Abu Nuwas's father, Hānī, whom the poet never knew, was an Arab, a descendant of the Jizani tribe Banu Hakam, and a soldier in the army of Marwan II. His Persian mother, named Golban, worked as a weaver. Biographies differ on the date of Abu Nuwas' birth, ranging from 747 to 762. Some say he was born at Basra others in Damascus, Busra, or at Ahwaz. His given name was al-Hasan ibn Hani al-Hakami, 'Abu Nuwas' being a nickname: 'Father of the Lock of Hair' referred to the two long sidelocks which hung down to his shoulders.
Ismail bin Nubakht said of Abu Nuwas: "I never saw a man of more extensive learning than Abu Nuwas, nor one who, with a memory so richly furnished, possessed so few books. After his death we searched his house, and could only find one book-cover containing a quire of paper, in which was a collection of rare expressions and grammatical observations."
Abu Nuwas was forced to flee to Egypt for a time, after he wrote an elegiac poem praising the elite Persian political family of the Barmakis, the powerful family which had been toppled and massacred by the caliph, Harun al-Rashid. He returned to Baghdad in 809 upon the death of Harun al-Rashid. The subsequent ascension of Muhammad al-Amin, Harun al-Rashid's twenty-two-year-old libertine son (and former student of Abu Nuwas) was a mighty stroke of luck for Abu Nuwas. In fact, most scholars believe that Abu Nuwas wrote most of his poems during the reign of al-Amin (809-813). His most famous royal commission was a poem (a 'qasida') which he composed in praise of al-Amin.
"According to the critics of his time, he was the greatest poet in Islam." wrote F.F. Arbuthnot in Arabic Authors. His contemporary Abu Hatim al Mekki often said that the deepest meanings of thoughts were concealed underground until Abu Nuwas dug them out.
Nevertheless, Abu Nuwas was imprisoned when his drunken, libidinous exploits tested even al-Amin's patience. Amin was finally overthrown by his puritanical brother, Al-Ma'mun, who had no tolerance for Abu Nuwas.
Some later accounts claim that fear of prison made Abu Nuwas repent his old ways and become deeply religious, while others believe his later, penitent poems were simply written in hopes of winning the caliph's pardon. It was said that al-Ma'mun's secretary Zonbor tricked Abu Nuwas into writing a satire against Ali, the fourth Caliph and son-in-law of the Prophet, while Nuwas was drunk. Zonbor then deliberately read the poem aloud in public, and ensured Nuwas's continuing imprisonment. Depending on which biography is consulted, Abu Nuwas either died in prison or was poisoned by Ismail bin Abu Sehl, or both.
Abu Nuwas is considered one of the greats of classical Arabic literature. He influenced many later writers, to mention only Omar Khayyám, and Hafiz — both of them Persian poets. A hedonistic caricature of Abu Nuwas appears in several of the Thousand and One Nights tales. Among his best known poems are the ones ridiculing the "Olde Arabia" nostalgia for the life of the Bedouin, and enthusiastically praising the up-to-date life in Baghdad as a vivid contrast. He is one of various people credited with inventing the literary form of the mu‘ammā (literally 'blinded' or 'obscured'), a riddle which is solved 'by combining the constituent letters of the word or name to be found'; he was certainly a major exponent of the form.
His freedom of expression, especially on matters forbidden by Islamic norms, continues to excite the animus of censors. While his works were freely in circulation until the early years of the twentieth century, in 1932 the first modern censored edition of his works appeared in Cairo. In January 2001, the Egyptian Ministry of Culture ordered the burning of some 6,000 copies of books of homoerotic poetry by Abu Nuwas. Any mention of pederasty was omitted from his entry in the Saudi Global Arabic Encyclopedia.
In 1976, a crater on the planet Mercury was named in honor of Abu Nuwas.
A heavily fictionalised Abu Nuwas is the protagonist of the novels The Father of Locks (Dedalus Books, 2009) and The Khalifah's Mirror (2012) by Andrew Killeen, in which he is depicted as a spy working for Ja'far al-Barmaki.
Al-Khatib al-Baghdadi, the author of The History of Baghdad, wrote that Abu Nuwas was buried in Shunizi cemetery in Baghdad.
The city has several places named for the poet. Abū Nuwās Street runs along the east bank of the Tigris that was once the city’s showpiece. Abu Nuwas Park is also located there on the 2.5-kilometer stretch between the Jumhouriya Bridge and a park that extends out to the river in Karada near the 14th of July Bridge.
In East Africa's Swahili culture the name "Abu Nuwas" is quite popular as Abunuwasi. Here it is connected to a number of stories which otherwise go by names like Nasreddin, Guha or "the Mullah" in folktale and literature of Islamic societies. In the tales Abunuwasi tricks greedy, wealthy men and avenges the poor people.
The Tanzanian artist Godfrey Mwampembwa (Gado) created a Swahili comic book called Abunuwasi, which has adaptations of three of the Abunuwasi stories. The book was published by Sasa Sema Publications in 1996.Dīwān Abū Nu’ās, khamriyyāt Abū Nu’ās, ed. by ‘Alī Najīb ‘Aṭwi (Beirut 1986)
O Tribe That Loves Boys. Hakim Bey (Entimos Press / Abu Nuwas Society, 1993). With a scholarly biographical essay on Abu Nuwas, largely taken from Ewald Wagner's biographical entry in The Encyclopedia of Islam.
Carousing with Gazelles, Homoerotic Songs of Old Baghdad. Seventeen poems by Abu Nuwas translated by Jaafar Abu Tarab. (iUniverse, Inc., 2005).
Jim Colville. Poems of Wine and Revelry: The Khamriyyat of Abu Nuwas. (Kegan Paul, 2005).
The Khamriyyāt of Abū Nuwās: Medieval Bacchic Poetry, trans. by Fuad Matthew Caswell (Kibworth Beauchamp: Matador, 2015). Trans. from ‘Aṭwi 1986.