Omar Khayam was a Persian Sufi12 min read

The popularity gained by FitzGerald’s translation of the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam since its first publication is simply phenomenal. These verses make an appeal to the sceptical mind of the Western world. Some of the finest artists in Europe and India have devoted the best of their talent to illustrating the work of the Irish poet, and to-day countless editions of the book are sold all over the world.

Omar was a Persian who belonged to that elevating school of thought known as Irfan, which has inspired so many great poets. In the middle of last century, Europe knew little of the culture of Persia, and when the verses of FitzGerald brought the perfume of the roses of Naishapur to the West, Europe hailed Omar as an interpreter of the materialistic phase of the Western mind.

Those who took life easily and did not want to think for themselves, sang songs in admiration of Omar as the advocate of the unrestricted use of wine, and other luxuries of life. What pleasure filled their hearts when they sang the following verses, and thought that they had found the highest truth therein :—

“ Why, all the Saints and Sages who discussed Of the Two Worlds so learnedly, are thrust Like foolish Prophets forth ; their Words to Scorn Are scattered, and their Mouths are stopt with Dust.”

One whose acquaintance with Persian culture is deep, cannot but, feel sorry for this misunderstanding of the philosophy of Omar, and no right-minded man should rest without challenging it, when once he knows of the injustice done to one of the greatest exponents of the philosophy of Persia.

Let us now examine the position of Omar, what kind of life he lived, and whether he actually practised what is imputed to him. Omar was one of the greatest scientists of Asia, and his writings on astronomy, mathematics and rhetoric are very highly spoken of by other Persian scholars.

He never married, and never drank a cup of wine in his life, his only pleasure being the pursuit of philosophy, science and literature.

He was a Muslim by faith, and there are traditions in Persia to the effect that he never missed his prayer, and was well versed in the mysteries of the Quran, which he read daily with zeal.

One of his early companions in life rose to a high position in the State under the Shah. He remembered Omar, and in recognition of his literary merit, offered to do anything to make him happy. Omar, at that time did not say :—

“ Ah, my Beloved, fill the Cup that clears To-day of past Regrets and future Fears—
To-morrow ?—Why, To-morrow I may be Myself with Yesterday’s Sev’n Thousand Years.”

Neither did he ask his friend to surround him with beautiful dark-eyed Persian maidens, whose presence inebriates youth. His request was that a modest pension be granted him, with permission to live in retirement, in order that he might devote his time to the pursuit of higher knowledge.

Gayasuddin, for such was the real name of Omar, was a moralist who preached the virtue of self-effacement. The following rubaii, which is not included in the collection of Fitz-Gerald, clearly indicates Omar’s humility. I quote the original, and give its translation :—
“ Dar rah chunnan ro ka salamat na kunand,
Ba khlaq chunanxe quyamat na kunanand
Dar masjid agar ravi chunan ro ka tura,

Dar pesha kwaband o imamat no kunand”
“ Walk in such a manner that they may not salute thee,
Live in such a way that the public may not know and respect thee.
When thou goest to the Mosque to pray,
go in such a way that nobody may notice thee
and make thee Imam (leader of prayer).”

Having read and re-read the 764 rubaiyat in the original (published by a Lahore firm) and having carefully edited them with the help of several Persian scholars, I have come to the conclusion that not a single rubaii has been faithfully translated by FitzGerald. FitzGerald has only translated 75 out of the 764 rubaiyat, and none of these, strictly speaking, can be said to be a faithful translation of any one of the originals. In many cases he has summarised the sense of several rubaiyat in one stanza.

