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Last week, I ran across the announcement that Paramount had posted 100 of its old classics on Youtube for free viewing. When I looked at the list, I spotted a film called Omar Khayyam (aka The Life, Loves, and Adventures of Omar Khayyam, 1957, dir. William Dieterle). Since I’ve always had a soft spot for the Persian poet, I watched it. It’s full of 1950s goodness: women in soft focus, plots that take substantial liberties with historical facts, actors in Arab-face interacting with pale white women, turgid pre-Method acting, and laughably-choreographed fight scenes. But, so far as I know, it’s the only studio movie ever made to feature Omar Khayyam.



So Who the Heck is Omar Khayyam?

You probably know something of this guy even if you don’t know him by name. He is chiefly known in the West as the author of the Rubiyat of Omar Khayyam, a collection of quatrains that was translated from Persian into English in the later 19th century by Edward FitzGerald.

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.


A Book of Verses underneath the Bough,

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

Beside me singing in the Wilderness,

 And oh, Wilderness is Paradise enow.

are probably his two most famous verses.

Khayyam was born the son of a tent-marker (that’s what Khayyam means in Arabic) in Nishapur, Persia in 1048, at the height of the Islamic Golden Age, As a youth, he studied in Samarkand, and then moved to Bukhara and became one of the greatest mathematicians and astronomers of the Islamic World. During his lifetime, he was chiefly famous as a mathematician; his Treatise on Demonstration of Problems of Algebra is his most important work in that field, and its eventual transmission to the Latin West helped revive the study of algebra (note the Arabic root of the word ‘algebra’) in Western culture.


A modern statue of Khayyam

Eventually, the Seljuk Sultan Malik Shah and his Vizier Nizam al-Mulk invited Khayyam to Isfahan in Persia to be the court astronomer and to reform the Arabic calendar. The resulting Jalali Calendar is actually somewhat more accurate than the Gregorian Calendar in use today, because it doesn’t require the use of leap years; instead, it relies on the months of the year varying in length from year to year.But it’s far more complex than the Gregorian Calendar and never really caught on outside of Persia.

Eventually though, in 1092, the sultan died, Nizam al-Mulk was assassinated, and the sultan’s widow turned against him. He attempted to regain favor at the court, but eventually he decided it was prudent to get out of town by making the Hajj to Mecca, after which he returned to Nishapur, where he wrote on philopshy, law, history, and medicine, in addition to mathematics and astronomy. He died there in 1131 and his tomb in Nishapur is considered an architectural jewel.



Khayyam’s Tomb

In the centuries after the Golden Age came to an end, Khayyam lingered in obscurity, even in Persia, until FitzGerald discovered him and published a series of translations of Khayyam’s roughly 1000 quatrains. His poetry has proven challenging for scholars to understand, despite its simplicity. On the surface, Khayyam’s primary concerns are the briefness of life and the need to enjoy before it comes to an end.

But helpless pieces in the game He plays,

 Upon this chequer-board of Nights and Days,

He hither and thither moves, and checks… and slays,

 Then one by one, back in the Closet lays.


And, as the Cock crew, those who stood before

 The Tavern shouted— “Open then the Door!

You know how little time we have to stay,

 And once departed, may return no more.”


Myself when young did eagerly frequent

 Doctor and Saint, and heard great Argument

About it and about: but evermore

 Came out of the same Door as in I went.


With them the Seed of Wisdom did I sow,

 And with my own hand labour’d it to grow:

And this was all the Harvest that I reap’d—

 “I came like Water, and like Wind I go.”


Into this Universe, and why not knowing,

 Nor whence, like Water willy-nilly flowing:

And out of it, as Wind along the Waste,

 I know not whither, willy-nilly blowing.

(All of these are FitzGerald’s rather loose translation.)


As a result of such verses, many have argued that Khayyam was a skeptic, perhaps even an agnostic. He repeatedly speaks of “the Cup” and “Wine”, references to the alcohol that Muslims are forbidden to drink, but which he seems to celebrate.

