18 August, 2022


The Rubaiyyat Of Omar Khayyam

By Reeza Hameed

Dr. Reeza Hameed

The Rubaiyyat of Omar Khayyam as rendered by Fitzgerald has remained an enduring favourite among poetry lovers all over the world. Khayyam is a poet for all seasons.

Khayyam was one of the greatest mathematicians and astronomers to come out of the Islamic world of the middle ages. He was a contemporary of Ali ibn Sina, known to the West as Avicenna. Khayyam was a polymath in an era which produced polymaths by the dozens, many of whom are known to the West only by their Latinised names, but Khayyam’s name survives in the Arabic original.

Khayyam had mastered many disciplines. In addition to mathematics and astronomy, he was fluent in philosophy, medicine, geography, physics, and music. Ibn Sina taught him philosophy for many years. He also learnt medicine and physics from that great man. Another contemporary was Al-Zamakshari, well-known for his commentary of the Quran.

Khayyam was one of the greatest astronomers of the Middle Ages, and in recognition of his contributions, a crater on the Moon was named after him. In mathematics, he virtually invented the field of geometric algebra. His treatise on Algebra was used in Europe as a standard text even as late as the nineteenth century.

He was not known for his poetry, until he was reborn as a poet in the second half of the nineteenth century in Edward Fitzgerald’s translation of his Rubaiyyat, which catapulted him to poetic stardom. Had it not been for Fitzgerald, Khayyam’s fame might have rested on his contributions to astronomy, mathematics or the development of the Jalali calendar to replace the Julian calendar. He alludes to his involvement in the calendar in one of his verses.

 Ah, by my Computations, People say,
Reduce the Year to better reckoning?

The publication of the Rubaiyyat resulted in the emergence of a Khayyam cult in Victorian England and in the United States. The Rubaiyyat has been so closely identified with its translator that it is sometimes referred to under Victorian poetry. Its popularity perhaps lay in the fact that it sang of the pleasures proscribed in straight jacketed Victorian England.

The Rubaiyyat had many admirers among English poets and men of literature, and their names read like a roll call of the famous: Swinburne, Rossetti, Thomas Hardy, Mark Twain, Walt Whitman, Tennyson, Longfellow, John Ruskin, T S Eliot, and Meredith. Khayyam poetry clubs sprang up in England and in the United States. Longfellow in ‘Haroun al Rashid’ betrays Khayyam’s influence upon him.

“Where are the kings, and where the rest
those who once the world possessed?
“They’re gone with all their pomp and show,
They’re gone the way that thou shalt go.”

Poetry is that which is lost in translation. In Fitzgerald’s Rubaiyyat, poetry might have gained in the process. Fitzgerald, it would seem, mistranslated the Rubaiyyat, and some would say gloriously so.

If his poetry is any indication of Khayyam’s philosophy, he grappled with universal themes such as the here and the hereafter, life and death, mortality and eternity, fate and freewill. Fitzgerald portrayed Khayyam as a fatalist, a hedonist, and an agnostic.

One of the most famous of Khayyam’s quatrains is the ‘moving finger verse’, which conveys the controlling effect of fate in the affairs of men.

The Moving Finger writes; and, having writ,
Moves on: nor all thy Piety nor Wit,
Shall lure it back to cancel half a Line,
Nor all thy Tears wash out a Word of it.

He compares the human condition to pieces on a chessboard, unable to determine their fate themselves as

… helpless pieces in the game He plays,
Upon this chequer-board of Nights and Days.

The ephemerality of life and the inevitability of death are recurrent themes in Khayyam’s quatrains. Human beings are like the leaves on a tree that keep falling one by one. Take the following verse for instance.

Oh, come with old Khayyam, and leave the Wise
To talk; one thing is certain, that Life flies;
One thing is certain, and the Rest is Lies;
The Flower that once has blown for ever dies.

Other translators of Khayyam, such as Whinfield, saw the spiritual signs in Rubaiyyat, such as the ‘veiled Divinity under a symbol of wine’. Persian poets used the tavern and wine imagery to convey a spiritual message. The tavern is the metaphor for this world and Saqi, the wine giver, for the Creator, as would be apparent from the verse below.

I long for Wine! oh Saki of my Soul,
Prepare thy Song and fill the morning Bowl;
For this first Summer Month that brings the Rose
Takes many a Sultan with it as it goes.

The ‘morning Bowl’ is the sky, sometimes referred to as the ‘inverted cup’ and summer brings life as well as death, from which even the sultan has no escape.

