Abu Nuwas

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Abu Nuwas (1916). Drawing by Gibran Khalil Gibran.

Abu-Nuwas al-Hasan ben Hani al-Hakami (750?–815?) was a renowned Arabic poet. Born in the city of Ahvaz in Persia, he was of Arab and Persian descent.

He is generally regarded as one of the greatest of classical Arabic poets. He became a master of all the contemporary genres of Arabic poetry, but his reputation rests on his wine songs (khamriyyat), and his poems of boy love (mudhakkarat). Abu Nuwas has entered the folkloric tradition, and he appears several times in The Book of One Thousand and One Nights.

Early life and work

Abu Nuwas was born to an Arab father, a soldier whom he never knew, and a Persian mother named Golban, who worked as a weaver. Biographies differ on the date of Abu Nuwas' birth, ranging from 747 to 762.

His given name was al-Hasan ibn Hani al-Hakami, 'Abu Nuwas' being a nick-name: 'Father of the Lock of Hair' referred to the two long locks of hair which hung down to his shoulders.

When Abu Nuwas was still a boy, his mother apparently sold him to a shopkeeper from Yemen, Sa’ad al-Yashira. The young Abu Nuwas apparently worked for al-Yashira in his shop at Basra, Iraq. In time, Abu Nuwas' youthful beauty and intelligence caught the attention of Walibah ibn al-Hubab, a poet noted for his blond hair. Al-Hubab bought Abu Nuwas's freedom and took him under his wing, mentoring him in studies of theology and grammar, as well as poetry. The two became lovers. Later, Abu Nuwas continued his studies under Khalaf al-Ahmar. Tradition declares that he also lived for a year among the Bedouins to purify his knowledge of unadulterated Arabic.

Abu Nuwas migrated to Baghdad 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), loving adolescent boys and young men (mudhakkarat), and ribald humor (mujuniyyat). "For young boys, the girls I’ve left behind, and for old wine set clear water out of mind," is a typical verse of his. "I delight in what the Book forbids, and flee what is allowed," was another, showing how unashamed Nuwas was about his indulgences.

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 male sexual freedom, he was less than sympathetic towards lesbianism, and often mocked what he perceived as its inanity. He liked to shock society by openly writing about things which Islam so vehemently forbade. He may have been the first Arab poet to write about masturbation, his judgment being that it was inferior to the love of boys but preferable to marriage. His commissioned work includes poems on the topic of hunting, the love of women, and panegyrics to his patrons.

Exile and imprisonment

Abu Nuwas was forced to flee to Egypt for a time, after he wrote an elegiac poem praising 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, a caliph who shared Abu Nuwas' tastes for wine and boys. 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 such as Abu Nuwas.

Some 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. Depending on which biography is consulted, Abu Nuwas either died in prison or was poisoned.


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, drawing on the Arabic tradition. A hedonistic caricature of Abu Nuwas appears in several of the Thousand and One Arabian 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, and his celebration of pederastic love, continue to excite the animus of censors (including those of Wikipedia). 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, leaving out the entire body of pederastic poetry.


  • 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. Subtitle: Homoerotic Songs of Old Baghdad. Translated by Jaafar Abu Tarab. New York, 2005.
  • Jim Colville. Poems of Wine and Revelry: The Khamriyyat of Abu Nuwas. (Kegan Paul, 2005).

Further reading

  • Philip F. Kennedy. The Wine Song in Classical Arabic Poetry: Abu Nuwas and the Literary Tradition.. (Open University Press, 1997).
  • Philip Kennedy: Abu Nuwas: A Genius of Poetry, OneWorld Press, 2005.
  • The care and feeding of gazelles - Medieval Arabic and Hebrew love poetry. IN: Lazar, M. and Lacy, N. Poetics of Love in the Middle Ages. (George Mason University Press, 1989).
  • Fawn of My Delights - boy-love in Hebrew & Arabic Verse. IN: Sex in the Middle Ages. (Garland, 1991).
  • Boy-love in Medieval Arabic Verse. Paidika, Vol 3, No.3, Winter 1994.
  • Richard Nelson Frye. The Golden Age of Persia, p123, ISBN 0-06-492288-x)
  • Schild, Maarten. Abu Nuwas: Encyclopedia of Homosexuality. Dynes, Wayne R. (ed.) New York and London, Garland Publishing, 1990. p. 7
  • Encyclopedia Britannica entry for Abu Nuwas

External links