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Omar Khayyam, 1048-1131

Omar Khayyam was a Persian born 150 years later than Avicenna and is known today mainly for his poem the Rubaiyat. Like Avicenna and other exceptional individuals during the Middle Ages he was a student of a broad range of subjects. He was a mathematician, philosopher, astronomer, physician, and he wrote treatises on mechanics, geography and music.

A few lines of his poetry read:

Come, fill the cup, and in the fire of spring
Your winter-garment of repentance fling:
The bird of time has but a little way
To flutter-and the bird is on the wing.

The above is a translation by Edward FitzGerald (1809–83). Fitzgerald took liberties in his translations, as artists do. Persian exists for comparison, and the question remains as to whether FitzGerald distorted Khayyam's core sentiments.

Photo of bust of Omah Kyayyam

Omar Khayyam attribution: Muhammad Mahdi Karim

Gravesite of Omar Khayyam

The tomb of Omar Khayyám in Neishapur, Iran (Wikipedia Commons).

Khayyam as translated by FitzGerald was a dissident. Dissidents were often the exceptional people – as Avicenna and others were who investigated the broad range of realities as did Khayyam. Here is part of a poem that expresses the sentiment required to be a revolutionary:

Ah, Love! could you and I with Him conspire
To grasp this sorry scheme of things entire,
Would not we shatter it to bits, and then
Remold it nearer to the heart's desire!

In writing, Khayyam described himself as an atheist, but atheists often protected themselves by speaking of God, and Khayyam used "God" for literary purposes, as in

Enjoy wine and women and don't be afraid, God has compassion.

Why, all the Saints and Sages who discuss'd
Of the Two Worlds so learnedly, are thrust
Like foolish Prophets forth; their Words to Scorn
Are scatter'd, and their mouths are stopt with Dust.

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 bloomed for ever dies.

Myself when young did eagerly frequent
Doctor and Saint, and heard great Argument
About it and about: but evermore
Came out of the same Door as in I went.

With the Seed of Wisdom did I sow,
And with my own hand labour'd it to grow:
And this was all the Harvest that I reap'd
"I came like Water, and like Wind I go."

Khayyam has been described as performing pilgrimages from fear rather than piety. He has been described as having to explain his views to his simpler brothers, the local Islamic thought police, which must have been in a way sufficient to confuse them. Khayyam's dissent has been described in his sun-centered (heliocentric) view of the universe – a couple of centuries before the Italian monk Copernicus – a dissent Khayyam is reported to have demonstrated to the respected scholar al-Ghazali.

Focusing on mathematics, Khayyan wrote a theory of parallels. He wrote on geometric algebra, math's binomial theory and extraction of roots. He is described as having asked about the nature of mathematical order. Mathematics is about abstract relationships. Whatever is done to one side of an equation had to be done to the other side. Khayyam went deeper and disparaged his participation in what passed for learnedness in his time, which he expressed as follows:

Into this Universe, and why not knowing,
Nor whence, like Water willy-nilly flowing:
And out of it, as Wind along the Waste,
I know not whither, willy-nilly blowing.

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.

And that inverted Bowl we call The Sky,
Whereunder crawling coop't we live and die,
Lift not thy hands to It for help – for It
Rolls impotently on as Thou or I.

Omar Khayyam was expressing some of what was to come from Jean Paul Sartre, the 20th century philosopher who annoyed theists.

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