||Issue Date: 1 / 2012
The Rubâiyât of Omar Khayyam: Persia's Poet-Scientist
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 Rubâiyât 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.
The tomb of Omar Khayyam in
Nishabur, Iran (left) and cover
page of a Persian edition of the
Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam
(right). Courtesy Rasoul Sorkhabi
Click image to enlarge.
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 Rubâiyât 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 Nishâbur
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 , quatrain #134
Born Abul Fat’h Omar Khayyam on 18 May 1048 in Nishâbur, a city in the Khorâsân 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 Nishâbur is a popular tourist site.
Nishâbur 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 Nishâbur (originally Nishâpur) 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 Nishâbur and in the other cities of Khorâsân. The young Khayyam conversed with several of the famed scholars of his day including the poet Sanâ’ee (circa 1080-1131) and the theologian Abu Hâmed Ghazzali (1058–1111), both from Khorâsân.
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 Sabbâh (1050s–1124) were classmates in Nishâbur. 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 Nizâm ul-Mulk (“The order of the kingdom”), for two Seljuq kings: Alp Arslan (ruled 1063-1072) and Jalâluddin Malek Shah (ruled 1072-1092).
Hasan Sabbâh, a Shiite (Ismâ’ili) Muslim, became the leader of a rebellious movement (the so-called Assassins) against the Seljuq rule. (Ironically, Nizâm ul-Mulk was killed by one of Sabbâh’s militant followers.)
Khayyam became a scientist, and ultimately served (at the request of his friend Nizâm ul-Mulk) in the courts of the Seljuq kings in the capital city of Isfahan. After Jalâluddin Malek Shah and Nizâm ul-Mulk died in 1092, Khayyam returned to Khorâsân, where he served in the court of Sultan Ahmad Sanjar, who in 1096 became the governor of Khorâsân, and in 1118 became the (last) Seljuq king of Persia.
However, it must be said that the legend of the Three Schoolmates (first mentioned in the thirteenth-century Persian history book “Jâmi al-Tawârikh”) is just that -- a legend: Nizâm ul-Mulk was too old to be Khayyam’s schoolmate, and Hasan Sabbâh was not from Nishâbur. Nevertheless, these three men were contemporaneous.
Mathematics and Astronomy
My heart was never deprived of knowledge
Few secrets remain that I have not learned
For seventy-two years I have pondered day and night
Now I know this: Nothing is really known.
-- Omar Khayyam, quatrain #93
A court scientist by profession, Omar Khayyam's contributions were mainly in the fields of mathematics and astronomy. George Sarton in his Introduction to the History of Science (five volumes, 1927-48) designated the second half of the eleventh century as “The Time of Omar Khayyam” in his honor.
Mathematics. Five treatises on mathematics from Khayyam have survived. All were written in Arabic, the academic language of the Islamic civilization during the Medieval Era. Khayyam’s contributions to mathematics were considerable. Suffice it to say that his “Treatise on the Proofs for Problems in Algebra,” written in 1100, was an important work in its field. (The word Algebra is originally an Arabic word, Al-jabr.)
Khayyam tackled third- and fourth-degree algebraic equations and the theory of binomial expansion. He also suggested various sophisticated geometrical methods to resolve algebraic problems. In this regard, he was five centuries ahead of the French mathematician-philosopher Descartes. Khayyam’s work on Algebra was translated into French by M.F. Woepecke in 1851. The translation generated considerable interest among historians of science.
Astronomy. When Khayyam worked in the court of Jalâluddin Malek Shah in Isfahan, he built an observatory. There he engaged in astronomical observations. In historical books, there are references to a book written by Khayyam titled, “Astronomical Handbook of Khayyam” (Zij-e Khayyam or Zij-e Malekshahi, named after the patron king). Unfortunately, this book has not survived.
There is also a treatise in Persian titled Nowruz-Nâmeh (“The Book of the New Years’ Day”). This has been attributed to Khayyam, although some scholars doubt that he really wrote it. This book recounts the mythology of the ancient Persian (Zoroastrian) New Year’s Day which falls on March 20 (spring equinox).
The Calendar. Whether Khayyam wrote all or parts of the Nowruz-Nâmeh, or whether it was written by one of his fans, we do know that Khayyam designed a twelve-month solar calendar that is still the official calendar in Iran and Afghanistan and also observed in some other parts of Asia.
The calendar was commissioned by Jalâluddin Malek Shah because he desired that the nation celebrate his coronation’s day every year on the same day. Khayyam accomplished this task by revising the Sassanid (Yazdgerdi) solar calendar; his new calendar, which started in 1079, is historically called the Jalâli calendar.
