About the Author

Portrait of Omar Khayyam

Persian poet, philosopher, mathematician, and astronomer. In his own country, Omar Khayyam was renowned for his scientific achievements, but not as a poet. His rhymes were rediscovered by the English scholar and poet Edward Fitzgerald (1809-83) in the mid-nineteenth century.

A Book of Verses underneath the Bough,
A Jug of Wine, a Loaf of Bread - and Thou
--Beside me singing in the Wilderness -
O, Wilderness were Paradise enow!

(trans. by Edward Fitzgerald)

Omar Kayyam was born Ghiyath al-Din Abul Fateh Omar Ibn Ibrahim al-Khayyam in Nishapur, the capital of Khurasan. The commercially rich province was at that time under Seljuq rule. Little is known of Omar's early life. The epithet Khayyam signifies "tent-maker" - it is possible that Omar or his father, Ibrahim the Tentmaker, one time exercised that trade. Omar was educated at his native town, where he studied under the celebrated teacher, the Iman Mowaffak. In Samara he completed his treatise on algebra. When the Seljuq Sultan Malik Shah offered him preferment at court, Omar made a request: "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." (from Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam, trans. by Edward Fitzgerald, 1859)

The Vizier Nizam al-Mulk granted Omar a pension, which enabled him to devote himself to learning and research, especially in mathematics and astronomy. In 1074 he was invited to undertake astronomical research. Omar was also commissioned to build an observatory in the city of Isfahan in collaboration with other astronomers. Malik Shah appointed him a member of a group of eight scholars assigned to reform the Moslem calendar, a task comparable to Pope Gregorius XIII's revision of the Julian calendar. Their work inaugurated the Jalalaean or Seljuq era, beginning March 15, 1079. Omar's revision of the old Persian solar calendar was discontinued when Islamic orthodoxy gained power, but in 1925 it was again introduced in Iran.

Omar's series of astronomical tables is known as Ziji Malikshahi. Among his other mathematical writings are a work on algebra and a study of The Difficulties of Euclid's Definitions (1077). He tried to classify equations of the first degree and his algebra textbook, dealing with quadric and cubic equations in particular, was very advanced compared to contemporary European studies of mathematics.

In the West Omar's reputation as a poet has shadowed his achievements as a mathematician. His poems were made popular by Edward Fitzgerald, who translated his Rubaiyat (quatrains) from the original Persian to English. The first edition was published anonymously. It contained 101 rubáiyát (or rubáis). Only 250 copies were printed and soon forgotten. Fitzgerald arranged the scattered quatrains in long, continuous elegy. His work was more than an ordinary translation, it was so inspired and visionary, that some critics later believed that it was an English poem with Persian allusions. The "exotic" verses caught the attention of Rossetti and Swinburne, who wrote that Fitzgerald "has given to Omar Khayyam a permanent place among the major English poets". The second edition of the work in 1868 marked the beginning of Omar Khayyam cult. "Isaac Luria the Lion taught that the soul of a dead man can enter an unfortunate soul to nourish or instruct it," wrote the Argentinian writer Jorge Luis Borges, "perhaps, around 1857, Omar's soul took up residence in Fitzgerald's." (in 'The Enigma of Edward Fitzgerald', 1951) Omar's rubáiyát did not circulate in his homeland during his lifetime. Also contemporary biographers did not note him as a great poet.

According to convention, in quatrains the first, second and last lines are rhymed, while the third line rarely follows the rhyme of the other lines. Thus a rubái (plural rubáiyát) has the form aaba. Each line expresses a complete thought.

Omar Khayyam, whose daily thoughts in his rubáiyát were often pessimistic and who was troubled by eternal question of life, death, deity, and the nature of the universe, was viewed with suspicion by orthodox Muslims. For his philosophy he was "said to have been especially hated and dreaded by the Sufis, whose Practise he ridiculed" (G. Fitzgerald). However, the Sufi poets read his works and the rubáiyát in general were frequently sung at mystical concerts. The thoughts of Avicenna (980-1037) and Omar were condemned by the highly influential Islamic philosopher Abu Hamid al-Ghazali (1058-1111) in Incoherence of the Philosophers. Al-Ghazali saw that the Muslim Aristotelian and Neoplatonic philosophers were is many questions in conflict with the fundamentals of religion.

Major themes in Omar's rubáiyát is the fragility of human life. The pleasures of Paradise do not give any comfort for the poet - "Cash is better than a thousand promises." Although he has solved "all the puzzles of the Universe", he cannot loosen the "fetter of death". Omar also praised wine - "Drink wine - it drives sorrow from the heart." The subject was inflammable, because wine and drunkenness was prohibited by the principles of Islamic law. However, these poems could be interpreted metaphorically, referring to spiritual or romantic intoxication." Drink either at the company of wise, Or with your beloved at the moonrise," Omar wrote. He called wine the water of life; we are rare bowls made by the cosmic potter - "The cup is the body, its wine is the soul."

After the death of his patron, Nizam al-Mulk, in 1092, Omar went on a pilgrimage to Mecca. In one poem, assigned to Omar, the poet wrote: "Khayyám, who stitched the tents of science, Has fallen in grief's furnace and been sudden burned; The shears of Fate have cut the tent ropes of his life, And the broker of Hope has sold him for nothing." After returning to Nishapur, he continued as a teacher and reluctantly made some astrological predictions. Like Avicenna, he was skeptical of astrology.

According to an anecdote, Omar said to one of his pupils, with whom he held conversations in a garden: "My tomb shall be in a spot where the north wind may scatter roses over it." Omar Khayyam died on December 4, 1131 in Nishapur. 'Ali ibn Zaidu'l-Baihaqi wrote in his biography, that Omar was reading Avicenna's Book of Healing. He then called his household to hear his will and last instructions, and said before his death: "Oh Lord, I have known You according to the sum of my ability. Pardon me since verily my knowledge is my recommendation to You." 'Ali ibn Zaid's book, which appeared sometime between 1158 and 1170, has the oldest biographical notice on Omar. Forty-five years after Omar's death appeared a work, in which his verses were described as "a tissue of error like poisonous snakes" in the eyes of the Canon Law (News of the Learned with Reports of the Sages by Al-Qifri, abridged by Az-Zausani in 1249).

Omar's poetry is preserved only in mutilated manuscripts, and not much of his prose writings have survived. The problem of whether or not Omar composed all the poem attributed to him, including the famous quatrain with the words "A Jug of Wine, a Loaf of Bread - and Thou", has been hard to solve. A.J. Avberry, who used 13th-century manuscripts, identified at least 250 authentic poems. Perhaps the most complete is the one in the library of the Asiatic Society, Calcutta. The manuscript contains 516 quatrains. Other important manuscripts are in the Chester Beatty collection and at Cambridge.

Most author biographies courtesy of Author's Calendar. Used with permission.