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Khayyam, Misunderstood Visionary

Example of an early 20th century edition of the Ruba’iyyat

My diverse researches into life in 11th century Persia have led me to examine the life and writings of the celebrated Persian scholar Omar Khayyam. I have long been interested in this figure, ever since I was given a copy of Fitzgerald's translation of the Ruba'iyyat in my early teens. Interestingly, although there are valid criticisms of Fitzgerald's translation, and other translations correct certain aspects, his translation is still considered by many to reflect well the overall sense of the verses. Issues which are outstanding about authorship concern more which verses were written by Khayyam (if any) as more than a thousand verses have been ascribed to him at different times. Also, some scholars question whether the scientist Khayyam was the same person as the poet Khayyam, but there are compelling arguments in favour of there having been only the one individual.

From my own perspective, and especially in relation to my writing project, what I find most interesting about Khayyam is that there is a kind of integrating frame around the multiplicity of his diverse interests, and in many ways this integral view reveals the extent to which he was a visionary far in advance of his time. One reference in particular supports this idea, and that is Mehdi Aminrazavi's book The Wine of Wisdom : The Life, Poetry and Philosophy of Omar Khayyam. Aminrazavi examines each facet of Khayyam's thought, including his religious views (which have been questioned by some), and argues that they all form part of a single vision. Indeed, although Khayyam's approach is considered by many to be antithetical to Islam, in fact he was considered by those of his time to be a great scholar and theologian, and, indeed, was given the title Imam without reservation. He was, however, a bit of a maverick in certain aspects of his philosophical and theological ideas, although within the acceptable range of dissent, given the divisions that continue today between the Sunni and Shia communities, not to mention Sufism. The difficulties arise from many of the verses of the Ruba'iyyat, which seem to promote a lifestyle involving 'wine, women and song' along with a celebration of the now in comparison with the eternal.

However, an examination of Khayyam's philosophical treatises suggests a way of integrating these ideas within a larger heterogeneity. Reading Khayyam's philosophy brings up resonances with writers such as Spinoza and Descartes as well as Aristotle and Plato (remember, however, that Khayyam preceded Spinoza and Descartes by seven centuries!). Khayyam's thought builds on Aristotle's foundations, but as these were updated by both contemporary and near contemporary Persian and European scholars. Khayyam considers that essences are more important than existence (an argument raised by Aristotle). Like Spinoza, his conception begins with the perfection of the Divine and follows the threads back down into the everyday world through a series of affirmations (postulates and lemmas in Spinozan terms). Khayyam separates the necessary from the accidental. For him, the Divine is necessary, and is a matter of essence, while the existential is accidental. It could work itself out in many different ways. He also posits an order of ‘levels of being’, at the top of which are aspects of the Divine, and the bottom are accidents of the world. This frame allows him to address questions such as the nature of evil, the existence of free will, and other thorny questions, from his unique perspective.

For Khayyam, evil is the absence of good, in a world which is primarily good. For him, therefore, evil is a consequence of the gradations of being. It is, however, accidental in nature, not necessary in the same way the Divine, and Good, are necessary. For Khayyam, the further one goes up the levels of being, the more one’s will is aligned with God’s. Therefore there are two kinds of free will, one which arises when choosing among accidentals, and the other that comes from cleaving close to the Divine.

This understanding allows one to re-situate Khayyam’s thought. It is clear that he believed in God, indeed, in the God of Islam. He did, however, have some ideas that weren’t always in line with the main currents of Islamic theology. Many of the poems of the Ruba’iyyat, on the other hand, deal with the viscitudes of living in the everyday world, hence the world of accidentals. Indeed, the poems insist on the omnipresence of these accidentals in our lives, and also on the fact that these accidentals, including their darker sides, are necessary to human growth and evolution (although Khayyam did not really address the issue of evolution, which emerged in the intellectual landscape eight hundred years after Khayyam!). Furthermore, Khayyam’s verses insist on the need to celebrate one’s presence in the here and now. Admittedly, however, Fitzgerald chose verses from the Ruba’iyyat that appealed to him, and since he was personally allergic to religion, due to his brother who was a zealot, he left out many of the verses that better reflect Khayyam’s spiritual ideas. Including these verses, using more recent translations, presents a much larger vision of the world.

Indeed, as a student of Sri Aurobindo’s integral yoga, I find in Khayyam‘s larger vision a kind of pre-Aurobindo-like thinking. Sri Aurobindo wrote an essay called “All Will and Free Will” which makes a point very similar to the one proposed by Khayyam. Khayyam's views on the role of accidentals and the darker side of things as important elements for human development are also resonant with Aurobindo's ideas. And his idea about levels of being as one moves further from the Divine resonates with Aurobindo’s idea of involution, the investment of the divine into the physical realm.

Another aspect of Khayyam's philosophy is the interconnectedness of all life, again, centuries before ecological ideas emerged in human discourse. In his mathematical endeavours, Khayyam worked on ideas such as geometric interpretations of algebraic equations, which can be viewed as a kind of bridge between 'essence' and 'existence', since geometry can be applied to the existent (and indeed, Khayyam was probably involved in doing so in the design of the Great Mosque in Isfahan). He worked on number theory, and his work there set the stage for the discovery of so-called irrational numbers. Irrational numbers, such as pi, are cornerstones of modern engineering practice, and therefore also bridge the relationship between essence and existence. He worked on musical theory, and worked out the existence of major (which he called 'strong') and minor (which he called 'colored') harmonics, another bridging activity. And of course, his calendar, which is more precise than the Gregorian calendar we use, is still used in Islam today. His calendar is an application of knowledge of astronomy to the practicalities of managing the seasons as well as other aspects of everyday life.

Khayyam also worked on problems such as Euclid's fifth postulate which he rightly showed could not be derived from the other four. This work pre-figures the work by moderns such as Riemann on non-Euclidean geometries (for example, curved space-time, which ultimately was necessary for the development of the understanding of black hole dynamics), and, indeed, Khayyam developed methods for describing objects with more than three dimensions, also necessary to our modern understanding of space-time.

So Khayyam was a visionary mathematician, scientist, philosopher, and poet, however his contributions, although increasingly acknowledged, are still relegated to the background of history. Although his poetry was immensely popular late in the 19th and much of the 20th centuries, this popularity was based on a distorted image of Khayyam, and one that failed to recognize the full breadth of his visionary ideas. In my view, Khayyam is a worthy predecessor of 21st century understanding of the world, including its emphasis on integral thought, ecology, a critical stance on the ideas of the ambient culture and the integration of diverse disciplines for the betterment of everyone. A model to follow.

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