Abu Nuwas

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"Nuwas" redirects here. For the 6th-century king, see Dhu Nuwas.
Abu Nuwas
Abu Nuwas.jpg
Abu Nuwas drawn by Khalil Gibran in 1916.
Born 756
Died 814 (aged 57–58)
Occupation Poet

Abū Nuwās al-Ḥasan ibn Hānī al-Ḥakamī (756814),a known as Abū Nuwās[1] (Arabic: ابو نواس‎; Persian: ابو نواس‎, Abū Novās), was one of the greatest classical Arabic poets, who also composed in Persian on occasion. Born in the city of Ahvaz in modern-day Iran, to an Arab father and a Persian mother,[1] he became a master of all the contemporary genres of Arabic poetry. Abu Nuwas has also entered the folkloric tradition, and he appears several times in The Book of One Thousand and One Nights.

Early life and work[edit]

Abu Nuwas's father, Hānī, whom the poet never knew, was an Arab, a descendant of the Jizani tribe Banu Hakam, and a soldier in the army of Marwan II. His Persian mother, named Golban, worked as a weaver. Biographies differ on the date of Abu Nuwas' birth, ranging from 747 to 762. Some say he was born at Basra[1] others in Damascus, Busra, or at Ahwaz.[citation needed] His given name was al-Hasan ibn Hani al-Hakami, 'Abu Nuwas' being a nickname: 'Father of the Lock of Hair' referred to the two long sidelocks which hung down to his shoulders.

When Abu Nuwas was still a boy, his mother sold him to a grocer from Basra, Sa’ad al-Yashira. Abu Nuwas migrated to Baghdad, possibly in the company of Walibah ibn al-Hubab, and soon became renowned for his witty and humorous poetry, which dealt not with the traditional desert themes, but with urban life and the joys of wine and drinking (khamriyyat), and ribald humor (mujuniyyat). His commissioned work includes poems on hunting, the sexual desire for women, the love of boys (pederasty), and panegyrics to his patrons. He was infamous for his mockery and satire, two of his favorite themes being the sexual passivity of men and the sexual intemperance of women. Despite his celebration of love of boys, he did not take lesbianism seriously, and often mocked what he perceived as its inanity. He liked to shock society by openly writing about things which Islam forbade. He may have been the first Arab poet to write about masturbation.[citation needed]

Ismail bin Nubakht said of Abu Nuwas: "I never saw a man of more extensive learning than Abu Nuwas, nor one who, with a memory so richly furnished, possessed so few books. After his decease we searched his house, and could only find one book-cover containing a quire of paper, in which was a collection of rare expressions and grammatical observations."[2]

Exile and imprisonment[edit]

Abu Nuwas was forced to flee to Egypt for a time, after he wrote an elegiac poem praising the elite Persian political family of the Barmakis, the powerful family which had been toppled and massacred by the caliph, Harun al-Rashid. He returned to Baghdad in 809 upon the death of Harun al-Rashid. The subsequent ascension of Muhammad al-Amin, Harun al-Rashid's twenty-two-year-old libertine son (and former student of Abu Nuwas) was a mighty stroke of luck for Abu Nuwas. In fact, most scholars believe that Abu Nuwas wrote most of his poems during the reign of al-Amin (809-813). His most famous royal commission was a poem (a 'Kasida') which he composed in praise of al-Amin.

"According to the critics of his time, he was the greatest poet in Islam." wrote F.F. Arbuthnot in Arabic Authors. His contemporary Abu Hatim al Mekki often said that the deepest meanings of thoughts were concealed underground until Abu Nuwas dug them out.

Nevertheless, Abu Nuwas was imprisoned when his drunken, libidinous exploits tested even al-Amin's patience. Amin was finally overthrown by his puritanical brother, Al-Ma'mun, who had no tolerance for Abu Nuwas.

Some later accounts claim that fear of prison made Abu Nuwas repent his old ways and become deeply religious, while others believe his later, penitent poems were simply written in hopes of winning the caliph's pardon. It was said that al-Ma'mun's secretary Zonbor tricked Abu Nuwas into writing a satire against Ali, the fourth Caliph and son-in-law of the Prophet, while Nuwas was drunk. Zonbor then deliberately read the poem aloud in public, and ensured Nuwas's continuing imprisonment. Depending on which biography is consulted, Abu Nuwas either died in prison or was poisoned by Ismail bin Abu Sehl, or both.


