Best Wine Poems: Give Back My Glass

The Abu Hanifa Mosque built around the tomb of Abu Hanifah an-Nu'man in Baghdad, Iraq

© Shutterstock

The Abu Hanifa Mosque built around the tomb of Abu Hanifah an-Nu'man in Baghdad, Iraq

© Shutterstock

Give Back My Glass by Abu Nuwas

Give back my glass, for you two

Do not grasp its utility.

You’ve tried to make me fear God but

My fear’s offset by His mercy.

Rebuke not the wine, for you know

Not what it brings devotees.

If it gave you what it gives me, you’d

Mix it with tears of ecstasy.

Show me anything equal to wine

In fineness and amity.

But for the touch of lips on a cheek

Nothing’s like its felicity.

Should you abstain, fearing God’s wrath

So be it – I’ll drink without company.

(translated by Alex Rowell)

Few people associate the alcoholically abstemious Islamic world with works in praise of wine. The Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyam is perhaps the most famous exception, but it’s well worth looking up the work of another poet who lived several centuries earlier, known as Abu Nuwas.

Provocative, bawdy, bold and often outrageous, Abu Nuwas is more than a match for the likes of Byron and Rabelais. Indeed, Caliph Harun al-Rashid imprisoned him on more than one occasion for pushing the limits of drunkenness and blasphemy. What surely saved Abu Nuwas from a worse fate and ensured his work endures today is the lyrical beauty and poetic skill he deploys when covering his favourite subjects of wine, hunting, homoeroticism and vicious satire.

In this particular poem Abu Nuwas directly challenges the Baghdad clerics who criticise his devotion to wine, in particular intoxicating khamr, as opposed to their lighter nabeedh. Indeed, no fewer than 20 different words for wine appear in his work, a neat indication of his obsession.

It’s not difficult to see how Abu Nuwas offended his audience, but this was a man writing at a time when Islam was strengthening its influence across the Arab world, an evolution accompanied by fierce theological debate. Wine, once widely tolerated and even embraced by Islamic culture, was now meeting with ever increasing disapproval. Regular drunken antics may have rather undermined his case, but Abu Nuwas uses his poems to mount a passionate defence of wine’s place in society.