The Poet Of Doubt
‘Umar Khayyam [1048-1131 C.E.] And Iranian Freethought
by Ibn Warraq (May 2007)
‘Umar Khayyam [i]
In 1859, the year that saw the first edition of Charles Darwin’s The Origin of Species, there appeared The Ruba>iyat of ‘Omar Khayyam, the Astronomer Poet of Persia, an anonymous translation of the quatrains of an obscure medieval Persian poet, who was better known as a mathematician. Unlike
The first that the West heard of >Umar Khayyam’s poetry, rather than his name, was probably in 1700 when Th. Hyde in his Veterum Persarum….religionis historia (Oxford) gave a Latin translation of one of Khayyam’s quatrains. In 1771, Sir William Jones in his A Grammar of The Persian Language quoted without attribution a complete quatrain (in Persian ruba>¥, plural ruba>iyat)[iv] and part of another, generally ascribed to Khayyam:
[ 1 ]
Hear how the crowing cock at early dawn
Loudly laments the rising of the sun
Has he perceived that of your precious life
Another night has passed, and you care not?
[ 2 ]
As spring arrived and winter passed away,
The pages of our life were folded back. [v]
Several Persian quatrains were published in a Persian grammar compiled by F. Dombay in
Khayyam’s quatrains are independent epigrammatic stanzas — in other words, short, spontaneous, self-contained poems. Each ruba>¥ stands on its own. Fitzgerald, however, makes them a continuous sequence: the stanzas “here selected are strung into something of an Eclogue.” [vi] Thus, far from being a close translation, Fitzgerald’s version is a paraphrase of “exceptional poetical merits.”[vii] One English scholar, E. Heron Allen, compared Fitzgerald’s version with the Persian text and established that 49 quatrains are faithful paraphrases of single ruba’i; 44 are traceable to more than one ruba’i; 2 are inspired by the ruba>¥, found only in one particular edition of the Persian text; 2 reflect the “whole spirit” of the original; 2 are traceable exclusively to Attar, the Persian mystic poet (died c. 1220); 2 are inspired by Khayyam but influenced by Hafiz, the greatest Persian lyric poet (died 1390), and 3 Heron Allen was unable to identify.[viii]
One scholar admirably sums up the qualities that caught the late Victorian imagination, and that have endeared Fitzgerald’s >Umar to so many: “The Fitzgerald stanza, with its unrhymed, poised third line, is an admirable invention to carry the sceptical irony of the work and to accommodate the opposing impulses of enjoyment and regret. Fitzgerald’s poem has a kind of dramatic unity, starting with dawn and the desire to seize the enjoyment of the passing moment, moving through the day until, with the fall of evening, he laments the fading of youth and the approach of death. Several interests of the time, divine justice versus hedonism, science versus religion and the prevailing taste for eastern art and bric-a-brac, were united in the poem….”.[ix]
Edward Fitzgerald himself sums up the delightful nature of >Umar and his philosophy very accurately:
“…Omar’s Epicurean Audacity of thought and Speech caused him to be regarded askance in his own time and country. He is said to have been especially hated and dreaded by the Sufis, whose practice he ridiculed, and whose faith amounts to little more than his own, when stript of the Mysticism and formal recognition of Islamism under which Omar would not hide. Their poets, including Hafiz, who are (with the exception of Firdausi) the most considerable in Persia, borrowed largely, indeed, of Omar’s material, but turning it to a mystical use more convenient to themselves and the people they addressed; a people quite as quick of doubt as of belief; as keen of bodily sense as of intellectual; and delighting in a cloudy composition of both, in which they could float luxuriously between heaven and earth, and this world and the next, on the wings of a poetical expression, that might serve indifferently for either. Omar was too honest of heart as well of head for this. Having failed (however mistakenly) of finding any Providence but Destiny, and any World but this, he set about making the most of it; preferring rather to soothe the soul through the senses into acquiescence with things as he saw them, than to perplex it with vain disquietude after what they might be. It has been seen, however, that this worldly ambition was not exorbitant; and he very likely takes a humorous or perverse pleasure in exalting the gratification of sense above that of the intellect, in which he must have taken great delight, although it failed to answer the questions in which he, in common with all men, was most vitally interested.”[x]
Fitzgerald will have no truck with those squeamish or puritanical scholars, like the Frenchman Nicolas, who pretend to see something spiritual in >Umar’s verses, and who interpret every appearance of the word “wine” mystically: [xi]
“And if more were needed to disprove
“What historical Authority has
“No doubt many of these Quatrains seem unaccountable unless mystically interpreted; but many more as unaccountable unless literally. Were the Wine spiritual, for instance, how wash the Body with it when dead? Why make cups of the dead clay to be filled with–“La Divinite,” by some succeeding Mystic?
