The Poet of Doubt: `Umar Khayyam: Medieval and Modern Iranian Freethought


In 1859, the year that saw the first edition of Charles Darwin's On the Origin of Species, there appeared The Ruba`iyat of Omar Khayyam,' the Astronomer Poet of Persia, an anonymous translation of the quatrains of an obscure medieval Persian poet who was better known as a mathematician. Unlike Darwin's classic, which was an immediate success,2 the first edition of Edward Fitzgerald's inspired paraphrase went almost unnoticed and was remaindered. But it came to the attention of another skeptic, the poet Algernon Charles Swinburne, and later the pre-Raphaelite Dante Gabriel Rossetti, who between them launched The Rubaliyat [Ruba`iyat] on its career of extraordinary popularity that remains unabated and with felicitous consequences for the history of English poetry.3

The first that the West heard of `Umar Khayyam's poetry, rather than his name, was probably in 1700, when Theodor Hyde in his Veterum Persarum ... religionis historia gave a Latin translation of one of Khayyam's quatrains. In 1771 Sir William Jones, in A Grammar of the Persian Language, quoted without attribution a complete quatrain (in Persian ruba`i, plural rubd1iyat),4 and part of another, generally ascribed to Khayyam:



Several Persian quatrains were published in a Persian grammar compiled by F. Dombay in Vienna in 1804.

Khayyam's quatrains are independent epigrammatic stanzas-in other words, short, spontaneous, self-contained poems. Each ruby r stands on its own. Fitzgerald, however, makes them a continuous sequence: The stanzas "here selected are strung into something of an Eclogue."' Thus, far from being a close translation, Fitzgerald's version is a paraphrase of "exceptional poetical merits."' One English scholar, E. Heron Allen, compared Fitzgerald's version with the Persian text and established that forty-nine quatrains are faithful paraphrases of single ruba'i; forty-four are traceable to more than one ruba'i; two are inspired by the ruba'i, found only in one particular edition of the Persian text; two reflect the "whole spirit" of the original; two are traceable exclusively to Attar, the Persian mystic poet (d. c. 1220); two are inspired by Khayyam but influenced by Hafiz, the greatest Persian lyric poet (d. 1390); and three Heron Allen was unable to identify.'

One scholar admirably sums up the qualities that caught the late Victorian imagination and that have endeared Fitzgerald's `Umar to so many:

The Fitzgerald stanza, with its unrhymed, poised third line, is an admirable invention to carry the sceptical irony of the work and to accommodate the opposing impulses of enjoyment and regret. Fitzgerald's poem has a kind of dramatic unity, starting with dawn and the desire to seize the enjoyment of the passing moment, moving through the day until, with the fall of evening, he laments the fading of youth and the approach of death. Several interests of the time, divine justice versus hedonism, science versus religion and the prevailing taste for eastern art and bric-a-brac, were united in the poem.'

Edward Fitzgerald himself sums up the delightful nature of 'Umar and his philosophy very accurately:

Omar's Epicurean Audacity of thought and Speech caused him to be regarded askance in his own time and country. He is said to have been especially hated and dreaded by the Sufis, whose practice he ridiculed, and whose faith amounts to little more than his own, when stript of the Mysticism and formal recognition of Islamism under which Omar would not hide. Their poets, including Hafiz, who are (with the exception of Firdausi) the most considerable in Persia, borrowed largely, indeed, of Omar's material, but turning it to a mystical use more convenient to themselves and the people they addressed: a people quite as quick of doubt as of belief; as keen of bodily sense as of intellectual; and delighting in a cloudy composition of both, in which they could float luxuriously between heaven and earth, and this world and the next, on the wings of a poetical expression, that might serve indifferently for either. Omar was too honest of heart as well of head for this. 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. It has been seen, however, that this worldly ambition was not exorbitant: and he very likely takes a humorous or perverse pleasure in exalting the gratification of sense above that of the 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.10

Fitzgerald will have no truck with those squeamish or puritanical scholars, like the Frenchman Jean-Baptiste Nicolas, who pretend to see something spiritual in 'Umar's verses, and who interpret every appearance of the word "wine" mystically:

And if more were needed to disprove Mons. Nicolas' Theory, there is the Biographical Notice which he himself has drawn up in direct contradiction to the Interpretation of the Poems given in his Notes. (See pp. 13-14 of his Preface.) Indeed I hardly knew poor Omar was so far gone till his Apologist informed me. For here we see that, whatever were the Wine that Hafiz drank and sang, the veritable Juice of the Grape it was which Omar used, not only when carousing with his friends, but (says Mons. Nicolas) in order to excite himself to that pitch of Devotion which others reached by cries and "hurlements." And yet, whenever Wine, Wine-hearer, &c. occur in the Text-which is often enough-Mons. Nicolas carefully annotates "Dieu," "La Divinite," &c.: so carefully indeed that one is tempted to think that he was indoctrinated by the Sufi with whom he read the Poems. (Note to Rub. ii. p. 8.) A Persian would naturally wish to vindicate a distinguished Countryman; and a Sufi to enroll him in his own sect, which already comprises all the chief Poets of Persia.

What historical Authority has Mons. Nicolas to show that Omar gave himself up "avec passion a I'etude de la philosophie des Soufis"? (Preface, p. xiii.) The Doctrines of Pantheism, Materialism. Necessity, &c., were not peculiar to the Sufi: nor to Lucretius before them; nor to Epicurus before him; probably the very original Irreligion of Thinking men from the first; and very likely to be the spontaneous growth of a Philosopher living in an Age of social and political barbarism, under shadow of one of the Two and Seventy Religions supposed to divide the world. Von Hammer (according to Sprenger's Oriental Catalogue) speaks of Omar as "a Free-thinker, and a great opponent of Sufism;" perhaps because, while holding much of their Doctrine, he would not pretend to any inconsistent severity of morals. Sir W. Ouseley has written a note to something of the same effect on the fly-leaf of the Bodleian MS. And in two Rubaiyat of Mons. Nicolas' own Edition Suf and Sufi are both disparagingly named.

No doubt many of these Quatrains seem unaccountable unless mystically interpreted; but many more as unaccountable unless literally. Were the Wine spiritual, for instance, how wash the Body with it when dead? Why make cups of the dead clay to be filled with-"La Divinite," by some succeeding Mystic? Mons. Nicolas himself is puzzled by some "bizarres" and "trop Orientales" allusions and images-"d'une sensualite quelquefois revoltante" indeed-which "Ies convenances" do not permit him to translate; but still which the reader cannot but refer to "La Divinite."11

For Fitzgerald the burden of Omar's Song, if not "let us eat," is assuredly "let us drink, for tomorrow we die!" Some may see Omar as a Sufi, but "on the other hand, as there is far more historical certainty of his being a philosopher, of scientific insight and ability far beyond that of the age and country he lived in, of such moderate worldly ambition as becomes a philosopher, and such moderate wants as rarely satisfy a debauchee; other readers may be content to believe with me that while the wine Omar celebrates is simply the juice of the grape, he bragg'd more than he drank of it, in very defiance perhaps of that spiritual wine which left its votaries sunk in hypocrisy or disgust."12

Here are some examples of Fitzgerald's paraphrase of Omar (from the first edition):












From the fourth edition:


But who was `Umar Khayyam? Very little is known for certain of his life and writings, particularly his poetry. He was born around 1048 in Nishapur, Persia, and died there in 1131. Khayyam was, according to George Sarton, "one of the greatest mathematicians of mediaeval times. His Algebra contains geometric and algebraic solutions of equations, including the cubic; a systematic attempt to solve them all and partial geometric solutions of most of them."13 He also wrote on physics (specific weight of gold and silver), astronomy, geography, music, metaphysics, and history. While in Samarkand (Uzbekistan) Khayyam worked at the newly built astronomical observatory, and helped draw up a new calendar that was in many ways far superior to the Julian calendar, and certainly comparable in accuracy with the Gregorian one.