The Jalâli calendar is one of the most precise calendars ever designed. It has 365.241935 days and needs to be adjusted by one day every 5,000 years (compare this with the Gregorian calendar, commissioned by Pope Gregory XIII in 1582, which needs to adjust for one day accumulation over a span of 3330 years).
Khayyam’s calendar follows the rhythm of nature. Twelve months (named after Zoroastrian names for God or angles) are categorized into four seasons. Spring equinox (March 20 or 21) is the beginning of the year; the fourth month falls on summer solstice (June 21); the seventh month on autumn equinox (September 21), and the tenth month on winter solstice (December 21 or 22).
Khayyam determined the beginning of the seasons and of the twelve months based on astronomical observations of the apparent pathway of the Sun through the 12 constellations of stars over the course of the year. He utilized a sophisticated astronomical instrument called astrolabe to determine the hours in various places.
Philosophy and Belief
My foes falsely say that I am a philosopher
God knows I am not what they say
But since I have come to this Nest of Sorrows
I would be less than what I am if I don’t know who I am.
-- Omar Khayyam, quatrain #129
The fanatic religious jurists and rigid theologians of his time created a social atmosphere that was unfriendly toward philosophers. Perhaps because of this, Khayyam did not gain fame as a philosopher nor, as the above poem shows, did he wish to be labeled one. Nevertheless, Khayyam engaged in extensive philosophical thinking, and there are six extant treatises on philosophy from him.
Khayyam studied, and was deeply influenced by, the philosophical works of Ibn Sina (ca. 980-1037, known by his Latin name Avicenna). A renowned Persian philosopher and physician, Ibn Sina, a master of the Peripatetic School, continued the philosophical discourses of Greek, Persian, and Muslim thinkers, and produced a large number of important works in philosophy.
Khayyam regarded Ibn Sina as his teacher. Even on the last day of his life (as reported by his student and son-in-law Imam Mohammad Baghdadi) Khayyam was reading “Ilâhiyât,” Ibn Sina’s encyclopedic book on theology.
The necessity of God. Khayyam believed in the existence of One God, but from a philosophical perspective, not as a personal or ethnic deity. He argued that “being” is either “contingent” (owes its existence to another being,) or “necessary” (has independent existence). All the phenomena we observe in the world, regardless of the length of time, are not independent but perishable; therefore, the phenomenal world needs a necessary being to explain its existence. This Necessary Being is the Philosopher’s God.
Khayyam, following Ibn Sina, integrated the Aristotelian rationalistic mind with the Platonic spiritual vision. And being a mathematician, Khayyam (like Pythagoras before him) likened the Necessary Being to Number One, the source of all the other numbers.
Metaphysics. Abu Nasr Mohammad Nasawi, the head-judge of the Fars province in southwest Iran, once requested Khayyam to write an essay on metaphysics. Khayyam’s response was the “Treatise on Being and Necessity.”
In the treatise, Khayyam explains that philosophical inquiry essentially deals with three questions in the following sequence:
• Does a thing exist?
• What is its nature?
• How did it come to exist?
He then proceeds to say that although all beings have come from the presence of God, they were not created simultaneously but rather sequentially and with varying degrees of intellect, from elements and minerals through plants and animals to humankind (a reference to the notion of the Great Chain of Being).
Khayyam also has another short essay titled, “The Necessity of Contradiction in the World, Determinism and Subsistence,” which some scholars believe to be the extension of his reply to Judge Nasawi.
In this treatise, Khayyam tackles the question of “opposite things” in the world: “God,” he writes, “did not create blackness as opposite to whiteness but as an essence existing contingently.”
In other words, the apparent opposites are not enemies but complement each other. Khayyam further comments that evil is neither in the nature of God nor the intention of creation, but that it comes about in the absence of the Divine quality of goodness or it is an unintended “accident:” Darkness has many useful functions, but it may also cause harm.
Universal principles. Khayyam’s “Treatise on the Knowledge of the Universal Principles of Existence” is particularly important because it is his last philosophical work and his only work written in Persian (his other treatises are in Arabic) at the request of Nizâm al-Mulk’s son Mo’ayyid al-Mulk.
Khayyam concludes the essay by commenting that the best approach to the presence of the Divine is not through theological debates or philosophical abstraction but through “the cleansing of the inner self and moral life” because “when the veils are removed, the truth of things as they are becomes known and apparent to us.”
Search for the Rubaiyat
It is dawn, O my sweetheart, rise!
Gently drink wine; gently play the harp.
