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October 20, 2010

An evening with Omar Khayyam

Reuel S. Amdur

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The Carleton University Centre for the Study of Islam presented a showing of the BBC documentary "The Genius of Omar Khayyam" on October 15, with the producer Sadeq Saba leading the discussion after. Following is an account of the evening.

According to Farhan Hajali, head of the Centre, there were two Islamic civilizations, one from the 8th to the 13th century centred in Baghdad, Cairo, and Cordova, and the other beginning in the 16th century following the Mongol invasion, centred in Delhi, Isfahan, and Istanbul.  Omar Khayyam lived in the 11th Century, part of the first one.

He was born in 1048, in Neishabour, on the Silk Route, and he studied at a local college.  Khayyam was close to the local ruler, for whom he was valuable because of his skill and knowledge.  However, his poetry, written throughout his life, was not made public till 50 years after his death, its content being too unorthodox at the time.  The ruler was rigid in his religious views.

In 1070, he moved to Samarkand, where he did his most important mathematical and astronomical work.  One of his achievements was his work on cubic equations to measure the volume of a box.  He could only partially come up with the solution, transferring information from algebra into geometry. 

His team reformed the calendar.  The old calendar, based on phases of the moon, became distorted and was unreliable for purposes of setting times for harvest and tax collection after harvest.  The calendar he and his team created is more reliable even than the current one.  Persia at the time was the centre of astronomic knowledge and the home of instruments such as the astrolabe.  People came from far and wide to participate in this adventure in learning, and in the local graveyard there are even graves from that time of people with Italian names.

Moving forward to the 19th Century, Edward Fitzgerald was captivated by Khayyam’s Rubaiyat, which he found in London’s Bodleian Library in a book from 1460.

Fitzgerald came from a wealthy Anglo-Irish family and lived a privileged, idle life.  At first, no one paid any attention to Fitzgerald’s rendering, which was not an exact translation being more of a summing up of the spirit of the work.  However, once it was picked up it went like wildfire, being in tune with the spirit of Victorian England.  It was published in 1859, the same year as Darwin’s Origin of Species, which served to weaken orthodoxy and which was one factor giving weight to Khayyam’s emphasis on living for the moment and not for the world to come. 

Fitzgerald’s work had reverberations even back in Iran, where the Rubaiyat drew renewed attention, which continues to this day. 

A cutting from a rose bush on Khayyam’s grave has been placed on Fitzgerald’s.

Khayyam’s poetry continues to be popular in Iran, and scholars and literary figures discuss and study his work, much to the discomfort of the authorities.  They nevertheless are unable to put a halt to the interest in him and his poetry.

Fitzgerald’s rendering is one of the most popular works in the world.  Last year Cambridge University had a Khayyam celebration, and the University of Texas at Austin has a centre devoted to his work and to his popularity around the world.  England had Khayyam dining clubs in Victorian times, and one still persists.

Several Muslims in attendance were uncomfortable with Khayyam’s unorthodoxy.  He was a poet of uncertainty.  However, Hajali pointed out that at one time in the history of Islam people like Khayyam were accepted.  “Good believers,” said Hajali, “all have doubts but not anxiety.  Rigid believers have no doubts but are full of anxiety.”

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