In one of our early sources of his life and poetry, Mirsdd al /had (the Watch Tower of the Faithful), Khayyam is described as an atheist, philosopher, and naturalist: "Observation (of the world) leads to faith, the quest (for the Eternal) to gnosis. The philospher, atheist and naturalist are denied this spiritual level; they have been led astray and are lost. `Umar Khayyam is considered by the blind as a sage, an intelligent man. However he is so lost in doubt and shadows that he says in quatrains:



The constant themes of Khayyam's poetry are the certainty of death, the denial of an afterlife, the pointlessness of asking unanswerable questions, the mysteriousness of the universe, and the necessity of living for and enjoying the present:









The Koranic commentator al-Zamakhshari (d. 1141), in a treatise composed just before `Umar Khayyam's death, apparently mentions that 'Umar Khayyam visited his classes and seemed to be familiar with the Arabic stanzas of the Syrian al-Ma'arri, who died in 1058, ten years after our Persian poet's birth. There is a remarkable similarity between the two poets in their imagery, sentiments, skepticism, and general philosophy of life. E. G. Browne pointed out the resemblance in his Literary History of Persia, first published in 1906.


We do not know exactly when the ruha`i as a verse form first entered Persian poetry but, as Avery points out, it "became a favourite verse form among the intellectuals, those philosphers and mystics in eleventh- and twelfth-century Persia who were in some degree non-conformists opposed to religious fanaticism, so that they have often been called Islam's free-thinkers."" Even if all the quatrains attributed to Khayyam are not really by him, for our purposes it is irrelevant. What is important is that there were many Persian intellectuals, poets, and philosophers who did not accept Islam and all its constraints on the human spirit, and who expressed their doubts, their skepticism, in the form of rubaliyat, which they then attributed to Khayyam.

Some of the following Khayyam-like quatrains reveal a deep-seated skepticism about religion within Persian culture that Islam had not succeeded in stifling:







`Umar Khayyam inspired many poets and freethinkers, and continues to influence modern writers. An early nineteenth-century traveler, Mountstuart Elphinstone, gives us a remarkable example in his Account of the Kingdom of Caubul [Kabul]. During his sojourn in the capital of Afghanistan, Elphinstone met a certain Mulla Zakki, who maintained that

all prophets were impostors, and all revelation an invention. They seem very doubtful of the truth of future state, and even of the being of God.... Their tenets appear to be very ancient, and are precisely those of the old Persian poet Kheioom [sic, i.e., Khayyam], whose works exhibit such specimens of impiety, as probably were never equalled in any other language. Kheioom dwells particularly on the existence of evil, and taxes the Supreme Being with the introduction of it, in terms which can scarcely be believed."

Sadegh Hedayat, the greatest Persian novelist and short-story writer of the twentieth century, first wrote about Khayyam in 1923, and then again in 1934. Hedayat was at pains to point out that Khayyam from "his youth to his death remained a materialist, pessimist, agnostic." Khayyam looked at all religious questions with a skeptical eye, continues Hedayat, and hated the fanaticism, narrow-mindedness, and the spirit of vengeance of the mullas, the so-called religious scholars. Khayyam was a freethinker who could not possibly accept the narrow, determinist, illogical dogmas of the religious class. Religion is but an ensemble of dogmas and duties that one has to follow without question, without discussion and without doubt. As Friedrich Neitzsche once said, it is certainty, and not doubt, which leads to religious fanaticism. Khayyam was a doubter par excellence. It is not difficult in our days, says Hedayat, to prove the absurdity of religious myths-disowned in their entirety by science-but imagine how it must have been for Khayyam, living in an intolerant epoch. Now we realize 'Umar Khayyam's importance. 19

Ali Dashti was born in 1896 of Persian ancestry at the holy city of Kerbala (in present-day Iraq), where he received a traditional religious education. He went to Persia in 1918 and lived in Shiraz, Isfahan, and finally in Tehran, where he became involved in the politics of the day. Dashti was arrested for the first time in 1920, and then again in 1921 after the coup d'etat that brought the future Reza Shah to power. His prison memoirs, Prison Days,20 made him a literary celebrity. He founded his own journal, The Red Dawn, in 1922.