For those who dwell here will not last very long
And of those who leave, none shall return.
-- Omar Khayyam’s Quatrain #113
Despite his contributions to science, Khayyam’s fame, at least in the West, is today due almost solely to the poetry of the Rubâiyât. The word “rubâ’i” (plural: rubâiyât) means quatrain or four-lined stanza, the shortest form of classical Persian poetry, in which the first, third and fourth lines rhyme.
The various extant manuscripts of the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam, produced over the centuries, contain altogether more than 1200 quatrains. However, certain observations have led many scholars to doubt the authenticity of many of these quatrains.
First, some quatrains supposedly written by Khayyam are actually found in the works of other Persian poets. (In 1897, the Russian scholar Vladimir Zhukovski extracted 82 such quatrains of Khayyam and called them the “wandering quatrains.”)
Second, some quatrains found in the more recent manuscripts (especially those from India) are absent in earlier manuscripts. Third, when we read all the quatrains attributed to Khayyam we see remarkable changes and even contradictions in the poet’s thought. Such digressions and contradictions could hardly be expected from a mathematician.
For these reasons, the most challenging task facing Khayyam scholars has been how to extract and identify the reliable, or more probable, quatrains of the poet from the larger collection of the Rubaiyat to which his anonymous fans have undoubtedly added.
It is conceivable that the earliest manuscripts of the Rubaiyat were transcribed from Khayyam’s own copy or from his recitations, but those manuscripts have not survived. Given the variations in these manuscripts and the increase in the number of Khayyam’s quatrains over time, several scholars have treated all extant manuscripts with caution and suspicion.
As a rule, these scholars have instead collected Khayyam’s quatrains cited in the various Persian anthologies and historical books written within three hundred years after Khayyam’s death. This exercise gives 66 quatrains attributed to Khayyam.
The scholars then used these “key quatrains” (in terms of thought and expression) and other circumstantial evidence to filter various collections of the Rubaiyat and to produce critical editions. Of these, the edition by the Iranian scholars Mohammad Ali Forughi and Qâsem Ghani (Tehran, 1969) is the most popular version among the Persian-speaking readers. It has been printed numerous times in Tehran.
Some scholars also believe that Yar Ahamd Rashidi’s 1462 manuscript contains many of Khayyam’s original quatrains and should not be discarded. Still others argue that most of the quatrains attributed to Khayyam (whether composed by him or by his fans through the centuries) follow certain patterns of thought and style of poetry that should not be ignored. They believe that the Rubaiyat can therefore be appreciated as a corpus of poetry produced by both Persian talent and sentiments.
FitzGerald’s Rubaiyat and its Impact
Oh, come with old Khayyam, and leave the Wise
To talk; one thing is certain, that Life flies;
One thing is certain, and the Rest is Lies;
The Flower that once has blown for ever dies.
-- From FitzGerald’s Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam (1859)
Thomas Hyde, in 1700, was probably the first Westerner to translate one of Khayyam’s quatrains into Latin. Joseph von Hammer-Purgstall included twenty-five quatrains from Khayyam in a German anthology of Persian poetry (1818). The “Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam” has been translated into dozens of language, in some languages by several translators, and in various forms of translation (verse, free-verse, literal, prose, and inspired version). But for the purposes of this essay, we will discuss the English translations initiated by FitzGerald.
Born in 1809 in Suffolk, England, Edward Purcell FitzGerald was the seventh of eight children in a wealthy Anglo-Irish family. He studied at Trinity College, Cambridge, and enjoyed close friendship and correspondence with several famed men of letters such as William Thackeray, Alfred Tennyson, and Thomas Carlyle.
A wealthy bachelor, FitzGerald’s life-long work was to translate classical poetry, and in 1853 he started to learn Persian from a young mentor, the Orientalist Edward Byles Cowell (1826-1903), at Oxford. It was Cowell who drew FitzGerald’s attention to Khayyam’s poetry.
In 1856, Cowell came across the Bodleian manuscript of the Rubaiyat in Oxford and prepared two copies of it, one for himself and the other for FitzGerald. Cowell encouraged FitzGerald to master Persian and to translate Khayyam’s work. A year later, while posted as a professor of history at Presidency College in Calcutta, Cowell mailed a printed copy of the Calcutta (Asiatic Society of Bengal) manuscript of the Rubaiyat to FitzGerald.
Love at first reading. Khayyam’s poetry came to FitzGerald during one of the hardest periods of his life: He had just gone through a brief marriage and divorce, and both his parents had died shortly before that. The Rubaiyat was, for FitzGerald, love at first reading. He worked hard to understand the poems and after he had translated some of the quatrains into Latin, he used his utmost literary talent to produce an English verse translation of Khayyam.
