Bitter Joy

Capturing the hedonistic spirit of Khayyam's poetry


Bitter Joy
by Majid Naficy

     This year is the 150th anniversary of the publication of  Edward Fitzgerald's Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam. On this  occasion, I would like to share the English version of my   essay first published in Persian twenty years ago. (1)

      The question which always consumes the soul of the great Persian poet, Omar Khayyam (1048-1122), is death and the afterlife. In his Ruba'iyat, he cannot accept the usual religious responses of resurrection and reincarnation. To release his mind from the insurmountablility of death, he takes refuge in wine (and sometimes love), and tries to forget himself in "let's be happy" or hedonism. As a result, in spite of his rejection of resurrection and ridicule of religious observances, Khayyam is not able to appreciate the immortal self-creativity of earthly life and cannot distance himself from the religious point of departure; that is, the dominance of death over life. In Khayyam's hedonism, earthly wine replaces heavenly opium and drinking ceremonies substitute for religious rituals. Although social injustice and public ignorance saddens Khayyam and he often speaks out against the "bloodthirsty" clergy, he shows no way out other than seclusion and escapism. Therefore, it is not wrong to call Khayyam "the poet of bitter joy", that is, a drinking, lonely poet to whom life tastes like death.

I. Death and the Afterlife  

      Khayyam, in addition to poetry, was interested in mathematics and astronomy. Scientific work helps him to think of philosophical problems beyond the usual religious dogmas. The following quatrain, while showing the impact of astronomy on his philosophical thought, reveals his main obsession with death:  

      From the mass of black clay to the heights of saturn

      I solved abstract problems one by one

      I untied the knots of problems with skill

      All knots were untied except that of death (2)

      Death is a force from which no human being can escape:

      No one wins over the wheel of time

      And the earth is not full of eating men and women

      You are proud that you are not eaten yet

      Why hurry, it's not late, you'll be eaten too

      In spite of the fact that being and not being are inseparably connected, the problem of death is more appealing to Khayyam than the question of life's genesis. Whether the world is created or timeless, death inevitably knocks at our doors:  

      I'm not immortal in this universe

      So it's a big mistake to be without wine and love

      How much longer on "created" or "timeless", oh wiseman

      We will be gone, whether the world is created or timeless

      People after death turn into dust, therefore, each handful of dust is reminiscent of a person in the past:  

      The Wheel will not pick up any clay from the earth

      Until it is shattered, returning to clay again

      If the cloud lifts the soil just as water

      It will rain the blood of our loves until the resurrection

      Man cannot escape death in reality, but he is able to overcome it in three imaginary ways: First, if man can drink from the fountain of life, he will be able to remain evergreen like the Islamic saint Kheder ("khezr" in Persian) or the Jewish prophet Elias; the double-horned Islamisized Greek King Alexander who returned unsuccessfully from the path to immortality; the Greek hero Achilles and the Persian warrier Esfandyar who took ablution in holy water, but unintentionally left vulnerable spots through which death entered their bodies. However, gods and semi-gods remain the only deathless beings and humanity cannot reach immortality. Second, based on the principle of reincarnation, Hindus believe that people after death, measured by their behavior in this world, will be reborn in a new form and thereby overcome death. Third, according to Islamic and Judeo-Christian traditions, the human soul after death must wait for the day of reckoning. At that time, all the dead will be raised; those who had done wrong will go to hell, and the righteous, to paradise:

      What if there was a place for resting in peace

      Or there was a destination for this far path

      What if after one hundred thousand years, within the earth

      Like greenery, there was hope of growing back again

      Although Khayyam considers each of the three utopian forms of victory over death absurd, he is influenced by the Hindu concept of reincarnation. After death, parts of the dead body remain in other existing forms. Thus, there is a material unity between the living and the dead:  

      Every leaf of grass grown at a brook

      Looks like the new fuzz on the upper lip of an angelic face

      Behold, do not step on greenery with contempt

      Because it has grown out of the tomb of a tulip-faced youth

      Khayyam feels a deep emotional connection between himself and others as well as among past, present and future. This connection can create happiness as well as sorrow:  

      Last night I hit the porcelain jar

      I was tipsy, and so I did wrong

      The jar was telling me in a mystical language

      I was like you, and you, too, will be like me

      The material unity of the world is a result of the shared origin of its component parts:  

      When humors were composed by the Omniscient

      I don't know why He made them defective

      If they came out well, why does He break them into pieces

      If these forms were not made well, who should be blamed  

      In the following quatrain he mentions four material elements of nature:

