Hakim Omar Khayyam: Poet, Astronomer, Scientist, Philosopher,....

By Donn A. Allen

Donn Allen, a graduate of Caltech, is a retired electrical engineer living in San Luis Obispo, California. His interest in and deep admiration for Omar Khayyam span approximately 45 years. His library on Omar Khayyam includes the work of over 45 translators of Omar’s rubaiyat into English and extensive related material – analyses, parodies, Omar’s life and times etc. Mr. Allen’s son, Michael, is the author of the Pulitzer Prize nominated book “The Tao of Surfing: Finding Depth at Low Tide” which is reviewed on this site. He can be contacted at: donn256@surfari.net.

Hakim Omar Khayyam was born at sunrise on Wednesday May 18 in the year 1048 C.E. at Nishapur. As befitting a sage who mastered astronomy and reformed the calendar, it took a detailed analysis of the stellar and planetary positions described in the horoscope cast at his birth to arrive at this information. This analysis was only accomplished in the twentieth century.  Prior to this time even the exact year of Omar’s birth remained in doubt. Details of the analysis as well as an astrological life sketch based on this horoscope are presented in “The Nectar of Grace: ‘Omar Khayyam’s Life and Works” by Swami Govinda Tirtha published in Kitabistan, Allahabad, India by the Government Central Press, Hyderabad-Dn. in 1941. This beautiful labor of love is by far the most comprehensive treatment of the life and works of Omar Khayyam that I have ever come across. This unique and valuable resource is little known in the United States and is difficult to locate.

                Omar is primarily known in the West today for his poetry; usually Edward FitzGerald’s 1859 presentation (rather than translation) which introduced the Rubaiyat to the English speaking world. However, such was the not at all the case during his lifetime. Not until two centuries after Omar’s death did a few quatrains appear under his name.  He was known in his own time as a sage, scholar, Hakim (wise man) who had mastered virtually all branches of knowledge of his time – astronomy, astrology, mathematics, medicine, physics, philosophy, religion, jurisprudence  - am I leaving anything out? He was a pioneer of free expression, deplored hypocrisy, most certainly was not a drunkard or libertine, and is reported to have had a truly astounding memory!

Omar’s revision of the calendar in 1079 C.E. to yield the Jalaali calendar (named after Jalaal-ol-Din Malek -shaah-e Saljuqi, the ruler who commissioned the calendar revision and was Omar’s patron)  is accurate to one day in 3770 years, which is superior to the Julian calendar, and was only approached by the Gregorian calendar which we use today. The Gregorian calendar is named after Pope Gregory XIII who introduced the latest changes in 1582 C.E., over 500 years after Omar’s work. The Jalaali calender is a very natural solar calendar based on the spring eqinox as the start of the new year (Norooz). If the exact time of the spring equinox event (Saal-Tahveel) occurs before midday Teheran time that day is 1 Farvardin (new year), otherwise the following day is 1 Farvardin and the preceding month of Esfand is extended by one day.

In mathematics, Omar developed means of solving cubic equations (he identified 13 distinct cases) using an ingenious selection of conic sections. He demonstrated cubic equations that have two solutions, but did not seem to realize that a cubic can have three solutions. He discoursed on the significance of Euclid’s controversial 5th postulate (the parallel postulate), although he did not grasp that this postulate can be both true and not true – each assumption leading to a valid (i.e. fully consistent) geometry. Omar also seems to have been the first to develop the binomial theorem and determine the binomial coefficients for the case where the exponent is a positive integer.

                Let’s turn our attention now for a moment to physics and the structure of the universe. Time and space and the world they make have engaged the attention of scientists through all ages. Their speculations have brought forth a host of secular sciences. Although a superior scientist, Omar’s philosophical reflections on this subject as reflected in his poetry are neither scientific nor mystical. Again I call upon Tirtha’s work in selecting and translating quatrains attributed to Omar. Omar calls the Wheel of Time an Imaginary Lantern.

                                Methinks this Wheel at which we gape and stare,

                                Is Chinese lantern  - like we buy at fair;

                                The lamp is Sun and paper shade the world,

                                And we the pictures whirling unaware.


                Science fails to solve the mystery of the cosmos.


                                The Skies rotate, I cannot guess the cause;

                                And all I feel is grief, which in me gnaws;

                                Surveying all my life, I find myself

                                The same unknowing dunce that once I was!


                                This whirl of time, it simply causes pains,

                                As for my heart, my evil ways are banes;

                                Ah! worldly lore that winds in labyrinths,

                                Ah! wisdom forging newer iron chains.


                Time is only a tyrant causing universal change and trouble.


                                My grief prolongs, I find it nev’r allays,

                                Your lot is swinging now in higher sways;

                                Rely ye not on Time, for under veil

                                A thousand tricks he juggles as he plays.


                                Ye mount on steeds and brandish steels in fight,                      

                                With all your boasts, in trenches soon alight;

                                The tyrant Time will never spare a life,

                                He breaks the Dukes by day and Knights by night.


                                As Spheres are rolling woes alone increase,

                                They land us just to sink in deeper seas;

                                If souls unborn would only know our plight,

                                And how we pine, their coming-in will cease.


                Omar is at war with the Sphere and wishes to annihilate it.


                                Had I but on the skies divine control,

                                I’d kick this bluish ball beyond the goal;

                                And forthwith furnish better worlds and times,

                                Where love will cling to every freeman’s soul.

                But the final solution is that the tyrant Sphere has no real existence, hence we best avoid all trouble by being content.

                                Aye hear me please, my old and dearest friend!

                                Think naught of world  - it hath no root or end;

                                Sit quiet on thy balcony content

                                To view how Wheel would play its turn-and-bend.


                                Desire no gain from world, with bliss you trade;

                                In good or bad of Times you need not wade;

                                Remain sedate, so that the whirling Wheel –

                                Would snap itself and blow up days it made.


                After a long life filled with accomplishments, honors, and disappointments too, Omar died in Nishapur on Thursday March 23, 1122 C.E. (12 Moharram, 516 AH) at the age of 73. Some references give the year of Omar’s death as 1131 C.E.; however, I’m going to follow Tirtha on this one because I find a depth in his research generally unmatched by others. Omar never married and insofar as we know had no children.

                There are many excellent websites featuring Omar’s work and I would like to recommend a few that commend themselves to your further exploration of the life and works of this truly great man. Omar  valued continued learning through all of his long life – not a bad example to follow.

                Omar Khayyam (general) – here


   This link works but takes four more steps to get to the biographical article: 1) go to the       archive; 2) go to biographies index; 3) go to “K”; and finally 4) click on Khayyam.

                Omar on cubic equations – here


                More Omar on cubic equations – here


                Omar and Euclid’s 5th postulate - here


                Edward FitzGerald’s translation of the Rubaiyat – here


                E. H. Whinfield’s translation of the Rubaiyat (500 quatrains!) as well as Fi tzGerald   –                     here


     Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam (literal translation, meaning, FitzGerald’s

       translation,     German, Farsi) – here


                The literal translation and the meaning are poetry by Shiriar Shiriari

Happy Norooz to all (Farvardin 1, 1380; Wednesday March 21, 2001) and remember to celebrate Omar’s 953rd birthday on May 18!