Omar Khayyám Additional 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.)


(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.)


(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 criticized in the poems, however, are fairly clear. Human pride in having money, in high social status, in political power, in intellectual accomplishment, or in the appearance of moral perfection is seen as futile and ridiculous considering humankind’s basic ignorance of its ultimate fate.


(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.)