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Omar Khayyam = Umar-i-Khayyam (1048-1131)


Persian poet, philosopher, mathematician, and astronomer. In his own country, Omar Khayyam was renowned for his scientific achievements, but not as a poet. His rhymes were rediscovered by the English scholar and poet Edward FitzGerald (1809-83) in the mid-nineteenth century.

A Book of Verses underneath the Bough,
A Jug of Wine, a Loaf of Bread - and Thou
--Beside me singing in the Wilderness -
O, Wilderness were Paradise enow!
(trans. Edward FitzGerald)

Omar Khayyam was born Ghiyath al-Din Abul Fateh Omar Ibn Ibrahim al-Khayyam in Nishapur, the capital of Khurasan. At that time the commercially rich province was under the rule of Seljuq Turks, who were completing their infiltration of Iran, Mesopotamia, and Asia Minor. Eventually they confronted the Crusades from Europe. Little is known of Omar's early life. The epithet Khayyam signifies "tent-maker" – it is possible that Omar or his father, Ibrahim the Tentmaker, one time exercised that trade. Omar was educated at his native town, where he studied under the celebrated teacher the Iman Mowaffak. In Samara he completed his treatise on algebra. When the Seljuq Sultan Malik Shah offered him preferment at court, Omar made a request: "The greatest boon you can confer on me," he said, "is to let me live in a corner under the shadow of your fortune, to spread wide the advantages of Science, and pray for your long life and prosperity." (from Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam, trans. Edward FitzGerald, 1859)

The Vizier Nizam al-Mulk granted Omar a pension, which enabled him to devote himself to learning and research, especially in mathematics and astronomy. In 1074 he was invited to undertake astronomical research. Omar was also commissioned to build an observatory in the city of Isfahan in collaboration with other astronomers. Malik Shah appointed him a member of a group of eight scholars assigned to reform the Moslem calendar, a task comparable to Pope Gregorius XIII's revision of the Julian calendar. Their work inaugurated the Jalalaean or Seljuq era, beginning March 15, 1079. Omar's revision of the old Persian solar calendar was discontinued when Islamic orthodoxy gained power, but in 1925 it was again introduced in Iran.

Omar's series of astronomical tables is known as Ziji Malikshahi. Among his other mathematical writings are a work on algebra and a study of The Difficulties of Euclid's Definitions (1077). He tried to classify equations of the first degree and his algebra textbook, dealing with quadric and cubic equations in particular, was very advanced compared to contemporary European studies of mathematics. The earliest known reference to Omar as a poet occurs in Imad ad-Din al-Isfahani's (1125-1201) Kharidat al-Qasr, a well-documented anthology of Arabic poetry, which quotes four two-line verses by Khayyam. The work was written some fifty-five years after the poet's death.

In the West Omar's reputation as a poet has shadowed his achievements as a mathematician. Louisa Costello was the first to publish English version of Omar's poems in her anthology The Rose Garden of Persia (1845), but his worldwide fame began to spread when Edward FitzGerald translated his verses from the original Persian to English. More accurately Omar's name should be translatiterated as "Umar-i-Khayyam," but after FitzGerald's English versions of the rubáiyát (literally, quatrains) he was generally known as Omar Khayyam. The first edition was published anonymously. It contained 101 rubáiyát (or rubáis). Only 250 copies were printed and soon forgotten.

The fullest translation (878 quatrains) was published by E.F. Thompson in 1906. FitzGerald's arranged the scattered quatrains in long, continuous elegy. His work was more than an ordinary translation, it was so inspired and visionary, that some critics later believed that it was an English poem with Persian allusions. The "exotic" verses caught the attention of Rossetti and Swinburne, who wrote that FitzGerald "has given to Omar Khayyam a permanent place among the major English poets".

The second edition of the work in 1868 marked the beginning of Omar Khayyam cult. "Isaac Luria the Lion taught that the soul of a dead man can enter an unfortunate soul to nourish or instruct it," wrote the Argentinian writer Jorge Luis Borges, "perhaps, around 1857, Omar's soul took up residence in FitzGerald's." (in 'The Enigma of Edward FitzGerald', 1951) Omar's rubáiyát did not circulate in his homeland during his lifetime. Also contemporary biographers did not note him as a great poet.

According to convention, in quatrains the first, second and last lines are rhymed, while the third line rarely follows the rhyme of the other lines. Thus a rubái (plural rubáiyát) has the form aaba. Each line expresses a complete thought.

