Omar Khayyám Biography


(History of the World: The Middle Ages)

Article abstract: Khayyám was a leading medieval mathematician and the author of Persian quatrains made world famous through Edward FitzGerald’s The Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám.

Early Life

Omar Khayyám was born in all likelihood in Nishapur, then a major city in the northeastern corner of Iran. At his birth, a new Turkish dynasty from Central Asia called the Seljuks was in the process of establishing control over the whole Iranian plateau. In 1055, when their leader, Toghril Beg (Toghril I), entered Baghdad, the Seljuks became masters of the Muslim caliphate and empire. Of Omar’s family and education, few specifics are known. His given name indicates that he was a Sunni Muslim, for his namesake was the famous second caliph under whose reign (634-644) the dramatic Islamic expansion throughout the Middle East and beyond had begun. The name Khayyám means “tentmaker,” possibly designating the occupation of his forebears. Omar received a good education, including study of Arabic, the Koran, the various religious sciences, mathematics, astronomy, astrology, and literature.

At Toghril Beg’s death, his nephew Alp Arslan succeeded to the Seljuk throne, in part through the machinations of Nizām al-Mulk (1020-1092), another famous man from Nishapur, who was to serve the Seljuks for more than thirty years as a vizier. Alp Arslan, who ruled from 1063 to 1072, was succeeded by his son Malik-Shah, who ruled until 1092.

During this period of rule, Khayyám studied first in Nishapur, then in Balkh, a major eastern city in today’s Afghanistan. From there, he went farther northeast to Samarkand (now in the Soviet Union). There, under the patronage of the chief local magistrate, he wrote a treatise in Arabic on algebra, classifying types of cubic equations and presenting systematic solutions to them. Recognized by historians of science and mathematics as a significant study, it is the most important of Khayyám’s extant works (which comprise about ten short treatises). None of them, however, offers glimpses into Khayyám’s personality, except to affirm his importance as a mathematician and astronomer whose published views were politically and religiously orthodox.

From Samarkand, Khayyám proceeded to Bukhara and was probably still in the royal court there when peace was concluded between the Qarakhanids and the Seljuks in 1073 or 1074. At this time, he presumably entered the service of Malik-Shah, who had become Seljuk sultan in 1072.

Life’s Work

Two of Malik-Shah’s projects on which Khayyám presumably worked were the construction of an astronomy observatory in the Seljuk capital at Esfahan in 1074 and the reform of the Persian solar calendar. Called Maleki after the monarch, the new calendar proved more accurate than the Gregorian system centuries later.

Khayyám was one of Malik-Shah’s favorite courtiers, but after the latter’s death Khayyám apparently never again held important positions under subsequent Seljuk rulers. In the mid-1090’s, he made the hajj pilgrimage to Mecca and then returned to private life and teaching in Nishapur. It is known that Khayyám was in Balkh in 1112 or 1113. Several years later, he was in Marv, where a Seljuk ruler had summoned him to forecast the weather for a hunting expedition. After 1118, the year of Sanjar’s accession, no record exists of anything Khayyám did. He died in his early eighties.

Some of the meager information available today regarding Khayyám was recorded by an acquaintance called Nizami ʿAruzi (fl. 1110-1161) in a book called Chahár Maqála (c. 1155; English translation, 1899). Nizami tells of visiting Khayyám’s gravesite in 1135 or 1136. Surprisingly, given Khayyám’s reputation as a poet, the anecdotes regarding him appear in Nizami’s “Third Discourse: On Astrologers,” and no mention of him is made in the “Second Discourse: On Poets.” In other words, though in the West Omar Khayyám is known for his poetry, no evidence in Persian suggests that he was a professional court poet or that he ever was more involved with poetry than through the occasional, perhaps extemporaneous, composition of quatrains (rubaʿi or robaʿi, plural rubáiyát). Because the quatrains first attributed to Khayyám are thematically of a piece and are distinct from panegyric, love, and Sufi quatrains, they can be usefully designated as “Khayyamic” even if authorship of many individual quatrains is impossible to determine definitively.

The following three quatrains...

(The entire section is 1890 words.)

