OMAR AL-KHAYYAMI


Dead yesterdays and unborn tomorrows, why fret about them, if today be sweet?

  • Omar Khayyam

He was perhaps the most brilliant mathematician of his time in the11th -12th century, earning the title: King of the Wise. It was said that “in science he was unrivaled – the very paragon of his age.”  He had, like Paracelsus of later times, an impressively – not to say unpronounceably –  long name: Ghiyathuddin Abu’l-Fath Umar bin Ibrahim al-Nisaburi al-Khayyami. We know Umar or Omar by his poetical name Khayyam. He was one of the greatest thinkers of Persia. He is said to have been born on 18 May 1123.

Omar studied and classified cubic equations, and is said to have declared their analytic solution impossible. He examined Euclid’s fifth postulate as seriously as 18th and 19th century mathematicians. He wrote on astronomy too. He formulated a new calendar system, initiating the Jalali era, named after Jalal-ud-din who, like Pope Gregory of a later era, assigned him the task. He computed the number of days in a year as 365.24219858156. According to Edward Gibbon, it approached the Gregorian calendar in accuracy.  

The world remembers Omar Khayyam as the author of some 1200 quatrains (rubaiahs). Scholars are not sure if all these can be attributed to him. Less than ten per cent of them were transcreated  into English by Edward FitzGerald in the 1850s. It was more than a free translation. Persian scholars say that FitzGerald conveyed the spirit rather than the text of the verses. Sometimes he added to them, Since that work was published, Omar Khyayyam’s name came to be known all over the world. J. R. Lowell commented:

        These pearls of thought in Persian gulfs were bred,

        Each softly lucent as a rounded moon.

        The diver Omar plucked them from their bed,

        FitzGerald strung them on an English thread.

The Rubiyat’s rhyming scheme of AABA was slightly altered by FitzGerald  to ABAA, but only those who read ancient Persian and modern English will notice the difference.

Omar Khayyam was blessed with a keen and critical mind. He was a no-nonsense philosopher who would not take the religious mumble-jumble of his religious tradition  seriously. He  had little respect for the ulema, even less for mystery-mongering Sufis. He was a philosopher: pessimistic here, cynical there, but always intelligently reflective. He declared that it’s good to refrain from everything, save wine, and from being inebriate, squalid and vagrant. He has been compared to Voltaire, but, as Karl Ethé reminded us, the French wit never wrote “fascinating rhapsodies in praise of wine, love and all earthly joys” as did the Persian philosopher who sounds like a bon vivant when he says:

A Book of Verses underneath the Bough,

A Jug of Wine, a Loaf of Bread — and Thou

Beside me singing in the Wilderness-

Oh, Wilderness were Paradise now.

Here is what he thought of hell and paradise:

      Oh, threats of Hell and Hopes of Paradise!

      One thing at least is certain – This Life flies.

      One thing is certain, and the rest is Lies –

      The Flower that once has blown forever dies.

It is not surprising that he came to be described/decried as a freethinker, and condemned as a materialist,  atheist, hedonist: all of which he was. Did he not say in the very beginning of his Rubiat:

Dreaming when Dawn’s left hand was in the sky

I heard a voice within the tavern cry

“Awake, my little ones, and fill up the cup

Before life’s liquor in its cup be dry.”

But today, even an Iran governed by Mullahs, takes pride in him as its  own.

He expressed in poetic terms what physicists call irreversible processes:

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.

Indeed, he was always aware of the ticking away of irrevocable time. He wrote:

            Whether at Naishapur or Babylon,

            Whether the Cup with sweet or bitter run,

            The Wine of Life keeps oozing drop by drop,

            The Leaves of Life keep falling one by one.

For the poet, truths always relate to the human condition. Thus, it is not simply Laplacian determinism that reigns, but fate, destiny, and Judgment Day. So Omar wrote:

The First Dawn of Creation wrote

What the Last Day of Reckoning shall read.

Here he was saying in simple yet powerful words the philosophy of  fatalism that is implicit in many religious systems: not only a pseudo-explanation for the endless happenings in the world, but also serves as some solace when tragedy strikes.

 FitzGerald summarized Omar: He “diverted himself with speculative problems of Deity, Destiny, Matter and Spirit, Good and Evil, and other such questions, easier to start than to run down, and the pursuit of which becomes a very weary sport at last.”

May 18, 2016

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About Varadaraja V. Raman

Physicist, philosopher, explorer of ideas, bridge-builder, devotee of Modern Science and Enlightenment, respecter of whatever is good and noble in religious traditions as well as in secular humanism,versifier and humorist, public speaker, dreamer of inter-cultural,international,inter-religious peace.
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