      We are in this ruined corner with wine and our loves

      Not bothered by hope of paradise or fear of torment

      We have pledged our souls, bodies, cups and clothes for wine

      Free from wind, earth, fire and water

      For people who live at the edge of vast deserts the element of "earth" seems to be more important than the other three elements. It is said in all holy books of monistic religion of the Middle East, including the Koran, that God created man from a special soil used for pottery, and then blew spirit into it. Pottery, glazing ceramics, forming glassware and mining turquoise have been ancient professions of craftsmen of Nishabur, where Khayyam was born and lived most of his life. This city is located by the famous Silk Road where camel-drivers carried the porcelain and turquoise of Nishabur west to the Mediterranean sea or east to China. Khayyam, who hears the hubbub of pottery in his city, reiterates the Koranic myth of Adam's creation with one difference, that his system of creation consists of two departments: one the pottery workshop and the other, the tavern. In the workshop, human bodies are made and in the tavern, divine spirit is poured into the bodies. From the soil of each shattered clay jar, another clay jar is made, and this process goes on to eternity:  

      Last night I went to the workshop of a potter

      I saw two thousands clay jars, talking and quiet

      Suddenly one clay jar wailed loudly:

      "Where are the potter and the seller or buyer of pottery?"

      But the master of the workshop is no other than the potter of  the universe, that is, "Time" or "dahr":  

      It is a cup praised by wisdom

      Kindly kissing its face one hundred times

      The potter of "Time" makes such a delicate cup

      Then throws it on the ground, time after time

      Sometimes, the potter of Time is changed to a painter of the garden of the universe:  

      True, I have beautiful hair and visage

      A face like a tulip and height like a fir tree

      Yet it's not clear why, in the garden of Time

      The eternal painter has thus drawn me

      Sometimes instead of the word "dahr" (time), words such as "charkh" (wheel), "gardoon" (spin) and "falak" (firmament or arch of the sky) are used which remind us of the potter's wheel as well as heavenly spheres and stars:  

      Oh Wheel, how come you make a miserly person wealthy

      And you give him a bathhouse, mill and a mansion

      But a freeman is in debt for his daily bread

      No doubt one must fart on such a firmament

      In the first verse of sura (chapter) 76 of the Koran, called "dahr" or "Time", we are asked: "Has there not been over man a long period of time (dahr), when he was nothing- not even mentioned?"   From the word "dahr" comes the term "dahri", the adherent to the cult of "Zurvan". In pre-Islamic Iran, Zurvanism was a movement within Zoroastrianism which held that Zurvan was the ultimate source of the universe and his twin children were the good spirit, Ahura-Mazda, and the bad spirit, Ahriman. Later in Islamic culture, the term "dahri" was used as a label for atheists, agnostic and skeptic freethinkers like Khayyam. Dahr suggests the passage of time. It has predetermined the lot and the time of everything and everybody in the tablet of fortune:   

      Bewildered like a ball in the polo of fortune

      Go left, go right and say nothing

      Because one who dropped you in this feverish running

      Only he knows, only he knows, only he

      Nevertheless, it seems that in some of his quatrains Khayyam uses fatalism, in order to justify his religious non-observance. If everyone's fate is predetermined, he neither benefits from religious worship in this world, nor can he hope for salvation on the day of judgment:   

      Because God ordained your daily bread

      Neither will he diminish it nor increase it

      One should feel free regarding what there is

      And be carefree about what there is not

      And also in this quatrain:   

      Oh Lord, you have molded my clay, what should I do?

      You have strung my jasper and pearl, what should I do?

      Whatever I do, either evil or good

      You have written for me in advance, what should I do?

      Contrary to the fatalism and irresponsibility for ones' actions implied in the two above-mentioned pieces, we encounter a completely new thought in the following quatrain:  

      Every good or evil inherent in human nature

      Every joy or sorrow within the predetermined fate

      Should not be left to the Wheel, because viewed by wisdom

      The Wheel is more miserable than you a thousand times

      If, from the above-mentioned poem, one can understand the necessity of human freedom only through a counter-argument, in the following quatrain the conclusion is self-evident:  

      We are the end of all creation

      In view of wisdom, spirit or vision

      The circle of the world looks like a ring

      And we are the only design on its stone  

      Therefore, man is the center of the universe. He is autonomous in his thoughts and actions, and God has no influence on him. Khayyam, both through his fatalism and voluntarism, attempts to reject the principle of resurrection. He does not accept the words of the Koran and the Prophet about the day of judgment, and wants to think with his own head.

