The Complicated and Scandalous History of Islamic Wine Poetry

The millions of Muslims around the world who drink may do so knowing that some of the religion’s greatest poets, thinkers, scientists, and politicians enjoyed a glass or two.

Photo Illustration by Elizabeth Brockway/The Daily Beast

In the 43rd verse of the Quran’s fourth chapter, God limits the activities Muslims may carry out while drunk. “You who believe, do not approach prayer while you are intoxicated, until you know what you are saying.”

If the wording makes it sound as though it’s fine for believers to be inebriated any other time of day, that’s because it was: drinking was entirely halal in Islam’s earliest years; during the Prophet Muhammad’s time in Mecca, and for a while after his migration to Medina in 622. If the verse also gives the distinct impression that someone had in fact approached prayer while intoxicated, not knowing what they were saying—again, that’s no accident. The traditional, orthodox explanation of the verse narrates that a well-known companion of the Prophet’s, Abd al-Rahman ibn Awf, had enjoyed a hearty luncheon with a group of friends one afternoon, making a good deal of merry with a variety of choice vintages. So convivial, in fact, was this banquet that when the time came for sunset prayer, and the company had made their way to the mosque, a mistake was made during their recitation of the Quran. To ensure His word was never again misrepresented in this way, God revealed verse 4:43 to His Messenger.

Drink, then, was still permissible, but within constraints. For Muslim warriors to seek Dutch courage on the morning of an important battle, for instance, as canonical Hadith collections tell us some did, was well and fine, so long as they kept it away from the mosque. Other Quran verses from around the same time reveal a similarly nuanced assessment. In 2:219 (the chapters aren’t chronological), God acknowledges that wine offers “benefits for the people,” but says its “sin,” on balance, outweighs its virtue. (In 16:67, when the Prophet was still in Mecca, God had gone as far as to describe the “intoxicant” of the “grapevine” as “a [miraculous] sign for those who think rationally.”) Eventually there came the sole unambiguously negative reference to wine, in 5:90-91, traditionally held by Muslims to be God’s final word on the subject, wherein He decries it as “an abomination of Satan’s doing;” a tool with which the latter seeks to stoke “enmity and hatred” between believers and “keep you from remembrance of God and prayer.”

Strong words, to be sure. But theologians of the early Islamic period disagreed as to the extent to which this forbade inebriety outright. For one thing, unlike with, say, pork, the verbal form of the word haram is never used in the case of drink; the imperative in 5:90 is fajtaniboohu (“so avoid it”). Is this prohibition, or mere discouragement? We know some clerics argued it was only the latter, for the prominent ninth-century conservative Ibn Qutayba attacks them for it in his Book of Drinks (“debauched and obscene dialectical theologians, may God disregard them”). Similarly, the text of 5:90 makes specific mention only of powerful wine made from grapes (Arabic khamr). Certain members of at least two prominent doctrinal factions, the Hanafis and the Mu’tazilites, held as a result that nabidh, a weaker fermentation of dates, raisins, or other fruits, was therefore lawful. After all, the Prophet himself was said to have drunk nabidh—per the (again, canonical) Hadith volumes of Muslim and Abu Dawud, among others—though it’s generally held his was not sufficiently fermented to be alcoholic. Some Mu’tazilites were even said to have deemed not just nabidh but all drink licit, provided it wasn’t imbibed to the extent of assisting Satan in stoking enmity and hatred, and/or keeping believers from remembering God and praying. Rarely in the history of religion can fundamentalist literalism have produced such happy results.

If the status of wine was hotly debated by clerics, outside the walls of their parlors the matter was less controversial: almost everyone of social standing was a drinker. From governors to doctors to scientists to singers, the wealthier and more distinguished a person was, the better a wine party they threw. The finest soirées were, accordingly, hosted by the caliphs themselves—indeed, to be invited to drink with the Commander of the Believers, God’s Deputy and Vicegerent on Earth, was the very height of privilege and prestige. Consider, as just one of innumerable examples, the following account of an all-day session hosted by the Caliph al-Amin (d. 813) in a new purpose-built venue in Baghdad (from Ibn al-Mu’tazz’s ninth-century The Classes of Poets):

Neither Arab nor foreigner had seen anything like it […] Its ceiling and walls and doors were gilded, with curtains of gold and safflower suspended on its doors, and carpets made of the same […] They went inside and saw a construction they had never before seen or even heard of; a fragrant and spacious chamber, which set the eye traveling […] gilded with pure gold contrasting with lapis lazuli, with massive doors […] sparkling with nails of gold, tipped with priceless jewels […]

“I wish to expend the pleasure of this sitting area with you, and join you in a morning draught here” [the caliph told his guests]. “You’ve seen its beauty, so do not spoil it with reluctance, nor disturb my joy with restraint, but rather enjoy yourselves, and converse, and be indulgent, for what is life except these things?”