In 1858, he submitted thirty-five quatrains to Frazer’s Magazine, which showed no interest at all. So, in 1859, FitzGerald self-published 250 copies of a twenty-page booklet (75 quatrains) titled The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam, The Astronomer-Poet of Persia (without his name as translator) through a bookstore in London owned by Bernard Quaritch. The bookseller took 210 copies and offered to sell them for five shillings a copy.
Not a single copy was sold for two years even though the price was reduced to one shilling and finally a penny a piece. The books were dumped into a bargain box and put on the street outside the shop! Then, one day in July 1861, two young barristers and poetry lovers, Whitey Stokes and John Ormsby, happened to see FitzGerald’s booklet in the “penny box.” They loved the poems and bought several copies as gifts to their poet friends in London.
The book's fame spread, largely by word of mouth. Over time it caught the attention of poets and writers such as Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Algernon Charles Swinburne, Robert Browning, George Meredith, William Morris, John Ruskin, Thomas Carlyle, Alfred Tennyson, and Ralph Waldo Emerson. Many came to recognize the Rubaiyat as a poetic gem. This success must have gratified not only FitzGerald but also Cowell who had returned from India and was teaching Sanskrit at Cambridge.
Rising popularity. In 1868 (partly in response to Nicolas’ French translation that had appeared in Paris a year before), FitzGerald (still remaining an anonymous translator) brought out a second edition (with 110 stanzas). The publisher, Bernard Quaritch, gave FitzGerald Ł10 as royalty, which he donated to the victims of a famine that had recently hit Khayyam’s homeland Iran. Book reviews in magazines like the Frazer’s Magazine and the North American Review drew larger audience to FitzGerald’s work.
The steady rise of the Rubaiyat’s popularity persuaded FitzGerald to revise his translations and publish a third edition (reduced to 101 stanzas) in 1872 and a fourth edition in 1879. FitzGerald died in 1883 in his hometown in Suffolk, but he seems to have worked on his beloved Rubaiyat till the end of his life. A printed copy of the fourth edition of the Rubaiyat, marked with FitzGerald’s last changes, was later found in his house.
This version (still with 101 quatrains) appeared in 1889 as part of The Letters and Literary Remains of Edward FitzGerald, edited by his friend William Aldis Wright. In 1929 (on the sixtieth anniversary of FitzGerald’s publication of the Rubaiyat), one of the first-edition copies of the Rubaiyat was sold in the United States for $8,000 and another copy in England for Ł1,410!
Critique of FitzGerald. FitzGerald’s translation of Khayyam’s quatrains was not an accurate, literal translation. He produced renditions or inspired versions of Khayyam’s poems in English verse. For example, consider the following poem from FitzGerald:
Myself when young did eagerly frequent
Doctor and Saint, and heard great Argument
About it and about: but evermore
Came out by the same Door as in I went.
-- FitzGerald, 1859, #27
Khayyam’s original quatrain in Persian means almost the following in English:
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 out of the soil and went with wind.
(My translation from Forughi and Ghani edition, #134)
Nevertheless, FitzGerald’s Rubaiyat is a masterpiece in English verse and it immortalized not only FitzGerald and Khayyam but also the genre of the Rubaiyat in Western literature. Tennyson composed a poem “To E. FitzGerald.” A British member of parliament (Justin McCarthy) became a translator of the Rubaiyat. T.S. Eliot and his grandfather (as V. M. D’Ambrosio has shown in her 1989 work Eliot Possessed) were fans of the Rubaiyat. Mark Twain composed his own witty Rubaiyat.
In 1892, the Omar Khayyam Club was founded in London. It still exists and its members dine and wine twice a year. The Omar Khayyam Club of America started in Boston in 1900 and was active until 1936. American interest in the Rubaiyat has not waned; in 2009, the University of Texas at Austin gave a public exhibition of its valuable collection, “The Persian Sensation: The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam in the West.”
A German club, Deutsche Chajjám-Gesellschaft, was established in Tübingen 1934 under the directorship of Professor Christian Rempis (who also translated the Rubaiyat into German); the club was discontinued three years later for the fear of Nazi crackdown. (Khayyam’s universal message went against the racist Nazi ideology, and there were many Jewish fans of the Rubaiyat in Germany.) In 1990, the Dutch Omar Khayyam Society (Het Nederlandse Omar Khayyám Genootschap) was launched.