For Fitzgerald the burden of Omar’s Song, if not “let us eat,” is assuredly “Let us drink, for tomorrow we die!” Some may see Omar as a Sufi, but “on the other hand, as there is far more historical certainty of his being a philosopher, of scientific insight and ability far beyond that of the age and country he lived in, of such moderate worldly ambition as becomes a philosopher, and such moderate wants as rarely satisfy a debauchee; other readers may be content to believe with me that while the wine Omar celebrates is simply the juice of the grape, he bragg’d more than he drank of it, in very defiance perhaps of that spiritual wine which left its votaries sunk in hypocrisy or disgust.”[xii]
Here are some examples of Fitzgerald’s paraphrase of Omar [From the 1st Edn.]:
[ 3 ]
Dreaming when Dawn’s Left Hand was in the Sky
I heard a Voice within the Tavern cry:
‘Awake, my Little ones, and fill the Cup
Before Life’s Liquor in its Cup be dry.’
[ 4 ]
And, as the Cock crew, those who stood before
The Tavern shouted: ‘Open then the Door!
You know how little we have to stay,
And, once departed, may return no more.’
[ 5 ]
The Worldly Hope men set their Hearts upon
Turns Ashes — or it prospers; and anon,
Like Snow upon the Desert’s dusty Face
Lighting a little hour or two is gone.
[ 6 ]
Ah, Beloved, fill the Cup that clears
Today of past Regrets and future Fears —
Tomorrow? Why, Tomorrow I may be
Myself with Yesterday’s Sev’n Thousand Years.
[ 7 ]
Lo! some we loved, the loveliest and best
That Time and Fate of all their Vintage prest,
Have drunk their Cup a Round or two before,
And one by one crept silently to Rest.
[ 8 ]
And we, that now make merry in the Room
They left, and Summer dresses in new Bloom,
Ourselves must we beneath the Couch of Earth
Descend, ourselves to make a Couch — for whom?
[ 9 ]
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!
[ 10 ]
Alike for those who for Today prepare,
And those that after a Tomorrow stare,
A Muezzin from the
‘Fools! your Reward is neither Here nor There!’
[ 11 ]
Why, all the Saints and Sages who discuss’d
Of the Two Worlds so learnedly, are thrust
Like foolish Prophets forth; their Words to Scorn
Are scatter’d, and their Mouths are stopt with Dust.
[ 12 ]
Oh, come with old Khayyam, and leave the Wise
To talk: one thing is certain, that Life flies;
One thing is certain, and the Rest is Lies:
The Flower that once has blown for ever dies.
[ 13 ]
And that inverted Bowl we call The Sky,
Whereunder crawling coop’t we live and die,
Lift not thy hands to It for help — for It
Rolls impotently on as Thou or I.
From the 4th Edn:
[ 14 ]
Some for the Glories of This World; and some
Sigh for the Prophet’s
Ah, take the Cash, and let the Credit go
Nor heed the rumble of a distant Drum!
But who was >Umar Khayyam? Very little is known for certain of his life and writings, particularly his poetry. He was born probably in 1048 in
In one of our early sources of his life and poetry, Mir§ad al-‘Ibad (the Watch tower of the faithful), Khayyam is described as an atheist, philosopher and naturalist: “ Observation (of the world) leads to faith, the quest (for the Eternal) to gnosis. The philospher, atheist and naturalist are denied this spiritual level; they have been led astray and are lost. >Umar Khayyam is considered by the blind as a sage, an intelligent man. However he is so lost in doubt and shadows that he says in quatrains:
[ 15 ]
[ 15 ]
This circle within which we come and go
This circle within which we come and go
Has neither origin nor final end .
