Khayyam's Poetry, Iranian Culture and World Intellectual Heritage

  June 20, 2021   Read time 3 min
Khayyam's Poetry, Iranian Culture and World Intellectual Heritage
What kind of poem, then, is the Rubáiyát? It consists of a number of quatrains translated from verses by, or attributed to, Omar ibn Ibrahim al-Khayyam, who was born in 1048 and died in 1131. These poems are addressing human situation par excellence. No other work has ever approached human situation as such.

The facts of Omar Khayyám’s life and work as FitzGerald knew them are set out in his Preface, which in this respect remained much the same through the four editions of the poem that appeared in his lifetime. With one exception — the fable of the schoolboy pact between Omar, the great statesman Nizam ul-Mulk, and Hasan Sabbah, future leader of the Assassins — the information is basically accurate, and where modern scholarship would disagree is on its context and interpretation. The date-range given by FitzGerald needs to be shifted a little, but only a little; Omar did live under the dominion of the Turkish Seljuk dynasty which invaded and conquered Persia in the first half of the eleventh century (Toghril Beg occupied Naishapur in 1040); the name ‘Khayyám’ does indeed mean ‘tentmaker’ (indicating a reasonably prosperous family background).

Omar’s fame in the medieval Islamic world rested on his achievements as a mathematician, astronomer, and philosopher; early accounts by people who knew him (including his pupil Nizami of Samarkand, who tells the story of Omar’s prophecy of his burial place) say nothing about his poetry. His treatise on algebra is extant (FitzGerald knew the French edition and translation published in 1851) and is still cited in mathematical history as the first to propose a method for resolving cubic equations. The first allusion to him as a poet comes in a treatise of 1176 – 7, where verses in Arabic are attributed to him; only in the following century did he begin to be identified as a composer of ruba´iyat. The Mongol invasions of the thirteenth century destroyed many of the great centres of Persian culture and made it difficult even for the survivors to reconstruct their heritage.

Omar Khayyám was not primarily a poet, and if he composed verse at all did so in a popular form which circulated orally as much as in writing. Compilers of anthologies in successive centuries and in different countries therefore had a free hand; more and more ruba´iyat were attributed to Omar, with less and less authority. Jessie Cadell in the nineteenth century, and Peter Avery in the twentieth, agree that the plainer, clearer, and more forceful the ruba´i, the like lier it is to be Omar’s; but a final settlement of the attribution question is not possible on current evidence. The more interesting question is why certain kinds of ruba´i were attributed to Omar, and here Peter Avery directs us to the original ground of his fame. As a Persian philosopher, Omar was a successor to the great Abu Ali alHusayn Ibn Sina, known in the West as Avicenna, whose ideas were founded on Aristotelian rationalism and Neoplatonic metaphysics. Anyone affiliated to this Greek tradition would have found himself at odds with the Islamic orthodoxy embraced by the new Seljuk rulers of Persia.

Despite Omar’s intellectual eminence, there is evidence that he was viewed with suspicion as a freethinker and heretic. It may well be that he composed some of the poems attributed to him — those that express philosophical scepticism, or that pour scorn on religious hypocrisy and conventional piety. But it is equally likely that he acted as a magnet for such attributions, so that when a compiler came across a ruba´i which embodied some especially scandalous notion, he would assign it to Omar. Scepticism about the value of high-flown metaphysical speculation, and satirical reflections on the conduct of the ‘unco’ guid’, go hand-in-hand with an emphasis on the concrete pleasures of human life (as they do for Burns), so it is easy to see how ruba´iyat in praise of drunkenness and sex would be enlisted under Omar’s banner.

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