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A little of what you fancy

Alex Rowell writes:

Reflecting, as he often would, on the question of wine, and its permissibility in Islam, the ninth century bacchic poet of Baghdad Abu Nuwas once asked:

Am I to refuse it, when Allah has not
And the caliph is its friend?

Reading lines like these, one has to bear in mind they were not, or were not only, intended as bawdy, tongue-in-cheek jokes. Allah has not “refused” wine because, as the Quran itself states, coursing through the gardens of paradise are veritable “rivers” of the stuff (47:15). And as one biographer of Abu Nuwas, Abd al-Rahman Sidqi, detailed in a chapter titled “Drinking partner of [Caliph Muhammad] al-Amin”, the poet had first-hand acquaintance with the proclivities of the emperors of the Muslim world in his day.

Al-Amin was by no means unique among caliphs in his fondness for a glass. His father and predecessor, the legendary Harun al-Rashid, was a prodigious toper, as Abu Nuwas also had good reason to know. In his monumental History of the Arabs, the late Philip Hitti writes of the Abbasid caliphs that “al-Hadi, al-Amin, al-Ma’mun, al-Mu`tasim, al-Wathiq and al-Mutawakkil were given to drink […] Indeed al-Nawaji despairs of finding room in his book for all the caliphs, vizirs and secretaries addicted to the use of the forbidden beverage.” As for the Abbasids’ predecessors, the Umayyads, so permanently wrecked was Caliph Walid bin Yazid that a coup had to be arranged to kill him off within a year of his taking office.

One great irony, therefore, of the supposed caliphate revived by the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) in eastern Syria and western Iraq today is how little its nightmarish austerity resembles the actual state that historically existed. This is compounded by the fact the Abbasid caliphate, with its capitals in Iraq (in contrast to the Umayyads, who ruled from Damascus) is the one above all regarded by ISIS’s mostly Iraqi leadership as exemplary. “From its founding [ISIS] has sought to restore the glory days of the Abbasid caliphate based in Baghdad, especially the era of Harun al-Rashid,” writes Brookings Institution fellow William McCants. When the group’s leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, gave his inaugural address as “Caliph Ibrahim” at a Mosul mosque last June, he was robed entirely in the Abbasids’ signature black. The onyx flag of the “Islamic State” too is associated with the Abbasid revolt against the Umayyads.

A second irony concerns the person of Abu Nuwas himself, and his pertinence to the current debate concerning what is or is not “real” Islam. It would be easy to think of the poet as a straightforward apostate and unbeliever, as many did in his own lifetime, earning him more than one prison spell. The reams of verse ridiculing fundamental tenets of the faith – from prayer to the Ramadan fast to the Mecca pilgrimage – can make this conclusion seem inescapable. Who but a determined heretic could write a poem such as the following?

Had I means of taking pleasure in wine
I would not have waited for the fast to expire
Wine, when imbibed, is a marvellous thing
So drink, even if the penalty is dire
Whoever would reproach the pure red draught
Go to heaven, and leave me to the fire

Yet to end the investigation there is to ignore the extraordinary complexity of the man who had also memorised the Quran at an early age, and who knew the Hadiths, or sayings of the Prophet, so well that he taught them (among his students was reputedly al-Shafi`i, after whom a major school of Islamic jurisprudence is named). According to New York University’s Dr Philip Kennedy, Abu Nuwas’s name is cited in the chain of transmission of two Hadiths to this day. And in between penning merciless satires of the clergy, he occasionally composed lyrical zuhdiyyat – odes of ascetic piety – that stand comparison with anything of the genre written before or since.

Even at his most depraved too, he could point – whether ingenuously or not – to the example of a genuine theological movement of the time, known as al-murji’a, whose adherents held that moral judgment of man was reserved for Allah alone, who on Judgment Day would pardon the sins of true believers. Hence the final line of his most famous poem:

Don’t forbid mercy on account of your probity
For such prohibition disparages religion

The question of Abu Nuwas’s Islamic bona fides is thus thornier than it first seems. Rampant bisexual philandering and dusk-to-dawn drunkenness are not generally seen today as conduct behoving the observant Muslim. Yet the selfsame conduct was not only tolerated but emulated by a caliphate deemed righteous by the most fanatical puritans on the planet today. Those who would call Abu Nuwas “unIslamic” would, to that extent, earn the distinction of being less forgiving than the beheaders of aid workers.

Which ought at last to put to rest the anxious hand-wringing and hair-pulling over whether ISIS, in turn, may or may not be described as “Islamic”. History tells us that Islam is a very broad tent indeed, with space enough under it for both Abu Nuwas and Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. Whether the spirit of the former is to overcome the spiritlessness of the latter in the coming battle for the soul of Islam is something only Muslims themselves can determine. But such a determination cannot begin so long as excommunicators on both sides deny, in effect, that there exists a battle to fight at all.

5/3/2015

Alex Rowell is a journalist in Beirut, reporting for the BBC, the Economist, the Carnegie Endowment, Monocle, and NOW Lebanon. He is currently completing a book-length rhyming translation of the ninth century wine poetry of Abu Nuwas.