Omar al Khayyam
The polymath who married
science and literature
Omar Khayyam, the celebrated Persian who lived in the late 11th and early 12th centuries, earned fame at home and afar as a genius mathematician, astronomer and philosopher. But in the West, his chief claim to fame and stardom has been his poetry, thanks to the English translation of his Rubaiyat (a collection of quatrains –a piece of verse complete in four lines, usually rhyming aaaa or aaba; it is close in style and spirit to the epigram). In mathematics, Khayyam’s “Treatise on Demonstration of Problems of Algebra (1070)” remains an essential text, introducing the concept of binomial expansion and using conic sections to solve cubic and quadratic equations. He invented Jalali Calendar that became the base of other calendars and is also known to be more accurate than the Gregorian calendar. He also contributed to a solar calendar completing it on 21 March 1079, variants of which are still used in Iran and Afghanistan.
Abu’l-Fath Omar ibn Ibrahim al-Khayyam, commonly known as Omar Khayyam, was born on May 18, 1048, in northeastern Iran’s Nishapur, in the province of Khurasan, which is now part of Afghanistan and Iran, to a family of tent-makers. He started his education under Imam Muwaffaq Nishapuri.
Of many talents, Omar Khayyam was exceptional in mathematics. His most famous works include his highly influential mathematical treatise called ‘Treatise on Demonstration of Problems of Algebra’ which he completed in 1070. This treatise highlighted the basic algebraic principles that were ultimately shifted to Europe. He laid the foundation of the Pascal’s triangle with his work on triangular array of binomial coefficients. In 1077, another major work was written by Khayyam namely ‘Sharh ma ashkala min musadarat kitab Uqlidis’ meaning ‘Explanations of the Difficulties in the Postulates of Euclid’. It was published in English as “On the Difficulties of Euclid’s Definitions”. In this book, he contributed to non-Euclidean geometry even though this was not his original plan. It is said that Omar Khayyam was originally trying to prove the parallels postulate when he proved the properties of figures in the non-Euclidean geometry.
His geometrical work consisted of his efforts on the theory of proportion and geometrical algebra topics such as cubic equations. Khayyam was the first mathematician to consider the ‘Saccheri quadrilateral’ in the 11th century. It was mentioned in his ‘Explanations of the difficulties in the postulates of Euclid’. It wasn’t until 6 centuries later when another mathematician, Giordano Vitale made further advances on Khayyam’s theory. Other math books by Khayyam include his book named ‘Problems of Arithmetic’, a book on music and algebra.
Khayyam, like the other Persian mathematicians of the time, was also an astronomer. The Sultan Jalal ud Din Malik Shah Saljuqi requested him to build an observatory with a team of scientists — Khayyam likely became acquainted with Malik Shah through the latter’s vizier, Nizam ul Mulk as they both had the same mentor, Imam Muwaffaq. He was part of the team that made several reforms to the Iranian calendar which was made the official Persian calendar to be followed by the Sultan on March 15th, 1079. The Jalali Calendar became the base for other calendars and is also known to be more accurate than the Gregorian calendar developed in the late 16th century. The Jalali calendar working according to the solar year gives an error of one day in 5,000 years, while today’s civil Gregorian calendar gives an error of one day in 3,330 years.
He also made key planetary observations that find mention in his book ‘Astronomical Handbook of Khayyam’.
Although a great astronomer and mathematician, Khayyam is best remembered today for his poetry, which received global acclaim centuries after his death when poet Edward FitzGerald translated his Rubaiyat into English — Khayyam was the founder of the Rubaai genre in Iran and eastern literature. While German literary giant Goethe’s West-Eastern Divan, a magnum opus linking European and Persian traditions, was inspired by Persian poet Hafez, English poet Edward FitzGerald found his inspiration in Khayyam when he translated his poetry into English in 1859. Omar’s poems had attracted comparatively little attention until they inspired FitzGerald to write his celebrated The Rubaiyáat of Omar Khayyam, containing such now-famous phrases as “A Jug of Wine, a Loaf of Bread—and Thou,” “Take the Cash, and let the Credit go,” and “The Flower that once has blown forever dies.” These quatrains have been translated into almost every major language and are largely responsible for colouring European ideas about Persian poetry.
It was FitzGerald’s “Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam” that introduced the great Persian “astronomer-poet” to the Western world, prompting Victorian poet and critic John Ruskin to say in 1863 that he had “never read anything so glorious.”
He wrote just around 1,000 Rubaiyat but with even this short literary legacy, he has reached the zenith of fame and reverence.
Khayyam’s poetry incorporates elements of philosophy as well, with a deep emphasis on feelings like hope, yearning, fear, anxieties and pleasure.
Was he actually a poet?
Some scholars have doubted that Omar wrote poetry. His contemporaries took no notice of his verse, and not until two centuries after his death did a few quatrains appear under his name. Even then, the verses were mostly used as quotations against particular views ostensibly held by Omar, leading some scholars to suspect that they may have been invented and attributed to Omar because of his scholarly reputation.
Almost 10 centuries since his death, Khayyam’s life and works continue to resonate widely. One example is a 1957 Hollywood biopic directed by William Dieterle named after the poet and telling his life story.
The writer is a student at UMT, Lahore.