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Omar Khayyam, ‘Earth Could Not Answer’ by Adelaide Hanscom Leeson.        Source: Public Domain

Omar Khayyam: Lasting Achievements of the Persian Polymath and Poet

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Omar Khayyam was a Persian polymath who lived during the 11 th and 12 th centuries AD. During his time, Omar was a reputed scholar. He was especially known for his scholarly work in the fields of mathematics, astronomy, and philosophy. Today, however, he is best remembered as a great poet. This is especially so in the English-speaking world as a result of the translation of his Rubaiyat into English during the 19 th century.

Omar Khayyam was born on the 18 th of May 1048 AD, in Nishapur, a city in the Khorasan region, in what is today northwestern Iran. His full name was Ghiyath al-Din Abul Fateh Omar Ibn Ibrahim Khayyam. It is believed that Omar was born into a family of artisans. Incidentally, the word ‘khayyam’ has been translated to mean ‘tent maker’, which may be an indication of his father’s occupation. Some sources claim that Omar’s father was a physician. In either case, it is likely that Omar was from a well-to-do family, as he received a good education.

According to some accounts, Omar was taught by Bahmanyar, a famous pupil of Ibn Sina (more commonly known in the West as Avicenna). According to others, Omar had spent much of his childhood in the town of Balhi, where he was under the tutelage of Sheik Muhammad Mansuri, one of the most famous scholars of the time. Later, he returned to Nishapur, and was taught by another eminent scholar, Imam Mowaffak.

The Legendary Story of Omar Khayyam’s Rising Star at Isfahan

A rather interesting story is provided by Edward FitzGerald in the preface to his translation of the Rubaiyat. According to this source, around the time Omar was accepted by Imam Mowaffak as his student, the renowned scholar had taken on two other students – Nizam al-Mulk, and Hassan-i-Sabah. Whilst they were studying under Imam Mowaffak, the three became good friends, and vowed that should one of them achieve success later in life, he would share his fortune equally with the other two.

As the years went by, Nizam became the vizier of the Seljuq Empire. When Omar and Hassan learned of Nizam’s success, they came to him to claim their share of the fortune that was promised. Nizam kept his word and asked his friends what they wanted. Hassan asked for a place in the government, which was granted to him after Nizam took his request to the sultan. Hassan, however, was an extremely ambitious man, and sought to rise through the ranks by any means necessary. He even plotted to replace Nizam as vizier. Hassan fell from grace after his evil doings were exposed and removed from office. After disappearing for a period of time Hassan re-emerged as the founder of the notorious Hashshashins. Nizam was destined to fall victim to a Hashshashin’s blade.

Portrait of Omar Khayyam (Atilin / CC 3.0)

Portrait of Omar Khayyam (Atilin / CC 3.0)

Omar, unlike Hassan, did not ask for an office in the government. Instead, he supposedly said, “The greatest boon you can confer on me 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.” Nizam realised that his old friend really meant what he said, so he did not pester him to accept a position in the government. Instead, he gave Omar an annual pension of 1200 mithkals of gold from the treasury of Nishapur. This allowed Omar to conduct his scholarly pursuits in Nishapur for the rest of his life.

The veracity of this incredible story is questionable, considering that Nizam was about thirty years older than Omar. Thus, it seems unlikely that they would have studied under the same teacher. Nevertheless, the portrayal of Omar as a dedicated scholar is quite accurate. During his lifetime, Omar became renowned for his learning. As an example, Omar’s fame as a scholar had reached the ears of the Seljuq sultan, Malik Shah I. Therefore, in 1073 AD, he was invited to Isfahan, and was placed in charge of the construction of an observatory. The building was completed in the following year. Omar worked in Isfahan as an astronomer for almost 20 years. During this period, Omar played a key role in the Seljuq reformation of the Persian calendar.

