Authors: Omar Khayyám

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

Persian poet and mathematician

Author Works


Rubáiyát manuscripts (The Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám, 1859; Edward FitzGerald, translator)


Most of what is known about Omar Khayyám (OH-mahr ki-YAHM) lies half buried in the fog of history. His dates of birth and death are at best good estimates, for no indisputable evidence has been found. Some question even Omar’s reputation as a poet, as none of his contemporaries speak of his poetry, and his poems began to appear in print only after his death. Furthermore, the volume of poems attributed to Omar grew steadily from around sixty in the fourteenth century to collections of as many as one thousand poems in the seventeenth century. As Ali Dashti has summarized, by the middle of the twentieth century, more than twenty-two hundred poems had been attributed to Omar. Questions of authenticity, therefore, have been raised about these poems, especially after they have been filtered through various translations.{$I[A]Omar Khayyám}{$S[A]Khayyám, Omar;Omar Khayyám}{$I[geo]IRAN;Omar Khayyám}{$I[tim]1048;Omar Khayyám}

However, Omar Khayyám holds an indisputable place in world literature. While some of the details of his life may remain obscure, his historicity is certain, and his role as a poet is well established. According to Ali Dashti, Omar’s birth name was Ghiyasoddin Abolfath Omar bin Ebrahim Khayyami. He was born in the city of Nishapur, in the province of Khorassan in northeast Persia, now part of modern-day Iran. Omar was well-educated, and he excelled in the sciences of geometry and astronomy as well as algebra. His writings about these mathematical disciplines are short, but important, works for his time. Omar served Seljuq Soltan Malekshah until he died in 1092. After this time, Omar seems to have fallen from favor with the Turkish rulers of his region, and in 1095 he embarked on a lengthy journey to Mecca, then Bagdad, then back to his birthplace of Nishapur.

One of the great complications of Omar Khayyám’s life arose from his emersion in Greek philosophy that was often contrary to the religious teachings of conservative Islam. Because Omar was more philosophical than political in his thinking, and because he had seen the fate of those who risked their lives in the uncertain tides of politics, he preferred a private life, with only a few visitors. He maintained an outward show of orthodox Islamic practices, such as going to Mecca. In his philosophical dialogues and in his rubáiyát, however, he expressed his private views about the value of enjoying life daily. These pragmatic, somewhat melancholy observations about life sometimes bear a curious resemblance to the wisdom literature of the Old Testament, such as Ecclesiastes and the Song of Solomon, both attributed to Solomon. For example, one of the most often quoted stanzas of The Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám is stanza 12 from the fourth edition: “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!” Such writing may reflect something of the Epicurean tradition of the Greeks, but it also conveys the value of enjoying the simple pleasures of life, much as the Song of Solomon does.

Omar spent his final years quietly in the city of his birth. He avoided censure by the Turkish rulers, and he was well known for his insights into the mathematical sciences. The poetry for which the Western world would best know him was collected over the centuries and was first brought to prominence by Edward FitzGerald’s translation, initially published in 1859. Dante Gabriel Rossetti discovered this translation in 1861 and helped promote it among the literary elite of his day. Subsequent editions sold out quickly. Other poets such as Ferdousi of Tus, Mevlana Jalaluddin Rumi, and Muslihu’d-din Sa’di of Shiraz are better known among Persians today, but Omar has eclipsed them in Western literature, chiefly as a result of FitzGerald’s famous translation.

The form of Omar Khayyám’s poetry was unusual for his time. Most Persian poets were expected to write a variety of poetic forms before writing rubáiyát. A typical divan, or collection of poetry by one poet, contained three other poetic forms before concluding with the rubáiyát. The first was the qasides (odes), the next form was the ghazals (lyrics), and the third form was the queta’at (pieces). These various forms could make use of nearly two hundred different meters, and poets were expected to show their agility by writing skillfully in various meters and forms. Omar wrote only in the fourth form included in a divan, the rubáiyát, chiefly because it was regular in meter and easier to master than the other forms. Furthermore, the four-line rhyme of aaba or aaaa patterns combined with short lines of ten to thirteen syllables each was well suited to short statements or epigrams. Although Omar apparently did not attempt to write in the other poetic forms used by Persian poets of his era, he excelled in writing the rubáiyát, and for these gems, as rediscovered by FitzGerald, Omar Khayyám is known well as one of the most gifted poets of Persia.

