From Parabola to Poetry- This Persian Polymath’s Journey will Amaze You

History Tamalika Basu
Omar Khayyam
Adelaide Hanscom Leeson / Public domain

“Oh, come with old Khayyám, 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.”

There are close to 2,000 or maybe more rubaiyat- four line verses- attributed to Omar Khayyam, the Persian poet born in 1048 in Nishapur, Iran. However, there is a marked divergence of opinion among scholars on the authenticity of the number of rubaiyat believed to be originally written by him. According to the Persian Historian Al- Isfahani, and Shahrazur, Omar’s penchant for writing rubaiyat or quatrains was established forty three years after his death in 1131. This is apart from the fact that Khayyam primarily earned fame as a teacher of algebra and geometry, besides being an astrologer in the court of the Karakhanid and Seljuq rulers. His rubaiyat regarded as “the amusement of his leisure hours” celebrate hedonistic pleasures of life, thus encouraging scholars to call him a “free-thinking scientist”. A selection of his rubaiyat was translated in English by Edward Fitzgerald “Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam” in 1859.

However, in the annals of Islamic and world history Omar Khayyam is extolled for his great contribution in the field of Mathematics and Astronomy. He is immortalized not just through an endless number of books written about his mathematical achievements and philosophical enlightenment; in 1970 a moon’s crater was also named after him.


All in all, Omar Khayyam’s “Treatise on demonstration of problems of algebra and balancing” (Risālah fiʾl-barāhīn ʿalā masāʾil al-jabr waʾl-muqābalah) has secured him a significant spot in the algebraic world. It is said he reached the glorious heights as a mathematician and an astronomer under the scholarly guidance of Sheik Muhammand Mansuri and Imam Mowaffaq Nishapuri. His treatise, which he authored in 1070 at the age of twenty two classifies the various types of cubic equations and outlines a theory for their systematic solution through intersection of parabola and circle.

His other publication “On the Difficulties of Euclid’s Definitions” (Sharh ma ashkala min musadarat kitab Uqlidis) in 1977 presented an alternate explanation for the parallel postulate, thus opening the path of non- Euclidean geometry.


Omar Khayyam’s prowess as an astronomer invited the attention of Jalal Al-Din Shah Seljuqi of Seljuk Empire who called him to be a part of an eight-member committee for the development cum reformation of Persian calendar in 1073. Omar along with other scientists carried out observations and measurements in Esfahan, Persia and constituted the Jalali Calendar; which was adopted as the official calendar in 1079. In this calendar the beginning of the New Year, season and month are aligned and Omar named the first day of the spring and the New Year as Nauroz.

The calendar retained the basic months of the old Sassanian calendar and it had eight leap years every thirty-three years. Based on his observation, Omar made important discoveries like 365.2422 days form one year and there were eight leap years in every thirty three years. This observation became the foundation of the Gregorian calendar built about 500 years later.


 (Written by: Shazman Shariff, freelance writer based in Bangalore, available at [email protected].)

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