Muslim Persia has produced some of the greatest luminaries of the Islamic world, who have immensely contributed to the intellectual development of medieval times and were mainly instrumental in bringing about the renaissance of the Western world. Their invaluable works procured the necessary link in the evolution of mankind and have left their ineffaceable marks on the pages of world history.
In the development of Islamic literature, the Persians formed the vanguard of all cultural and literary movements and a number of their literature acquired international reputation. The four pillars of Persian poetry are Firdausi-the author of Shah Nama, the world-famous epic poem; Saadi-the great moralist; Hafiz—the celebrated lyrist and Maulana Jalaluddin Rumi, author of the well-known ‘Mathnavi’ which is held as the ‘Quran in the Persian language’.
Umar Khayyam, one of the intellectual giants of the Middle ages-a man of versatile taste and a skeptic by nature who is not much known in Persia as a poet but as a mathematician and an astronomer. “Umar Khayyam is a name more familiar in England and America than in Persia”, writes H. A. R. Gibb in the Legacy of Islam.
Ghyasuddin Abul Fateh ibn Ibrahim Al Khayyam, better known in the world as Umar Khayyam, was born in 1048 at Nishapur, the capital of Khorasan which is a province of Persia. His place of birth is a disputed point among historians. Muhammad and Saharazuri hold that he was born in Basang, a village of the district of Astrabad, but their contentions do not stand the test of later historical researches. Actually he was born and educated at Nishapur where he passed the major part of his life and ultimately died and was buried then. “His tomb at Nishapur is in itself sufficient proof of the identity of his birthplace”, says a writer. “For in Iran the.custom in Umar’s days as in ours, was to bury the dead in the place of their nativity”.
Though Umar has universally been accepted as a Persian national, some historians hold that he originally belonged to an Arabian tribe, “Al-Khayyami”, who were tentmakers and had migrated and settled in Persia long after her conquest by the Arabs. Not much is known about the early life of the celebrated poet, but being the son of a well-to-do father he was given the best education available in those days and became the pupil of the learned Imam Mowakkif, a well-known teacher of the Islamic world. Here he met and made intimate friendship with Hasan Ali ibn Ishaq, better known in history as Nizamul Mulk Toosi, the Grand Vizier of Malik Shah Seljuki and Hasan bin Sabah who later on became the founder of the fanatical sect of Ismailis, called “Assassins”.
The three class-fellows, who, in their later life, earned immortal places in the pages of history and were intimate friends, had entered into a remarkable bond of friendship, that being the pupils of Mowakkif who were mostly successful in life, if anyone of them got ahead of the others, he would try his level best for the advancement of the remaining two, to the extent of sharing his wealth and honor. Nizamul Mulk who was the most brilliant among the trio and topped the list in the examination was invited to undertake the education of Alp Arsalan, the Seljuk Prince. On the accession of Alp Arsalan as the Emperor of Seljukide Empire, Nizamul Mulk was elevated to the high rank of the Grand Vizier and proved himself as one of the ablest administrators the Islamic world has produced. In the midst of his many preoccupations Nizamul Mulk did not forget his former friends and in spite of being fully aware of the evil propensities of Hasan, kept his promise and installed him in a post of considerable responsibility-but the crafty Hasan involved himself in several court intrigues and left the service to become the founder of the notorious sect of Assassins, which was later on responsible for the assassination of his illustrious friend and benefactor, Nizamul Mulk.
Umar Khayyam, a skeptic by nature, had, on the other hand, declined a lucrative government job and preferred an annual pension of 1,200 gold pieces paid out of the revenues of Nishapur, where he had settled to devote the rest of his life to literacy pursuits.
Umar Khayyam was a high-class poet, whose worth as a poet was not fully realized during his lifetime and whose immortal Quatrains (Rubaiyat) have been better appreciated in the West during the last one century. The best part of his poems were composed during his youth in the quiet and beautiful landscape of Nishapur. Under the shade of sweet-scented trees that shed their lovely flowers at his feet, Umar often sat sipping his cold ‘Sharbat’ from the hands of Saki and smoke his fragrant Hookkah: He watched the dark-eyed maidens roaming about-and as he watched, he forgot all the anxieties of worldly life.
