Omar Khayyām

(Ghiyāth al-Dīn Abū al-Fath ‘Umar ibn Ibr āhīm al-Nīs ābūrī al-Khayyāmī)
   Omar Khayyām was a Persian scientist and mathematician famous in his own day for his contributions in the fields of algebra and astronomy. Although his occasional verse was little known in the Middle Ages, the publication in 1859 of Edward FitzGerald’s Rubā‘iyāt of Omar Khayyam made him the most widely known Persian poet in the world, at least until the recent popularity of RUMI. Of course only a few of FitzGerald’s translated verses can with any confidence be attributed to Omar.
   Omar Khayyām (the name means “Omar, Son of the Tent-maker”) was probably born and educated in Nishapur, and grew to manhood in an Iran newly conquered by the Seljuk Turks. It was a time in which scholars were not likely to find much employment unless they could attract the patronage of the rich or powerful. In 1070, Omar moved to the ancient city of Samarkand in Central Asia (now Uzbekistan), where he was supported by a wealthy jurist named Abu Tahir, and was able to gain the favor of Shams al-Mulk Nast ibn Ibrahim, the Qarakhanid ruler of Transoxiana. By the age of 25, Omar had produced a treatise on arithmetic and one on music, and had also composed two treatises on algebra, in which, among other things, he presents the first general theory of cubic equations. Shams’s rival, the Seljuk sultan Jalāl al-Dīn Malikshāh (r. 1072–92), lured Omar to his own court in Isfahan and became the mathematician’s patron and friend for some 18 years. In Malikshāh’s service Omar was asked to take part in the establishment of a new solar calendar in 1079. Omar measured the length of the year at 365.24219858156 days, an astoundingly accurate calculation. As the chief scholar of the court, he prepared new astronomical tables and wrote a number of treatises on philosophy and theology, and he also began making plans for a new observatory.
   But Malikshāh’s death put an end to Omar’s favored position at court, and plans for his observatory were abandoned. Omar also came under fire at this point from conservative Muslims who thought his studies were contrary to Islam. Omar spent several years trying to return to favor at court, and when, in 1118, Malikshāh’s third son, Sanjar, became overall Seljuk ruler, Omar became part of a new center of learning in Sanjar’s new capital of Merv, Turkmenistan, and there continued to work on mathematical studies.
   Early biographers of Omar Khayyām mention nothing about his verse, and there is no contemporary witness to his poetic ability. But in his day it was common for educated Persians to compose occasional verse, typically in quatrains called rubā‘i (plural rubā‘iyāt). These epigrammatic poems included four half-lines, of which the first two and the fourth rhymed. Thus the quatrain introduced and developed a theme in the first two half-lines, and reached a climax in the fourth after a suspenseful pause in the third half-line. Like the roughly contemporary Japanese TANKA, such quatrains were composed by virtually every literate Iranian as a social expectation and circulated privately and by word of mouth. Certainly they were never collected into a dīwān, the anthology of a professional poet.
   A manuscript dated 1161 cites some of Omar’s verses, and he is first mentioned as a poet about 1177. The first extant manuscript containing a complete quatrain of Omar’s is dated 1209. By the end of the 14th century, there were some 60 poems attributed to him, and as his reputation as a poet grew, more and more verses were credited to Omar. Clearly there were a number of anonymous quatrains that were produced in medieval times, and as Omar’s reputation grew, so did the number of verses he was supposed to have written. By the late 15th century, more than 300 rubā‘iyāt were ascribed to him, and that number had grown to some 1,200 by the time FitzGerald made his translation.
   FitzGerald includes about 600 quatrains in his Rubā‘iyāt, a number of which were never attributed to Omar himself, but were borrowed from other Sufi poets as they contributed to the picture FitzGerald was trying to paint of Omar as a skeptical and melancholy sensualist. Even today determining which poems might genuinely be attributed to Omar Khayyām is extremely difficult, and made an even thornier task by the fact that literary Persian changed very little over the centuries, so that poems written hundreds of years after Omar lived might still be passed off as his. At this point scholars have succeeded in narrowing down to about 100 the poems considered Omar Khayyām’s genuine work. But given the nature of the evidence, a consensus among scholars would be hard to achieve. Most, appropriately, take a very conservative view about what may be accepted as genuine. It is simply difficult to know what Omar himself wrote, and difficult to separate the real Omar from the one created by FitzGerald’s compilation.
   ■ Dashtī, Alī. In Search of Omar Khayyam. Translated by L. P. Elwell-Sutton. New York: Columbia University Press, 1971.
   ■ Edward FitzGerald’s The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam. Edited and with an introduction by Harold Bloom. Philadelphia: Chelsea House Publishers, 2004.
   ■ Kasra, Parichehr, ed. and trans. The Rubā‘iyāt of Umar Khayyām. Delmar, N.Y.: Scholars’ Facsimiles and Reprints, 1975.
   ■ Rashed, R., and B. Vahabzadeh. Omar Khayyam, the Mathematician. New York: Bibliotheca Persica Press, 2000.

Encyclopedia of medieval literature. 2013.

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