FitzGerald’s Rubaiyat appealed to his generation in Great Britain partly because it offered a change to the rigid, duty-driven morality of the Victorian period; Khayyam via FitzGerald invites his readers to relax, to be joyous and compassionate, and to treasure the moments of life rather than being judgmental, heavy-minded, aggressive, or greedy.
The popularity of FitzGerald’s Rubaiyat has been phenomenal; it has been printed numerous times in England and USA (and also in Tehran, together with the Persian version). FitzGerald’s translation also been subjected to critical studies by several scholars.
As in the East, where Persian miniature paintings have often decorated the pages of the Rubaiyat, one of the beautiful impacts of the Rubaiyat on Western art and culture has been the creation of paintings to accompany the poems. This tradition started with the renowned American artist Elihu Vedder’s work in 1884. A 2007 book, The Art of Omar Khayyam: Illustrating FitzGerald’s Rubaiyat, by William Martin and Sandra Mason has chronicled this artistic tradition.
Dick Davis in his introduction to the Penguin Poetry Library edition of FitzGerald’s Rubaiyat (1989) writes: “In the 1953 edition of The Oxford Book of Quotations there are 188 excerpts from the Rubaiyat (of which 59 are complete quatrains) -- this is virtually two-thirds of the total work.” Here are some examples: “I came like water, and like wind I go,” “A jug of wine, a load of bread -- and thou/Beside me singing in the wilderness,” and “The moving finger writes, and having writ,/Move on.”
The Poetic Vision
The Moving Finger writes; and, having writ,
Moves on: nor all thy Piety nor Wit
Shall lure it back to cancel half a Line,
Nor all thy Tears wash out a Word of it.
-- From The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam, Edward FitzGerald (1859)
Khayyam’s poetry touches the very foundation of human life; its direct and plain expression actually gives depth to it as well. Khayyam’s message is joy and trust in life. The reader may be tempted to interpret his imagery and expression as hedonistic or fatalistic, especially if one approaches Khayyam only through FitzGerald’s selective lens. However, when we juxtapose Khayyam’s poetry with his life as a man of science and with his works on philosophy we would better appreciate the meanings of the Rubaiyat.
Five major themes. There are five major themes that characterize the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam; these points find various expressions and images in his poetry:
(1) The world -- its origin, foundation, expanse, history, and its fate -- as well as our life is all a great mystery.
While human genius and science admirably strive to unravel the inner workings of the world, and to determine the place of our life in the big picture, we only scratch at the surface. Our talk is on this side of the curtain; the mystery remains. No matter how much we know, we know so little. We should, therefore, be humble and respectful in the presence of this Mystery.
(2) Nothing is permanent; everything changes; life comes and goes. Therefore, do not set your heart on the perishable phenomena; do not be attached to things.
(3) This moment is all we have; live for today. Yesterday is gone; do not dwell on it. Tomorrow has not come yet, and when it comes we may not even be around to see it. We should, therefore, treasure and enjoy the moments of life. Live well and let others live happily too.
(4) Khayyam talks much of wine in his poetry. But this does not mean that he promotes alcoholism. Wine, music, the rose-garden, sunshine, moonlight, and the beloved, are powerful symbols for living a happy and beautiful life; they mean creating a paradise on this earth and in this life. Khayyam was not the only Persian poet who used these symbols; Rumi, Hafiz and many other poets have used these images as metaphors as well.
(5) Khayyam resents hypocrisy, superstitions, any holier-than-thou attitude, and religious fanaticism.
Indeed, what Khayyam says so poetically in the Rubaiyat (even at times in a rebellious, direct tone) contains essentially the same notions we find in the teachings of many spiritual masters and sages.
In 1959, the English novelist and scientist C. P. Snow in his famous speech on The Two Cultures argued that in our modern world the sciences and the humanities live in two different cultures and that this split in the intellectual life of our society poses a hindrance to solving the world’s problems. We thus need bridges between the sciences and the arts. Khayyam makes an interesting case in history because he remains one of the rare minds who have excelled in both science and poetry.
It is apt to end this essay with a reference to the man who brought Khayyam into the Western consciousness. Ten years after FitzGerald died, the Omar Khayyam Club of London planted rose flowers near his tomb in Suffolk; those flowers originally came from the seeds of rose flowers grown in Khayyam’s mausoleum in Nishâbur.
In 2009, in celebration of FitzGerald’s publication of the Rubaiyat, a white-marble bust of Fitzgerald was placed near the tomb of Khayyam. So these two poets, who gave two literary gifts to human culture, will always be remembered together.
