved’s mouth. More often, however, spending money on wine represented a heroic thumbing of his nose at fate, a dramatization of muruwwah, the tribal code of manliness.
Abu Nuwas, having studied the ancient poets with the top scholars of his day, would surely have known such ancient poems. His wine poems digested and synthesized poems on wine by many poets who lived before him. To take one major example, Abu Nuwas reproduced the antithesis between wine and Islamic values articulated by Abu Mihjan al-Thaqafi, a poet who lived before but also after the emergence of Islam (died in the mid-seventh century). Abu Nuwas even concluded one of his poems by quoting a famous line of Abu Mihjan—” If I die, bury me next to a vine whose roots will give my bones a drink” (Abu Mihjan al-Thaqafi, p. 14; trans. M. Wagner).
Arab-Persian relations in the Iraq of Abu Nuwas’s day were considerably more complex than a division into two camps, Many of the most eloquent defenders of the Arab heritage from its shu’ubi critics, such as the great essayist al-Jahiz, Ibn Qutaybah, the poet Abu Tammam, and Abu Nuwas himself, were not pure Arabs. Typically, new non-Arab converts to Islam became clients of Arab tribes. These Arab tribes were divided into two main branches, northern and southern. Already by the late seventh century, enmity had developed between the northern and southern tribes, then ensconced in garrison cities across the Near East. Abu Nuwas took great pride in his southern Arab lineage and perhaps also in his mixed heritage. According to one story/he based his honorific title, Abu Nuwas, on the title of a Jewish king of ancient Yemen, Dhu Nuwas (“the one with dangling locks of hair”).
Quotation was a favorite technique in Abu Nuwas’s repertoire. He would place lines or fragments from famous or not-so-famous poems in a context that gave them a completely new, and often offensive, meaning. Such quotations were often placed in the mouths of singing girls or serving boys at the end of a poem. Abu Nuwas made frequent and sophisticated allusions to verses of the Quran and he showed more than a passing familiarity with the theological currents of his day. Occasionally he would give a verse of the Quran a shocking and scatalogical twist. The overall effect, however, of weaving Quranic language into his wine poems was the enhancement of their quasi-religious character.
From the Umayyad caliph al-Walid ibn Yazid (d. 743), who installed a private bath—to be filled with wine—at his palace near Jericho, Abu Nuwas inherited a sharply defiant attitude towards Islam as well as the portrayal of wine as a near-divine substance. The poet Abu al-Hindi (d. mid-eighth century) provided precedent for the wine poem’s merging of bacchism with eroticism as well as the dramatic conversation with the tavern-keeper. A descent from lyricism to obscenity, so prominent in the wine poems of Abu Nuwas that end in the seduction of the cup bearer, can be found in the poetry of Abu Nuwas’s tutor (and lover), Walibah ibn Hubab (d. late eighth century). Satan shows his face in some of Walibah’s poems too. Walibah was affiliated with a group of poets, “the libertines of Kufa” (zurafa al-kufa); of all Abu Nuwas’s contemporaries, these libertines most influenced his work. Several of these poets wrote poems on wine and on sexual encounters with adolescent boys, two of Abu Nuwas’s main poetic preoccupations. Other poets of his time may have influenced his work in different ways. A poem by the blind poet Bashshar ibn Burd begins as an ethereal ode to an honorable young woman and ends with the protagonist’s groping her. Mock-heroism sets the tone for Abu al-Shamaqmaq’s account of a flea’s brave and bloody campaign against a human.
Abu al-Hindi and Walibah used themes associated with the shu’ubiyah, the anti-Arab, pro-Persian literary-political trend. If Abu Nuwas inserted shuubi elements in his wine poems, they merely added another hue to a broader picture of contrariness rather than making a discrete statement of political affiliation. A number of his poems poke fun at the desert Arabs (the Bedouin), whom cosmopolitan Arabs viewed as the fathers of culture and civilization. Shuubis portrayed them as rude denizens of hair tents and as lizard-eaters. Abu Nuwas’s poems in this vein spoke to urban sophisticates of Persian stock with shuubi leanings, meanwhile challenging stock conventions of the ancient Arab ode, the qasidah, with a new paradigm—the wine poem.
In retrospect, literary historians speak of Abu Nuwas as standing at the vanguard of a contemporary trend in Arabic poetry, called “New” poetry (muhdath). New poetry emphasized rhetorical embellishment and metaphorical sophistication. The philologist Abu Ubaydah considered Abu Nuwas the greatest of New poets. Elite audiences, tutored by literary scholars, came to appreciate and even demand poems that used a wide variety of rhetorical figures, many of them rooted in the similarities between Arabic words, rare vocabulary, and striking metaphors.
Reception and impact
Despite his irreverent poetry (or perhaps because of it), and despite the release of a book called “Abu Nuwas’s Plagiarisms,” which took a stern view of his poems’ liberal borrowings from other poets’ work, Abu Nuwas fared well among later generations of scholars and continued to exert influence. He
A HUNTING POEM BY ABU NUWAS
Like many of the best medieval Arab poets, Abu Nuwas divided his attention between innovative poetic pursuits, like wine poetry and mujun, and more conservative poetry, like panegyric, elegiac, and hunting poems, that relied upon convention. In addition to his fame as the poet of wine, Abu Nuwas garnered praise for his poems on hunting. These are full of the obscure vocabulary dear to connoisseurs of ancient Arabic poetry. An example follows.