Will no one ever tell us truthfully
Whence we have come, and whither do we go ?
[ 16 ]
Our elements were merged at His command
Why then did He disperse them once again ?
For if the blend was good, why break it up ?
If it was bad, whose was the fault but His? ” [ end of quote from Mir§ad al-‘Ibad ]
The constant themes of Khayyam’s poetry are the certainty of death, the denial of an afterlife, the pointlessness of asking unanswerable questions, the mysteriousness of the universe, the necessity of living for and enjoying the present:
[ 17 ]
No one has ever pierced this veil of secrets ;
No one will ever understand the world .
Deep in the earth’s our only resting place ;
Cry out, ‘ This is a story without end !’
[ 18 ]
The heavenly bodies that circle round the skies
Are full of mystery even to learned men;
Hold firm the thread of wisdom in your hand,
For those who plan their lives will be confused
[ 19 ]
A drop of water fell into the sea,
A speck of dust came floating down to earth.
What signifies your passage through this world?
A tiny gnat appears – and disappears.
[ 20 ]
Long will the world last after we are gone,
When every sign and trace of us are lost.
We were not here before, and no one knew;
Though we are gone, the world will be the same.
[ 21 ]
Of all the travellers on this endless road
Not one returns to tell us where it leads.
There’s little in this world but greed and need;
Leave nothing here, for you will not return.
[ 22 ]
I am not here for ever in this world;
How sinful then to forfeit wine and love!
The world may be eternal or created;
Once I am gone, it matters not a scrap.
[ 23 ]
When once you hear the roses are in bloom,
Then is the time, my love, to pour the wine;
Houris and palaces and Heaven and Hell –
These are but fairy-tales, forget them all.[xiv]
Al-Ma>arr¥ and >Umar Khayyam.
The Koranic commentator, al-Zamakhshar¥ (died 1141), in a treatise composed just before >Umar Khayyam’s death, apparently mentions that >Umar Khayyam visited his classes and seemed to be familiar with the Arabic stanzas of the Syrian, al-Ma>arr¥, who died in 1058, ten years after our Persian poet’s birth. There is a remarkable similarity between the two poets in their imagery, sentiments, skepticism, and general philosophy of life. E.G.Browne pointed out the resemblance in his Literary History of Persia first published in 1906 .[xv]
The Significance of the Ruba>iyat .
We do not know exactly when the ruba>¥ as a verse form first entered Persian poetry but, as Avery points out, it ‘ …became a favourite verse form among the intellectuals, those philosphers and mystics in eleventh – and twelfth–century Persia who were in some degree non-conformists opposed to religious fanaticism, so that they have often been called Islam’s free-thinkers.”[xvi] Even if all the quatrains attributed to Khayyam are not really by him, for our purposes it is irrelevant. What is important is that there were many Persian intellectuals, poets and philosophers who did not accept Islam and all its constraints on the human spirit, and who expressed their doubts, their scepticism in the form of ruba>iyat, which they then attributed to Khayyam.
Some of the following Khayyam -like quatrains reveal a deep-seated skepticism about religion within Persian culture which Islam had not succeeded in stifling:
You who have chosen to take the Magian path,
You who have cast aside the Islamic faith,
You won’t drink wine or kiss your love much longer;
Stay where you are, Omar, for death is near.
The Koran is held in deepest veneration,
And yet they read it only now and then.
The verse that is inscribed within the cup
Is read by all, no matter where or when.
Spend all your time with libertines and rogues;
Show your contempt for fasting and for prayer.
Hear the wise maxims of tent-maker Omar:
Drink wine, become a bandit , but do good.
How much more of the mosque, of prayer and fasting?
Better go drunk and begging round the taverns.
Khayyam, drink wine, for soon this clay of yours
Will make a cup, a bowl, one day a jar.
Take greetings from me to the Holy Prophet,
And ask him with respectful deference:
‘ Lord of the Prophet’s house, why should sour milk
Be lawful under the Law, and not pure wine? ’ [xvii]
[ 4 ] 19 th and 20 th Century .