1. My translations of the quatrains from the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam cited in this article are based on the Forughi and Ghani edition (Tehran, 1942).
2. Omar Khayyam’s mathematical works (all in Arabic) include the following:
(I) “On the Proposition that Asserts Genera are of Four Types” (Al-Qawl alâ Ajnâs al-Ladhi bil-Arba’ah), a five-page essay on the relationship between mathematics and music;
(II) “On the Elaboration of the Problems Concerning the Books of Euclid” (Risâlah fi Sharh mâ Ashkâl min Musâdarât Kitâb Uqlidus);
(III) “On the Division of a Quadrant of a Circle” (Risâlah fi Qismah Rub’ al-Dâirah);
(IV) “On Proofs for Problems Concerning Algebra” (Risâlah fi Barâhin alâ Masâ’il al-Jabr wal-Muqâbabalah) (English translations: R. Rashed and B. Vahabzadeh, “Omar Khayyam the Mathematician,” 2000, and Roshdi Khalil, “Algebra wa Al-Muqabala, An Essay by the Uniquely Wise Abel Fath Omar ibn Al-Khayyam on Algebra and Equations,” 2008); and
(V) “On the Deception of Knowing the Two Quantities of Gold and Silver in a Compound Made of the Two” (Risâlah fil-Ihtiyâi li-Ma’rifat Miqdari al-Dhabab wal-Fiddah fi Jism Murakkab minhâ), a short work on the physics of determining the amounts of precious metals in a compound substance. These works have been briefly discussed in Mehdi Aminrazavi’s The Wine of Wisdom: The Life, Poetry and Philosophy of Omar Khayyam (Oneworld, Oxford, 2005).
3. Khayyam’s extant philosophical works are as follows: (all in Arabic except for I and VI):
(I) A Persian translation of Avicenna’s essay on “Lucid Discourse,” also known as “Discourse on Unity” (Khutbah al-Ghurra or Khutbah al-Tawhid);
(II) “On Being and Necessity” (Risâlah fil-Kawn wal-Taklif”);
(III) “The Necessity of Contradiction in the World, Determinism, and Subsistence” (Darurat al-Tadâd fil-Âlam wal-Jabr wal-Baqâ);
(IV) “The Light of the Intellect on the Subject of Universal Knowledge” (Risâlah al-Diyâ al-Aql fi Mawdu al-Ilm al-Kulli);
(V) “On the Knowledge of the Universal Principles of Existence” (Risâlah dar Ilm Kulliyât-i Wujud);
(VI) “On Existence” (Risâlah fil-Wujud); and
(VII) “Response to Three Philosophical Problems” (Risâlah Jawâbân Thulâth Masâ’il). English translations of these treatises are given in Mehdi Aminrazavi (2005).
4. For a biography of Edward FitzGerald refer to:
Robert Bernard Martin’s With Friends Possessed: The Life of Edward FitzGerald (New York, 1985);
Alfred McKinley Terhune’s The Life of Edward FitzGerald (Oxford University Press, 1947, reprinted by Greenwood-Heinemann, 1980)
5. Three analyses of FitzGeralds’ Rubaiyat may be cited here:
Edward FitzGerald’s Ruba’iyat of Omar Khayyam with Their Original Persian Sources by Edward Heron-Allen’s (Bernard Quaritch, London, 1899);
The Romance of the Rubaiyat by Arthur John Arberry (Macmillan, New York, 1952);
Edward FitzGerald, Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam, A Critical Edition, edited by Christopher Decker (University Press of Virginia, 1997).
Sources for Further Information and Reading
Manuscripts of the Rubaiyat
Several extant manuscripts of the Rubaiyat are as follows:
1. The manuscript kept at the Bodleian Library in Oxford (MS No. 140 of the Sir Gore Ouseley collection), and scribed in 1460 in Shiraz, contains 158 quatrains. The manuscript was the main source for FitzGerald’s verse translation in 1859. Edward Heron-Allen (London, 1898) published a complete English translation (both verse and literal) together with the Persian text.
2. “Tarab-Khaneh: Rubaiyat-e Hakim Khayyami-e Nishaburi” scribed by Yar Ahmad ibn Hoseyn Rashidi of Tabriz in 1462, contains 559 quatrains. This manuscript was critically edited and published by Jalâluddin Humâ’ee (Tehran, 1964). Yar Ahamd Rashidi’s manuscript has served as a source for two Turkish translations published in Istanbul; one by Hoseyn Dânish and Reza Towfiq in 1922, and the second by Abdulbaqi Golpinarli in 1953.
