The Life of Omar Khayyam

The Life of Omar Khayyam Birth: Date: 1048 CE Place: Nishapur, Persia (Iran) Name: Abu ol-Fath ebn-Ebrahim ‘Omar ol-Khayyami of Nishapur Khayyam means “tent maker” Work: Mathematician Scientist Astronomer Philosopher Poet Major Contributions: Jalali Calendar (more accurate than the Julian, and almost as accurate as the Gregorian intercalation system) Contributions to Algebra (geometric solution of cubic equations) Astronomical tables And the Rubaiyat Death: Date: 1123 CE Place: Nishapur, Persia (Iran) Biography Omar Khayyam was born at Naishapur in Khorassan in the latter half of our Eleventh, and died within the First Quarter of our Twelfth Century. The Slender Story of his Life is curiously twined about that of two other very considerable Figures in their Time and Country: one of whom tells the Story of all Three. This was Nizam ul Mulk, Vizier to Alp Arslan the Son, and Malik Shah the Grandson, of Toghrul Beg the Tartar, who had wrested Persia from the feeble Successor of Mahmud the Great, and founded that Seljukian Dynasty which finally roused Europe into the Crusades. This Nizam ul Mulk, in his Wasiyat–or Testament–which he wrote and left as a Memorial for future Statesmen–relates the following, as quoted in the Calcutta Review, No. 59, from Mirkhond’s History of the Assassins. “‘One of the greatest of the wise men of Khorassan was the Imam Mowaffak of Naishapur, a man highly honored and reverenced,–may God rejoice his soul; his illustrious years exceeded eighty-five, and it was the universal belief that every boy who read the Koran or studied the traditions in his presence, would assuredly attain to honor and happiness. For this cause did my father send me from Tus to Naishapur with Abd-us-samad, the doctor of law, that I might employ myself in study and learning under the guidance of that illustrious teacher. Towards me he ever turned an eye of favor and kindness, and as his pupil I felt for him extreme affection and devotion, so that I passed four years in his service. When I first came there, I found two other pupils of mine own age newly arrived, Hakim Omar Khayyam, and the ill-fated Ben Sabbah. Both were endowed with sharpness of wit and the highest natural powers; and we three formed a close friendship together. When the Imam rose from his lectures, they used to join me, and we repeated to each other the lessons we had heard. Now Omar was a native of Naishapur, while Hasan Ben Sabbah’s father was one Ali, a man of austere life and practise, but heretical in his creed and doctrine. One day Hasan said to me and to Khayyam, “It is a universal belief that the pupils of the Imam Mowaffak will attain to fortune. Now, even if we all do not attain thereto, without doubt one of us will; what then shall be our mutual pledge and bond?” We answered, “Be it what you please.” “Well,” he said, “let us make a vow, that to whomsoever this fortune falls, he shall share it equally with the rest, and reserve no pre-eminence for himself.” “Be it so,” we both replied, and on those terms we mutually pledged our words. Years rolled on, and I went from Khorassan to Transoxiana, and wandered to Ghazni and Cabul; and when I returned, I was invested with office, and rose to be administrator of affairs during the Sultanate of Sultan Alp Arslan.’ “He goes on to state, that years passed by, and both his old school-friends found him out, and came and claimed a share in his good fortune, according to the school-day vow. The Vizier was generous and kept his word. Hasan demanded a place in the government, which the Sultan granted at the Vizier’s request; but discontented with a gradual rise, he plunged into the maze of intrigue of an oriental court, and, failing in a base attempt to supplant his benefactor, he was disgraced and fell. After many mishaps and wanderings, Hasan became the head of the Persian sect of the Ismailians, a party of fanatics who had long murmured in obscurity, but rose to an evil eminence under the guidance of his strong and evil will. In A.D. 1090, he seized the castle of Alamut, in the province of Rudbar, which lies in the mountainous tract south of the Caspian Sea; and it was from this mountain home he obtained that evil celebrity among the Crusaders as the OLD MAN OF THE MOUNTAINS, and spread terror through the Mohammedan world; and it is yet disputed where the word Assassin, which they have left in the language of modern Europe as their dark memorial, is derived from the hashish, or opiate of hemp-leaves (the Indian bhang), with which they maddened themselves to the sullen pitch of oriental desperation, or from the name of the founder of the dynasty, whom we have seen in his quiet collegiate days, at Naishapur. One of the countless victims of the Assassin’s dagger was Nizam ul Mulk himself, the old school-boy friend.