Ah, my Belov’ed fill the Cup that clears

     To-day Past Regrets and Future Fears:

To-morrow!–Why, To-morrow I may be

     Myself with Yesterday’s Sev’n Thousand Years.


For some we loved, the loveliest and the best

     That from his Vintage rolling Time hath prest,

Have drunk their Cup a Round or two before,

     And one by one crept silently to rest.


Ah, make the most of what we yet may spend,

     Before we too into the Dust descend;

Dust into Dust, and under Dust to lie

     Sans Wine, sans Song, sans Singer, and–sans End!

This was the way that FitzGerald understood Khayyam’s thought, as a sort of Muslim Epicureanism. In this reading, the wine is literal, and we are encouraged to drink it because soon we will be dead and turned to dust. The skeptical Khayyam gives little though to the afterlife, and does not believe in an immoral personal soul. Rather, he believes in the transformation of the body into dust, from which eventually something else may spring.


Edward FitzGerald

But a sharply different interpretation of Khayyam views him as devout Muslim and Sufi mystic. In one quatrain, he speaks to Muhammad, asking the Prophet to guarantee him an afterlife.

O Thou! to please whose love and wrath as well,

     Allah created heaven and likewise hell;

Thou hast thy court in heaven, and I have naught,

     Why not admit me in thy courts to dwell?

Wine and the Cup are common Sufi symbols for how the soul meets God. Consider the words of the famous Sufi mystic Rumi:

Oh Cupbearer! Fill the soul from that pre-existent Cup, that thief of the heart, that ambusher of formal religion.

Fill it with the wine that springs from the Heart and mixes with the Spirit, the wine whose bubbling intoxicates the God-seeing eye.

That grape wine – it belongs to the followers of Jesus; but this Hallajian wine, it belongs to the followers of the Qur’an.

Vats of this wine, vats of that: until you break that vat, you will never taste this wine.

That wine frees the heart from sorrow for an instant: never can it snuff out sorrow, never can it uproot malice.

One drop from this cup will turn your work into gold – may my soul be sacrificed to this golden cup!

So some scholars argue that FitzGerald fundamentally misunderstood what Khayyam was getting at. Read these two verses again, but think about the Cup as a metaphor for seeking God.

Ah, my Belov’ed fill the Cup that clears

     To-day Past Regrets and Future Fears:

To-morrow!–Why, To-morrow I may be

     Myself with Yesterday’s Sev’n Thousand Years.


For some we loved, the loveliest and the best

     That from his Vintage rolling Time hath prest,

Have drunk their Cup a Round or two before,

     And one by one crept silently to rest.

Suddenly, Khayyam seems to be expressing the profound importance of seeking God. His obsession with the transitory nature of life takes on a very different meaning, and at the same time serves to make Sufism abstract contemplation more accessible to the average person. His verses mocking the debates of doctors and saints points out the futility of seeking Truth through rational debate and argument instead of mystical contemplation.


So there you have it, two drastically different views of Omar Khayyam, both rooted in the words of his poetry. A study of his writings on philosophy reveals a very orthodox Muslim, but perhaps he was only expressing what he felt a man of his learning and stature ought to say, with his poetry being the place he expressed his personal sentiments. He repeatedly refers to Muhammad as his Master, but perhaps that’s just conventional language. Ultimately, I suspect there’s no way to prove which Khayyam is the real one.

In my next post, we’ll look at what Hollywood does with this fascinating poet.


Want to Know More?

The FitzGerald translation of the Rubiyat is readily available. FitzGerald’s translations are truly lovely (if you like Victorian poetry), but they are rather loose translations, and he arranged the individual quatrains to give them the illusion of a longer work, whereas they really are stand-alone verses. And his Khayyam appears to have read Shakespeare and the King James Bible.

If you’d like something a bit more faithful to Khayyam’s original language, The Quatrains of Omar Khayyam translated by Justin Huntley McCarthy might be a good choice. Or you could go with Mehdi Aminrazavi’s biography of Omar Khayyam, The Wine of Wisdomwhich explores him as a poet, mathematician, philosopher, and possibly Sufi mystic.