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Omar Khayyam: Persian polymath who rhymed as he calculated

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Better known in the West as Omar Khayyam was one of the most prominent scholars of medieval times, with remarkable contributions in the fields of mathematics and astronomy. His worldwide fame today mainly comes from a number of quatrains attributed to him that have tended to overshadow his brilliant scientific achievements. Besides his ingenious achievements in mathematics, Khayyam is said to have supervised or actively taken part in the formulation and compilation of a solar calendar that potentially surpasses all calendar systems ever composed in precision and exactness – a legacy alive today in his native Iran. Khayyam’s contributions to astronomy should be viewed within the context of his efforts to compile this calendar.

Neyshabur was known for its great learning centers and its prominent scholars. Khayyam studied the sciences of the day in his native town and is said to have mastered all branches of knowledge in early youth. Khayyam soon rose to prominence in Khurasan, the political center of the powerful Seljuk dynasty that ruled over a vast empire extending from the borders of China to the Mediterranean.

As the leading scientist, philosopher, and astronomer of his day, he enjoyed the support and patronage of the Seljuk court.

With the ascent of Jalal al-Din Malik Shah to the throne, in 1072, Isfahan was chosen as the new capital of the Seljuk dynasty. Consequently, a group of prominent scientists and scholars from Khorasan, among them Khayyam and al-Muzaffar al-Isfizari, were summoned to the court in the new capital to embark on two grand projects: the construction of an observatory and the compilation of a new calendar to replace the existing calendars. In addition to other deficiencies, these calendars had proved inefficient in monetary and administrative matters related to time?reckoning. No details have survived regarding the observatory and its site, except for brief notes saying that huge sums of money were spent on it and that it was very well equipped.

By 1079, a solar calendar was developed that was named the “Jalali” or “Maliki” calendar, thus carrying the name of the monarch who was the project’s patron. The most remarkable feature of the new calendar was the correspondence of the beginning of the year (Nowruz or new day) and the beginning of Aries, i. e., where the Sun passing from the Southern Celestial Hemisphere to the Northern appears to cross the Celestial Equator, marking the beginning of spring or the vernal equinox.

As modern calculations have shown, the introduction of 5?year leap?days into the calendar has the potential, provided that a correct pattern is employed, of rendering the calendar quite accurate over relatively long time spans – indeed, more accurate than the modern Gregorian calendar.

Khayyam’s major role in the court of Malik Shah leaves little doubt of his leading role in the compilation of the Jalali calendar due to the historical testimony of prominent astronomers such as Tusi, Shirazi, and Nishaburi; all associating the name of Omar Khayyam with the Jalali calendar.

His prominence as a major astronomer of his time is also borne out by his critical notes on Ibn al-Haytham’s Maqala fi harakat al?iltifaf (Treatise on the winding motion). This work, which is discussed by Shirazi, demonstrates the fact that Khayyam had been engaged in quite complicated and difficult aspects of theoretical astronomy that involved the development of new models to replace the unwieldy latitude models of Ptolemy.

Khayyam’s work in astronomy has been overshadowed by his outstanding achievements in mathematics, in which his genius and originality are best manifested. His contributions to the subject may well be considered some of the greatest during the entire Middle Ages.

He also dealt with the so-called parallel postulate and arrived at new propositions that were important steps in the development of non-Euclidean geometries. His work in the theory of numbers was also significant, eventually leading to the modern notion of real positive numbers that included irrational numbers.

Khayyam also wrote short treatises in other fields such as mechanics, hydrostatics, the theory of music, and meteorology. Through his work in ornamental geometry, he contributed to the construction of the north dome of the Great Mosque of Isfahan. He may have also served as a court physician.

Though little remains of his work in philosophy, Khayyam was a follower of Ibn Sina (Avicenna) and much respected by his contemporaries for his work in this field. In a later work, he concludes that ultimate truth can be grasped only through mystical intuition. This perhaps gives some inkling of how to read his famous poetry, not all of which has been accepted as authentic by modern scholarship.

Khayyam seems to have spent the most fruitful scientific years of his life in Isfahan. But with the assassination of Malik Shah in 1092, he returned to Khorasan, spending the rest of his life in Marw and Neyshabur. His death brought to an end a brilliant chapter in Iranian intellectuals of those days.

(From: Thomas Hockey et al; The Biographical Encyclopedia of Astronomers, New York: Springer, 2007, pp. 627-628)

Khayyam poems in the West
The 12th century Persian poet Omar Khayyam is well known in the West through the work of the English poet and translator Edward Fitzgerald.

Published in 1859, Fitzgerald’s “Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam” attracted little attention until 1860, when it was discovered by other artists and literary figures, such as Dante Gabriel Rossetti who was a poet, and is well-known as one of the painters of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood.

Fitzgerald was a talented poet; however, his “Rubaiyat” is not a serious and scholarly translation of Khayyam’s work, and represents many of his own ideas and line of thought. In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, writers and poets quite often used Oriental works for inspiration.

The original verses from which Fitzgerald drew his inspiration, are a collection of isolated and separate “quatrains”, which resemble the Japanese haiku in function, if not in form. The quatrain, “robai” is a very popular form in Persian poetry, and nearly every Persian poet has written some. This is the only form of poetry attributed to Khayyam, whose fame in his own time was through his influential works as a mathematician and astronomer.

Indeed, he was only twenty-four when he wrote his most important work, a pioneering treatise on algebra.

Fitzgerald’s “Rubaiyat” describes what he believed to be the thoughts and feelings of Omar Khayyam, with seemingly Eastern tones and colors, but in a way that would be appealing to a Western audience.

The “Rubaiyat’s” tendency to rebel against the restricting Puritanism of the Victorian era, captured the imagination of many freethinkers of the time, yet it was only universally appreciated, after Fitzgerald’s death.

Today, Fitzgerald’s Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam has been translated into many languages world-wide, and can be regarded as a masterpiece in its own right. Most importantly, Fitzgerald helped to create in the West, a real interest in Persian literature as a whole.

The following are examples from
Edward Fitzgerald’s “Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam”:

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 fly – and Lo! the Bird is on the Wing.

Look to the Rose that blows about us – Lo,
Laughing she says, “into the World I blow:
At once the silken Tassel of my Purse
Tear, and its Treasure on the Garden throw.”

With them 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.”

How long, how long, in infinite Pursuit
Of this and That endeavour and dispute?
Better be merry with fruitful Grape
Than sadden after none, or better, Fruit.

With Earth’s first Clay They did the Last Man’s Knead,
And then of the Last Harvest sow’d the seed:
Yea, the first Morning of Creation wrote
What the Last Dawn of Reckoning shall read.

I sent my soul through the Invisible,
Some letter of that After life to spell:
And by and by my Soul return’d to me,
And answer’d “I Myself am Heav’n and Hell.”

Source: Tehran Times


Posted by on July 3, 2012. Filed under Art,Asia,Iran,Islam. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0. You can leave a response or trackback to this entry

2 Responses to Omar Khayyam: Persian polymath who rhymed as he calculated

  1. Muhammad Ayyub

    July 4, 2012 at 11:44 am

    Thanks for sharing this article about Omar Khayyam. One gets a lot in a short time. JazakAllah

  2. Abdul Latif Bennett

    July 10, 2012 at 12:50 pm

    Thank You for this article. It confirms what I believe, that Poetry is a bridge across reason and faith. Such experiments in expression assist in progressing to a higher level. This is the example of all the great lovers.

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