Dashti's visit to Russia in 1927 was decisive for the development of his freethought. He gradually liberated himself from his religious upbringing, and by the time of his return to Persia, Dashti was a thorough skeptic. Dashti's skepticism found expression in his classic Twenty-three Years, where he leveled devastating criticisms at some of Muslims' most cherished beliefs.20 The book was written in 1937 but was published anonymously, probably in 1974, in Beirut, since the shah's regime forbade the publication of any criticism of religion between 1971 and 1977. After the Iranian Revolution of 1979, Dashti authorized its publication by underground opposition groups. His book, whose title refers to the prophetic career of Muhammad, may well have sold over half a million copies in pirated editions between 1980 and 1986.

First, Dashti defends rational thought in general and criticizes blind faith, since "belief can blunt human reason and common sense," even in learned scholars. What is needed is more "impartial study." He vigorously denies any of the miracles ascribed to Muhammad by some of the later, overeager Muslim commentators. Dashti submits the orthodox view that the Koran is the word of God himself, that it is miraculous in virtue of its eloquence and subject matter, to a thorough and skeptical examination. He points out that even some early Muslim scholars "before bigotry and hyperbole prevailed, openly acknowledged that the arrangement and syntax of the Koran are not miraculous and that work of equal or greater value could be produced by other God-fearing persons."22

Furthermore, the Koran contains

sentences which are incomplete and not fully intelligible without the aid of commentaries; foreign words, unfamiliar Arabic words and words used with other than the normal meaning; adjectives and verbs inflected without observance of the concords of gender and number; illogically and ungrammatically applied pronouns which sometimes have no referent; and predicates which in rhymed passages are often remote from the subjects. These and other such aberrations in the language have given scope to critics who deny the Koran's eloquence.... To sum up, more than one hundred Koranic aberrations from the normal rules have been noted."

What of the claim that the subject matter is miraculous? Dashti points out that the Koran

contains nothing new in the sense of ideas not already expressed by others. All the moral precepts of the Koran are self-evident and generally acknowledged. The stories in it are taken in identical or slightly modified forms from the lore of the Jews and Christians, whose rabbis and monks Muhammad had met and consulted on his journeys to Syria, and from memories conserved by the descendants of the peoples of 'Ad and Thamud.... In the field of moral teachings, however, the Koran cannot be considered miraculous.

Muhammad reiterated principles which mankind had already conceived in earlier centuries and many places. Confucius, Buddha, Zoroaster, Socrates, Moses, and Jesus had said similar things.... Many of the duties and rites of Islam are continuous of practices which the pagan Arabs had adopted from the Jews.24

Dashti ridicules the superstitious aspects of much ritual, especially during the pilgrimage to Mecca. Muhammad himself emerges as a shifty character who stoops to political assassinations, murder, and the elimination of all opponents. Among the Prophet's followers, killings were passed off as "services to Islam." He also examines the position of women under Islam and admits their inferior status. The Muslim doctrine of God is criticized as cruel, angry, and proud-qualities not to be admired. Finally, it is quite clear that the Koran is not the word of God, since it contains many instances of confusion between the two speakers, God and Muhammad.

Dashti died in 1984 after spending three years in Khomeini's prisons, where he was tortured even though he was eighty-three at the time. He told a friend before he died: "Had the Shah allowed books like this to be published and read by the people, we would never have had an Islamic revolution."25

Ali Dashti's study of 'Umar Khayyam first appeared in 1966. Dashti accepted 36 quatrains as being certainly by Khayyam, and, after much sifting, analysis, and comparison, he arrived at a total of 102 quatrains in all. Dashti constantly emphasizes Khayyam's philosophical doubt, particularly about the afterlife:




Dashti wrote:

The hope that buoys the theologians has no meaning for Khayyam. His mind is obessed with this tragic tragic destiny of man; he never leaves it alone, and it is true to say that it is the starting-point of all his other speculations.


Continues Dashti:

Khayyam waits within the prison of his thoughts like a man in the condemned cell. All ways of escape are closed, and no ray of hope illuminates his spirit.


Let us cast aside everything that poisons our lives, one must not waste this swiftly passing moment.




1. 1 have sometimes used the spelling Omar Khayyam, since Fitzgerald does so.

2. The first edition of On the Origin of Species appeared in November 1859, and the second appeared only two months later, in January 1860.