The translated version of his famous Rubaiyat (Quatrains) was first published by E. Fitzgerald in 1859, which made him famous throughout the Western world. “If the moods expressed in the famous Quartrains”, says Gibbs, “is not the most heroic or exalted, none-the-less they caught the exact tone of the age, and voiced it as perfectly as eight centuries earlier they had voiced the polished hedonism of the cultured society of Isfahan”.
His verses are clothed in beautiful and chaste Persian which is much suited and adds charm to his favorite theme. Like Hafiz, Umar Khayyam used the metaphors and figures of Sufism to add color to his works.
Alongside the ecstatic spiritualism of the Sufis lies the colder pessimistic skepticism of Umar Khayyam, who, to a great extent, followed the line toed by Avicenna. He has impressively portrayed the transient character of human life.
Think, in this battered carvan-sarai
Whose portals are alternate night and day
How Sultan after Sultan with his pomp
Abode his destined Hour, and went his way.
The wise man is he who passes the few moments of his uncertain transitory life in pursuit of pleasure, free from all worldly cares and anxieties. Here his ideas follow the lines of Epicurian philosophy, namely: “Eat, drink and be merry” and come very close to the Hedonistic theory of “Pleasure as the End of Life”.
Ah, my beloved, fill the cup that clears
Today of past regret and future fears
Tomorrow! why tomorrow I may be
Myself with yesterday’s seven thousand years.
In his poetry, he is typically Persian. In it, he shows himself as the chief and the foremost of that group of free thinkers, who ridiculed the limitations of the dogma and taught the futility or piety and orthodoxy. He would prefer to enjoy the pleasures of this world than to aspire for the enjoyment of the next.
Some for the glories of this world, and some
Sigh for the Prophet’s Paradise to come,
Ah, take the cash and let the credit go,
Nor heed the rumble of a distant drum!
It is not to be wondered that the philosophy of Umar was very much repugnant to the conservative class of people. The question of “Jaza” and “Saza” has been agitating the minds of our thinkers who could hardly procure a satisfactory solution of this controversial issue. Umar has taken advantage of this point of Muslim religious philosophy.
Oh, thou who didst with pitfalls and with gin
Beset the route I was to wander in
Thou wilt, not with predestined evil round
Enmesh, and thou impute my fall to sin.
It is needless to search for a carefully reasoned system of philosophy in the works of a poet-so was the case with Umar, whose verses record certain moods. The dominant note of his verses is to cast off the cares and anxieties of the worldly life by sipping a cup of wine. A few drops of liquor would free one from all sorts of miseries and would transport him to the realm of ecstasy and bliss.
The verses of Umar were composed at various periods of his life and the contradictions in his writings are due to the progress of his ideas as he passed through various stages of life—from pious Muslims to avowed skeptic. His sole consistency lies in his praise of wine, to which in his moments of depression he turns for oblivion and perhaps for exaltation. His love for wine is so intense that he wishes that his body may be washed with wine after his death.
Ah, with Grape my fading life provide,
And wash the Body whence the life has died,
And lay me, shrouded in the living leaf,
By some not unfrequented garden side.
He says that he tried to give up wine and swore not to taste it again-but when spring came he scattered penitence to the winds.
Indeed, indeed, Repentance oft before
I swore-but was I sober when I swore
And then, and then came spring, and rose in hand
My thread-bare penitence apieces tore,
Umar has also left behind him three metaphysical treatises–namely, the manuscript of the treatise, “On Existence” exists in Berlin; manuscript of a small Persian treatise titled “Dar ibn Qulliyat” has been preserved in a library of Paris and “Nauroz Nama” has recently been revealed by F. Rosen.
