The Quatrains (Rubaiyat) of Omar Khayyam: Introduction

The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam are 75 Farsi (Persian) quatrains of spiritual poetry written in the 11th century. They are known for being highly metaphorical.

I’ll be using the commentary by Paramahansa Yogananda (d. 1952), one of India’s great modern-day Yogis. Sri Yogananda perceived that underlying the doctrines and practices of the various religion is one Truth, one transcendent Reality. I twas this universal outlook and breadth of vision that enabled him to elucidate the profound kinship between the teachings of India’s ancient science of Yoga and the writings of one of the greatest and most misunderstood Sufi poets of the Islamic world, Omar Khayyam.

Calligraphic rendition of a ruba’i attributed to Omar Khayyam from Bodleian MS. Ouseley 140

The Mystery of Omar Khayyam

In the history of world literature, Omar Khayyam is an enigma. Surely no other poet of any epoch has achieved such extraordinary fame through such a colossal misreading of his work. Beloved today the world over, Khayyam’s poetry would very likely still be unknown to the Western world were it not for the beautiful translations of his Rubaiyat by the English writer Edward FitzGerald. The paradox is FitzGerald misinterpreted both the character and intent of the Persian poet on whose work he bestowed immortality.

FitzGerald included a biographical sketch in his work called “Omar Khayyam: The Astronomer-Poet of Persia,” where, in classic Orientalist arrogance, he sets forth his conviction that Khayyam was an anti-religious materialist who believed that life’s only meaning was to be found in wine, song, and worldly pleasures:

“Having failed (however mistakenly) of finding any Providence but Destiny, and any world but this, he set about making the most of it; preferring rather to soothe the soul through the senses into acquiescence with things as he saw them, than to perplex it with vain disquietude after what they might be…He takes a humorous or perverse pleasure in exalting the gratification of sense above that of intellect, in which he must have taken great delight, although it failed to answer the questions in which he, in common with all men, was most vitally interested…He is said to have been especially hated and dreaded by the Sufis, whose practice he ridiculed.”

A more historically accurate portrait emerges from the research of modern-day scholars of both East and West, who have established that far from ridiculing the Sufis, Omar counted himself among them.

Life

Omar’s full name was Ghiyath ud-Din Abdul-Fatah Omar ibn Ibrahim al-Khayyam. Khayyam means tentmaker, referring to the trade of his father Ibrahim. Omar took this name as his takhallus, or pen name. He was born in Nishapur (in the northeast of present-day Iran) on May 18,1048. His intelligence and strong memory enabled him to become adept in the academic subjects of his age by 17. Owing to the early death of his father, Omar began searching for a means of supporting himself, and thus embarked on an illustrious public career when he was only 18.

His writing on algebra won him the patronage of a rich and influential physician in Samarkand. Later he obtained a position at the court of Sultan Malik Shah, which included serving as the ruler’s personal physician. By his mid-20s, Khayyam had become the head of an astronomical observatory and had authored additional treatises on math and physics. He played a leading role in the reformation of the Persian calendar, a new calendar that was even more accurate than our currently-used Gregorian, which came into use in Europe 500 years later. He became proficient in the studies of the Qur’an, history and languages, astrology, mechanics, and clay modeling. His interest in the latter is reflected in the several quatrains where he uses clay pottery and pottery-making to refer metaphorically to spiritual truths.
After the death of Sultan Malik Shah in 1092, Omar lost his place in the court and made hajj to Mecca. He then returned to Nishapur, where he lived as a recluse. Only scanty information has survived about the remaining decades of his life, though it is clear he pursued the spiritual disciplines of Tasawwuf.

Later Life and Tasawwuf

During this period he wrote a treatise on metaphysics called Julliati-Wajud (perhaps Fil Wujud?), quoted by Swami Govinda Tirtha as follows:

“The seekers after cognition of God fall into 4 groups:


First: The Mutakallamis who prefer to remain content with traditional belief and such reasons and arguments as are consistent therewith.


