A brilliant Persian scientist said to have been born in mid-May almost a millennium ago remarkably dared to voice his agnosticism in perhaps the most famous poem ever to come from a Muslim land.
The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam scoffs at theologians, laments the unknowability of the hereafter and hails worldly pleasure as the only tangible goal:
Here with a loaf of bread beneath the bough / A flask of wine, a book of verse – and thou / Beside me singing in the wilderness / And wilderness is Paradise now.
The poet advised seekers to stop pondering contradictory religious dogmas, and escape with a flagon of wine — “The grape that can with logic absolute / The two-and-seventy jarring sects confute.”
Abu-al-Fath Omar ibn Ibrahim was called Khayyam (tentmaker), perhaps because his ancestors had practiced that trade. Omar was educated in science and philosophy in his native Nishapur, then went to Samarkand where he wrote a treatise on algebra. Sultan Malik Shah commissioned him to help build an observatory in Isfahan and make astronomical observations to reform the calendar. After the death of his patron in 1092, Omar returned to Nishapur as a teacher and served the ruling court through his knowledge of mathematics, medicine, history, law, philosophy and other subjects.
Omar wrote quatrains expressing his wistful musings on the meaninglessness of life. After his death in 1131, copies were made, and evidently embellished with improvisations by other poets. For centuries, the old manuscripts were forgotten until chance turned them into a literary sensation.
In 1856, a librarian at Oxford University sent an aged Persian manuscript to a talented English poet, Edward FitzGerald, who was studying Persian. The skeptical-minded FitzGerald was captivated by the existential tone of the verses, which reminded him of the ponderings of Epicurus. FitzGerald wrote to Lord Tennyson, who had been his classmate at Cambridge:
“I have … got hold of an old Epicurean so desperately impious in his recommendations to live only for today that the good Mahometans have scarcely dared to multiply manuscripts of him.”
FitzGerald rewrote the quatrains into English — not as direct translations, but as poetic creations based on Omar’s verses. Publishing them was risky, because blasphemy was a crime in Victorian England, and skepticism was taboo. Fraser’s Magazine refused to print the Rubaiyat. FitzGerald finally paid to have 500 copies printed privately in 1859, without his name attached.
The small books lay unnoticed for two years at a London bookstore, and some were sold as wastepaper. Remaining copies were put in a bargain bin for a penny each. A young man bought one and gave it to the painter Dante Gabriel Rossetti, who was fascinated and bought copies for the poets Robert Browning and Algernon Charles Swinburne. But the public remained unaware.
FitzGerald produced enlarged versions in 1868 and 1872. The anonymous book began drawing public attention. The translator’s identity became known, and FitzGerald was pleased by the “little craze” caused by his work.
FitzGerald’s eyesight failed, and he died in 1883. He never knew that his Rubaiyat would go on to become a world classic that would sell millions of copies in hundreds of editions.
Subsequently, researchers have found as many as 1,391 ancient quatrains attributed to Omar, and have attempted to separate the genuine ones from derivative concoctions, with little success.
Here are some freethinking segments from the Rubaiyat, translated by FitzGerald:
“Alike for those who for today prepare / And those that after a tomorrow stare / A muezzin from the tower of darkness cries / ‘Fools! Your reward is neither here nor there.’
“Why, all the saints and sages who discussed / Of the two worlds so learnedly, are thrust / Like foolish prophets forth; their words to scorn / Are scattered, and their mouths are stopped with dust.
“Oh, threats of hell and hopes of paradise! / One thing at least is certain: this life flies; / One thing is certain, and the rest is lies; / The flower that once has blown forever dies.”
“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.
“And that inverted bowl we call the sky / Whereunder crawling coop’d we live and die / Lift not your hands to it for help, for it / Rolls impotently on as thou and I.”
“The revelations of the devout and learned / Who rose before us and as prophets burned / Are all but stories, which, awoke from sleep / They told their comrades, and to sleep returned.”
The verses still have the power to awe with their skepticism close to a millennium after they were written.
This column was originally published as part of a series of profiles in Haught’s 2000 Years of Disbelief: Famous People with the Courage to Doubt (Prometheus Books, 1996).