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Wine of Wisdom

The Life, Poetry and Philosophy of Omar Khayyam



...and Thou beside me, singing in the Wilderness...

By Khaled Ahmed - The Daily Times - Lahore, Pakistan
Sunday, September 2, 2007

Fitzgerald’s translation of the Rubaiyyat was inspired, not precise, but it had the result of taking Khayyam’s poetry into the English book of quotations.

The truth is that Khayyam reads beautifully even in Persian and one can see the effect of his way of thinking quite a lot in Urdu’s classics, Mir Taqi Mir and to some extent Ghalib.

What has come down in English is the effect of his carpe diem philosophy or “make merry because life is temporary” hedonism with “wine and a loaf of bread and the beloved” usually taken to be a lady in art deco elongation.

Khayyam had a lot of things to say and there is much that has escaped our attention because of his refusal to accept anyone’s monopoly over truth.

Of course, anyone who knows English knows him through his famous “moving finger” phrase as rendered by Fitzgerald.

Abul Fath Omar bin Ibrahim Khayyam (1048-1124 AD) was born in Nayshapur in Iran, and was called Khayyam because his father was a tentmaker who had possibly converted from Zoroastrianism. The boy showed early signs of original brilliance, not scared of questioning received wisdom and asking bold questions such as the one he asked a qazi of Nayshapur: “If the Quran is the word of God, why are the Surahs of the Quran begun with Bismillah, which would mean God consecrating Himself?”

In our times, the greatest Islamic thinker after 1947, Dr. Fazlur Rehman was exiled from Pakistan for trying to answer Khayyam’s question.

It is almost possible that Khayyam studied under the famous ishraqi teacher Imam Juwayni at the time when Imam Ghazali was in the same Nayshapur seminary, and it is possible that Imam Ghazali’s work (Tahafat al Falasafa) was in response to Khayyam’s sceptical approach.

The other literary figure of his times, Al Sanai, too came in contact with him when Khayyam went to Isfahan, and then received Sanai in Nayshapur. A class-fellow of Khayyam was Hasan Tusi, who became prime minister in 1064 of the Seljuq prince Alp Arsalan, under the given name of Nizamul Mulk, and was author of the famous advice-to-the-prince books in the Islamic tradition much before Machiavelli wrote The Prince.

Khayyam had already gone to Ray (today’s Tehran) to lecture on mathematics and astronomy to a group of scientists at Nizamul Mulk’s local seminary, which was followed by another invitation to go to the capital of the Seljuqs, Isfahan, to be among the philosophers in 1076.

After he returned to Nayshapur in Khurasan in 1079, Isfahan was overwhelmed by rioting resulting in the death of Alp Arsalan. The new prince Malik Shah moved the capital to Merv and called Khayyam over to put together a new, more accurate calendar. With the help of several Muslim scientists in the tradition of Ibn Sina, whom Khayyam admired, the new calendar Taqwim-e-Jalali was invented by Khayyam. That is the remarkably accurate calendar that Iran (and a part of Afghanistan) has today.

Khayyam was given a new conservatory in Isfahan to pursue the sciences with his fellow scholars, but soon his friend Nizamul Mulk, the grand vizier, was deposed from his rank and later assassinated. Khayyam, scared of being killed, went in the wake of the prince to Bukhara but before he could reach him, the Sultan was dead and a lethal rivalry between his two sons had begun.

Khayyam took off safely for hajj to be out of sight and to give the lie to his detractors who accused him of heresy. After his return, Khayyam was invited to Merv by Sultan Sanjar but this time Khayyam did not feel as comfortable as he had with the earlier prince.

These days in the life of Khayyam were filled with brief but dense scientific works in mathematics and what later became known as physics.His poetry, about whose authenticity nothing certain can be stated, was definitely a spin-off from his meditations but remained marginal to his other preoccupation.