>Umar Khayyam inspired many poets, and freethinkers, and continues to influence modern writers. An early 19 the century traveller, Mountstuart Elphinstone gives us a remarkable example in his “Account of the
Sadegh Hedayat, the greatest Persian novelist and short-story writer of the 20th century, first wrote about Khayyam in 1923, and then again in 1934. Hedayat was at pains to point out that Khayyam from “his youth to his death remained a materialist, pessimist, agnostic”. Khayyam looked at all religious questions with a sceptical eye, continues Hedayat, and hated the fanaticism, narrowmindedness and the spirit of vengeance of the mullas, the so-called religious scholars. Khayyam was a freethinker who could not possibly accept the narrow, determinist , illogical dogmas of the religious class. Religion is but an ensemble of dogmas and duties that one had to follow without question, without discussion and without doubt. As Neitzsche once said it is certainty, and not doubt, which leads to religious fanaticism. Khayyam was a doubter, par excellence. It is not difficult in our days, says Hedayat, to prove the absurdity of religious myths – disowned in their entirety by science – but imagine how it must have been for Khayyam, living in an intolerant epoch. Now we realize >Umar Khayyam’s importance.[xix]
Ali Dashti was born in 1896 of Persian ancestry at the holy city of
Dashti’s visit to
First, Dashti defends rational thought in general and criticises blind faith since “belief can blunt human reason and common sense,” even in learned scholars. What was needed was more “impartial study”. He vigorously denies any of the miracles ascribed to Muhammad by some of the later overeager Muslim commentators. Dashti submits the orthodox view that the Koran is the word of God Himself, that it is miraculous in virtue of its eloquence and subject matter, to a thorough and sceptical examination. He points out that even some early Muslim scholars “before bigotry and hyperbole prevailed, openly acknowledged that the arrangement and syntax of the Koran are not miraculous and that work of equal or greater value could be produced by other God- fearing persons.”
Furthermore, the Koran contains “sentences which are incomplete and not fully intelligible without the aid of commentaries; foreign words, unfamiliar Arabic words and words used with other than the normal meaning; adjectives and verbs inflected without observance of the concords of gender and number; illogically and ungrammatically applied pronouns which sometimes have no referent; and predicates which in rhymed passages are often remote from the subjects. These and other such aberrations in the language have given scope to critics who deny the Koran’s eloquence … To sum up, more than one hundred Koranic aberrations from the normal rules have been noted.”
What of the claim that the subject matter is miraculous? Ali Dashti points out that the Koran “contains nothing new in the sense of ideas not already expressed by others. All the moral precepts of the Koran are self-evident and generally acknowledged. The stories in it are taken in identical or slightly modified forms from the lore of the Jews and Christians, whose rabbis and monks Muhammad had met and consulted on his journeys to Syria, and from memories conserved by the descendants of the peoples of ‘Ad and Thamud . … In the field of moral teachings, however, the Koran cannot be considered miraculous.
Muhammad reiterated principles which mankind had already conceived in earlier centuries and many places. Confucius, Buddha, Zoroaster, Socrates, Moses, and Jesus had said similar things … Many of the duties and rites of Islam are continuous of practices which the pagan Arabs had adopted from the Jews”.[i][xx]
Dashti ridicules the superstitious aspects of much ritual especially during the pilgrimage to
Dashti died in 1984 after spending three years in Khomeini’s prisons, where he was tortured even though he was 83 at the time. He told a friend before he died: “Had the Shah allowed books like this to be published and read by the people, we would never have had an Islamic revolution”.[ii][xxi]
Ali Dashti’s study of >Umar Khayyam first appeared in 1966. Dashti accepted 36 quatrains as being certainly by Khayyam, and after much sifting, analysis, and comparison, he arrived at a total of 102 quatrains in all. Dashti constantly emphasizes Khayyam’s philosophical doubt, particularly about the after-life:
29: “ The withered tulip never blooms again .”
30: “ …you will not return ; once gone , you’re gone .”
31 : “ For you’re no gold , you foolish little man ,
To bury till you’re needed once again .”
Dashti wrote, “the hope that buoys the theologians has no meaning for Khayyam. His mind is obessed with this tragic tragic destiny of man; he never leaves it alone, and it is true to say that it is the starting–point of all his other speculations.”
