Omar Khayyam and Max Stirner

Translated by Ulrike Hirschhäuser

1) The Life Of Omar Chajjam And His Rubaijat

Omar Chajjam (other spellings: Omar-i, Omar-e, Umar Chaijam, Khayyam, Khajjam, Xhajjam, Hayyam) was born on May 18th, 1048 at Nischapur, Persia. We do not know much about his life. According to some sources he had been carefully educated in all fields of science. His students thought him to be a strict teacher. His poems were mostly written down by his disciples. A philosopher like him who denied his vocation, a poet like him who intensely experienced the dubiousness of human existence certainly was not particularly keen on publishing them. They were not made known to a general public before his death. The consumption of Persian wine, which had a somewhat bitter taste, was a habit of his. He used to recite his poems among his disciples and friends. He must have been an attractive host for he was consulted by a great many people who he gave scientific and philosophical advice. There were scientists and scholars among his visitors. His contemporaries primarily held him in high esteem as a scholar. He was an astronomer, physicist and philospher. He wrote treatises on algebra, geometry, metaphysics and he was one of the most famous and greatest mathematicians of his time.40 In his treatise "Kharidat al-Kasr", which was written in 1176/1177, Al-Isfahani called Omar an unequalled scholar at his time, who had an excellent reputation in the very sense of the word. In his book on "Algebra" "Omar arrived at conclusions that occidental scientists did not arrive at until the 16th century" (F.Rosen) Omar, too, worked as a physician. His scientific work outshone his renown as a poet for a long time.

It was at a future time that he became famous for his Rubaijat. He was a most ingenious poet, who managed to convey both his sceptical and mystical view of life by means of simple epigrams. A mystical mathematician who very often confounded his contemporaries. An earlier source dating from the years 1223/1224, "Mirsad al-Ibad" by Al-Din calls Omar "an unhappy philosopher, an atheist and materialist ". Other sources call him an adherent of Ibni Sina´s.(Avicenna) Kifti presents him as a devotee of Greek classical science. Others consider Omar to be a sarcastic pessimist, an Epicurean hedonist. F.G. Juenger, a more recent interpreter, regards Omar as both a fatalist and free thinker, as a pantheist.

Omar Chajjam wrote his Rubaijat in Persian, whereas he wrote his scietntific works mainly in Arabic, because Arabic was the official language in Persia at his time.

The English poet and interpreter Edward Fitzgerald was the first to introduce Chajjam´s quatrains to the western world in 1859, whereupon the poems became better known than any other secular poetry from the eastern world. Omar became the most famous oriental poet in Europe and America. "Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám", the book by Fitzgerald, was said to be the best-selling book besides the Bible in the Anglosaxon world.

Omar also criticized religious and scientific dogmatism. In his introduction to his treatise on algebra he writes about some of his contemporaries´ hypocritical and mischievous intrigues,

"Most of those who are classified as scholars nowadays conceal the truth by lies and are incapable of transgressing the limits of mere scholasticism, since they apply their knowledge only for material and base ends. And whenever they meet with a man who distinguishes himself by his quest for truth and his love of truthfulness, who rejects vanity, untruths, avoids pretence and blindness to reality, they treat him with contempt."

Wine as a sufistic symbol stands for an ecstatic elevation to divineness. Omar did not in the least have anything to do with Sufism, his poetry was opposed to Sufism. I think it will be pointless to look for parallels between Sufi´s and Omar´s mystcism. Freedom of thought and freedom of research were of great importance to Omar. Therefore his consumption of wine was primarily deemed to be a symbol of free thinking.

2) Philosophical Treatises

In 1169 Chajjam´s second biographer Baihaki mentioned three treatises of Omar´s. All in all five treatises have been preserved.

1) Treatise on being and obligation (Risalat al-Kawn wa ’l-Taklif, written in 1080). This treatise was written at the request of Judge and Imam Abu Nasr, who wanted to clear Omar of the suspicion of heresy..

2) An answer to three questions: The necessity of contradiction in the world, determinism and permanence. The judge agreed to Omar´s first treatise, he, however, had asked religious questions more porfoundly, so that Omar composed that treatise.

3) The light of intelligence concerning the subject of universal knowledge (al Diya al-akli fi maw­du al-ilm al-kulli)

4) On existence (Risalat al-Wudjud)

5) There is a treatise On metaphysics in Paris, London and Teheran.Arthur Christensen translated several of its chapters: Un traite de métaphysique de Omar Khayyam, in MO, 1, 1-16, 1908.

