Omar Khayyám Essay - Critical Essays

Omar Khayyám Poetry: World Poets Analysis

A noteworthy coincidence in intellectual history is that Edward FitzGerald’s translation of Omar Khayyám’s Rubáiyát came out the same year as Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection: Or, The Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life (1859). Despite their obvious differences, the two works show remarkable similarities: Both are inimical to religion and evince a thoroughgoing empiricism. Like Omar Khayyám, Darwin thought God was cruel, and both authors espouse a deterministic view of the world. Both authors had sharpened their minds through years of scientific investigation, enabling them to cut through the fat of human illusion to the heart of things. Taking their stand as rebels and empiricists, both authors were precursors of modern Existentialism, with its doctrine of the absurd. Sticklers for facts will point out that Omar Khayyám lived eight to nine centuries before Existentialism. Precisely—his quatrains had to wait all those centuries before they finally found a responsive audience in Victorian England, an alien society that nevertheless had much in common with the Muslim world in which Omar Khayyám lived.

If Darwin’s On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection marked the triumph of science over religion in the Christian world, the suppression of Omar Khayyám’s quatrains symbolized religion’s triumph over science in the Muslim world. The centuries preceding Omar Khayyám had seen a great flowering of scientific achievement in Muslim lands, but by his time, religious reaction had set in. In near hysteria over losing control, the religious authorities had hardened their attitudes, sometimes to the point of fanaticism. In Persia, the religious authorities regained control with the rise of the Seljuq rulers, nomadic Turks from central Asia only recently converted to Islam. Both parties found a political alliance convenient. The pursuit of knowledge, except for knowledge with immediate practical applications, became suspect. Rationalism was attacked as a foreign import (from the Greeks), and the study of logic was banned; only those words and thoughts which ran within the circumscribed patterns set by the Qur՚n and its interpreters were allowed—and even there, any ambiguity could be fatal. For example, the great religious scholar Abu Hamed Mohammed Ghazali, a friendly opponent and contemporary of Omar Khayyám (both taught at Nishapur for a time), was charged with apostasy and his books burned because he said “There cannot be anything better than what is,” which he took as a statement of God’s power but others took as a statement of God’s weakness (he had also made enemies by favoring logic and by publicly criticizing another religious authority). Other religious leaders who misspoke were crucified or burned at the stake. Indeed, aside from powerful friends, only the factionalism of the fanatics themselves offered any precarious safety.

The ruba’i stanza

In this repressive atmosphere, what mode of expression remained for the independent, rational thinker who wished to retain his sanity? For Omar Khayyám, it was apparently the quatrain (ruba’i), a literary form especially suited to guerrilla tactics. In quantitative meter (translated by FitzGerald as iambic pentameter), rhyming aaba and occasionally aaaa, the ruba’i is like a haiku or epigram—or, even better, a combination of haiku and epigram, of image and pointed, witty remark. The unrhymed third line causes the rhyming fourth line to fall with particular force. Each ruba’i, it should be stressed, is a separate poem, not a stanza in a longer work (in Persian, a collection of rubáiyát is arranged alphabetically, according to the final rhyming letter of each ruba’i). Thus, the ruba’i is not long enough to be taken too seriously; it can be delivered orally, perhaps as a humorous aside or innocuous rhyme; and it is easy to...

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