Second: Philosophers and Hakims who seek to find God by reasons and arguments and do not rely on any dogmas. But these men find that their reasons and arguments ultimately fail and succumb.


Third: Isma’ilis and Ta’limis who say that the knowledge of God is not correct unless it is acquired through the right source, because there are various phases in the path for the cognition of the Creator, His Being and Attributes, where arguments fail and minds are perplexed. Hence iti s first necessary to seek the Word from the right source.


Fourth: The Sufis who seek the knowledge of God not merely by contemplation and mediation [on the scriptures], but by purification of the heart and cleansing the faculty of perception from its natural impurities and engrossment with the body. When the human soul is thus purified it becomes capable of reflecting the Divine Image. And there is no doubt that this path is the best, because we know that the Lord does not withhold any perfection from [the] human soul. It is the darkness and impurity which is the main obstacle–if there be any. When this veil disappears and the obstructions are removed, the real facts will be evident as they are. And our Prophet (ﷺ) has hinted to the same effect.”

This passage expresses Omar’s spiritual goals in terms that are very similar to Yoga.

Yogananda held that the principles and techniques of Yoga are part of the underlying foundations of all great religious traditions, writing: “Yoga is that science by which the soul gains mastery over the instruments of body and mind and uses them to attain Self-realization–the reawakened consciousness of its transcendent, immortal nature, one with Spirit. As an individualized self, the soul has descended from the universality of Spirit and become identified with the limitations of the body and its sens-consciousness…The [Self or] soul remains essentially untouched and unchanged by its confinement in the body. But, through maya or delusion, it becomes subjectively identified with change and mortality, until the consciousness evolves and, through Self-realization, reawakens ti its immortal state.”

In Islam, we believe that all religions have roots in revelation, traced back to a prophet, known or unknown, though the details of their messages have been lost with time with the sole exception of the final, universal prophet Muhammad ﷺ. Therefore, similarities between all religions are inevitable.

Muhammad Iqbal (1877-1938) wrote that Sufi teachers “enumerate 4 stages of spiritual training through which the soul has to pass if it desires to realize its union or identity with the ultimate source of all things:
“1. Belief in the Unseen
2. Search after the Unseen
3. Knowledge of the Unseen
4. Realization.
After describing the traditional religious methods, Iqbal writes that “some later Sufi fraternities (e.g. Naqshbandi) devised, or rather borrowed from the Indian Vedantist, other means of bringing about this Realization. They taught, imitating the Hindu doctrine of Kundalini, that there are 6 great centers of light of various colors in the body of man.” These are called chakras in Sanskrit. Iqbal writes that at the beginning of the 11th century the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali (the classic Hindu text on Yoga as a means of attaining divine perception) had been translated into Arabic, as had Sanskrit works on Sankhya (one of the 6 principal systems of orthodox Hindu philosophy: Mimamsa, Vaisesika, Nyaya, Sankhya, Vedanta, and Yoga).(Source: The Development of Metaphysics in Persia by Muhammad Iqbal (1908))

Whether Omar Khayyam had read these works is not known. However, according to the interpretation of his Rubaiyat by Yogananda, Omar had certainly mastered the spiritual states these works described. According to Sri Yogananda, by the time of his passing Khayyam had attained the highest goal of the yogi: complete liberation, oneness with God (see the commentaries on quatrains 74 & 75).

Death

Bayhaqi, a contemporary of Omar’s who recorded the tale of Omar’s death, wrote that he was studying a work on metaphysics by Avicenna. When he reached the chapter on “The One and the Many,” he marked the place with a gold toothpick and said, “summon the righteous ones that I may make my will.” After this was done, he rose and prayed. His last prayer was:
“Ya Allah, You know that I have sought to know You to the measure of my powers.Forgive my sins, for my knowledge of You is my means of approach to You.”
He then passed away in 1131 CE. His tomb is still standing in Nishapur, Iran.

Mausoleum of Omar Khayyam (Persian: آرامگاه عمر خیام )

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