3. A manuscript dated 1321 and kept at Berlin contains 329 quatrains. This manuscript was translated into German by Friedrich Rosen in 1925, and from the German into English, The Quatrains of Omar Khayyam (New York, 1930). Some scholars, including Rosen himself, believe that this manuscript is a later transcription, possibly circa 1500.
4. The manuscript kept at the Public Library of Bankipur, India, dated 1553, contains 604 quatrains.
5. A manuscript transcribed by Hoseyn of Tarbiz in 1867 (containing 453 quatrains) was probably derived from Yar Ahmad’s manuscript and served as the main source for the French translation (Paris, 1867, containing 464 quatrains) by J.B. Nicolas,a translator at French Embassy in Tehran in the 1860s. The manuscript was lithographed at St. Petersburg in 1888 by A. Sobrievski and A.V. Zhukovski. Nicholas’ French version was later translated into English by Frederic Baron Corvo (London, 1903).
6. Manuscript lithographed by the Asiatic Society of Bengal in Calcutta in 1836 contains 516 quatrains (the original manuscript catalogued as MS No. 1548 was later lost or stolen). An identical manuscript was lithographed in Bombay in 1880.
7. Manuscript lithographed in 1894 in Lucknow contains 763 quatrains.
8. Manuscript scribed in 1605, originally belonging to Hajib Ashraf Nadvi, was edited by Mahfuz ul-Haq and printed in Calcutta in 1939 (reprinted in 1986); it contains 206 quatrains.
Aside from the above, mention should also be made of three Persian manuscripts of the Rubaiyat at the National Library in Paris: MS No. 349 dated 1514 (213 quatrains); MS No. 823 dated 1527 (349 quatrains); and MS No. 826 dated 1530 (76 quatrains). There are also two undated manuscripts of the Rubaiyat at India Office in London: MS No. 2420 (512 quatrains) and MS No. 2486 (362 quatrains).
Scholarly-Edited Versions of the Rubaiyat
Several scholars have produced critical editions of the Rubaiyat in Persian. They include the following:
(1) The Danish scholar Arthur Christensen (Copenhagen, 1927) who approved 121 quatrains (out of 1213);
(2) The Persian novelist Sâdeq Hedâyat (Tehran, 1934) who considered 143 quatrains (out of over 700) as of Khayyam;
(3) The Iranian scholars Mohammad Ali Forughi and Qâsem Ghani (Tehran, 1942) who included 178 quatrains in their edition; and
(4) Ali Dashti (Tehran, 1969) who considered 75 quatrains as of Khayyam and 26 quatrains in the style of Khayyam, some of which were possibly composed by him.
Translations since FitzGerald
In view of the popularity of FitzGerald’s publication, dozens of translations of the Rubaiyat were made by men and women of letters during the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries. They include the following:
• Edward Henry Whinfield (1882, London, 253 quatrains; 1883 edition, 500 quatrains; 1893 edition, 267 quatrains, all in verse);
• John Leslie Garner (1888, Milwaukee, 142 quatrains in verse; second edition 1898, Philadelphia);
• Justin Huntley McCarthy (1889, London, 566 quatrains in prose);
• Richard Le Gallienne (1897, London; 1901 revised edition, 262 quatrains in paraphrased verse);
• John Payne (1898, London, 845 quatrains in verse);
• Edward Heron-Allen (1898, London, 158 quatrains in both verse and literal forms);
• Jesse E. Cadell (Mrs. H.M. Cadell, 1899, London, in verse);
• Elizabeth Allen Curtis (1899, New York, 100 renditions in verse);
• Frederic Baron Corvo (pseudo-name for Frederick William Rolfe, 1903, London, based on Nicolas’ French version);
• George Roe (1906, Chicago, 122 quatrains in verse);
• Eben Francis Thompson (1907, Worcester, Mass., 815 quatrains in verse).
More recent translations of the Rubaiyat have given more attention to the literal accuracy than to the English rhyme. Some of the major translations published over the past six decades include:
• Arthur John Arberry (1952, London, 252 quatrains in verse, based on a Persian manuscript purchased by Cambridge University in about 1950 which is believed to be fake, but many of its poems exist in the other sources);
• Robert Graves and Omar Ali Shah (1967, London, 111 quatrains in free-verse, based on an unverified manuscript but many of its quatrains are found in the other sources including FitzGerald’s version);
• Parvine Mahmoud (1969, Tehran, 1996, New York, 178 quatrains in free verse based on Forughi’s edition);
• Parichehr Kasra (1975, New York, 178 quatrains in prose based on Forughi’s edition);
• John Charles Edward Bowen (1976, Warminster, England, 60 quatrains in verse);
• Peter Avery and John Heath-Stubbs (1979, 1981, London, 235 quatrains in free-verse based on Forughi’s and Hedâyat’s editions);
• Karim Emâmi (titled “The Wine of Nishapour,” 1988, Tehran; 1989, Paris, 72 quatrains in free-verse);
• Ahmad Saidi (Berkeley, 1991, 165 quatrains in verse);
• Ali Parsa (1995, North Vancouver, 169 quatrains in verse).