Drink wine, for long you’ll sleep beneath the soil,
Without companion, lover, friend or mate.
But keep this sorry secret to yourself :
The withered tulip never blooms again”.
“Khayyam waits”, continues Dashti, “within the prison of his thoughts like a man in the condemned cell. All ways of escape are closed, and no ray of hope illuminates his spirit.”
Why did we waste our lives so uselessly?
Why are we crushed so by the mills of Heaven?
Alas ! Alas ! Even as we blinked our eyes,
Though not by our own wish, we disappeared.
Let us cast aside everything that poisons our lives, one must not waste this swiftly passing moment.
“ Rise up from sleep, and drink a draught of wine,
Before fate deals us yet another blow.
For this contentious sphere will suddenly
Take from us even the time to wet our lips.”
“Since no one can be certain of tomorrow,
It’s better not to fill the heart with care.
Drink wine by moonlight, darling, for the moon
Will shine long after this, and find us not.” [xxii]
[i] I have sometimes used the spelling Omar or Omar Khayyam, since Fitzgerald does so.
[ii] The first edition of The Origin of Species appeared in November 1859, and the second only two months later in January 1860.
[iii] According to T.S. Eliot’s biographer Peter Ackroyd, when Eliot read Fitzgerald’s Omar, “he wished to become a poet” [Peter Ackroyd, T.S. Eliot,
[iv] “The ruba>¥, plural ruba>iyat, is a two lined stanza, each line of which is divided into two hemistichs making up four altogether, hence the name ruba>¥,, an Arabic word meaning ‘foursome’. The first, second, and last of the four hemistichs must rhyme. The third need not rhyme with the other three, a point Fitzgerald noticed, so that he made the first, second and fourth lines of his quatrains rhyme: Dreaming when Dawn’s Left Hand was in the sky
I heard a Voice within the Tavern cry
‘Awake my little ones, and fill the Cup
Before Life’s Liquor in its Cup be dry.'”
Peter Avery, Introduction to The Ruba’iyat of Omar Khayyam, Penguin Books, 1981, Harmondsworth, p. 9.
[v] Elwell Sutton, Introduction to Ali Dashti’s In Search of Omar Khayyam, Columbia University Press , New York , c.1971, p. 13.
[vi] E. Fitzgerald, Preface to the 1st Edn., 1859.
[vii] V. Minorsky, ‘Omar Khaiyam, Encyc. Of Islam, 1st Edn., 1913-1938,
[viii] Ibid., Vol VI.p.988
[ix] A. Ross, Fitzgerald, Edward, in the Penguin Companion to Literature, Vol 1, Harmondsworth, 1971, p. 183-184.
[x] E. Fitzgerald, Introduction to the 1st Edn., 1859.
[xi] Rather like those Catholic apologists who would have us believe that the Song of Songs of Solomon is a spiritual poem rather than a gently erotic one, which it obviously is. The King James’ Version has at the head of chapter 1 of the Song of Solomon (or Song of Songs) : “ The church’s love unto Christ ”.
[xii] E. Fitzgerald, Introduction to 3rd Edn.
[xiii] G.Sarton , Introduction to the History of Science,
[xiv] These quatrains are not from Fitzgerald’s translation but from those compiled by Ali Dashti in his « In Search of Omar Khayyam »
[xv] E.G.Browne, Literary History of Persia, Vol.II, London, 1906, and Cambridge, 1956, p.292 ; referred to by Peter Avery, Introduction to The Ruba’iyat of Omar Khayyam, Penguin Books, 1981, Harmondsworth, p. 24-25, and footnote 7.
[xvi] The Ruba’iyat of Omar Khayyam, trans. By P.Avery, & J.Heath-Stubbs, Harmondsworth,1981 Introduction p.13
[xvii] All quoted in Ali Dashti, In Search of Omar Khayyam.
[xviii] M.Elphinstone, Account of the Kingdom of Caubul,
[xix] Sadegh Hedayat, Les Chants d’Omar Khayyam, [trans. of Taraneha-e Khayyam,
[xx] Ali Dashti, Twenty-three Years: A Study of the Prophetic Career of Mohammed,
[xxi] Amir Taheri, Holy Terror,
[xxii] Ali Dashti, In Search of
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