After completing his studies, Umar visited Samarkand, Bukhara, Isfahan and Balkh which were the intellectual centers in those times and added to his astronomical knowledge by exchanging views on the subject with some of the eminent intellectuals residing in those cities. He united with his scientific pursuits the study of medicine and won a high reputation as a healer.
Khayyam’s fame in the Muslim countries mainly rests on his outstanding mathematical and scientific researches and not on poetry. In Europe, too, he was known for his scientific achievements long before as a poet. His works on Algebra were translated in 1851 while his “Rubaiyat” were first published in 1859. The manuscripts of his principal works exist in Paris and in the India Office, London; “Masadrat” researches on Euclid’s axioms and Mushkilat-alHisab, dealing with complicated arithmetical problems have been preserved in Munich (Germany). According to V. Minorsky, “he was the greatest mathematician of the medieval times”. His primary contribution is in Algebra in which he has registered much advance on the works of the Greeks. His Algebra is an advance on that of Khwarizmi, too in degree of equation-as the greater part of Umar’s book is devoted to cubic equations while Khwarizmi dealt with quadratic equations only. His Algebra deals with geometric and algebraic equations of second degree, an admirable classification of equations, including the cubic. His classification of equations is based on the number and different terms which they include. He recognizes thirteen different forms of cubic equations. His solution of cubic and quadratic equations with the help of conic sections is probably the most advanced work of Arabic mathematics that he left for us. “His skill as a geometer”, says Max Mayerhof, “is equal to his literary erudition and reveals real logical power and penetration”.
In Physics, Umar’s researches are devoted to specific weight of gold and silver. The Tarikhul Fi gives the Mizamul Hukama which determines the method of ascertaining the weight of objects studded with precious stones without taking out such stones.
During the reign of Malik Shah Seljuki, his illustrious Grand Vizier, Nizamul Mulk Toosi, a great patron of learning, had invited a body of savants to carry out astronomical observations which was headed by Umar Khayyam and Abdur Rahman Hazini. Their efforts led to the reform of Calendar which was in advance of the Gregorian by 600 years and, according to Sedillot, an authority on the subject, “it is more exact”. The famous observatory where Umar carried out his astronomical researches was constructed at Ray and the Calendar formulated by Umar is known as At Tarikh-al Jalali.
According to the latest research conducted by Soviet orientalists, the Code of Rules on Astronomy, a hitherto anonymous treatise, is now definitely attributed to Umar Khayyam, an outstanding Persian poet, and scientist of the Middle Ages.
The authorship of the treatise has been established by Nuriya Hairetdinova, a young mathematician from the Teachers Training Institute in Ferghana, Uzbekistan. Her conclusions have been supported by prominent Soviet orientalists.
She has analyzed the Code of Rules which consists of a preface, six preambles, and three books, by using a photostat copy of the manuscript kept at the Istanbul Library.
Her research has helped glean new information on the development of spherical trigonometry in the medieval Orient, and the scientific views of Umar Khayyam, the initiator of a reform of the old Arabic calendar, and the author of famous treatises on mathematics and other fields of knowledge.
The treatise kept in Istanbul was re-written in 1235. A.C. searching textual analysis helped the Uzbek mathematician to establish that Umar Khayyam finished this treatise in 1094 A.C.
Of his death, the following story is told by Nuzhatul-Arwah. “On the day of his death, Umar was attentively reading the Book of Healing, a metaphysical work of Avicenna. When he came upon the chapter titled, ‘One and Many’, he put aside the book, stood up, offered his prayers, and made his last injunctions to his friends and relations. Since then he neither ate nor drank till the evening and after the evening prayers he prostrated and cried out, ‘O, Almighty, verily I have tried to realize Thee to the extent of my abilities. I beg Your Forgiveness’, Saying this he sank to death and was widely mourned by his friends and admirers. He was buried according to his life-long desire in a beautifully shaded grove”.
Such was the end of Umar Khayyam, a great poet, philosopher, astronomer and mathematician.