The work of Omar and other astronomers at Isfahan resulted in the adoption of the Jalali calendar as the official calendar of the Seljuq Empire in 1079 AD. Unlike the lunar Islamic calendar, the Jalali calendar was a solar one. This calendar is so accurate that it has only a one-day error every 5000 years. As a comparison, the Gregorian calendar that is used today has a one-day error every 3330 years. The glory of the Isfahan Observatory, however, was not destined to last. In 1092 AD Malik Shah died, most likely from poison. Just a month before that, his vizier had been assassinated. Consequently, Omar and the astronomers at Isfahan lost their patrons, the observatory closed soon after, and the Jalali calendar was abolished. Variants of this calendar, by the way, are still used in Iran and Afghanistan today.

At the Tomb of Omar Khayyam  (Jay Hambidge / Public Domain)

At the Tomb of Omar Khayyam  (Jay Hambidge / Public Domain)

Omar was not only an excellent astronomer, but also made contributions to the field of mathematics. In 1070 AD, for instance, he completed a mathematical treatise called Treaties on the Demonstration of Problems of Algebra. This was a highly influential work, evidenced by the fact that the principles of algebra contained within it eventually found their way to the West. In addition, Omar worked on the triangular array of binomial coefficients, thus laying the foundations for what is known today as Pascal’s Triangle.

In 1077 AD, Omar completed another major work, Explanations of the Difficulties in the Postulates in Euclid’s Elements. It is said that Omar’s original intention was to prove the parallel postulate (known also as Euclid’s fifth postulate). Instead, he ended up proving the properties of figures in non-Euclidean geometry, thus contributing, albeit by accident, to the development of this branch of mathematics. This work also mentions what is known today as the Khayyam-Saccheri quadrilateral. This is a quadrilateral with two equal sides perpendicular to the base. Although Omar was the first mathematician to consider this quadrilateral, the next development to the concept, made by Giovanni Gerolamo Saccheri, only occurred during the 18 th century.

Planetarium of Omar Khayyam – Nishapur. (CC BY-SA 3.0)

Planetarium of Omar Khayyam – Nishapur. (CC BY-SA 3.0)

Omar Khayyam Is Also Known as One of Persia’s Leading Poets

Although Omar was well-known as an intellectual during his time and in his home country, this is not entirely the case today. Instead, since the latter half of the 19 th century, he is more commonly regarded, especially by English-speakers, as a poet. Modern scholars are not entirely in agreement with the idea of Omar as a poet. Some, for instance, doubt that Omar ever wrote poetry, whilst others point to the fact that other Muslim scholars during Omar’s time also dabbled in poetry, possibly for amusement. Yet others are of the opinion that Omar did write some poems, perhaps around 150 of the Rubaiyat’s quatrains, whilst the rest were contributed by other poets using Omar’s name. The idea of poets attributing their works to Omar is not entirely impossible, due to his fame and reputation.  

It has been pointed out that Omar’s contemporaries did not pay much notice to his poems, assuming that he was writing poetry. It seems that it was only two centuries after his death that a few quatrains began to appear under his name. These poems, however, were not appreciated for what they were. Instead, they were used mainly as quotations to debate some of the views Omar allegedly held. Omar’s poetry only truly achieved stardom during the 19 th century, thanks to the translation of the poems from Persian into English by Edward FitzGerald.

Omar Khayyam and FitzGerald’s 1859 Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam

In 1859 AD, FitzGerald published his work as the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam. The word ‘rubaiyat’, by the way, means ‘quatrains’ (stanzas of four lines). This was not exactly a translation of the original text, but rather a very loose translation of the poems attributed to Omar. By adding his own 19 th century Romantic sentiments, FitzGerald inevitably distorted the originals. Hence, some critics have even playfully referred to FitzGerald’s work as the ‘Rubaiyat of FitzOmar’.

Page from an illuminated manuscript of the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam, watercolor, bodycolor and gold leaf. Calligraphy and ornamentation by William Morris, illustrations by Edward Burne-Jones. (Public domain)

Page from an illuminated manuscript of the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam, watercolor, bodycolor and gold leaf. Calligraphy and ornamentation by William Morris, illustrations by Edward Burne-Jones. (Public domain)

At the time of its publication, the Rubaiyat enjoyed little popularity. In the decades that followed, however, the poems became extremely popular. An elite literary salon in London was established, called the Omar Khayyam Club (it is still active today). In addition, the work served as an inspiration for Pre-Raphaelite artists. One of them, William Morris, for example, produced two illuminated manuscripts of the Rubaiyat.