I quote below the first rubaii in the original, and give a translation, leaving the reader to compare them and judge whether FitzGerald’s version can be called a translation at all
“ Amad sahar nada ze maikhana t ma Ai rind khrabati ai diwana i ma Berkhez ke purkunem paimana ze mat Z,an pesh ke purkunand paiman i mad”
“ One morning from the Tavern came a mystic cry to me ;
O my mystic unconventional madman, get up,
so that I may fill thy cup with wine,
before the cup of thy life is filled”

“ Dreaming when Dawn’s Left Hand was in the Sky,
I heard a Voice within the Tavern cry,
Awake my little ones, and fill the Cup
Before Life’s Liquor in its Cup be dry”

The word nada,, which is translated as a cry by the poet, means, in the Persian language, a mysterous voice like an inspiration, but not a human cry.
It must be admitted that the verse of FitzGerald is much more beautiful than the Persian of Omar, though it can hardly be called a translation of Omar’s rubaii. But I want to examine the question as to whether Omar was a materialist, advocating a free use of wine to drown the sorrows of the world, with no faith in the immortality of the soul or the existence of a First Cause—a Cosmic Consciousness.

It is likely that the reader who is not familiar with Sufi symbology may receive this impression after a superficial study of the rubaiyat. In fact it is not easy to resist the materialistic conception of Omar when one reads the following verse of FitzGerald :—
“ Oh, come with old Khayyam, and leave the wise To talk ;
one thing is certain, that Life flies;
One thing is certain, and the rest is lies ;
The Flower that once has blown for ever dies.”

Let us first note the position of Omar in Persian poetry. He came before Hafiz, Jami and Sa’di, who are unanimously regarded as the best of the Persian poets. Firdausi, the author of Shah-namah and one of the makers of the Persian language, preceded Omar, and so did several others.

In the love poetry of Persia, Hafiz stands unsurpassed ; for beauty of language and elegance of expression, Sa’di is acknowledged the best, while in epic poetry Firdausi is the brightest jewel.

Almost all the great poets of Persia and India have belonged to the Irfan school, which is also called Sufism. Jami, Attar, Nizami and Hafiz also belonged to the same school and they are not very different from Omar.

The Arabs introduced the Irfan into Persia. This sytem of thought came to Arabia soon after the death of Hazrat Muhammad, and, according to one tradition, it was secretly communicated by the Prophet to Ali, the greatest of his followers. There is also a tradition that its first exponent was a young Arab girl named Rabi’ah, who was filled with the spirit of the Vedanta philosophy of India, and who was a poetess of no mean distinction. Fragments of Irfan are found scattered among the pages of that great book the Quran. There is no doubt that the Prophet of Arabia was familiar with the doctrine of Vedanta and had perhaps heard of the Upanishads.

The Sufi hates hypocrisy and a show of religion, and tries to realise God within by devotion and knowledge. He stands for uncompromising morality and does not care how hardly he lives. His religion is to do good to others, which is the essence of Islam. He is free from fanaticism and is not anxious to make converts. Few of the Sufis ever drink wine.

They write of wine and the tavern, but as a matter of fact they are against the use of alcohol. Besides, the Arabian Prophet has forbidden the use of wine, and the Sufi, who loves Muhammad with all his heart, never does what is prohibited by the Prophet. Wine in the Irfan poetry symbolises divine ecstasy, and the saqui, or young girl who serves wine, means the Teacher who has realised God within. The following rubaii of Sarmad, a great Arif who was beheaded by Emperor Aurangzeb in Delhi for his advanced views on religion and who is known as one of the greatest saints of the Mogul period in India, will make my meaning clear :—
“ Khwahi ka shawi o gadai na kuni –
Bayad ka khial parskai na kuni Az dardkashi saf dili hast I kun Yak gam ze maikhana juda na kuni.

“ If you want to be a king, do not be a beggar,
Care for outward purity,
Purify your heart by suffering for others,
Do not be away from the tavern for a minute.”

It is a known fact that Sarmad never touched wine in his life. It is quite clear that by the ‘ tavern ‘ he means ‘ the place where the Teacher propagates divine wisdom. The very first verse in the Divan of Hafiz says : “ O saqui, come and fill my cup with wine.”

In the language of a layman this means : “ Come, O Teacher of Truth, and fill my heart with divine wisdom.”