A drink was brought out as though it were saffron; more felicitous than linking with a lover, with a scent sweeter than the fragrance of the beloved [which the attendees proceeded to drink for hours until they passed out].

As always, the company on that occasion included eminent poets, especially prized by caliphs as drinking partners for their learning and wit. Partly as a result, wine drinking became one of the great subjects of poetry under the classical Islamic caliphate. Some of this poetry was written by caliphs themselves—the Caliph al-Walid ibn Yazid (d. 744), for instance, composed some of the finest (and most scandalous) bacchic verse in the entire canon:

I testify before God and the angels

And all His servants and fellows devout

That I crave song and gulps from the glass

And to seize beautiful cheeks by the mouth

Admittedly, al-Walid was an exceptionally hard drinker even by the impressive standards of his fellow caliphs. Exploits attributed to him include swimming in a pool of wine (believed by some archaeologists to have been at the still-extant Khirbat al-Mafjar palace north of Jericho), and bringing “wine and singing girls” with him on the Mecca pilgrimage in an eventually abandoned attempt to turn Islam’s holiest site, the Kaaba, “into a party tent.” Having affronted practically the entire political establishment, he was killed in a coup after just fourteen months in power.

The best of the wine poets (not to mention the wine drinkers) was Abu Nuwas (d. c. 814); the court poet and chief drinks companion of the aforementioned Caliph al-Amin; whose more than 300 wine poems remain widely read in the Arab world to this day. An incorrigible troublemaker, who boasted of bedding men no less than women, his was a consummate genius of astonishing range; equally at ease with the grandest questions of the human condition as with the bawdiest filth and smut. For his audacious taunting of religious and cultural reactionaries, he would be jailed more than once. Reading these salvos now, even (or especially) in 2018, it’s not particularly difficult to see why:

Had I means of taking pleasure in wine

I wouldn’t wait for the fast to expire

Wine, when imbibed, is a marvelous thing

So drink, even if the penalty’s dire

Whoever would reproach the pure red draught

Go to heaven, and leave me to the fire

“The fast” here refers, of course, to the month of Ramadan, during which Muslims are commanded in the Quran to abstain from all food and drink during daylight hours. So central is the practice to Islam that it’s deemed one of the five indispensable “pillars” of the faith. Clearly, not much was sacred for Abu Nuwas, who also routinely made sport of the other “pillars” too, from the daily prayers to the giving of alms to the Mecca pilgrimage.

For all this brazen irreverence, however, Abu Nuwas was nonetheless a man of apparently serious piety in other respects. Alongside his wine poetry, he also wrote a highly-regarded corpus of devotional and ascetic odes. A memorizer (hafith) of the Quran, with so extensive a knowledge of the Hadith that he taught it to the seminal theologian al-Shafi’i—founder of one of the four main schools of Sunni jurisprudence—there are at least two Hadiths bearing the poet’s name in their chain of transmission to this day. When he died, the reigning Caliph al-Ma’mun paid him personal tribute, remarking, “The charm of our time has departed […] God’s curse upon whoever disparages him!”

How to explain this seeming contradiction? It’s a question I take up more fully in my book, Vintage Humour: The Islamic Wine Poetry of Abu Nuwas, but the short answer is it wouldn’t have appeared contradictory to the thinkers of his time.

It simply was not unusual for Muslim intellectuals, even theologians, to drink. The polymath Abu Zayd al-Balkhi (d. 934), for instance, was simultaneously a physician who advocated wine consumption for its “unique” health benefits and the author of a respected commentary on the Quran.

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The slightly longer answer is that Abu Nuwas was participating, through his poems, in an argument that had always existed within Islam, not just about the place of wine, but the places of humor, satire, individual liberty, sin, and divine forgiveness. That this argument would later be settled in favor of the conservative and prohibitionist camp was more an accident of history and politics than anything essential and inherent in the Quran. The oeuvre of Abu Nuwas invites us to imagine how things could have gone the other way, and how indeed they still might.

It’s true that a radical reassessment of drink’s status in the Shari’a remains a distant prospect at present. An Egyptian scholar at Cairo’s top institution of Islamic learning, al-Azhar, Dr. Saad al-Din al-Hilali, faced an irate media backlash in 2012 for merely noting the historical fact that the Hanafi clergy had once permitted consumption of the weaker nabidh potation, even while not advocating the same himself. The Saudi Arabian king’s recently-announced plans to “vet” the texts of the Hadith and remove content deemed insufficiently moderate would have warm work indeed to do before wine could conceivably pass muster with the Committee for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice.

Still, until that day comes, the millions of Muslims around the world who do drink may at least do so in the knowledge that, so far from being deviants, betraying their heritage or cultural identity, they are in fact sharing in a wholly indigenous ritual performed by their coreligionists throughout the entirety of Islamic history, extending back to the Prophet’s own lifetime. How’s that for respecting tradition?

Alex Rowell is the author of the new book Vintage Humour: The Islamic Wine Poetry of Abu Nuwas (Hurst Publishers).