By Philip Kennedy
A readable survey of this celebrated ninth century Arab poet.
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Additional info for Abu Nuwas (Makers of the Muslim World)
His license with religious pre- and proscription was affected irreverence,as was in essence his reliance on God’s clemency as a pliant excuse. It is significant in this respect that the two noncanonical prophetic traditions told on his authority deal with the possibility of entering Paradise as a sinner. His transgressions were not only those associated with wine-drinking and affection for young men. He could affect to flout the protocols of Ramadan: of all the months, if he could “kill one off ”, he would dispatch this sacred month of fasting.
In Abu Nuwas’s poetry inability to understand is only ever imputed to others. ” In the most arresting formulation of this kind he wrote: “When it comes to describing him tongues trace their lineage to impotence and failure”. Here the inability to delineate is meant to evoke not human failing but a quasi-numinous ineffability: the poet contemplates a sacred darling produced from ethereal light. The hyperbole is at first strained, for the argentine aspect of beauty is not original in this kind of lyric verse.
The movement from resistance to surrender, from fettered desire to gratification, is at first glance utterly absent from the second of the two poems (see below). We gaze upon the poet’s sincerity as through a glass darkly, straining to see what is obscured by the tantalizing ambiguity of a dream: I slept until dawn, and all the while Iblis Antagonized me, tempting me to sin. I saw him climb high into the stratosphere, Then fall chased by a star; He tried to “listen by stealth” [to the Divine Assembly], But he was soon cast down by a pelting of stones.