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Omar Khayyam: Intellectual Poetic Force

by Robert Arnot

The earliest reference to Omar Khayyam dates from the middle of the seventh century of the Hijra. Mohammad Shahrazuri, author of a little-used history of learned men, bearing the title of «Nazhet-ul-Arwah,» devotes to Khayyam the following passage:

«'Omar Al-Khayyami was a Nishapuri by birth and extraction. He [may be regarded as] the successor of Abu 'Ali (Avicenna) in the various branches of philosophic learning; but he was a man of reserved character and disliked entertaining (sayyik al-'atan). While he was in Ispahan he perused a certain book seven times and then he knew it by heart. On his return to Nishapur he dictated it [from memory] and on comparing it with the original copy, it was found that the difference between them was but slight. He was averse both to composition and to teaching. He is the author of a handbook on natural science, and of two pamphlets, one entitled ‹Al-Wujud› (or ‹Real Existence›) and the other ‹Al-Kawn w'al Taklif.› He was learned in the law, in classical Arabic, and in history.

«One day Al-Khayyami went to see the Vezir, Abd-ur-Razzak, the Chief of the Koran Readers. Abu-l-Hasan Al-Ghazzali was with this latter [at the time], and the two were discussing the disagreement of the Koran Readers in regard to a certain verse. [As Omar entered] the Vezir said, ‹Here we have theauthority,› and proceeded to ask Al-Khayyami [for his opinion] on the matter. ['Omar] enumerated the various readings of the Readers, and explained the grounds ('ilal) for each one. He also mentioned the exceptional readings and the arguments in favor of each, and expressed his preference for one view in particular.

«Al-Ghazzali then said: ‹May God add such men as thee to the number of the learned! Of a truth, I did not think any one of the Koran Readers knew the readings by heart to this extent—much less one of the secular philosophers.›

«As for the sciences, he had mastered both mathematics and philosophy. One day ‹the Proof of Islam›, Al-Ghazzali, came to see him and asked him how it came that one could distinguish one of the parts of the sphere which revolve on the axis from the rest, although the sphere was similar in all its parts. Al-Khayyami pronounced his views, beginning with a certain category; but he refrained from entering deeply into the discussion—and such was the wont of this respected Sheykh. [Their conversation was interrupted by] the call to mid-day prayer, whereupon Al-Ghazzali said, ‹Truth has come in, and lying has gone out.› 'Omar arose and went to visit Sultan Sanjar. The latter was [at the time] a mere child, and was suffering from an attack of smallpox. When he came away the Vezir asked him, ‹How did you find the child, and what did you prescribe for him?› 'Omar answered, ‹The child is in a most precarious state.› An Ethiopian slave reported this saying to the Sultan, and when the Sultan recovered he became inimical to 'Omar and did not like him. Melik-Shah treated him as a boon companion; and Shams-ul-Mulk honored him greatly, and made him sit beside him on his throne.

«It is related that ['Omar] was [one day] picking his teeth with a toothpick of gold, and was studying the chapter on metaphysics from [Avicenna's] ‹Book of Healing.› When he reached the section on ‹The One and the Many› he placed the toothpick between the two leaves, arose, performed his prayers and made his last injunctions. He neither ate nor drank anything [that day]; and when he performed the last evening prayer, he bowed himself to the ground and said as he bowed: ‹Oh, God! verily I have known Thee to the extent of my power: forgive me, therefore. Verily my knowledge of Thee is my recommendation to Thee.› And [so saying], he died; may God have pity on him!»

We may look upon Omar as a deeply learned man, following his own convictions, who, tortured with the question of existence, and finding no solution to life in Musulman dogmas, worked out for himself a regular conception of life based on Sufistic Mysticism; a man who, without discarding belief, smiled ironically at the inconsistencies and peculiarities of the Islam of his time, which left many minds dissatisfied in the fourth and fifth centuries, needing as it did vivification. It found this in the person of Ghazzali, who in this movement assigned the proper place to the Mystic element. Omar was a preacher of moral purity and of a contemplative life; one who loved his God and struggled to master the eternal, the good, and the beautiful.