Omar Khayyam, whose daily thoughts in his rubáiyát were often pessimistic and who was troubled by eternal question of life, death, deity, and the nature of the universe, was viewed with suspicion by orthodox Muslims. For his philosophy he was "said to have been especially hated and dreaded by the Sufis, whose Practise he ridiculed" (G. Fitzgerald). However, the Sufi poets read his works, many of which were irreligious, and the rubáiyát in general were frequently sung at mystical concerts. His quatrains were included in a Sufi textbook by Sheykh Najm al-Din Daya, written about 1223. The thoughts of Avicenna (980-1037) and Omar were condemned by the highly influential Islamic philosopher Abu Hamid al-Ghazali (1058-1111) in Incoherence of the Philosophers. Al-Ghazali saw that the Muslim Aristotelian and Neoplatonic philosophers were is many questions in conflict with the fundamentals of religion.

Major themes in Omar's rubáiyát is the fragility of human life. The pleasures of Paradise do not give any comfort for the poet – "Cash is better than a thousand promises." Although he has solved "all the puzzles of the Universe", he cannot loosen the "fetter of death". Omar also praised wine – "Drink wine – it drives sorrow from the heart." The subject was inflammable, because wine and drunkenness was prohibited by the principles of Islamic law. However, these poems could be interpreted metaphorically, referring to spiritual or romantic intoxication. "Drink either at he company of wise, / Or with your beloved at the moonrise," Omar wrote. He called wine the water of life; we are rare bowls made by the cosmic potter – "The cup is the body, its wine is the soul."

After the death of his patron, Nizam al-Mulk, in 1092, Omar went on a pilgrimage to Mecca. In one poem, assigned to Omar, the poet wrote: "Khayyám, who stitched the tents of science, / Has fallen in grief's furnace and been sudden burned; / The shears of Fate have cut the tent ropes of his life, / And the broker of Hope has sold him for nothing." Before returning to Nishapur, he he also visited Baghdad. Reputedly, Omar was a miserable tacher but  continued as a teacher and reluctantly made some astrological predictions. Like Avicenna, he was skeptical of astrology. Qufti's Tarikh al-Hukama (History of the Philosophers) states that after his return from the pilgrimage, "he strove to conceal his innermost thoughts, making a show of piety."

Omar did not believe in forecasts, but according to an anecdote, he said to one of his pupils, with whom he hold conversations in a garden: "My tomb shall be in a spot where the north wind my scatter roses over it." Omar Khayyam died on December 4, 1131 in Nishapur. 'Ali ibn Zaidu'l-Baihaqi wrote in his biography, that Omar was reading Avicenna's Book of Healing. He then called his household to hear his will and last instructions, and said before his death: "Oh Lord, I have known You according to the sum of my ability. Pardon me since verily my knowledge is my recommendation to You." 'Ali ibn Zaid's book, which appeared sometime between 1158 and 1170, has the oldest biographical notice on Omar. Forty-five years after Omar's death appeared a work, in which his verses were described as "a tissue of error like poisonous snakes" in the eyes of the Canon Law (News of the Learned with Reports of the Sages by Al-Qifri, abridged by Az-Zausani in 1249).

Not much of Omar's prose writings have survived and  his poetry has preserved only in mutilated manuscripts. Perhaps the most complete is the one in the library of the Asiatic Society, Calcutta. The manuscript contains 516 quatrains. Other important manuscripts are in the Chester Beatty collection and at Cambridge. In 1897 Vladimir Zhukovsky, a professor at the University of St. Petersburg, showed that a great number of the "wandering quatrains" could be attributed to other poets as well.

The problem whether or not Omar composed all the poem attributed to him, including the famous piece with the words "A Jug of Wine, a Loaf of Bread – and Thou", has been hard to solve. A.J. Avberry, who used 13th-century manuscripts, identified at least 250 authentic poems. When a fourth new manuscript was found in 1959, Vladimir Minorsky revealed in an article in 1967, that a forgery factory was producing fake Khayyam quatrains in Tehran. Moreover, the Orientalist L. P. Elwell-Sutton maintained that the manuscript used for The Original Rubaiyyat of Omar Khayyam (1968), by Robert Graves and Omar Ali-Shah, was "a clumsy forgery." Omar Ali Shah was a former General in the Afghan army. He claimed the manuscipt, containing 111 quatrains and dated 1153, had been in his family for several generations.

