1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/'Omar Khayyām

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‘OMAR KHAYYĀM [in full, Ghiyāthuddīn Abulfath ‘Omar bin Ibrāhīm al-Khayyāmi], the great Persian mathematician, astronomer, freethinker and epigrammatist, who derived the epithet Khayyām (the tentmaker) most likely from his father's trade, was born in or near Nīshāpūr, where he is said to have died in A.H. 517 (A.D. 1123). At an early age he entered into a close friendship both with Nizām-ul-mulk and his school-fellow Ḥassan ibn Ṣabbāḥ, who founded afterwards the terrible sect of the Assassins. When Nizām-ul-mulk was raised to the rank of vizier by the Seljūk sultan Alp-Arslan (A.D. 1063-1073) he bestowed upon Ḥassan ibn Ṣabbāḥ the dignity of a chamberlain, whilst offering a similar court office to ‘Omar Khayyām. But the latter contented himself with an annual stipend which would enable him to devote all his time to his favourite studies of mathematics and astronomy. His standard work on algebra, written in Arabic, and other treatises of a similar character raised him at once to the foremost rank among the mathematicians of that age, and induced Sultān Malik-Shāh to summon him in A.H. 467 (A.D. 1074) to institute astronomical observations on a larger scale, and to aid him in his great enterprise of a thorough reform of the calendar. The results of ‘Omar's research were—a revised edition of the Zīj or astronomical tables, and the introduction of the Ta’rīkh-i-Malikshāhī or Jalālī, that is, the so-called Jalālian or Seljūk era, which commences in A.H. 471 (A.D. 1079, 15th March).

‘Omar's great scientific fame, however, is nearly eclipsed by his still greater poetical renown, which he owes to his rubā‘īs or quatrains, a collection of about 500 epigrams. The peculiar form of the rubā‘ī— viz. four lines, the first, second and fourth of which have the same rhyme, while the third usually (but not always) remains rhymeless—was first successfully introduced into Persian literature as the exclusive vehicle for subtle thoughts on the various topics of Sūfic mysticism by the sheikh Abū Sa‘īd bin Abulkhair,[1] but ‘Omar differs in its treatment considerably from Abū Sa‘īd. Although some of his quatrains are purely mystic and pantheistic, most of them bear quite another stamp; they are the breviary of a radical freethinker, who protests in the most forcible manner both against the narrowness, bigotry and uncompromising austerity of the orthodox ulemā and the eccentricity, hypocrisy and wild ravings of advanced Sūfis, whom he successfully combats with their own weapons, using the whole mystic terminology simply to ridicule mysticism itself. There is in this respect a great resemblance between him and Hāfiz, but ‘Omar is decidedly superior. He has often been called the Voltaire of the East, and cried down as materialist and atheist. As far as purity of diction, fine wit, crushing satire against a debased and ignorant clergy, and a general sympathy with suffering humanity are concerned, ‘Omar certainly reminds us of the great Frenchman; but there the comparison ceases. Voltaire never wrote anything equal to ‘Omar's fascinating rhapsodies in praise of wine, love and all earthly joys, and his passionate denunciations of a malevolent and inexorable fate which dooms to slow decay or sudden death and to eternal oblivion all that is great, good and beautiful in this world. There is a touch of Byron, Swinburne and even of Schopenhauer in many of his rubā‘īs, which clearly proves that the modern pessimist is by no means a novel creature in the realm of philosophic thought and poetical imagination.

The Leiden copy of ‘Omar Khayyām's work on algebra was noticed as far back as 1742 by Gerald Meerman in the preface to his Specimen calculi fluxionalis; further notices of the same work by Sedillot appeared in the Nouv. Jour. As. (1834) and in vol. xiii. of the Notices et extraits des MSS. de la Bibl. roy. The complete text, together with a French translation (on the basis of the Leiden and Paris copies, the latter first discovered by M. Libri, see his Histoire des sciences mathematiques en Italie, i. 300), was edited by F. Woepcke, L'Algèbre d'Omar Alkhayyāmi (Paris, 1851). Articles on ‘Omar's life and works are found in Reinaud's Géographie d'Aboulféda, pref., p. 101; Notices et extraits, ix. 143 seq.; Garcin de Tassy, Note sur les Rubā‘iyāt de ‘Omar Hhaïyām (Paris, 1857); Rieu, Cat. Pers. MSS. in the Br. Mus., ii. 546; A. Christensen, Recherches sur les Rubā‘iyāt de ‘Omar ̱Hayyām (Heidelberg, 1905); V. Zhukovski's ‘Umar Khayyām and the “Wandering” Quatrains, translated from the Russian by E. D. Ross in the Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society, xxx. (1898); E. G. Browne, Literary History of Persia, ii. 246. The quatrains have been edited at Calcutta (1836) and Teheran (1857 and 1862); text and French translation by J. B. Nicolas (Paris, 1867) (very incorrect and misleading); a portion of the same, rendered in English verse, by E. FitzGerald (London, 1859, 1872 and 1879). FitzGerald's translation has been edited with commentary by H. M. Batson (1900), and the 2nd ed. of the same (1868) by E. Heron Allen (1908). A new English version was published in Trübner's “Oriental” series (1882) by E. H. Whinfield, and the first critical edition of the text, with translation, by the same (1883). Important later works are N. H. Dole's variorum edition (1896), J. Payne's translation (1898), E. Heron Allen's edition (1898) and the Life by J. K. M. Shirazi (1905); but the literature in new translations and imitations has recently multiplied exceedingly.

(H. E.; X.)
  1. Died Jan. 1049. Comp. Ethé's edition of his rubā’īs in Sitzungsberichte der bayr. Akademie (1875), pp. 145 seq., and (1878) pp. 38 seq.; and E. G. Browne's Literary Hist. of Persia, ii. 261.