<1> “Omar Khayyam also came to the Vizier to claim his share; but not to ask for title or office. ‘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.’ The Vizier tells us, that when he found Omar was really sincere in his refusal, he pressed him no further, but granted him a yearly pension of 1200 mithkals of gold from the treasury of Naishapur. “At Naishapur thus lived and died Omar Khayyam, ‘busied,’ adds the Vizier, ‘in winning knowledge of every kind, and especially in Astronomy, wherein he attained to a very high pre-eminence. Under the Sultanate of Malik Shah, he came to Merv, and obtained great praise for his proficiency in science, and the Sultan showered favors upon him.’ “When the Malik Shah determined to reform the calendar, Omar was one of the eight learned men employed to do it; the result was the Jalali era (so called from Jalal-ud-din, one of the king’s names)–‘a computation of time,’ says Gibbon, ‘which surpasses the Julian, and approaches the accuracy of the Gregorian style.’ He is also the author of some astronomical tables, entitled ‘Ziji-Malikshahi,’ and the French have lately republished and translated an Arabic Treatise of his on Algebra. “His Takhallus or poetical name (Khayyam) signifies a Tent-maker, and he is said to have at one time exercised that trade, perhaps before Nizam-ul-Mulk’s generosity raised him to independence. Many Persian poets similarly derive their names from their occupations; thus we have Attar, ‘a druggist,’ Assar, ‘an oil presser,’ etc.<2> Omar himself alludes to his name in the following whimsical lines:– “‘Khayyam, who stitched the tents of science, Has fallen in grief’s furnace and been suddenly burned; The shears of Fate have cut the tent ropes of his life, And the broker of Hope has sold him for nothing!’ “We have only one more anecdote to give of his Life, and that relates to the close; it is told in the anonymous preface which is sometimes prefixed to his poems; it has been printed in the Persian in the Appendix to Hyde’s Veterum Persarum Religio, p. 499; and D’Herbelot alludes to it in his Bibliotheque, under Khiam.<3>– “‘It is written in the chronicles of the ancients that this King of the Wise, Omar Khayyam, died at Naishapur in the year of the Hegira, 517 (A.D. 1123); in science he was unrivaled,–the very paragon of his age. Khwajah Nizami of Samarcand, who was one of his pupils, relates the following story: “I often used to hold conversations with my teacher, Omar Khayyam, in a garden; and one day he said to me, ‘My tomb shall be in a spot where the north wind may scatter roses over it.’ I wondered at the words he spake, but I knew that his were no idle words.<4> Years after, when I chanced to revisit Naishapur, I went to his final resting-place, and lo! it was just outside a garden, and trees laden with fruit stretched their boughs over the garden wall, and dropped their flowers upon his tomb, so that the stone was hidden under them.” Thus far–without fear of Trespass–from the Calcutta Review. The writer of it, on reading in India this story of Omar’s Grave, was reminded, he says, of Cicero’s Account of finding Archimedes’ Tomb at Syracuse, buried in grass and weeds. I think Thorwaldsen desired to have roses grow over him; a wish religiously fulfilled for him to the present day, I believe. However, to return to Omar. Though the Sultan “shower’d Favors upon him,” Omar’s Epicurean Audacity of Thought and Speech caused him to be regarded askance in his own Time and Country. He is said to have been especially hated and dreaded by the Sufis, whose Practise he ridiculed, and whose Faith amounts to little more than his own, when stript of the Mysticism and formal recognition of Islamism under which Omar would not hide. Their Poets, including Hafiz, who are (with the exception of Firdausi) the most considerable in Persia, borrowed largely, indeed, of Omar’s material, but turning it to a mystical Use more convenient to Themselves and the People they addressed; a People quite as quick of Doubt as of Belief; as keen of Bodily sense as of Intellectual; and delighting in a cloudy composition of both, in which they could float luxuriously between Heaven and Earth, and this World and the Next, on the wings of a poetical expression, that might serve indifferently for either. Omar was too honest of Heart as well of Head for this. Having failed (however mistakenly) of finding any Providence but Destiny, and any World but This, he set about making the most of it; preferring rather to soothe the Soul through the Senses into Acquiescence with Things as he saw them, than to perplex it with vain disquietude after what they might be. It