For all its flaws, FitzGerald’s translation is still the version of Omar’s poems that most are familiar with today. Moreover, it has made a great impact on the way the West has viewed Persian poetry. In general terms, the poems of the Rubaiyat celebrate the pleasures of life. At the same time, however, they explored political and religious issues that were current during Omar’s time. In any case, Omar’s poems are said to have stood the test of time, as their themes resonate with people from across time and space. One of the most famous poems of the Rubaiyat is quatrain XI, which is as follows,

Here with a Loaf of Bread beneath the Bough,
A Flask of Wine, a Book of Verse—and Thou
Beside me singing in the Wilderness—
And Wilderness is Paradise enow.    

FitzGerald also organized the quatrains into coherent sequences, considered to be controversial by some scholars. This is because each of Omar’s poem is self-contained, though he returned to certain themes again and again. Moreover, there is no textual evidence to suggest that the poet wanted his poems to be read in a certain order. FitzGerald’s arrangement, however, turned Omar’s short poems into lengthy meditations on deeply philosophical matters. The quatrains right after quatrain XI, i.e. quatrain XII, for instance, is as follows,

“How sweet is mortal Sovranty”—think some:
Others—“How blest the Paradise to come!”
Ah, take the Cash in hand and waive the Rest;
Oh, the brave Music of a distant Drum!

For some scholars, these quatrains not only present Omar as a poet, but also as a philosopher. Several philosophical themes can be found in the quatrains, including impermanence and the quest for the meaning of life, determinism and free will, and theodicy and justice. Apart from that, Omar also wrote a number of philosophical treatises, including “On Being and Necessity”, “On the Knowledge of the Universal Principles of Existence”, and “On the Necessity of Contradiction in the World, Determinism and Subsistence”. It must be emphasized, however, that Omar is much better known as a scientist and poet than as a philosopher.

Tomb of Omar Khayyam (dynamosquito / CC 2.0)

Tomb of Omar Khayyam (dynamosquito / CC 2.0)

The End of Omar Khayyam’s Life & How He is Remembered Today

In 1092 AD, when both Nizam and Malik Shah died, Omar fell from favour at court. Subsequently, he went on a pilgrimage to Mecca. The story of his life after that, however, is somewhat of a blur. One source, for instance, states that he visited Baghdad when he was on his way to / returning from Mecca. After the pilgrimage, he retired to Nishapur, and lived the life of a recluse. Another source claims that Omar remained an active scholar, travelling to different cities in the region in search of libraries and astronomical calculations. Eventually, he returned to Nishapur, due to declining health. Yet another source states that Omar received royal patronage again, this time from Ahmad Sanjar, the ruler of Khorasan, and, from 1118 AD onwards, the sultan of the Seljuq Empire. Omar is said to have been invited to work at the sultan’s court, and later retired due to ill-health. Interestingly, we know very little about Omar’s personal life. It is believed that he had a wife, as well as a son and daughter.

Omar Khayyam Mausoleum, Nishapur, Iran (CC BY-SA 3.0)

Omar Khayyam Mausoleum, Nishapur, Iran (CC BY-SA 3.0)

Omar Khayyam died on the 4 th of December 1131 AD. He is still remembered in his native land as well as in the West. Whilst his intellectual achievements are well-known in the former, they are overshadowed by his poetry in the latter. In modern day Iran, Omar is even considered to be a national hero. This is evident in the reconstruction of the Mausoleum of Omar Khayyam, which was completed in 1963 AD. Today, there is a white marble monument over the tomb, which is visited by pilgrims who wish to pay their respects to this great man.

Top image: Omar Khayyam, ‘Earth Could Not Answer’ by Adelaide Hanscom Leeson.        Source: Public Domain

By Wu Mingren


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Wu Mingren (‘Dhwty’) has a Bachelor of Arts in Ancient History and Archaeology. Although his primary interest is in the ancient civilizations of the Near East, he is also interested in other geographical regions, as well as other time periods.... Read More

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