As Titus Burckhardt says, the ego regards itself as a self-sufficient centre and the veil of selfishness hides the spirit beneath. Man is in a kind of stupor and a state of forgetfulness. Khayyam sees man in this state. Forgetful of the universal truth that life is not forever, man remains focussed on fulfilling his ego. He spends his time seeking fortune and fame until death comes calling, when he abruptly departs.

Khayyam sees the world as a battered caravanserai and death as a leveller.

Think, in this batter’d Caravanserai
Whose Doorways are alternate Night and Day,
How Sultan after Sultan with his Pomp
Abode his Hour or two, and went his way.

The comparison of the world to a caravanserai is part of the sufi idiom and is exemplified by the story related about Ibrahim ben Adhem, the subject of Leigh Hunt’s poem ‘Abou Ben Adhem’. Ibrahim ben Adhem was the king who abandoned his throne to become an ascetic. 

One day, a dervish tried to enter Ibrahim’s palace. The palace guards asked the dervish where he wished to go, to which the latter replied: ‘I am going into this caravanserai’.  The dervish was told that it was the king’s palace and not a caravanserai. The dervish was brought before Ibrahim and the following conversation transpired. Says Ibrahim: ‘Dervish, this is my palace.’ Dervish: ‘To whom did this palace originally belong? Ibrahim: ‘To my grandfather.’ ‘And after him? My father. ‘And to whom did it pass on his death?’ ‘To me.’ ‘When you die, to whom will it pass?’ ‘To my son.’ Said the Darvish: ‘Ibrahim, a place into which one enters and from which another departs is not a palace, it is a caravanserai’.

This story was related by Attar in his ‘Conference of the Birds’. Nishapur is the birth place of both Khayyam and Attar. Fitzgerald was familiar with Attar’s works which he studied before he embarked on translating the Rubaiyyat.

Time cannot be persuaded to tighten his rein, and to stand still. Khayyam reminds the reader that he is a passer-by in this world. All the glory, power and wealth gathered for generations to come are in vain. The world forgets the deeds of the dead. In Khayyam’s words:

They say the Lion and the Lizard keep
The Courts where Jamshyd gloried and drank deep;

Ralph Hodgson might have been influenced by Khayyam. In his ‘Time, You Old Gipsy Man’, he conceptualises Time as caravan.

TIME, you old gipsy man,

 Will you not stay,

Put up your caravan

Just for one day?

Fitzgerald makes Khayyam seem like a sybarite who preached an Epicurian philosophy, with his focus on the here rather than the hereafter, a poet who did not engage

  in the vain pursuit
Of This and That endeavor and dispute.

Hedonism becomes a natural corollary to fatalism, as exemplified in the oft repeated lines from the Rubaiyyat:

Loaf of Bread beneath the Bough,
A Flask of Wine, a Book of Verse—and Thou
Beside me singing in the Wilderness—
And Wilderness is Paradise enow.

It has been pointed out that Fitzgerald misread the word kebab in the Persian original as kitab, but to replace ‘a Book of Verse’ with ‘a leg of lamb’ or ‘a roast of kebab’ would make the poet seem rather like a glutton than a romantic.

Graves-Idries Shah’s translation of this quatrain is somewhat different and it rescues Khayyam’s sufi credentials.

Should our day’s portion be one mancel loaf,
A haunch of mutton and a gourd of wine
Set for us two alone on the wide plain.
No Sultan’s bounty could evoke such joy.

Fitzgerald himself assiduously studied Hafiz and Saadi as well as Fariduddin Attar- whose works are steeped in sufi philosophy- before he embarked on the translation of the Rubaiyyat. He also translated Attar. Fitzgerald did not entirely succeed in ridding the Rubaiyyat of mysticism. Thus, Fitzgerald’s Khayyam says:

There is the Door to which I found no Key;

There was the Veil through which I might not see:

Some little talk a while of Me and Thee

There was – and then no more of Thee and Me.

The Veil, Key, Thee, and Me are heavily loaded with sufi connotations. The veil both hides and reveals; he could not see through the veil before the Creator. It is clear that Khayyam is putting forward the idea of the Unity of God, and that human life emanates from God and will be returning to God.

To describe the Rubaiyyat’s quatrains as the epigrams of an epicurean is to misunderstand Khayyam.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

Latest comments

  • 3

    Dr. Rheeza Hammed: I checked your information in the web. It is wrong to say that Omar Khayyam was muslim or followed Islam. . Spreading Islam had begun during 758 – 1258, and that means there had been pockets of human settlements which were not islam. Particularly Mohommad had problems making many desert tribes obeying him. I know muslims try to say even Buddha is one of theirs or something like that. I say, Omar Khayyam could not have done what he did if he followed Islam. He should have lived in a pocket which was not muslims. Just think how many modern day – -middle eastern or arab scholars are that creative. I am pretty sure, you guys are not investigating just believe the book. Actually, that is what you guys are supposed to do and not to think or investigate.