Omar Khayyám Biography

(World Poets and Poetry)

Just as it is difficult (if not impossible) to say exactly what Omar Khayyám wrote, so also it is difficult, except in the broadest outline, to establish the facts of his life. The scanty information available on Omar Khayyám is embroidered by romantic legend, attempts to discredit him (or to show him repenting), and idle speculation. One source, for example, calls him inhospitable and bad-tempered, but this characterization is not borne out by other information. Another source maintains that Omar Khayyám believed in metempsychosis, then tells the following story to prove it: One day when Omar Khayyám and his students were walking about the college, they came across a donkey too stubborn to move with its load of bricks. Omar Khayyám explained that the donkey was inhabited by the soul of a former lecturer at the college, whose beard had transmigrated to the donkey’s tail, and he got the donkey to move by improvising a quatrain on it. Such is the nature of most of the information on Omar Khayyám.

The poet’s full name was Ghiyasoddin Abolfath Omar ibn Ebrahim Khayyámi, the name Khayyám meaning “tent-maker,” probably referring to the trade of one of his ancestors. His family had lived in Nishapur for generations before he was born. After attending school at Nishapur, he continued his studies at Balkh, distinguishing himself especially in geometry and astronomy. Following his schooling, he worked for the magistrate of Samarkand, the ruler of...

(The entire section is 417 words.)

Omar Khayyám Biography

(Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical Edition)

Little is known for certain about the life of Omar Khayyám (OH-mahr ki-YAHM). His family name means “tent maker” in Persian, so many assume he had some connection with that trade. He was born in the 1040’s in Nishapur, Persia (now in Iran), a thriving city at an oasis on the Silk Road, the caravan route that brought exotic products from China to the Middle East in those days. This was a chaotic period in the history of Persia. A few years before Omar Khayyám was born, his province of Khorassan was invaded from Turkey by the Seljuk conqueror Toghrïl Beg. The Seljuk Empire quickly expanded to include Mesopotamia, Syria, Palestine, and most of Iran. The contemplative life of a man of science and letters, desired by Omar Khayyám, was not easy to achieve or maintain in this turbulent environment.

Legend associates Omar Khayyám with Hassan ibn Sabbah, the infamous founder of the sect of assassins known as the Hashishin. Omar Khayyám is reported to have studied with Hassan at the feet of the Persian wise man of the time, Imam Mowaffak. Joining them was a third student by the name of Niẓm-al-Mulk, who later became a powerful minister in the Seljuk Empire. Because of a schoolboy agreement, both Hassan and Omar Khayyám came to Niẓm-al-Mulk later in life to collect on promises he had made to them. As the story goes, Omar Khayyám only wanted a modest pension and the indulgence of the empire to pursue his studies. Hassan ibn Sabbah claimed a prestigious administrative position, but his keen ambition created problems, and he was dismissed. In bitter recrimination, Hassan founded his notorious gang of drug-crazed assassins, killing Niẓm-al-Mulk as one of his first victims.

The revenge of Hassan ibn Sabbah took many years, however, and Omar Khayyám was able to enjoy the patronage of the empire during that time. He wrote a number of books on mathematics and one on music before he turned twenty-five. In 1070, he moved to the ancient, fabled city of Samarkand in what is now Uzbekistan. There, with the support of Ab Tahir, a prominent jurist, he wrote his most famous book on mathematics,...

(The entire section is 866 words.)

Omar Khayyám Biography

(Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical Edition)

The Rubՙyt is one of the most popular collections of poetry ever published. Getting a clear idea of the meaning of this famous work of literature, however, is complicated by a number of factors. First, scholars know very little for sure about the life of the writer. Second, scholars disagree about which of the individual poems were actually written by Omar Khayyám. Third, unless the readers can understand the original Persian, they are at the mercy of the translator’s inevitable bias when trying to grasp the true meaning of the author. Finally, there is a basic disagreement about whether the extensive mention of wine in the poems should be understood in a literal or symbolic sense.

The things that are...

(The entire section is 168 words.)

Omar Khayyám Biography

(Great Authors of World Literature, Critical Edition)

Most of what is known about Omar Khayyám (OH-mahr ki-YAHM) lies half buried in the fog of history. His dates of birth and death are at best good estimates, for no indisputable evidence has been found. Some question even Omar’s reputation as a poet, as none of his contemporaries speak of his poetry, and his poems began to appear in print only after his death. Furthermore, the volume of poems attributed to Omar grew steadily from around sixty in the fourteenth century to collections of as many as one thousand poems in the seventeenth century. As Ali Dashti has summarized, by the middle of the twentieth century, more than twenty-two hundred poems had been attributed to Omar. Questions of authenticity, therefore, have been raised...

(The entire section is 848 words.)