For further reading: Nearer the Heart's Desire: Poets of the Rubaiyat: a Dual Biography of Omar Khayyam and Edward FitzGerald by Robert D. Richardson (2016); Rethinking Khayyaamism: His Controversial Poems and Vision by Khodadad (Khodi) Kaviani (2014);  The Wine of Wisdom: The Life, Poetry and Philosophy of Omar Kayyam by Mehdi Aminrazsavi (2005); Omar Khayyam, the Mathematician by R. Rashed and B. Vahabzadeh (2000); Rediscovery of Hakim Omar Khayyam by Ali A. Parsa (1998), Wine of the Mystic: The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam by Paramahansa Yogananda (1994); The Rubaiyat of Omar hKhayyam Explained by Paramhansa Yogananda, ed. Donald Walters (1994); Omar Khayyam, the Philosopher-poet of Medieval Islam by Irfan Shahîd (1982); 'Introduction' by Peter Avery, in The Ruba'iyat of Omar Khayyam, trans. Peter Avery and John Heath-Stubbs (1979); Omar Khayyám as a Mystic by J. E. Saklatwalla (1977); Omar Khayyam Revisited by Hakim Yama Khayyam (1974); In Search of Omar Khayyam by Ali Dasti (1971); Omar Khayyam: Astronomer, Mathematician and Poet' by ' John Andrew Boyle in Bulletin of the John Rylands Library, Vol. 52, no. 1, Autumn (1969); The Algebra of Omar Khayyam by D.S. Kasir (1951); The Nectar of Grace; Omar Khayyam's Life and Works by Swami Govinda Tirtha (1941); Critical Studies in the Ruba'iyat of 'Umar-i-Khayyam by Arthur Christensen (1927); Edward Fitzgerald's Ruba'iyat of Omar Khayyam with Their Original Persian Sources by E. Heron-Allen (1899); L'Algèbre d'Omar Alkhayyami by F. Woepke (1851) - Suomennoksia: Teltantekijän lauselmia: Omar Khaijamin epigrammeja, 1929 (suom. Toivo Lyy); Omarin malja: uusia Omar Khaijamin nelisäkeitten suomennoksia, 1942 (suom. Toivo Lyy); Teltantekijä, 1949 (suom. Toivo Lyy); Viisaan viini, 1955 (suom. Toivo Lyy); Malja ja mennyt maine, 1999 (suom. Jaakko Hämeen-Anttila); Ruukku  rubiiniviiniä ja muita runoja, 2008 (suom. Jaakko Hämeen-Anttila); Khaijamin lauluja, 2009 (suom. Kiamars Baghbani ja Leevi Lehto)  


  • Selections from the Rubáiyàt in English Meter, 1840
  • Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám, the Astronomer-Poet of Persia, 1859 (tr. Edward FitzGerald, revised editions 1868, 1872, 1879, 1889)
  • The Quatrains of Omar Khayyam, 1882 (tr. E.H. Whinfield)
  • Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam, 1889 (tr. by Justin Huntly McCarthy, M.P.)
  • The Rubá'íyat of Omar Khayyâm: Being a Facsimile of the Manuscript in the Bodleian Library at Oxford, 1898 (ed. Edward Heron-Allen)
  • Quatrains of Omar Khayyam: in English Prose, 1898 (tr. Justin Huntly McCarthy)
  • The Quatrains of Omar Kheyyam of Nishapour, 1898 (tr. John Payne)
  • Rubâiyaât of Omar Khayyaâm, 1898 (rendered into English verse by E. Fitzgerald and into Latin by H.W. Greene)
  • Edward FitzGerald's Rubâ'iyât of Omar Khayyâm with Their Original Persian Sources, 1899 (ed. Edward Heron-Allen)
  • The Quatrains of Omar Khayyam of Nishapur, 1906 (tr. Eben Francis Thompson)
  • Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam: With a Critical Essay by Clarence Darrow, 1919
  • The Quatrains of 'Omar Khayyam, 1930 (tr. Friedrich Rosen)
  • The Rubá'íyát of Omar Khayyám, 1949 (ed. A.J. Arberry)
  • The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam: a New Version, 1955 (by Horace Thorner)
  • Omar Khayyám; a New Version Based Upon Recent Discoveries, 1959 (by Arthur J. Arberry)
  • A New Selection from the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam Rendered into English Verse, 1961 (by John Charles Edward Bowen)
  • The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam, 1964 (tr. Frank Newton)
  • The Rubaiyyat of Omar Khayaam, 1967 (translation with critical commentaries by Robert Graves and Omar Ali-Shah)
  • One Hundred and Fifty Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam, 1968 (tr. W. G. Burton)
  • The Ruba'iyat of 'Umar Khayyam, 1975 (tr. Parichehr Kasra)
  • The Ruba'iyat of Omar Khayyam, 1979 (tr. Peter Avery and John Heath-Stubbs)
  • Omar Khayyam Rediscovered: The Rob'iyat Translated from the Original with a Preface, 1988 (by Sunil B. Ray)
  • Ruba'iyat of Omar Khayyam, 1991 (translated and annotated by Ahmad Saidi, preface by Seyyed Hossein Nasr)
  • The Authentic Rubaiyyat of Sufi poet Omar Khayaam: A New Translation with Critical Commentaries, 1993 (tr. by Omar Ali-Shah; designed and illustrated by Eugenio Zanetti)
  • The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam: A Personal Selection from Five Editions of Edward Fitzgerald, 1994 (by Cecile Mactaggart)
  • An Essay by the Uniquely Wise 'Abel Fath Omar Bin Al-Khayyam on Algebra and Equations: Algebra wa al-muqabala, 2008 (tr. Roshdi Khalil; reviewed by Waleed Deeb)

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