    • 1

      Dumb Jimmy,
      You cant believe a Muslim can think better than you?

    • 1

      dear Jim Sorry ?
      why you hate Islamic.litersute . it shows how stupid are you..if all universities in west could learn this type of Islamic literature why do you feel bad about it ..
      you hated to Islamic literature and Tamil.litersuture is known by you writing .
      80 Tamils in Tamil Nadu waiting for your head ? Sinhalese people are good not you ..because you are not from sinahslee race at all .
      sinahslee people.do not talk or write like you ..

  • 2

    Actually interesting,though i have been heard about his literature ,,this sort of writing very touchy.

    • 1

      He is the guy who said, Liquor, women and music make the life one worth living..

  • 3

    Jim Softy,
    Read and learn

  • 2

    While the non-Muslims would appreciate the poetry of the Rubaiyat, I’m afraid that the Sunni Muslims would consider Omar Khayyam to be hara’am, like they would most things Sufi., but in this case, for the praising of alcohol in many of his famous lines. People do not consider Omar Khayyam to be anti-Islamic, but, most Muslims do. Kindly understand the difference (a comment from some one). Omar Khayyam was considered to be a Sufi-Muslim who had lot of HIndu influence and they were unorthodox muslims. For example, what do you say his habit of drinking alcohol and praising the habit ?.

    • 1

      There are plenty of Buddhits, even monks, who eat beef and drink arrack. Are they not buddhist?

      • 1

        Yusuf: So, you marakkaya instead of reading the book, you go behind back alleeys checking what they are eating. Do you time to write articles to newspapers too.

        • 0

          Jimbo dumbo,
          So you and your friend Alfaq can’t find ONE Buddhist scientist.
          My case is proved.
          OK, tell me one Sinhala Buddhist poem that is studied in Western universities.
          The Dalai Lama is most famous Buddhist in the world. But you sinhala buddhists wont give him a visa to come see the fake tooth relic. What a joke!!

  • 3


    Can anyone enlighten us what is so scientific about Buddhism and how it has impacted or improved its followers, because all we here is , stone worshippers, tree worshippers, people who tie a piece of thread in their hand thinking it will protect them.

    Where is the thinking and the scientific part here???

    • 2

      Concerned citizen: Are you allowed to think about the reason, Why you are not allowed to draw the face of your messenger Mohammad ?. did you thinkabout it ?

  • 2

    sunni or sufi it matters not
    the fitzgerald version is a wonderful read

  • 1

    Didn’t Khyyam build the seven wonders of the world, the Taj Mahal, THe Bamyan Buddha abd painted The Sistine Chapel ceiling? He must be a Muslim then!

    • 0

      Of course not! Every Sri Lankan knows the Bamiyan Buddhas were built by Anagarika Dharmapala.
      He also wrote “Danno Budunge” and the Indian National Anthem.

  • 1

    Can’t we write about or appreciate any achievement of a man without referring to his religion? Who knows what these great intellectuals ACTUALLY believed in? Any Muslim taking pride in thinking that there had been an occasional great achiever among them is in fact insulting Islam by implication that such are rare among Islamic culture. The real question is how did Omar Khayyam escape beheading.

  • 0


    The reason why Muslims are not allowed to draw the face of the picture is because–eventually people will start venerating the face, and after several generations people start giving divinity to the face, and another several generations later people will start worshipping the face, same as what has happened to Buddha and Budhism, as you can see this is beyond reasoning, this is divine knowledge.

    Has reasoning made people not to do all the wrong there is, alcohol, stealing, corruption etc, think about it

  • 0

    Read the whole Rubaiyyat http://classics.mit.edu/Khayyam/rubaiyat.html instead of carefully selected verses, and you find that it is a poem in praise of wine. It also has verses hinting at atheism –

    And that inverted Bowl they call the Sky,
    Whereunder crawling coop’d we live and die,
    Lift not your hands to It for help–for It
    As impotently moves as you or I.

Leave A Comment

Comments should not exceed 200 words. Embedding external links and writing in capital letters are discouraged. Commenting is automatically disabled after 5 days and approval may take up to 24 hours. Please read our Comments Policy for further details. Your email address will not be published.