has been seen, however, that his Worldly Ambition was not exorbitant; and he very likely takes a humorous or perverse pleasure in exalting the gratification of Sense above that of the Intellect, in which he must have taken great delight, although it failed to answer the Questions in which he, in common with all men, was most vitally interested. For whatever Reason, however, Omar as before said, has never been popular in his own Country, and therefore has been but scantily transmitted abroad. The MSS. of his Poems, mutilated beyond the average Casualties of Oriental Transcription, are so rare in the East as scarce to have reacht Westward at all, in spite of all the acquisitions of Arms and Science. There is no copy at the India House, none at the Bibliotheque Nationale of Paris. We know but of one in England: No. 140 of the Ouseley MSS. at the Bodleian, written at Shiraz, A.D. 1460. This contains but 158 Rubaiyat. One in the Asiatic Society’s Library at Calcutta (of which we have a Copy), contains (and yet incomplete) 516, though swelled to that by all kinds of Repetition and Corruption. So Von Hammer speaks of his Copy as containing about 200, while Dr. Sprenger catalogues the Lucknow MS. at double that number.<5> The Scribes, too, of the Oxford and Calcutta MSS. seem to do their Work under a sort of Protest; each beginning with a Tetrastich (whether genuine or not), taken out of its alphabetical order; the Oxford with one of Apology; the Calcutta with one of Expostulation, supposed (says a Notice prefixed to the MS.) to have arisen from a Dream, in which Omar’s mother asked about his future fate. It may be rendered thus:– “O Thou who burn’st in Heart for those who burn In Hell, whose fires thyself shall feed in turn, How long be crying, ‘Mercy on them, God!’ Why, who art Thou to teach, and He to learn?” The Bodleian Quatrain pleads Pantheism by way of Justification. “If I myself upon a looser Creed Have loosely strung the Jewel of Good deed, Let this one thing for my Atonement plead: That One for Two I never did misread.” The Reviewer,<6> to whom I owe the Particulars of Omar’s Life, concludes his Review by comparing him with Lucretius, both as to natural Temper and Genius, and as acted upon by the Circumstances in which he lived. Both indeed were men of subtle, strong, and cultivated Intellect, fine Imagination, and Hearts passionate for Truth and Justice; who justly revolted from their Country’s false Religion, and false, or foolish, Devotion to it; but who fell short of replacing what they subverted by such better Hope as others, with no better Revelation to guide them, had yet made a Law to themselves. Lucretius indeed, with such material as Epicurus furnished, satisfied himself with the theory of a vast machine fortuitously constructed, and acting by a Law that implied no Legislator; and so composing himself into a Stoical rather than Epicurean severity of Attitude, sat down to contemplate the mechanical drama of the Universe which he was part Actor in; himself and all about him (as in his own sublime description of the Roman Theater) discolored with the lurid reflex of the Curtain suspended between the Spectator and the Sun. Omar, more desperate, or more careless of any so complicated System as resulted in nothing but hopeless Necessity, flung his own Genius and Learning with a bitter or humorous jest into the general Ruin which their insufficient glimpses only served to reveal; and, pretending sensual pleasure, as the serious purpose of Life, only diverted himself with speculative problems of Deity, Destiny, Matter and Spirit, Good and Evil, and other such questions, easier to start than to run down, and the pursuit of which becomes a very weary sport at last! With regard to the present Translation. The original Rubaiyat (as, missing an Arabic Guttural, these Tetrastichs are more musically called) are independent Stanzas, consisting each of four Lines of equal, though varied, Prosody; sometimes all rhyming, but oftener (as here imitated) the third line a blank. Somewhat as in the Greek Alcaic, where the penultimate line seems to lift and suspend the Wave that falls over in the last. As usual with such kind of Oriental Verse, the Rubaiyat follow one another according to Alphabetic Rhyme–a strange succession of Grave and Gay. Those here selected are strung into something of an Eclogue, with perhaps a less than equal proportion of the “Drink and make-merry,” which (genuine or not) recurs over-frequently in the Original. Either way, the Result is sad enough: saddest perhaps when most ostentatiously merry: more apt to move Sorrow than Anger toward the old Tentmaker, who, after vainly endeavoring to unshackle his Steps from Destiny, and to catch some authentic