Written by: Shabbir Agha Abbas
When recollecting upon the greatest poets of the Arabic language, Abū Nuwās (d. 198/813) is a name that is never excluded. He was a lyrical genius, credited with infusing Arabic verse with Persian sensibilities, advancing the literature from that of the desert to that of the metropolis (Baghdad). He was a poet during the height of the ‘Abbasid period, serving the court of Hārūn al-‘Abbāsī [al-Rashīd] (d. 193/809) and that of his sons as a bard. His poems were extravagant in nature, even licentious some would say; he maintained frankness in his writing, such that it allowed for him to transcend [as well as violate] certain boundaries.
In the study of Islamic history, poets and their poetry play crucial roles in the sense that they allow for those peering into the past to at least encounter some of the popular discourses of the given points in time. Therefore, it is because of his frankness, that the poetry of Abū Nuwās potentially serves as an alternative entry point into understanding the 2nd Islamic century and its currents; extending to pro-‘Alid sentiments as well as Imamophilia. As the court poet of Hārūn, he was well aware of the ‘Abbāsid apprehension and stupefaction when it came to Imām Mūsā al-Kāẓim (d. 183/799) and Imām ‘Alī al-Riḍā’ (d. 203/818), as well as the utmost reverence the two commanded from society.
In the biographical dictionary of Ibn Khallikān (d. 681/1282), Wafayāt al-Aʿyān wa-Anbāʾ Abnāʾ al-Zamān (Deaths of Eminent Men and History of the Sons of the Epoch), Abū Nuwās and his poetry is referenced in the entry on the life of Imām al-Riḍā’.
It is narrated that one of the companions of Abū Nuwās rebuked him by saying:
ما رأيت أوقح منك، ما تركت خمراً ولا طرداً ولا معنى إلا قلت فيه شيئاً، وهذا علي بن موسى الرضا في عصرك لم تقل فيه شيئاً
“I have not seen anyone more shameless than you, you have not left any wine or game animal except that you have recited poetry regarding it, yet ‘Alī b. Mūsā al-Riḍā’ is your contemporary and you have not recited any poetry in his [honor]!”
Abū Nuwās responded by saying:
والله ما تركت ذلك إلا إعظاماً له، وليس قدر مثلي أن يقول في مثله
“By God, I left that [praise] only in my utmost respect for him, it befits not that a [lowly] person like myself recites poetry for a [great] person like him”
The anecdote then continues, stating that after a few moments he obliged and uttered these verses:
قيل لي أنت أحسن الناس طراً في فنونٍ من الكلام النبيه لك من جيد القريض مديحٌ يثمر الدر في يدي مجتنيه فعلام تركت مدح ابن موسى والخصال التي تجمعن فيه قلت لا أستطيع مدح إمامٍ كان جبريل خادماً لأبيه It is said to me, you are the best of men In the various styles of noble discourse Your panegyrics expressed in admirable verse are A blossom filling the hands of he who culls it with a fruit of pearl Why then have you neglected to celebrate the son of Mūsā And extol the noble qualities united in his person? I answered: “I am unable to praise an Imām for Whose father [the Prophet (ṣ)] Gabriel was a servant.”
He definitely had a myriad of reasons to refrain from extolling the ‘Alid Imāms, and assuming the historicity of this narrative to be accurate, Abū Nuwās thus responded with great tactfulness. He excused himself – as the best in the craft – from having to praise Imām al-Riḍā’, as the latter’s status was untenably linked with the Prophet (ṣ). Without mentioning any specifics from the khiṣāl (qualites) of the Imām, Abū Nuwās allotted him the greatest of praise, by mentioning nothing more than his grandfather. A praise that no Muslim could reject, nor could the ‘Abbāsid rulers find blame in. This way Abū Nuwās could register his reverence for Imām al-Riḍā’ in the books of history, yet not be obliged to ever write in his honor again, nor find himself in the ire of his ‘Abbāsid patrons.
Nonetheless, Ibn Khallikān records in the same entry on Imām al-Riḍā’ that Abū Nuwās after this incident once again recited verses in honor of the Imām, but he does not inform when and where. These verses are narrated as following:
مطهرون نقياتٌ جيوبهم تجري الصلاة عليهم أينما ذكروا من لم يكن علوياً حين تنسبه فما له في قديم الدهر مفتخر الله لما برا خلقاً فأتقنه صفاكم واصطفاكم أيها البشر وأنتم الملأ الأعلى وعندكم علم الكتاب وما جاءت به السور The immaculate progeny [of ‘Alī], the pure of heart! Whenever their names are pronounced, benedictions accompany it He, who cannot trace his ancestry back to ‘Alī Has no claim from the ancient times to boast over When God created and perfected the world He made you unpolluted, and chose you for himself, O mankind But you, [sons of ‘Alī] are the noblest of all mankind You possess knowledge of God’s book, and the meaning of its chapters
These verses, unlike the previous ones, are not explicitly in praise of Imām al-Riḍā’, instead they are generic in praise of the ‘Alids as a whole. As mentioned above, it is not known when Abū Nuwās composed these verses, but it is known that his welcome in the court soured during the rule of al-Amīn (d. 198/813), resulting in him being imprisoned and dying therein, where he is also remembered for famously repenting for his sins.
Furthermore, the final days of his life imprisoned, coincided with the rise in undercurrents that later emerged as the ‘Alid uprisings of Abū al-Sarāyā (d. 200/815) and Ibn Ṭabaṭaba (d. 199/815). Does this one poem show that Abū Nuwās was a proponent of the proto-Zaydi cause? Not at all, it does however show that he was fully in dialogue with society, and its popular sentiments. Likewise, his reverence to Imām al-Riḍā’ does not make him an Imāmī, but it does depict the awe and respect society had for the Imām.
Therefore, while the name of Abū Nuwās may not be remembered as one associated with piety, or godliness, his verses [potentially] are as important to understanding Islamic history, especially of the formative 2nd century, as any other source. This should encourage those seriously interested in engaging in historical research to consider thinking outside the box.