In this manner also is Omar portrayed in the various early biographical notices: a defender of «Greek Science,» famous for his knowledge of the Koran and the Law, and at the same time a «stinging serpent» to the dogmatic; a wit and a mocker, a bitter and implacable enemy of all hypocrisy; a man who, while curing others of the wounds of worldly triviality, impurity, and sinful vanity, himself only with almost his last breath closed the philosophic book on «Healing» and turned with a touching prayer to the One God, the Infinite, whom he had been striving to comprehend with all the strength of his mind and heart. Khayyam's lively protests and his heated words in freedom's cause brought upon him many bitter moments in his life and exposed him to numerous attacks at the hands of the mullahs, especially those of the Shiite community.

Besides these, then as now (apart from hypocrites), persons were not wanting who, failing to understand Omar, regarded him as an unbeliever, atheist, and materialist. But in the course of centuries the people of Persia and India, realizing, perhaps instinctively, the injustice of former reproaches, have taken to publishing and reading Omar Khayyam in collections side by side with Abu-Said, Abd-Allah Ansari, and Attar—that is to say, with Sufi Mystics of the purest water, men whose moral and religious reputations were spotless.

Rightly to understand Omar some knowledge of Sufism and its tenets is necessary. Sufism is a mystical doctrine which had its birth on the Arabian coast, and succeeded in implanting itself there to the point of putting a decisive check upon the orthodox philosophy. The etymology of the name is difficult to find. According to some, it comes from the word suf (wool, a woolen garment) because the first persons to adopt this doctrine clothed themselves in wool.

We can give, as a proof, in support of this etymology, the fact that the Persians call their dervishes Sufis, pechmineh pôch (clothed in wool). The name could also come from the Arabic safou (purity) or the Greek σοφ?α (wisdom). Again, some Arabic authors call by the name of Soufa an Arabic tribe that separated themselves from the world in the ante-Islamic period, consecrating themselves to the keeping of the temple of Mecca. A man who professed the Mystic principles of tasawouf (the spiritual life) they called a «Sufi.»

The origin of Musulman Mysticism is a question entailing some controversy, for whoever knows the detailed ritual and the dogmatic coldness of the Koran finds it impossible to reconcile Islamic dogma with any idea of Mysticism whatsoever. In vain does one seek to find an example of Mystical teaching in this aphorism attributed to Mahomet: «It is when he prays that the faithful one is nearest God,» as Islamism holds to a definite separation between the Divinity and the world, between the Creator and the thing created. The religious customs that Mahomet instituted and the moral action that he taught served only to merit the good-will of the Divinity; at the utmost he only believed that he would be permitted to see Him face to face.

Whence comes then this Mystical idea which, for so many centuries, has occupied all the minds and absorbed all the intellectual force of the Musulman world? Two different origins can be given for it: the idea of emanation from and return to the divine essence whence it came—what we call Neo-platonism. Added to this are Contemplation and Annihilation, which come to it through Persia and the Vedantic school as intermediaries, bringing with it Pantheism, which made its way late into Sufism, and almost solely among the Persians. Also, it could be said that originally Sufism owed its principles to the Alexandrian school.

The Arabs, who studied and translated the greater part of Aristotle, knew Plato only by name; but they came under his influence and received his doctrines, strongly impregnated with the Mysticism of the Kabbala, through the Alexandrians and especially through Philon. To annihilate reason, or at least to subordinate it to feeling; to attack liberty, in order to subject the whole of life to love; and, furthermore, the blind abandoning of self—such is the aim of Sufism, as it is of all Mystic philosophy.

The doctrine of the Sufis has been set forth in a great number of treatises, notably that of Sohrawdi. God alone exists; He is in everything and everything is in Him. All beings emanate from Him, without being really distinct from Him. The world exists for all eternity; the material is only an illusion of the senses. Sufism is the true philosophy of Islamism, «which is the best of religions,» but religions have only a relative importance and serve but to guide us toward the Reality.

God is the author of the acts of the human race; it is He who controls the will of man, which is not free in its action. Like all animals man possesses an original mind, an animal or living mind, a mind instinctive, but he has also a human mind, breathed into him by God, and of the same character as the original and constructive element itself. The concomitant mind comprehends the original element and the human mind; it extends itself over the triple domain: animal, vegetable, and mineral. The soul, which existed before the body, is confined in the body as in a cage; death, then is, the object of the Sufi's desires, since it returns him to the bosom of the Divinity. This metempsychosis permits the soul which has not fulfilled its destiny here below to be purified and worthy of a re-union with God. This spiritual union all can strive for ardently, but all cannot attain, because it is a product of the grace of God.

