The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam: Persia's Poet-Scientist

By Sorkhabi, Rasoul | The World and I, January 2012 | Go to article overview

The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam: Persia's Poet-Scientist


Sorkhabi, Rasoul, The World and I


December 4, 2011 marked the 880th anniversary of the death of one of the best known Oriental poets in the world: Omar Khayyam. Immortalized by its translation into English verse by Edward FitzGerald, "The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam," has created a huge following in the West. Initially overlooked, the subsequent successes of FitzGerald's and other translations can be said to have introduced new aspects to our understanding of poetry.

Omar Khayyam was an eminent mathematician, astronomer and philosopher, as well as a poet. But most people today know little about his life or thought. This article considers the Rubaiyat in the context of Khayyam's life, time, culture, science, and philosophy.

   Awake! for Morning in the Bowl of Night
   Has flung the Stone that puts the Stars to Flight.
   And Lo! the Hunter of the East has caught
   The Sultan's Turret in a Noose of Light.

   --From The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam, Edward FitzGerald (1859)

   Boyhood and Education in Nishabur

   For a while, in childhood I went to school
   For a while, I took delight in being a teacher
   Listen to the end of this tale: What became of me?
   I came from the soil and went with the wind.

   --Omar Khayyam [1], quatrain #134

Born Abul Fat'h Omar Khayyam on 18 May 1048 in Nishabur, a city in the Khorasan province of northeast Iran, Khayyam lived in the time of the Seljuq Dynasty. Founded by Tughrul Beg, the dynasty ruled Persia from 1037 through 1118, ending with Sultan Ahmad Sanjar.

The family name "Khayyam" means "tent maker," (presumably for the army), and probably refers to the profession of Ibrahim, Omar's father. Some scholars believe that Ibrahim was born a Zoroastrian (a follower of the pre-Islamic religion of Persia) but that he had converted to Islam.

Omar Khayyam traveled widely throughout his lifetime but ultimately returned to live in his hometown. He died there sometime between 1115 and 1131 (or precisely on 4 December 1131 according to one, widely accepted, calculation). Today, his mausoleum in Nishabur is a popular tourist site.

Nishabur is located on the what was the Silk Road. The city's glory dates back to the pre-Islamic Sassanid Dynasty and it is historically renowned for its scholars and poets. The city was developed by the Sassanid Emperor Shapur I, who ruled from 240-270 B.C. and the name Nishabur (originally Nishapur) means "the New City or Throne of Shapur." Today it has a population of around a quarter million.

Omar Khayyam was a gifted student and studied mathematics, philosophy, literature and religion. There were many eminent teachers in Nishabur and in the other cities of Khorasan. The young Khayyam conversed with several of the famed scholars of his day including the poet Sana'ee (circa 1080-1131) and the theologian Abu Hamed Ghazzali (1058-1111), both from Khorasan.

The Three Schoolmates. Khayyam's biography would not be complete without mentioning the famous legend of the Three Schoolmates. The story goes that Omar Khayyam, Abu Ali Tusi (1018-1092), and Hasan Sabbah (1050s-1124) were classmates in Nishabur. They promised one another that, when they grew up, if any one of them obtained a higher position he should help the other two friends with their careers. Incidentally, the three boys took different paths in life.

Abu Ali Tusi became a philosopher and later a powerful prime minister, with the title Nizam ul-Mulk ("The order of the kingdom"), for two Seljuq kings: Alp Arslan (ruled 1063-1072) and Jalaluddin Malek Shah (ruled 1072-1092).

Hasan Sabbah, a Shiite (Isma'ili) Muslim, became the leader of a rebellious movement (the so-called Assassins) against the Seljuq rule. (Ironically, Nizam ul-Mulk was killed by one of Sabbah's militant followers.)

Khayyam became a scientist, and ultimately served (at the request of his friend Nizam ul-Mulk) in the courts of the Seljuq kings in the capital city of Isfahan. …

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