Glimpse of TO-MORROW, fell back upon TO-DAY (which has outlasted so many To-morrows!) as the only Ground he had got to stand upon, however momentarily slipping from under his Feet. Philosophy It is quite appropriately claimed that Khayyam was the poet of destiny. However, it will be very wrong of us to think that he was a fatalist, at least by the common understanding and definitions that we have of this word. There are two major schools of thought in trying to classify Omar Khayyam’s Rubaiyat. One claims that he was highly influenced by Islamic mysticism, and particularly sufism, and his references to wine and lovers are allegorical representations of the mystical wine and divine love. A second school of thought refutes the first completely, claiming that Khayyam understood his mortality and inability to look beyond, and his references to wine and lovers are very literal and sensual. Khayyam himself has given us a clue in one of his Rubaiyee’s (singular for Rubaiyat), when he literally says: Some in deep thought spirit seek Some lost in awe, of doubt reek I fear the voice, hidden but not weak Cry out “awake! Both ways are oblique.” It is safe to assume that both the above schools of thought are somewhat erroneous, and that the proponents of each, while half understanding the wisdom that Khayyam imparted, are turning and twisting his words to suit their own beliefs. One only has to look at Khayyam’s life to come to the same conclusion. He was a super-achieving genius. He was counsel to ministers and kings. He was a mathematical genius, presenting solutions to problems that were centuries ahead of his time. He was a highly knowledgeable astronomer, who calculated the duration of the solar year with unmatched accuracy, at least unmatched until this century. He was knowledgeable in other physical sciences such as medicine and chemistry (or alchemy at his time). He was a much sought after philosopher and teacher. The very fact that he had the urge, the drive, and the discipline to compose and write the Rubaiyat, shows that he had a depth of perception and vision that we are still having difficulty understanding. A man who has done so much in his life is clearly not a mystical fatalist claiming “what will be, will be!” To the contrary, he saw the folly of being mesmerized by such techniques, which may bring amazing visions of reality, but so long as they remain visions, they are not and cannot be the truth, the reality itself. Furthermore, a man who changed the world of his time and for centuries after, is clearly not one who would say, “since we are all going to die, let us concern ourselves with sensual pleasures only.” He clearly saw that just as mystical infatuations were merely visions of reality and not the truth, sensual pleasures were also representations of a deeper joy and not the truth either. Anyone who can so clearly pose the questions of mortality and temporality of our existence has obviously struggled deeply with life and death and existence. Khayyam understood the meaning of not being in control of our lives and deaths, and found the limits of our freedom. He understood what was important in life. And through his life, his teachings and his Rubaiyat conveyed that meaning, though in somewhat of a cryptic form, nevertheless complete and intact to us. Khayyam understood that it was our fate, our destiny, something beyond our control to be born into this world. He also understood that death was an inevitable fate for anyone who was ever born. He understood that our bodies come from dust and clay, and return to clay. He understood the fantasy of concerning ourselves with the future, as well as the neurosis of staying in our past. He saw that all we have is this ever slipping moment, this now, which itself has a timeless quality. And he understood that in life what is important is that deeper joy and love for which we have infinite yearning, as well as capacity to both receive and emanate. His Rubaiyat force us to ask those ultimate existential questions, and lead us down a path that, unless we are lost along the way or are destabilized by the abyss which we must traverse, must inevitably reach the same answer. Those ultimate truths that in life all that matters is love and joy. All else is fantasy and fallacy. If we accept Khayyam’s philosophy and heed his advice, then we will shift our focus from the external, be it mystical or sensual, to the internal. And if we go through this transformative alchemical transmutation of the soul, we too will become like Khayyam, men and women who change ourselves, and consequently our world, as well as the future worlds to come.


~ by pegahespantman on July 31, 2009.

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