The Sufi, during his sojourn in the body, is uniquely occupied in meditating upon his unity with God (Wahdanija), the reminiscence of the names of God (Zikr), and the progressive advancement in the tarika or journey of life, up to his unification with God.

What is the Sufi journey, then? Human life has been likened to a voyage, where the traveler is seeking after God. The aim of the voyage is to attain to a knowledge of God, for human existence is a period of banishment for the soul, which cannot return to God until it has passed through many successive stages. The natural state of man is called nasout (humanity); the disciple should observe the law and conform to all the rites of believers. The other stages are: the nature of the angels (malakout), where one follows the way to purity, the possession of power (djabrout), the degree to which knowledge corresponds (m'arifa), and finally, extinction or absorption in the Deity, the degree to which truth corresponds. The voyager agrees to renouncement, which is of two kinds: external and internal. The first is the renouncement of riches and worldly honors; the second is the renouncement of profane desires. And he should especially guard against idolatry, which for some is the adoration of worldly achievement, for others a too assiduous practice of praying and fasting.

To arrive at this aim, the voyager has three necessary aids: attraction (indïïdhah), the act of God which draws all men who have that tendency or inclination to Him; devotion (ibâda), continuing the journey by two roads—towards God and in God, the first limited, the second without limit; finally, elevation (ouroudi). But the voyage cannot be accomplished alone; it is necessary to have a guide or a monitor taken from the second class (ibâda). The believer who, after having been tâlib (an educated man doubting the reality of God) and mourid (desirous of following out his quest), becomes a salik (traveler), places himself under the authority of a Sufi guide who teaches him to serve God until, through divine influence, he attains to the ichk (love) stage. Divine love, removing all mundane desires from his heart, causes him to arrive at zouhd (isolation); he then leads a contemplative life, passes through the m'arifa degree, and awaits the direct illumination of wadja (ecstasy).

After having received a revelation of the true nature of God (the hakika stage) he arrives at the wasl stage (union with God); he cannot go further; death alone remains, by which he will arrive at the final degree, absorption in the Divinity. The Zikr are only various forms of devotion invented by the Sufi guides to develop the spiritual life. The conduct of the disciple in the presence of his master is determined by rules which differ little from those imposed upon all dervishes.

Some authors distinguish, in the Sufi voyage, seven stages, corresponding to the degrees in the celestial sphere, in order to have the soul received there after death. But, protest metaphysicians, the soul cannot return to a determined place, since it does not come from a determined place. Celestial intelligence, to which corresponds the degree of intelligence reached by man, will absorb the soul after its separation from the body.

The Sufis attribute a high antiquity to their doctrines. They do not hesitate to refer them to as far back as Abraham; they pretend that one of the founders of their sect was own son-in-law to the prophet Ali, son of Abou-Tâlib. Finally, «there came a pious woman from Jerusalem, by the name of Rabia, whose words recall the Christian Mysticism.»

The first person to take the name of Sufi was Abou-Hachim of Koufa. The first convent or Khanakah was founded in Khorasan by Abou-Said, the Persian, although the prophet had prohibited monkish life in Islam. Another convent was established at Ramia, in Syria, and Saladin founded one in Egypt. Sufism then was divided into two schools: The Persian Bestâmi (a.d. 875) inclined towards Pantheism; Djonaid, of Bagdad, preached a system reconcilable with Musulman dogmatism. One of the most celebrated doctors of this school was Halladj, burnt alive in a.d. 922. They discoursed upon Sufism under the Kalifs Al-Motazz and Al-Mohtadi, and preached it under Al-Motamid. The principal Sufi writers are: Mohammed Salami an Nichabouri (a.d. 1021), El-Kochairi (a.d. 1072), Ghazli (a.d. 1111), Sohrawdi (a.d. 1234), Ferid-ed-din Attar (a.d. 1230), Djami (a.d. 1492), and Ech-Cha'rani (a.d. 1565).

This Mysticism, so sweet and so full of sentiment, exhales itself in poesy, and is as much stamped with tenderness and resignation as it is overflowing with sensuality and drunkenness. The best and most illustrious of the Persian poets are of this sect: Djelal-ed-din er-Roumi, author of the «Mesnewi», Djami, author of «Salaman ou-Absa», Ferid-ed-din Attar, author of «Mantik-ut-tair»; S'adi, Hafiz de Chiraz, Bayazid-al-Bestami.

