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.)