3) Omar´s Scientific and other Treatises

1) Treatise on the proofs of problems of algebra and almucabala composed at Samarkand, dedicated to Judge Abu Tahir. This manuscript can be inspected at Leiden, Paris, Kairo, London, and the Vatican. The treatise was translated into French by F. Woepcke in 1851 under the title of ...

Moreover there are translations into Russian, Persian, and English.

2) A mathematical treatise entitled....(Difficult Problems of Arithmatik) has been lost.

3) Treatise on the division of a quadrant of a circle (Risala fi taksim rub’ al-da’ira)

4) Concise treatise on nature (Mukhtasar fi ’l-Tabiiyat)

5) Chajjam´s introduction to his research on Euclid´s Postulates (Sharh ma ashkala min musadarat kitap uklides", written in the year of 1077) was translated by G.Jakob and E Wiedemann. (at Leiden) Furthermore there are translations into Russian and an incomplete translation into English.

4) Calendar Reform and the New-Year Festival

Omar was commissioned by Melik-Shah (his reign at Bagdad lasted from 1072 to 1092), son of Alp Arslan, and his vizier Nisam el Mülk, an outstanding scholar (founder of the universities od Nischapur, Bagdad and Mulk), to reform the calendar, he could finish the task successfully in 1079. There were other scholars like´l-Muzaffar Asfizari and Maimun b. Nadjib Wasiti who had contributed to that project, too.

Omar published part of his astronomical observations under the title of "Astronomical Tables for Malik Shah".(Zidj Malik Shahi) There is an anonymous manuscript dating from the time of the Ismailis at the National Library in Paris, which contains some parts of the tables. There is a Russian translation, too.

Omar wrote a treatise on the new-year festival (Nawruz-nama). This was discovered by F. Rosen in Persia in 1929. Omar published it because he wanted to convince Malik Shah´s successor of the scientific and economic necessity of an observatory. "Among other things fixing the beginning of a new year, of the date of the new-year festival at the sun´ s entry into Aries on March 21st is due to Omar." (F. Rosen)

5) Other Treatises

Omar wrote some more treatises on mechanics, the sciences, geography and music. F.Rosen translated one of these, which deals with the calculation of the gold - and silver content in objects containing these precious metals into German and published it under the title of "The Balance of Wisdoms" (Die Balance der Weisheit) in The Journal of The German Oriental Society (Zeitschrift der Deutschen Morgenländischen Gesellschaft), No. 79 in 1925. Omar called it "the balance of wisdoms" (Mizan al-hikam). A treatise of Omar´s about music, "Treatise on the difficulties from the book of music"  (Sharh al-mushkil min kitab al-musika) has gone lost. But he made mention of it in one of his geometrical writings.

* * *

Baihaki reported about a meeting between Omar and his adversary Alghazali, the greatest teacher of Islam and theologian in the middle ages, at Nischapur in 1091 0r 1092.

* * *

Omar set off on a pilgrimage for Mecca ("He might have done so to escape all his persecutors." F. Rosen). After Nisam el Mülk and Meli Shah, who appreciated and supported Omar´s scientific research, had been murdered, the country was involved in a civil war, and since Omar as a representative of science was especially exposed to orthodox threats (The observatory built by Omar was deteriorating.), he could hardly do anything else but begin that venture which was most certainly a very unpleasant one for him.

* * *

Omar alternately lived at Balkh, at Merw, at Bagdad and at Nischapur again. Nizami-yi Arudi, whose Cahar Makala (1156) is the first contemporary source about Omar, met him at Balkh in 1112/1113.

Omar died at Nischapur in 1131, possibly on the 4th of December.


- Encyclopaedia of Islam. X. Band. Leiden/Brill, 2000, Netherland.

- Enzyklopaedie des Islam. Band 3, Otto Harrosowitz, 1936. Leiden/Leipzig.

- C. Brockelmann: GAL (Geschichte der Arabischen Literatur) Supplement 1, Leiden, 1937

- Friedrich Rosen: Die Sinnsprüche Omars des Zeltmachers, Insel Verlag 1998.

- Kindlers Neues Literatur Lexikon, Band 12, 1996.

If you are interested in the complete German version, you can order it at: www.max-stirner-archiv-leipzig.de



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