Just as Sufis leave the true faith for its semblance, so they also exchange the external features of all things for the internal (the corporeal for the spiritual) and give a spiritual significance to outward forms. They behold objects of a precious nature in their natural character, and for this reason, the greater part of their words have a spiritual and visionary meaning.

For instance, when, like Omar, they mention wine, they mean a knowledge of God, which, extensively considered, is the love of God. Wine, viewed extensively, is also love: love and affection are here the same thing. The wine-shop with them means the murshid i kiamil (spiritual director), for his heart is said to be the depository of the love of God; the wine-cup is the telkin (the pronunciation of the name of God in a declaration of faith as: There is no God but Allah), or it signifies the words which flow from the murshid's mouth respecting divine knowledge, and which, heard by the salik (the Dervish, or one who pursues the true path), intoxicates his soul, and divests his mind (of passions) giving him pure, spiritual delight.

The sweetheart or Beloved means the preceptor, because, when any one sees his beloved he admires her proportions, with a heart full of love. The Dervish beholds the secret knowledge of God which fills the heart of his spiritual preceptor (murshid), and through it receives a similar inspiration, and acquires a full perception of all that he possesses, just as the pupil learns from his master. As the lover delights in the presence of his sweetheart, so the Dervish rejoices in the company of his beloved preceptor. The sweetheart is the object of a worldly affection; but the preceptor commands a spiritual attachment.

The curls or ringlets of the beloved are the grateful praises of the preceptor, tending to bind the affections of the Dervish-pupil; the moles on her face signify that when the pupil, at times, beholds the total absence of all worldly wants on the part of the preceptor, he also abandons all the desires of both worlds—he, perhaps, even goes so far as to desire nothing else in life than his preceptor; the furrows on the brow of the beloved one, which they compare to verses of the Koran, mean the light of the heart of the murshid: they are compared to the verses of the Koran, because the attributes of God, in accordance with the injunction of the Prophet: «Be ye endued with divine qualities,» are possessed by the sheikh (or murshid).

Perhaps I can do no better than to quote one of the foremost authorities on Sufism in regard to Omar's teachings.

«Seldom has a poet suffered from his friends and his foes as has Omar Khayyam. ‹He has been regarded,› says a writer, ‹as a free-thinker, a subverter of faith; an atheist and materialist; a pantheist and a scoffer at Mysticism; an orthodox Musulman; a true philosopher, a keen observer, a man of learning; a bon vivant, a profligate, a dissembler and a hypocrite, and a blasphemer—nay, more, an incarnate negation of positive religion and of all moral beliefs; a gentle nature, more given to the contemplation of things divine than worldly enjoyments; an epicurean sceptic; the Persian Abu-l-Ala, Voltaire, and Heine in one.› The writer has in view the well-known criticisms of Von Hammer, Renan, Ellis, Nicolas, Garcin de Tassy, Whinfield, Aug. Muller, etc. He might have added Vedder's curious misunderstanding of the ‹Beloved,› making him a damsel and a playtoy, and the thousand and one small ideas set forth by Omarian Societies.

«All this criticism is curious because it is so completely out of harmony with the facts of Omar's life. It is true that no complete, authentic manuscript of Omar's is known, and equally true that no comprehensive biography is known; but detailed information has come down to us from his contemporaries. From these notes enough can be gathered to show that Omar was a great man indeed, one who clearly and forcibly shows the four sides of a perfect character.

«A perfect character is first and fundamentally powerful. It is based upon the One, be it in idea or in action. Next, it is so simple and direct that all extraneous thoughts and purposes are unknown to it. These two sides condition one another. No power without simplicity and no directness without power. The third side of a great character is love or human feeling; a fullness that seeks to draw all men to the One, and the fourth and last characteristic is harmony or a welding together into One of all these four. The last characteristic is, of course, an impossibility where the others do not exist; nor can the others attain any vividness or fullness without love.

«A perfect character is rare. We see, however, glimpses of it here and there. Omar Khayyam was a type of perfect character. He is full of the One; he knows of nothing but the One; he burns to draw his fellow-men to the One; he belongs nowhere but in the One, in whom he indeed can be said to move, live, and have his being. In the One he attained Wholeness, harmony. Omar's philosophy is that of the Sufis. In that, too, he is consistent. The one is Truth; Truth is the reality of things, Truth burns to draw men to Itself; Truth is the Law or ‹Universe.› His method is Symbolism, viz.: he chooses the transparencies of Nature in order to show his hearers how Truth or Wisdom and Love or Devotion everywhere appear to be the reality behind ‹the magic Shadow-shapes that come and go.› His most prominent symbols are Wine and Love; Roses, Springtime, and Death.