Abu Nuwas is considered one of the greats of classical Arabic literature. He influenced many later writers, to mention only Omar Khayyám, and Hafiz — both of them Persian poets. A hedonistic caricature of Abu Nuwas appears in several of the Thousand and One Nights tales. Among his best known poems are the ones ridiculing the "Olde Arabia" nostalgia for the life of the Bedouin, and enthusiastically praising the up-to-date life in Baghdad as a vivid contrast.

His freedom of expression especially on matters forbidden by Islamic norms continue to excite the animus of censors. While his works were freely in circulation until the early years of the twentieth century, in 1932 the first modern censored edition of his works appeared in Cairo. In 1976, a crater on the planet Mercury was named in honor of Abu Nuwas.[3] A heavily fictionalised Abu Nuwas is the protagonist of the novels The Father of Locks (Dedalus Books, 2009) and The Khalifah's Mirror (2012) by Andrew Killeen, in which he is depicted as a spy working for Ja'far al-Barmaki.[4]


Al-Khatib al-Baghdadi, the author of the History of Baghdad, wrote that Abu Nuwas was buried in Shunizi cemetery in Baghdad.[5]

The city has several places named for the poet. Abū Nuwās Street runs along the east bank of the Tigris that was once the city’s showpiece.[6] Abu Nuwas Park is also located there on the 2.5-kilometer stretch between the Jumhouriya Bridge and a park that extends out to the river in Karada near the 14th of July Bridge.[7]

Swahili culture[edit]

In East Africa's Swahili culture the Name of Abu Nuwas is quite popular as Abunuwasi. Here it is connected to a number of stories which otherwise go by names like Nasreddin, Guha or "the Mullah" in folktale and literature of Islamic societies. In the tales Abunuwasi tricks greedy, wealthy men and avenges the poor people.

The Tanzanian artist Godfrey Mwampembwa (Gado) created a Swahili comic book called Abunuwasi, which has adaptations of three of the Abunuwasi stories.[8] The book was published by Sasa Sema Publications in 1996.[9]


  • O Tribe That Loves Boys. Hakim Bey (Entimos Press / Abu Nuwas Society, 1993). With a scholarly biographical essay on Abu Nuwas, largely taken from Ewald Wagner's biographical entry in The Encyclopedia of Islam.
  • Carousing with Gazelles, Homoerotic Songs of Old Baghdad. Seventeen poems by Abu Nuwas translated by Jaafar Abu Tarab. (iUniverse, Inc., 2005).
  • Jim Colville. Poems of Wine and Revelry: The Khamriyyat of Abu Nuwas. (Kegan Paul, 2005).

Further reading[edit]


  • Note a: Sources vary: Garzanti gives a date of birth of 756 or 758 and a date of death as circa 814,[10] while Dona S. Straley gives circa 756 to circa 810.[11]


  1. ^ a b c Garzanti
  2. ^ F. F. Arbuthnot, ''Arabic Authors: A Manual of Arabian History and Literature,'' W. Heinemann, London (1890), p. 81. ISBN 3847229052 (reprint). Books.google.com. 2006-12-13. Retrieved 2014-06-20. 
  3. ^ Abu Nuwas (crater)
  4. ^ "The Father of Locks by Andrew Killeen : Our Books :: Dedalus Books, Publishers of Literary Fiction". Dedalusbooks.com. Retrieved 2014-06-20. 
  5. ^ Ibn Khallikan's biographical dictionary - Google Books. Books.google.com. Retrieved 2010-09-12. 
  6. ^ Related Articles. "Abu Nuwas Street (street, Baghdad, Iraq) - Britannica Online Encyclopedia". Britannica.com. Retrieved 2010-09-12. 
  7. ^ "DVIDS - News - A Walk in the Park". Dvidshub.net. Retrieved 2010-09-12. 
  8. ^ Pilcher, Tim and Brad Brooks. (Foreword: Dave Gibbons). The Essential Guide to World Comics. Collins and Brown. 2005. 297.
  9. ^ Gado (Author). "Abunuwasi (Swahili Edition) (9789966960900): Gado: Books". Amazon.com. Retrieved 2014-06-20. 
  10. ^ Garzanti, Aldo (1974) [1972]. Enciclopedia Garzanti della letteratura (in Italian). Milan: Garzanti Libri. p. 2. 
  11. ^ Straley, Dona S. (2004). The undergraduate's companion to Arab writers and their web sites. Libraries Unlimited. p. 30. ISBN 1-59158-118-4. ISBN 978-1-59158-118-5. 

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