BibliographyBloom, Harold, ed. Edward FitzGerald’ “The Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám.” Philadelphia: Chelsea House, 2004. Presents an introduction to FitzGerald’ infamous study and chapters that consider the “fin de siècle cult” of FitzGerald’ work, comparisons with poets such as Tennyson, “forgetting” Fitzgerald’ study, and more. Bibliography, index.Boyle, J. A. “Omar Khayyám: Astronomer, Mathematician, and Poet.” In The Cambridge History of Iran, edited by R. N. Frye. Vol. 4. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1975. A succinct and careful review of the known facts about Khayyám’ life, concluding with a brief review of the dispute over Khayyám’ attitude toward Sufism, with which he presumably had little affinity.Dashti, Ali. In Search of Omar Khayyám. Translated by L. P. Elwell-Sutton. London: Allen and Unwin, 1971. A very reliable study of Khayyám, which includes a review of his age and the known facts of his life, a collection of seventy-five quatrains that the author argues can be attributed with some confidence to Khayyám, and a sympathetic and sensitive identification of themes in the poems.Dougan, Abdullah. Who Is the Potter? A Commentary on the “Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám.” Auckland, New Zealand: Gnostic Press, 1991. This book is based on tape-recorded comments made by Dougan on the Rubáiyát during meetings with students. Each quatrain is followed by Dougan’s interpretation of its meaning and relevance to Sufi teaching. Although Dougan was not a trained scholar or literary critic, his mystical approach to the poem helps the reader to understand its essential seriousness, evident in the religious and philosophical imagery and themes.FitzGerald, Edward. The Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám. 4th ed. London: Bernard Quaritch, 1879. This is the last edition the author saw to press and thus the official, final version of the poem.FitzGerald, Edward. “Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám”: A Critical Edition. Edited by Christopher Decker. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1997. Decker provides a scholarly critique of Omar Khayyám’s life, FitzGerald’s translations of the Rubáiyát, and the merits of the various editions of this famous set of poems. Decker’s book is a useful tool for serious students looking for the definitive edition of FitzGerald’s Rubáiyát.Gray, Erik. “Forgetting FitzGerald’ Rubáiyát.” Studies in English Literature, 1500-1900 41, no. 4 (Autumn, 2001). Argues that the notion of “forgetting” or remembering “imperfectly” marks FitzGerald’ poetic study as an important text in the context of Victorian poetry and in continuing literary work.Heron-Allen, Edward. Edward FitzGerald’ “Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám” with Their Original Persian Sources. Boston: L. C. Page, 1899. A study of FitzGerald’ stanzas paralleled with the Persian texts of possible sources, demonstrating that, although FitzGerald was inspired by Khayyamic and other Persian quatrains, The Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám is an original English poem and not a translation.Hillmann, Michael C. “Perennial Iranian Skepticism.” In Iranian Culture: A Persianist View. Lanham, Md.: University Press of America, 1988. A treatment of the significance to Iranian culture today of the ideas expressed in Khayyamic quatrains, which are compared to FitzGerald’ poem. Comprehensive bibliography.Kennedy, E. S. “The Exact Sciences in Iran Under the Saljuqs and Mongols.” In The Cambridge History of Iran, edited by J. A. Boyle. Vol. 5. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1968. Surveys the foundations of mathematics, algebra, trigonometry, planetary theory, observational astronomy, mathematical geography, specific gravity determination, and rainbow theory, with a discussion of Khayyám’ contribution to polynomial equations and his possible contribution to observational astronomy.Khayyám, Omar. The Algebra of Omar Khayyám. Translated by Daoud S. Kasir. 1931. Reprint. New York: AMS Press, 1972. A great history of mathematics and Khayyám’ most important extant work, prefaced with a discussion of the state of algebra before his time and Khayyám’ methods and significance. Bibliography.Nasr, Seyyed Hossein. The Islamic Intellectual Tradition in Persia. Edited by Mehdi Amin Razavi. Richmond, Surrey, England: Curzon Press, 1996. Presents a chapter exploring Omar as a philosopher, poet, and scientist. Bibliography, index.Ozdural, Alpay. “A Mathematical Sonata for Architecture: Omar Khayyám and the Friday Mosque of Isfahan.” Technology and Culture 39, no. 4 (October, 1998). Explores the possibility that Omar, with his theories on ornamental geometry and the triangle, was the designer of the North Dome Chamber (or Great Mosque), built in 1088-1089, in Eşfahān, Iran. Includes technical language and geometrical drawings.Rashed, Rushdei, and Bijan Vahabzadeh. Omar Khayyám: The Mathematician. New York: Bibliotheca Persica Press, 2000. An exploration of Omar’ work in mathematics. Part of the Persian Heritage series. Bibliography, index.Tutin, John Ramsden. A Concordance to FitzGerald’s Translation of the Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám. 1900. Reprint. New York: Johnson Reprint, 1967. This concordance covers the first through fourth editions dated 1859 to 1879.Yogananda, Paramhansa. “The Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám” Explained. Edited by J. Donald Walters. Nevada City, Calif.: Crystal Clarity, 1994. Yogananda uses FitzGerald’s first edition of the Rubáiyát as a springboard for his own contributions to an understanding of the poem. Each of FitzGerald’s quatrains is followed by Yogananda’s prose paraphrase, an interpretation of the quatrain, and an explanation of its imagery and thought. Both Yogananda and Walters often interject their own mystical musings into the explanations. Their efforts are an interesting balance to the work of scholars and critics who search for authentic manuscripts of the Rubáiyát and provide accurate, literal translations of them. This book may not be scholarly, but it gives a fresh treatment to the growing interest in Omar Khayyám and his poetry.
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