Omar Khayyam of Persia

By Namit Arora | Nov 2006 | Comments


In his lifetime, Omar Khayyam (1048-1131) achieved great fame as a master of philosophy, jurisprudence, history, medicine, astronomy, and mathematics. The Great Seljuq Empire owed the reform of its calendar to him. The result was the Jalali era (named after Jalal-ud-din, one of the kings)-'a computation of time,' wrote Gibbon, 'which surpasses the Julian, and approaches the accuracy of the Gregorian [calendar].' He measured the length of the year as 365.24219858156 days, a number improved to 365.242196 days only in the 19th century and the current measure is 365.242190 days.

He not only discovered a general method of extracting roots of an arbitrary high degree, but his Algebra contains the first complete treatment of the solution of cubic equations which he did by means of conic sections. He was also part of the Islamic tradition of investigating Euclid and his parallel postulate. Arguing that ratios should be regarded as 'ideal numbers,' he conceived a much broader system of numbers than used since Greek antiquity, that of the positive real numbers. In many such areas, he furthered the remarkable work of al-Beruni. Commissioned to build an observatory in the city of Esfahan, he led a team of astronomers to do so.

Omar Khayyam ('Tentmaker', possibly his father's profession) was not only a top-notch mathematician but also a major poet. The world today knows him for his quatrains, the Rubaiyat. Besides the social attitudes of the times, they reveal a sensitive, intelligent, humble, gently-mocking yet good-humored man, skeptical of divine providence and certainty of truth, wistful of an ever-present evanescence, mystical in one, lamenting human ignorance in another. Many of his 500 or so quatrains celebrate wine, exhorting all those who take themselves too seriously to partake of it while time permits. He "chooses to put his faith in a joyful appreciation of the fleeting and sensuous beauties of the material world. The idyllic nature of the modest pleasures he celebrates, however, cannot dispel his honest and straightforward brooding over fundamental metaphysical questions."

Khayyam was attached to the court of the Seljuks-of Khorasan, later of Baghdad, Samarkand and Esfahan as well-and lived amidst political turbulence interspersed with quiet periods. His ideas frequently attracted flak from the growing religious conservatism of Sunni Turks. According to Professor Iraj Bashiri, Khayyam—synthesizing the thoughts of Plato, Aristotle, the neo-Platonian al-Farabi, and Ibn Sina (Avicenna)—believed that

"God had created the world but . [it] had been a necessity for God and, therefore, inevitable. The stages leading to the creation of matter followed each other as night follows day . This ascription of limits to the power of the Almighty is the most startling notion in Khayyam's Quatrains. It jolts the unwary reader out of the routine of orthodox thinking and places him or her in the uncomfortable position of the unwilling blasphemer. Yet, Khayyam's God is more real and approachable than the fearful Creator of orthodoxy . [he] formally rejects the Creator/creature relationship for a cause and effect relationship . God becomes the cause of a necessary creation . that develops of its own accord, and at its own pace. A number of Khayyam's quatrains concentrate on what religion teaches about the powers of the Almighty and . the limitations of that power."  

Here are ten sample quatrains (translated by EH Whinfield).

O unenlightened race of humankind,
Ye are a nothing, built on empty wind!
Yea, a mere nothing, hovering in the abyss,
A void before you, and a void behind!

All my companions, one by one died
With Angel of Death they now reside
In the banquette of life same wine we tried
A few cups back, they fell to the side.

Some are thoughtful on their way
Some are doubtful, so they pray.
I hear the hidden voice that may
Shout, "Both paths lead astray."

The secrets eternal neither you know nor !
And answers to the riddle neither you know nor !
Behind the veil there is much talk about us, why
When the veil falls, neither you remain nor !

Drinking wine is my travail
Till my body is dead and stale
At my grave site all shall hail
Odor of wine shall prevail.

Heed not the Sunna, nor the law divine;
If to the poor his portion you assign,
And never injure one, nor yet abuse,
I guarantee you heaven, and now some wine!

Slaves of vain wisdom and philosophy,
Who toil at Being and Nonentity,
Parching your brains till they are like dry grapes,
Be wise in time, and drink grapejuice like me!

You, who in carnal lusts your time employ,
Wearing your precious spirit with annoy,
Know that these things you set your heart upon
Sooner or later must the soul destroy!

Never in this false world on friends rely,
(I give this counsel confidentially);
Put up with pain, and seek no antidote;
Endure your grief, and ask no sympathy!

You know all secrets of this earthly sphere,
Why then remain a prey to empty fear?
You can not bend things to your will, but yet
Cheer up for the few moments you are here!



(More quatrains ?)



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