I set out very early—the night was still full of dark clouds but morning (cut) through the darkness quickly,
Like a waving jeweled saber, with a wide-jawed and resolute [cheetah] in tow,
Courageous, with sinewy back and muscled neck, its body sturdy and lean,
A massive and frightening creature, its cheeks deeply lined, with black stripes on its throat,
Thick-necked and mighty pawed, with an adamantine build, it has a chest like a Bactrian camel and a leonine throat,
A lion but for its leopard-like spots, ready for any fight.
After gazing outwards for a long time, its forehead smooth and dry, it spotted two herds of gazelles,
It approached them, stalking at a languid pace,
Burning with desire for them, it set a devious ambush, sliding by like a viper,
Past every hillock and crevasse until it reached its goal,
Then it burst into a sprint across the level plain, sending the gazelles in all directions and shattering their tranquility with a racing attack.
Between the way it bides its time and the way it nurses its will, hunting has no merit without a cheetah.
(Diwan Abi Nuwas, vol. 2, pp. 662–63; trans. M. Wagner)
Of all the animals a medieval Arab gentleman might take to the hunt, the cheetah (fahd) was the most ostentatiously luxurious because it was difficult to catch and tame and maintain Since the caliph al-Amin, Abu Nuwas’s employer, was an avid hunter, the poet may have watched this predator in action while on the hunt with this caliph. His poem describes a cheetah approaching herds of gazelles, possibly riding into the field on a horse’s saddle (teaching the big cat to ride on horseback was a tricky part of its training). It portrays the cheetah’s creeping up on its prey and bursting into a run, concluding with a sententious maxim about hunting. Like hunting poems by earlier poets, this one was composed in an archaic form called rajaz, which many poets and critics of Abu Nuwas’s day regarded with distaste. Although the essayist al-Jahiz quoted a substantially identical descriptive poem on a cheetah by the poet al-Raqashi (d. c. 815), with whom Abu Nuwas exchanged poetic verse, Abu Nuwas is thought to be the likely author of this poem.
himself was notoriously unconcerned with passing on his poetic legacy to posterity. An anecdote about his sojourn in Egypt illustrates the problems connected to the collection of his poetry. According to this story, Abu Nuwas, dead drunk, extemporized a sublime wine poem, passed water, and passed out in the resulting puddle. The next morning he did not remember it. Only the diligent notetaking of a bystander saved the poem. Abu Nuwas’s powerful persona was detrimental in that it exercised a gravitational pull over diverse literary material. An unknown quantity of the poetry attributed to him may, in fact, have been composed by other poets, among them, Husayn ibn al-Dahhak, a poet who, like Abu Nuwas, sang of wine and homoeroticism in the court of the caliph al-Amin. Decades after his death, the poetry of Abu Nuwas was collected in three versions: that of al-Suli (d. c. 946); the lengthy version by the historian Hamzah al-Isfahani (d. c. 971); and that of Ibrahim ibn Ahmad al-Tabari (d. 966). Abu Hiffan al-Mihzami, a contemporary of Abu Nuwas designated as his “youth” (d. c. 870) and chosen by the poet himself to transmit his poetry, compiled a work entitled “Stories about Abu Nuwas” (Akhbar Abi Nuwas). Much later, the lexicographer Ibn Manzur (d. 1311) assembled a more expansive work by the same name.
Abu Nuwas appeared as a character in other literary works as well. In the eleventh century, for example, an Arab poet of Spain, Abu Amir ibn Shuhayd, wrote of a fictitious journey in which he visited some of the great Arab poets in the afterworld. Traversing Paradise, he came across a celestial version of the monastery of Dayr Hanna, a favorite haunt of Abu Nuwas’s in life. He thought to look up Abu Nuwas and he found him in the midst of a bender. An Iraqi novelist, Safa Khulusi, wrote Abu Nuwas in America, about the adventures of Abu Nuwas in the United States during the 1950s.
Abu Nuwas probably died of an illness in Baghdad, leaving behind very little money for his aged mother, but his impact on succeeding generations has been enormous. Poems of wine-drinking and homoeroticism served important functions at the vigils of Islam’s Sufi mystics. There poems inspired by Abu Nuwas, recited or sung by beardless youths, could bring individual mystics to heights of spiritual ecstasy for which drunkenness and sexual abandon served as profound metaphors. The poet Ibn al-Hajjaj, who lived a century after Abu Nuwas, made his reputation by writing salacious poetry in the mold of Abu Nuwas. This man (who worked, counter-intuitively, as the supervisor of public morality) researched his craft by sitting on the roof of his father’s house in Baghdad and writing down the words he heard emanating from the tavern below. Wine poetry, in both secular and mystical garb, enriched Persian poetry. The Arabic strophic poetry that emerged in Islamic Spain, both the “girdle poem” (muwashshah) with its characteristic closing line in the local Romance vernacular, and the licentious zajals of Ibn Quz-man, owes much to Abu Nuwas. These earliest examples of European lyric poetry often evoke wine, quote lines from the mouths of singing girls, and evince the descent into depravity characteristic of many poems by Abu Nuwas. Also in Spain, a Jewish poet, Samuel ha-Nagid, vizier to the Muslim ruler of Grenada, composed wine poems in biblical Hebrew that owe much to Abu Nuwas’s wine poems.
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