His treatises are never more than five or ten pages long and they deal with some of the philosophical problems left behind by his masters, Al Farabi and Ibn Sina. He wrote also to add corrections to the Euclidean mathematics then in vogue in the world. Writing to Imam Tahir about his “insatiable appetite for research and possible and impossible proofs”, he offered new problems of algebra. He wrote to extend the theories of Archimedes, and extended Ibn Sina’s “lucid discourse” while challenging Imam Ghazali in his treatise on Being and Necessity.

The author thinks he was not an Ismaili like Ibn Sina and his other friend Nasir Khusraw, and seemed to admit as much when he placed Ismailism below the Sufi tradition in Islam. (Famous leader of the assassins, Hasan bin Sabah, was a class-fellow and a friend.)

Khayyam’s poetry has always been subject to scholarly quarrels. Author Aminrazavi, a life-long admirer of Khayyam’s verse, admits that it is no longer possible to sift the genuine from the counterfeit. He acknowledges that his English translators have been more creative than loyal to his verse but will not deny the beauty of their work.

Almost 1,200 Rubaiyyat or quatrains have been attributed to Khayyam but no one knows where the line could be drawn as to what is true and what is bogus.

Like our Bulleh Shah, much of the accretion is of high quality and an extension of the poet’s worldview. There are a few long poems in Arabic too because all scientists in those times wrote in Arabic as that was the language of Islamic renaissance.

What does Khayyam speak about in his quatrains? His subjects are impermanence and meaning of life, theodicy and justice, the here and now, doubt and bewilderment, death and afterlife, determinism and predestination, truth in drunkenness (in vino veritas) and the old Christian theme of carpe diem (gather ye rosebuds while ye may).

Khayyam is also existentialist when he admits to there being no meaning because of the transience of life. His insistence, that compared to the past which is gone and the future which is unknowable, the present was the only important time, is in line with the Sufi and orthodox view, but what he makes of it will probably put off many.

For instance:

“Dreaming when Dawn’s Left Hand was in the sky
I heard a voice with the Tavern cry
Awake my little one and fill the cup
Before life’s liquor in its cup be dry.”

This is Fitzgerald with his own capitalisations in line with the Iranian technique of taveel or secondary meaning implied by such words as Tavern and Dawn and Left Hand.

Khayyam played on the double meaning and invited accusation of heresy because of his place in the Sufi tradition of malamatiyya (self-debasement) — challenging the false religiosity and the shamelessly paraded piety of the orthodoxy — which sprang from Nayshapur itself.

This is the tradition which is taken to its zenith by Hallaj in Persia and Bulleh Shah in India although the Bhagti tradition that sprang in India against the false piety of the Brahmin fits nicely into it.

Khayyam is not like Ibn Arabi and Mullah Sadra; he is more like Rumi, Hafiz and Hallaj. Khayyam was not an atheist or even an agnostic; he simply put himself outside the pale by challenging the arrogant orthodoxy on its claim to know the truth.

In Fitzgerald’s famously “unliteral” translation, Omar Khayyam is a part of English literature today. Look at the familiar opening quatrain:

“Wake! For the Sun, who scattered into flight
The starts before him from the Field of Night
Drives Night along with them from Heav’n and strikes
The Sultan’s Turret with a Shaft of Light.”

And if you have noted, on the wall-painting in a cinema-hall (usually named Iram), a bearded man being served by the lithe figure of young girl near a spring, know that it is Khayyam singing:

“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 enow!”

If you are ever in Nayshapur, go to the very modern-looking tomb of Khayyam and admire the splendid statue of a seated wise man at the doorway, because he was more extraordinary than all the pious men of old Persia put together.

The Wine of Wisdom: The Life, Poetry and Philosophy of Omar Khayyam
by Mehdi Aminrazavi
Publisher: Oneworld Oxford 2005Pp396;
Price Rs 995
Distributed in Pakistan by Vanguard Books Lahore

[Try the Sufi Book Store:]

Posted by Marina Montanaro at 4:48 AM

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