The Illustrious Omar Khayyam: His Calendar, Algebra and Rubaiyat

Omar Khayyam
Adelaide Hanscom Leeson / Public domain

Each year on May 18th, following the UNESCO decision, there is a celebration of the International Day of Omar Khayyam (1048-1131), the world renowned classic of Persian poetry, the scholar, mathematician, astronomer who lived in Iran at the time of the Seljuk rule. In Iran this day is a national holiday. The fame of the great ancestor of the Iranian and Tajik nations has spread far across all national borders. Omar Khayyam was discovered in Europe at the end of the 19th century, after his Rubaiyat verses were rendered into English by Edward Fitzgerald. In England, he was among the best known Victorian poets. It was considered good manners to quote Khayyam in upper-class society.

For many of our contemporaries Khayyam is the herald of hedonism striving to attain maximum pleasures in earthly life. Yet the truth is, Omar Khayyam was the poet of intellectuals, those who find pleasures in ‘mental gymnastics’. It is through these same ‘mental gymnastics’ that Khayyam guides his readers to the realisation that the universe including their own brains is but the Creation of Allah the Exalted and that the final pleasure for subtle minds lies in Him.

Khayyam the intellectual may have contradicted Allah at times but only because he trusted His infinite mercy and forgiveness. An intellectual can hardly let his brain stay unexercised and yet he knows that God, the Almighty Allah, will in the end embrace and pardon the things where he did go wrong. This is what the faith of an intellectual is all about. This faith is accepted by Allah because, unlike al-Maarri, Omar Khayyam never shifts from faith to disbelief. On the contrary, his poetry is nothing but a hymn to Allah. His language is a language of metaphors and allegories to which the Oriental mind is so accustomed. Khayyam’s famous verses on wine, they speak of intoxication with love of God, the beauty of a girl is Khayyam’s longing to meet the Perfect Beauty of Allah. Omar Khayyam may be reflecting upon a different kind of wine, the one that will be served in Heaven, of which the Holy Quran says that there the righteous ‘will be honoured in gardens of pleasure on thrones facing one another. There will be circulated among them a cup of wine from a flowing spring, white and delicious to the drinkers. No bad effect is there in it, nor from it will they be intoxicated. And with them will be women limiting their glances, with large, beautiful eyes.’ (37:42-48)

On each person Allah bestows his own domain. To intellectually inclined persons Allah gives the opportunity to entertain their intellect. ‘And the worldly life is not but amusement and diversion; but the home of the Hereafter is best for those who fear Allah, so will you not reason?’ (6:32) This is what we observe in Omar Khayyam; amusement and diversion in worldly life with memory of the Hereafter.

In all the rest Omar Khayyam is on par with the feelings and emotions of ordinary men – he scolds bigotry and vice, glorifies the free spirit, the will power and the rule of reason. This is why his poetry remains in harmony with modern times.

Having said that, let us not forget that apart from poetry Omar Khayyam was an outstanding trail blazer in algebra and astronomy. He classified cubic equations and proposed to solve them through conic intersections, developed the theory of parallel straight lines that was later to become the foundation of Riemann’s geometry, made a host of discoveries in number theory, discovered the famous binominial theorem credited to Isaac Newton, as an astronomer he developed the sun calendar which surpassed in precision not only the contemporary Julian calendar but the Gregorian calendar which was to be invented some four hundred years afterwards.

Omar Khayyam’s heritage shall remain a valuable asset in the treasury of human thought for generations to come.