Personalities in Islam : Umar Khayyam (1028-1123 AD)

Personalities in Islam
'Umar Khayyam (1028-1123 AD)
As to those who hold fast by the Book and establish regular prayer, never shall We allow the reward of the righteous to perish. (Qur’an 7:170)
For about four or five hundred years from the seventh to the eleventh century AD, the Muslim renaissance in the field of knowledge and science was at its peak, and the contributions made by Muslim scholars and thinkers to the world at large ushered in an era of a glorious and refreshing Muslim art and culture. Then after the middle of the eleventh century there was a big decline of this glorious era (of art and culture) in the face of stiff opposition from anti-progressive forces. Along with this decline there was a profound lull in scientific and other educational pursuits. The Muslim era of knowledge and science started declining.
At this critical juncture a great scientist, astronomer, astrologer and a passionate and versatile poet, ‘Umar Khayyam, appeared on the scene and started reviving the declining era of scholarship and scientific pursuits. His full name was Abu’l-Fath ‘Umar ibn Ibrahim al-Khayyami. He was known as a poet of rationality and reasoning, but he was also a great mathematician and a famous astronomer.
His life and genealogy are shrouded in all kinds of mysterious and wondrous descriptions given by his numerous infatuated followers. Historians have had to grope in the darkness even to find the dates of his birth and death. Even the great biographer, Ibn Khalliqan, and his follower, Ibn Shakir, are silent about him. At any rate from various booklets and reference sources, whatever information was available has been deciphered by his biographers in the following manner:
He was born between 1038 and 1048 in Nishapur. His parents were traders in the tent business, and that is why he was known as Khayyam which means tent merchant. His father gave him a proper education and training and sent him to a famous institution of Nishapur for his studies. According to many biographers, he was a class fellow of Seljuqi Prime Minister, Azam al-Mulk, who promised him to take care of him when he was in power.
Umar was from his boyhood a keen and meritorious student. His memory was unusually sharp. He could memorize any difficult lesson or book, and once he learnt something he would never forget it. It is said that once, in Isfahan, he studied a large arithmetical book seven times and when he returned to Nishapur he reproduced the whole book from his memory without any mistake. He had unusual command of the languages of Persian and Arabic. He was a good reciter of the Qur’an and he could recite the Qur’an in the seven approved recensions. He had great knowledge of philosophy, arithmetic, astrology and astronomy. He used to acknowledge Ibn Sina as his mentor and he drew inspiration from Ibn Sina’s thoughts and philosophy.
After his studies were completed, he took up teaching as a lecturer in the Nishapur College and soon he became famous as a mathematician and as an astronomer. When his name and fame reached the ears of Nizam al-Mulk, the Seljuq Prime Minister, and the King, Malik Shah, he was appointed in the King’s court as an astronomer.
Malik Shah, the King, was keenly interested in astronomy, and that is why he established a famous observatory in Nishapur and appointed ‘Umar Khayyam as its chief. ‘Umar Khayyam and his colleagues worked hard for several years in this observatory and succeeded in producing the Tarikh al-Jalali calendar. This calendar was, in many respects, better than the Gregorian calendar produced in 1582 by Pope Gregory in Rome.
‘Umar Khayyam became a very close friend of the Prime Minister, Nizam al-Mulk, and the King, Malik Shah. Both of them used to respect him and treat him as a confidant. When in 1092 they were both killed by assassins, ‘Umar Khayyam was deeply shocked and retired from the King’s court and went to Nishapur College where he re-started his career as a lecturer once more. After about eight to ten years more service, he retired from the college, but he was surrounded every day by numerous seekers of knowledge who came to consult him and to seek his mature opinion on many matters. He died in Nishapur at the age of over 80.
A famous writer, Nizam-I al-‘Arudi, wrote that once, in 1112-13, he visited ‘Umar Khayyam in a friend’s house in Balkh when ‘Umar Khayyam remarked that his grave would be covered with flowers at least twice a year. He was surprised at this prophecy. But twenty-four years later, in 1136, the writer had the chance to go to Nishapur and happened to visit ‘Umar Khayyam’s grave on a Friday night, he found, to his great astonishment, that the grave was completely covered with beautiful flowers.
‘Umar Khayyam was undoubtedly a great philosopher, a great mathematician and a great astronomer. He wrote in Arabic more than ten books on philosophy, astronomy and mathematics. Of them his famous book, al-Jibr, is his greatest contribution to the world of knowledge. In this book, he showed his real scholarship and originality. The famous algebra writer, Al-Khwarizmi, did not show more originality and scholarship than he in solving the many problems of algebra and geometry. In 1857, Woepeke edited and translated Khayyam’s book Al-Jibr. His other book on geometry was a great improvement of Euclid’s book on the same subject, and it showed his high scholarship and splendid originality.
But ‘Umar Khayyam has remained most famous for his powerful and beautiful quatrains, the Ruba’iyat. He was a poet of great excellence. His beautiful verses have moved poets of both the West and the East. The writers and poets of his age did not and could not give him adequate recognition, but six centuries later an accomplished poet of the West, Fitzgerald, came out boldly to sing the songs of ‘Umar Khayyam, and he translated a good many of his couplets.
It is very difficult to determine the number of poems and verses that ‘Umar Khayyam composed, but the number of Ruba’iyat, that is, the quatrains, is more than twelve hundred. However, there are many claimants to the composition of these, and nobody is absolutely sure who actually composed them. But they were passed on as the Ruba’iyat-I ‘Umar Khayyam.
‘Umar Khayyam was undoubtedly a great mystic poet, a great monotheistic writer, extremely rational and an extremely argumentative poet. He was opposed to the orthodox ‘ulama’ and was opposed to all institutionalised regulations of religion. To him several institutions of religion were meaningless. Sufism was uncalled-for, and excessive fervour for religion was something detested. He was for natural religion and for a natural and humanitarian approach to it. His Ruba’iyat were for a clean and simple man. He was for forgiveness of man for all his errors and his sympathy went deep into his heart.
But above all he was an optimist and not a pessimist. To him beauty, truth, life, welfare had a special appeal. He was for all humanity. But he believed in the transmigration of souls which is against the fundamental beliefs of Islam. And that is why orthodox Muslims have never accepted him as a poet of Islam. Editing By: Azib al-Pauly

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