Poetry and Philosophy of Omar Khayyam
...and Thou beside me, singing in the Wilderness...
Ahmed - The Daily Times - Lahore, Pakistan
Sunday, September 2, 2007
Fitzgerald’s translation of the Rubaiyyat was inspired, not precise, but it had
the result of taking Khayyam’s poetry into the English book of quotations.
The truth is that Khayyam reads beautifully even in Persian and one can see the
effect of his way of thinking quite a lot in Urdu’s classics, Mir Taqi Mir and
to some extent Ghalib.
What has come down in English is the effect of his carpe diem philosophy
or “make merry because life is temporary” hedonism with “wine and a loaf of
bread and the beloved” usually taken to be a lady in art deco elongation.
Khayyam had a lot of things to say and there is much that has escaped our
attention because of his refusal to accept anyone’s monopoly over truth.
Of course, anyone who knows English knows him through his famous “moving finger”
phrase as rendered by Fitzgerald.
Abul Fath Omar bin Ibrahim Khayyam (1048-1124 AD) was born in Nayshapur in Iran,
and was called Khayyam because his father was a tentmaker who had possibly
converted from Zoroastrianism. The boy showed early signs of original
brilliance, not scared of questioning received wisdom and asking bold questions
such as the one he asked a qazi of Nayshapur: “If the Quran is the word of God,
why are the Surahs of the Quran begun with Bismillah, which would mean God
In our times, the greatest Islamic thinker after 1947, Dr. Fazlur Rehman was
exiled from Pakistan for trying to answer Khayyam’s question.
It is almost possible that Khayyam studied under the famous ishraqi teacher Imam
Juwayni at the time when Imam Ghazali was in the same Nayshapur seminary, and it
is possible that Imam Ghazali’s work (Tahafat al Falasafa) was in response to
Khayyam’s sceptical approach.
The other literary figure of his times, Al Sanai, too came in contact with him
when Khayyam went to Isfahan, and then received Sanai in Nayshapur. A
class-fellow of Khayyam was Hasan Tusi, who became prime minister in 1064 of the
Seljuq prince Alp Arsalan, under the given name of Nizamul Mulk, and was author
of the famous advice-to-the-prince books in the Islamic tradition much before
Machiavelli wrote The Prince.
Khayyam had already gone to Ray (today’s Tehran) to lecture on mathematics and
astronomy to a group of scientists at Nizamul Mulk’s local seminary, which was
followed by another invitation to go to the capital of the Seljuqs, Isfahan, to
be among the philosophers in 1076.
After he returned to Nayshapur in Khurasan in 1079, Isfahan was overwhelmed by
rioting resulting in the death of Alp Arsalan. The new prince Malik Shah moved
the capital to Merv and called Khayyam over to put together a new, more accurate
calendar. With the help of several Muslim scientists in the tradition of Ibn
Sina, whom Khayyam admired, the new calendar Taqwim-e-Jalali was invented by
Khayyam. That is the remarkably accurate calendar that Iran (and a part of
Afghanistan) has today.
Khayyam was given a new conservatory in Isfahan to pursue the sciences with his
fellow scholars, but soon his friend Nizamul Mulk, the grand vizier, was deposed
from his rank and later assassinated. Khayyam, scared of being killed, went in
the wake of the prince to Bukhara but before he could reach him, the Sultan was
dead and a lethal rivalry between his two sons had begun.
Khayyam took off safely for hajj to be out of sight and to give the lie to his
detractors who accused him of heresy. After his return, Khayyam was invited to
Merv by Sultan Sanjar but this time Khayyam did not feel as comfortable as he
had with the earlier prince.
These days in the life of Khayyam were filled with brief but dense scientific
works in mathematics and what later became known as physics.His poetry, about
whose authenticity nothing certain can be stated, was definitely a spin-off from
his meditations but remained marginal to his other preoccupation.