3. According to T. S. Eliot biographer Peter Ackroyd, when Eliot read Fitzgerald's Omar, "he wished to become a poet." Peter Ackroyd, T. S. Eliot (London: Abacus, 1984), p. 26. Here is how Eliot himself recounts his epiphanic moment, after a period of no interest in poetry at all: "I can recall clearly the moment when at the age of fourteen or so, I happened to pick up a copy of Fitzgerald's Omar which was lying about, and the almost overwhelming introduction to a new world of feeling which this poem was the occasion of giving me. It was like a sudden conversion; the world appeared anew, painted with bright, delicious and painful colours." T. S. Eliot, The Use of Poetry & the Use of Criticism (London: Faber, 1975), pp. 33, 91.

4. "The ruhd9, plural ruha`iVat, is a two lined stanza, each line of with is divided into two hemistichs making up four altogether, hence the name ruha`i, an Arabic word meaning `foursome.' The first, second, and last of the four hemistychs must rhyme. The third need not rhyme with the other three, a point Fitzgerald noticed, so that he made the first, second and fourth lines of his quatrains rhyme:

Peter Avery, Introduction to The Ruba'iyat of Omar Khayyam, by Edward Fitzgerald (Harmondsworth, England: Penguin Books, 1981), p. 9.

5. Elwell Sutton. Introduction to In Search of Omar Khavvam, by Ali Dashti (New York: Columbia University Press, 1971), p. 13.

6. Edward Fitzgerald, Preface to The Ruba'iyat of Omar Khayyam (London: B. Quaritch, 1859), p.

7. V. Minorsky, "Omar Khaiyam," in Encyclopedia of Islam (Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1913-38), vol. 6, pp. 985-89.

8. Ibid., vol. 6, p. 988.

9. A. Ross, "Fitzgerald, Edward," in The Penguin Companion to Literature (Har- mondsworth, England: Penguin Books, 1971), vol. I, pp. 183-84.

10. Edward Fitzgerald, Introduction to The Ruba'ivat of Omar Khayyam (London: B. Quaritch, 1859).

11. Rather like those Catholic apologists who would have us believe that the Song of Songs of Solomon is a spiritual poem rather than a gently erotic one, which it obviously is. The King James Version has at the head of chapter 1 of the Song of Solomon (or the Song of Songs): "The church's love unto Christ."

12. Edward Fitzgerald, Introduction to The Ruba'ivat of Omar Khayyam, 3rd ed. (London: Macmillan, 1872).

13. G. Sarton, Introduction to the History of Science (Washington, D.C.: Williams & Wilkins, 1927), vol. 1, pp. 759-61.

14. These quatrains are not from Fitzgerald's translation but from those compiled by Ali Dashti in his In Search of Omar Khayyam (New York: Columbia University Press, 1971), pp. 187-99, and translated by Elwell Sutton into English. Dashti accepted 36 quatrains as being certainly by Khayyam and, after much sifting, analysis, and comparison, he arrived at a total of 102 quatrains in all.

15. E. G. Browne, Literary History of Persia (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1956), vol. 2, p. 292; cited by Avery, Introduction to The Ruba'iyat of Omar Khayyam, pp. 24-25 and n. 7.

16. Avery, Introduction to The Ruba'ivat of Omar Khayyam, p. 13.

17. Quoted in Dashti, In Search of Omar Khayyam, p. 178.

18. Mountstuart Elphinstone, Account of the Kingdom of Caubul (London, 1815), pp. 209 ff.; cited by Avery, The Ruba'iyat of Omar Khayyam, app. 2, p. 113.

19. Sadegh Hedayat, Les Chants d'Omar Khayyam, trans. M. F. Farzaneh and J. Malaplate (Paris: Jose Corti, 1993), pp. 13 ff.

20. J. E. Knorzer, Ali Dashti's Prison Days: Life under Reza Shah (Costa Mesa, Calif.: Mazda Publishers, 1994).

21. Ali Dashti, Twenty-three Years: A Study of the Prophetic Career of Mohammed (London: Allen & Unwin, 1985).

22. Ibid., p. 48.

23. Ibid., p. 50.

24. Ibid., p. 56.

25. Amir Taheri, Holy Terror (London, 1987), p. 290.

26. Dashti, In Search of Omar Khayyam, p. 249.

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