«Omar's ethics are not those of Mohammedanism. He advocates Resignation, to be sure, but not Mohammedan fatalism as popularly understood. His morals spring from his conception of the fullness of the One, and as such they are in harmony with the most universal notions of mankind. In one word, Omar's theology, philosophy, method, and morals are Sufistic, Sufism taken in the highest sense as the unifying notion for Wholeness, Love, Truth, and Power. A study of Sufism will reveal the real Omar—hitherto but little known, if known at all.

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«No one has attempted, so far as I know, to classify the various Sufistic systems. It is not so difficult to do so when a key can be found to them. The best key is that four-foldness which manifests itself in all human character, endeavor, and work. Corresponding to the four-foldness of character delineated above, I shall now take the terms Life, Love, Light, and Law and say that Al-Ghazzali and Jelaladdin represent the first and, as a proof, point to their constant emphasis of will as being the dominant power of existence, and the prominence they give to moral worth. The type of Love, in the form of poetry and feeling, is represented by Hafiz and Jami. The third group is fully and completely filled by Shabistani, the author of ‹Gulshan-i-Raz.› It is Light, and its form is Philosophy, Truth, and Understanding. The last, the fourth, sums up in a measure, the three preceding, and is also a clearly defined group by itself. It is Law, Order, Unity, and Reality. There is more independence in it than in any of the others, because it is the nearest approach known in existence to Wholeness or Unity. It contains the opposites of existence, both cosmic and human, viz.: the protest of the Mystic and also his affirmation, and the new Hope he represents.

«Omar Khayyam belongs to this fourth group. I do not say he alone fills it. But he exhibits that Independence and Protest which is the first and outward characteristic of it. He is also from time to time soaring into the realms of the Truth or Unity, in a way not found in any other Sufi poet or doctor.

«Under the garb of the Mystic's favorite method of Doubt and Protest, the Sufi (Omar) pictures the process of the Awakening of the Soul. That is the purpose of the ‹Magic Shadow-shapes that come and go› in the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam. His pictures are sufficiently transparent for us to see The Reality Behind.

«While so much is claimed for Omar, it must not be forgotten that it has not been said that he is the only perfect Sufi. It is not our intention to say or to intimate that. Omar is great enough when we attribute to him the office of an Awakener; not merely that of a John the Baptist, but the office of one who is himself full of the Awakening he preaches. Such an one is a unique character, and is truly an At-oner, one who heals all wounds and binds up broken limbs.»

I have already stated, if not in actual words, at least by inference, that Khayyam's philosophical and religious opinions were in certain essential points based upon the teaching of the Vedantas. He must have been familiar with the general scope of their philosophy, although attaching himself, as we have seen, to the ranks of the Sufi Mystics. Sufism and Babism are probably the most widely spread doctrines current in modern Persia, and after all are but forms of Vedantic pantheism despoiled of real significance by the effort to accommodate themselves to the creed of Islam. We learn from El Kifti that Khayyam «exhorted to the seeking of the One, the Ruler, by the purification of bodily movements, for the cleansing of the human soul,» an unmistakable exposition of Sufi practices, although based originally upon the customs of the Vedantic sages.

He certainly did not practice asceticism and other quasi-religious forms, which had been grafted upon the austere simplicity of the original Vedantic creed, but he did inculcate the necessity of acquiring «the knowledge of the unity of the soul with God»—the one thing important—which can only be achieved by the renouncement of desire, the purification of the soul from the lusts of the world, and the practice of kindliness, goodness, universal sympathy with mankind, and the patience which brings perfect work.

That Omar was a man of many moods is evident. His poetic faculties, acted upon by an intelligence that was profound, and by a wit as cutting as the tulwarof a Persian soldier, swayed him hither and thither upon the sea of daily doubts and fears which are part of man's existence. Yet, in his way, he was a beacon light, not only in the history of Sufi Mysticism, but in the annals of God-seeking. I can find no better yoke-fellow for him than Luther, like whom he was indeed an Apostle of Protest.