General Reading and Further Information
For a general survey of Omar Khayyam’s life, work, and poetry I recommend two books:
The Wine of Wisdom: The Life, Poetry and Philosophy of Omar Khayyam by Mehdi Aminrazavi (Oxford: Oneworld, 2005) is a comprehensive, modern work with a focus on Khayyam’s Sufi vision.
Omar Khayyam: Poet, Rebel, Astronomer by Hazhir Teimourian (Gloucestershire, UK: The History Press/Sutton, 2007) is another detailed work with emphasis on the rebellious character of the poet.
For a brief overviews, see entries in:
Dictionary of Scientific Biography (“Al-Khayyami,” volume 7, pp. 323-334, 1973);
Encyclopedia of Islam (“Umar Khayyam,” vol. 10, pp. 827-834, 2nd edition, 2000).
The title page of Edward
FitzGerald’s translation of “The
Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam,”
published in 1859 in London.
FitzGerald remained an anonymous
translator; the inset shows
FitzGerald’s portrait and
signature taken from The Letters
of Edward FitzGerald, published
posthumously in 1894.
Courtesy Rasoul Sorkhabi
Two fascinating historical novels are Omar Khayyam by Harold Lamb (New York: Doubleday, 1934, reprinted many times), and Samarkand, by Amin Maalouf, translated from the French by Russell Harris (New York: Interlink Books, 2004).
Edward FitzGerald’s The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam has been printed numerous times. Two modern reprints with scholarly introductions and notes are the 1989 Penguin’s print (edited by Dick Davis) and the 2009 Oxford University Press’ print (edited by Daniel Karlin). For a literary analysis of FitzGerald’s translation refer to Edward FitzGerald’s Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam, edited by Harold Bloom (New York: Chelsea House, 2003).
For a literal and yet elegant translation of The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam, I recommend the widely-accessible book by Peter Avery and John Heath-Stubbs (Penguin Books, 1979, reprinted in an illustrated format in 1981).
Influence of the Rubaiyat in Western culture
A Book of Verse: A Biography of the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam by Garry Gamard (Gloucestershire, UK: The History Press/Sutton, 2007);
The Art of Omar Khayyam: Illustrating FitzGerald’s Rubaiyat by William Martin and Sandra Mason (Oxford: I.B. Tauris, 2007);
Edward Fitzgerald’s Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam: A Famous Poem and Its Influence by William Martin and Sandra Mason (London: Anthem Press, 2011);
FitzGerald’s Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam: Popularity and Neglect, edited by Adrian Poole, Christine van Ruymbeke, William Martin, and Sandra Mason (London: Anthem Press, 2011).
The first Omar Khayyam film was made in India’s Bollywood in 1946 (in Hindi). Omar Khayyam (English) is a 1957 film starring Cornel Wilde as Omar Khayyam.
The Keeper: The Legend of Omar Khayyam (2005) is a more recent and an award-winning film.
The Genius of Omar Khayyam, produced by BBC Four (2009, one hour, presented by Sâdeq Sabâ);
Omar Khayyam: A Documentary, produced by Hassan Sherkat (Salt Lake City, 2005, 30 minutes).
A Bibliography of the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam by Ambrose George Potter (London, 1929);
Bibliography of Omar Khayyam (in Persian) by Fatemeh Angouriani and Zahra Angourani (Tehran, 2002);
The Rubaiyat of Khayyam: An Updated Bibliography by Jos Coumans (Leiden University Press, 2010)
On the web:
Two websites created by the fans of Omar Khayyam and Edward FitzGerald: www.omarkhayyamnederland.com
www.therubaiyat.com (created by Richard Brodie)
Also visit the website of “The Persian Sensation: The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam in the West” at the Harry Ransom Center, the University of Texas at Austin (February 3 through August 2009) : http://www.hrc.utexas.edu/exhibitions/2009/rubaiyat/
Rasoul Sorkhabi’s articles on the Persian poets Rumi (April
2009); Saadi (June 2009); and Ferdowsi (January 2011) all
previously appeared in The World and I Online.