The case of Umari Khayyam

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Again, the Persian quatrains are a different case. This has become particularly clear in the remarkable instance of 'Umar Khayyam's collection of quatrains, which to most Western readers constitutes the epitome of Persian poetry. In Persia itself, 'Umar was not much regarded as a poet until his worldwide fame began to spread from Victorian England through the amazing success of Edward FitzGerald's adaptation of 'Umar's quatrains in his poem 'The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam'. It was first published in 1859, reprinted many times and translated into all the major languages of the world.3

During his lifetime, 'Umar-i Khayyam (1048-1131) was a celebrated scholar, not only in philosophy and the sciences but also in theology. The only writings attributable with certainty to him are in Arabic on the subjects of mathematics, astronomy and metaphysics. All that we know about 'Umar's life points to a more or less normal existence as a distinguished medieval scholar, who found patrons among the rulers and other influential men of his days. The earliest reference to him as a poet occurs in 'Imad ad-Din Isfahanl's Kharidat al-qasr, an anthology of Arabic poetry, and some other Arabic writers of the late twelfth century who cite a few short poems of his. That Khayyam, like any other cultured person, would have written Arabic poetry occasionally, is not unusual, and it is even quite possible that at times he may have improvised some Persian quatrains. However, considering the lack of any documentary evidence to the contrary, it is extremely unlikely that his poetic output was significant in quantity or that any single poem attributed to him may ever be proved to be authentic.

Towards the end of the twelfth century, the theologian Fakhr ad-Din Razi (d. 1210) for the first time cited a single Persian quatrain under his name. The same poem, together with another one, can be found in a well-known Sufi textbook, the Mirsad al-%ad min al-mabda' ilal-ma'ad by Najm ad-Din Daya, written about 1223. It was not until the fourteenth century that anthologists were able to assemble small collections of Khayyam's quatrains: in Jajarmi's Munis al-ahrar (1339-40) thirteen poems have been preserved, and the anonymous collector of Nuzhat al-majalis (1330) could bring together thirty-one poems. It is remarkable that several of these early specimens occur in more than one of the sources. This points to the existence of only a very limited corpus of quatrains ascribed to Khayyam prior to the fifteenth century. The famous manuscript of the Bodleian Library, compiled in 1460, which was used by FitzGerald, contains 158 poems; but in the anthology Tarabkhana, compiled only two years later, already 554 ruba iyat were brought together. This number increased even more in later collections of Khayyam's quatrains.

Stimulated by the outburst of public interest in these quatrains, Orientalists began to examine the problems of the textual transmission. An amazing outcome of this research was that, in 1897, Vladimir Zhukovsky, a professor at the University of St. Petersburg, showed that a great number of the poems which circulated under the name of Khayyam could be attributed in medieval manuscripts to other poets as well. Thus a substantial group of poems were identified as 'wandering quatrains', that is poems of multiple attribution, the true authorship of which is impossible to establish.4

It has become clear that there exists no such thing as a stable corpus of these quatrains. The findings in the earliest sources do not provide an absolute certainty that any of the cited poems were really by Khayyam. Even if they are genuine, there are not enough poems found in these sources to allow the reconstruction of his poetic personality. If these facts are acknowledged, we are forced to redefine Khayyam's place in the history of Persian literature. As a poet he seems to have been the creation of a collective imagination rather than a literary figure to be held responsible for the thoughts expressed in the quatrains. A more realistic view of his place in the history of Persian literature is that he became the eponym of a cluster of poetic themes exemplified in numerous poems whose real authors remained anonymous. The poetic persona speaking in these quatrains might be described as a world-famous scientist and metaphysician who, at the end of a life spent in an endeavour to grasp the rationale behind the universe, is resigned to doubting the ability of the human mind to solve the enigmas presented by this world and by man's transitory existence on earth.5

The question which needs to be answered with regard to our focus of interest is whether or not this poetic persona of Khayyam is in any way connected with Sufi poetry. This has been another issue concerning our poet-scholar which became the subject of a heated debate, even earlier than the authenticity of the quatrains. The first Western translator to defend a mystical interpretation of Khayyam's quatrains was J.B. Nicolas, who had lived in Persia as a French consul. He based his translation (published in 1867) on a lithographed edition containing a collection of 464 quatrains. His view contradicted the interpretation of Edward FitzGerald who had presented Khayyam as a sceptic seeking a remedy for his disillusion with the world and with his own intellect in a carpe-diem philosophy. Nicolas' version of the poems met with much less success than FitzGerald's; nevertheless, his mystical reading has always found its followers. It was defended for the last time in 1967 by the English poet Robert Graves in the introduction to a volume of translations, which were soon proven to be founded on forged material.6 The least that could be said in favour of Nicolas' point of view is that it did have an authentic background in so far as it was based on the teaching of a Sufi of Tehran, who had explained Khayyam's poems to the translator.7 Apparendy, the quatrains were indeed susceptible to a genuine mystical interpretation, and this need not surprise because themes like the vanity of the world, the transcience of life, or the insufficiency of human reason in solving the world's mysteries, are in themselves quite compatible with a mystical outlook and were commonplace in genuine Sufi poetry.

The earliest references by mystics to Khayyam, however, speak a different language. Among the very first specimens of the Khayyam corpus on record are the two poems cited by the mystical writer Najm ad-Din Day a:

The circle of our coming and our going Has no beginning and shall have no end. No one can ever in this world explain Whence was this coming and to where the going.

The Keeper Who arranged this complex body Why did He bring it to decay and ruin? Was it an ugly form? Who is to blame? Or was it good? Who would destroy it then?

Daya's quotations were intended as a disapproval and were accompanied by a sharp condemnation of the false doctrines of philosophers like 'Umar-i Khayyam, who only reckoned with the forces of Fate and Nature, but ignored the sublime states to which the mystics aspire.8

In a similar spirit the great Sufi poet Farid ad-Din 'Attar ( 1220) made use of an anecdote concerning 'Umar's fate after his death. In his didactical poem Ilahi-ndma ('The Book of the Divine') he tells about a clairvoyant who, standing at Khayyam's grave, saw him in a 'state of imperfection': 'Umar was bathing in his sweat for shame and confusion. As the clairvoyant explained, he had boasted at the Heavenly Gate of his learning but was deeply embarrassed when he learned how ignorant he really was.9 Quatrains were commonly put to the names of other famous scholars and mystics, some of whom lived even earlier than Khayyam. The great philosopher Abu 'All ibn-i Slna, known to the West as Avicenna (d. 1037), is also accredited with a number of short Persian poems, including quatrains. Some of the Sufi sheikhs who are mentioned as the authors of quatrains are 'Abd Allah Ansarl of Herat (d. 1089) and Abu'l-Hasan KharaqanI (d. 1033). All these attributions are very uncertain.

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