His treatises are never more than five or ten pages long and they deal with some
of the philosophical problems left behind by his masters, Al Farabi and Ibn
Sina. He wrote also to add corrections to the Euclidean mathematics then in
vogue in the world. Writing to Imam Tahir about his “insatiable appetite for
research and possible and impossible proofs”, he offered new problems of
algebra. He wrote to extend the theories of Archimedes, and extended Ibn Sina’s
“lucid discourse” while challenging Imam Ghazali in his treatise on Being and
The author thinks he was not an Ismaili like Ibn Sina and his other friend Nasir
Khusraw, and seemed to admit as much when he placed Ismailism below the Sufi
tradition in Islam. (Famous leader of the assassins, Hasan bin Sabah, was a
class-fellow and a friend.)
Khayyam’s poetry has always been subject to scholarly quarrels. Author
Aminrazavi, a life-long admirer of Khayyam’s verse, admits that it is no longer
possible to sift the genuine from the counterfeit. He acknowledges that his
English translators have been more creative than loyal to his verse but will not
deny the beauty of their work.
Almost 1,200 Rubaiyyat or quatrains have been attributed to Khayyam but no one
knows where the line could be drawn as to what is true and what is bogus.
Like our Bulleh Shah, much of the accretion is of high quality and an extension
of the poet’s worldview. There are a few long poems in Arabic too because all
scientists in those times wrote in Arabic as that was the language of Islamic
What does Khayyam speak about in his quatrains? His subjects are impermanence
and meaning of life, theodicy and justice, the here and now, doubt and
bewilderment, death and afterlife, determinism and predestination, truth in
drunkenness (in vino veritas) and the old Christian theme of carpe diem (gather
ye rosebuds while ye may).
Khayyam is also existentialist when he admits to there being no meaning because
of the transience of life. His insistence, that compared to the past which is
gone and the future which is unknowable, the present was the only important
time, is in line with the Sufi and orthodox view, but what he makes of it will
probably put off many.
“Dreaming when Dawn’s Left Hand was in the sky
I heard a voice with the Tavern cry
Awake my little one and fill the cup
Before life’s liquor in its cup be dry.”
This is Fitzgerald with his own capitalisations in line with the Iranian
technique of taveel or secondary meaning implied by such words as Tavern and
Dawn and Left Hand.
Khayyam played on the double meaning and invited accusation of heresy because of
his place in the Sufi tradition of malamatiyya (self-debasement) — challenging
the false religiosity and the shamelessly paraded piety of the orthodoxy — which
sprang from Nayshapur itself.
This is the tradition which is taken to its zenith by Hallaj in Persia and
Bulleh Shah in India although the Bhagti tradition that sprang in India against
the false piety of the Brahmin fits nicely into it.
Khayyam is not like Ibn Arabi and Mullah Sadra; he is more like Rumi, Hafiz and
Hallaj. Khayyam was not an atheist or even an agnostic; he simply put himself
outside the pale by challenging the arrogant orthodoxy on its claim to know the
In Fitzgerald’s famously “unliteral” translation, Omar Khayyam is a part of
English literature today. Look at the familiar opening quatrain:
“Wake! For the Sun, who scattered into flight
The starts before him from the Field of Night
Drives Night along with them from Heav’n and strikes
The Sultan’s Turret with a Shaft of Light.”
And if you have noted, on the wall-painting in a cinema-hall (usually named
Iram), a bearded man being served by the lithe figure of young girl near a
spring, know that it is Khayyam singing:
“A Book of Verses underneath the Bough
A Jug of Wine, a Loaf of Bread — and Thou
Beside me singing in the Wilderness -
Oh, Wilderness were Paradise enow!”
If you are ever in Nayshapur, go to the very modern-looking tomb of Khayyam and
admire the splendid statue of a seated wise man at the doorway, because he was
more extraordinary than all the pious men of old Persia put together.
The Wine of
Wisdom: The Life, Poetry and Philosophy of Omar Khayyam
by Mehdi Aminrazavi
Publisher: Oneworld Oxford 2005Pp396;
Price Rs 995
Distributed in Pakistan by Vanguard Books Lahore
[Try the Sufi Book Store: http://astore.amazon.com/wilderwri-20]
Marina Montanaro at