Humility, renunciation, boundless tolerance, compassion, poverty and simplicity are the virtues that a Sufi prizes above many prayers, and he cultivates them in order to realise God. Self-effacement is one of the chief aims of a Sufi. Moulana Jalaluddin Rumi, a prince among Sufis, renounced his great wealth and high position to become a begging Sufi and to find God in his own soul, and he too makes mention of wine and the tavern in his great work, the Masnavi. I am convinced of the fact that Omar, who follows the idiom of the Arabian Sufis, never countenanced wine.

That Omar was not a believer in the materialistic conception of the Universe is clear from many of his rubaiyaty none of which have been translated by FitzGerald.

I quote a rubaii in support of my contention :—
“ O God, Thou art merciful, thrice merciful,
Why will not a sinner enter heaven ?
If Thy grace goes only to the faithful, it is not proper grace,
If Thou savest a sinner also, then it is true mercy.”

Islam teaches the doctrine of predestination, and Omar was a believer in this.

He held that all is God, and consequently good.

The following rubaii of Omar, translated by myself, makes this clear :—

“ Except the order of God, no one’s order has any value,
Where and what is the existence of that which is beyond His order? Everything to-day is what it should be.
The should-have-been does not exist’at all.”

In the introduction to the translation of the rubaiyat of FitzGerald, I find the following : “ . . . his wine is the veritable juice of the grape ; his tavern where it was to be
had ; his saqui the flesh and blood that poured it out for him ; all of which, and where the roses were in bloom, was all he professed to want of this world, or to expect of Paradise.”

I have no hesitation in declaring that the man who thinks of Omar and his philosophy in these terms, has not understood him at all. That Omar’s wine was not  the veritable juice of the grape ’ is clear from the following rubaii, which is not touched by FitzGerald :
“ An mat ka hay at i jawaedanisht barns’h Sarmai lazzat i jewanist banosh.”

“ Drink that wine which is eternal life,
‘ Drink the wine which is the foundation of the joys of youth.”

Omar was well versed in science and knew well that alcohol shortened life, and he would never call it ‘ Life Eternal ’. Undoubtedly, by ‘ wine ’ he meant ‘ divine wisdom.’

Omar’s code of morality, which is simple, is summed up by him in the rubaii quoted below :—

“ Do not be lazy, do thy duty to God,
I am responsible for the needs of this world, you fetch wine.
You must not think of depriving others of their life and property;
What little you have, share it with others.”

The same thought is expressed in the Hindu book, the Bhagavad Gita, and Fariduddin Attar, a great Sufi of Persia, has said the same thing in his book called Pand Nama.

Like other Sufis, Omar sings of the hollowness of outer knowledge, and advises abstention from this will-o’- the-wisp. Sa’di has said in his Bostan :

“ You cannot ride two boats at the same time, each sailing in a different direction, and yet enjoy the bliss of true knowledge ;
if you care for the supreme bliss of divine knowledge, you have to give up the pleasures of the flesh.”

The following rubaii of Omar, translated by myself, has the same meaning :—

“ Suppose you have gathered the wealth of the whole world
And have adorned the heart with verdure,

And you sit like dew for a night on yonder lawn,
Still with the advent of dawn you will have to depart.”

To understand the philosophy of Omar, one must make a thorough study of the Masnavi of Moulana Rumi, that monumental work on Irfan, which contains the essence of Islam and the highest flights of Sufism.

To know what Omar really aims at, one must go to the Upanishads and the Gita, wherein the human mind for the first time rises to its supreme height in this realm.

The Upanishads were first translated into Persian by Dara Shukoh, although an Arabic translation was made in the reign of Caliph Mamoun Rashid.
Self-surrender to God, which is one of the virtues the Sufi loves and cultivates, is beautifully expressed by FitzGerald in his ruhan :—

“ The Ball no question makes of Ayes and Noes,
But Right or Left as strikes the Player goes;
And He that tossed Thee down into the Field,
He knows about it all—HE knows—HE knows ! ”