II. Scientific Method  

In order to reject resurrection, Khayyam uses four arguments based, respectively, on personal observation, investigation of other people's observation, philosophical contemplation and psycho-sociological analysis. Firstly, according to classical terminology, Kayyam is a Naturalist philosopher, or as we contemporaneously might say, adheres to the scientific method. In his investigation, he begins with the observation of the world around him instead of reaching a conclusion at the outset and then finding supporting examples. Like Francis Bacon (1561-1626), after observing nature, he contemplates, analyzes and finally reaches a conclusion. In the following quatrain, he uses an argument by analogy and after observing the growth and death of a tulip, concludes that human resurrection has no basis in reality:  

      Drink wine, you will sleep a long time in the earth

      Without companion, comrade, friend or mate

      Behold, do not reveal this hidden secret:

      That tulip which withered, will not blossom

      Secondly, Khayyam does not limit himself to personal observation, but is ready to hear the ideas of others. Unfortunately, so far no dead person has returned from the grave who can bring us any proof to the validity of the afterlife:  

      From all those gone on this long path

      Who has returned to reveal to us the secret?

      Behold, at this dilemma of greed and need

      Do not leave anything, because you won't come back

      Thirdly, after gathering observations and facts, it is time for analytical reasoning. If everything is written in the tablet of fortune in advance, then the necessity of religious observances in this world and the existence of resurrection hereafter are both nullified:

      How much longer light from mosques and smoke from synagogues?

      How much more "loss" in hell and "profit" in paradise?

      Look at the tablet of fortune, where from primordial time

      The master wrote whatever was ordained to happen

      And fourthly, if through observation of nature, investigation of facts and philosophical contemplation we cannot find a basis for resurrection, what would be the need for its invention? People are not fond of vanity, nor is the blade of absurdity always sharp. As a result, belief in the day of reckoning originates from social and psychological needs. In a world filled with sorrows, where oppression and ignorance rule, the oppressed and hopeless must take refuge in utopia and find a way out in dreams. Hence, we find concepts such as paradise, inferno and even God:  

      The Wheel is a belt around our worn-out body

      The river of Oxus is a mark of our refined tears

      Hell is a spark from our unheeded sighs

      And paradise is a moment of our peaceful time

      The belief in a day of resurrection is a reflection of our joy and sorrow in this world, even as the concept of God is caused by the feeling of the passage of time on the world and our aging bodies. Khayyam, in some other quatrains shows a tendency towards complete atheism:  

      This sea of being has appeared from hiding

      There is no one who can pierce the jewel of its knowledge

      Everybody has said words in caprice

      What is on the other side, no one can say

      Despite of all facts and reasoning, if there were to be a day of resurrection with its paradise and hell, it would be better for us not to risk the cash for credit. Khayyam leaves the promised paradise to the faithful and inspires others to build a paradise in this world:  

      They say paradise will be fun for you with its beautiful women Instead, I'd say that the juice of grapes is good for you

      Take this cash and wash your hand of that credit

      The sound of a kettledrum is only fun from afar

      If what the Koran says about the beautiful women and men in paradise is true, so enjoying wine and love in this world should not be considered an abomination:  

      They say that there will be a paradise with beautiful women

      There you will have pure wine and honey

      If we worshipped wine and love it would be right

      Because the outcome of our world will be the same  

      The inferno cannot be a place for lovers and drunks:

      They say that the drunkards will go to hell

      This is incorrect and one should not have faith in it

      If lovers and drunks will inhabit inferno

      You will find paradise tomorrow like the palm of a hand  

      Will we be resurrected in spirit or in our present bodies? Even a dispute within the camp of resurrectionists gives Khayyam an opportunity to preach his gospel of joy:  

      They say whoever fears God

      Will be raised as when he died

      That's why we always enjoy wine and love

      So that in resurrection we will be so raised

      Because we might be raised in our present bodily form, Khayyam gives the address of his grave in advance, so that the functionaries of the day of judgement will not make a mistake:  

      When I pass away, use wine for my ablution

      Instead of holy words, fill my mouth with pure wine

      If you want to find me on the day of resurrection

      Seek me at the threshold of the tavern

III. Three Schools of Thought  

      Sunni clergy were not the only enemy of Khayyam in Khorasan, Iran. In addition to Sunni governments of Malekshah (R. 1072-92)  and Sanjar (1085-1157) of the House of Seljuq, there were Isma'ili partisans, (or Sevener Shiites). This latter group made a distinction between the literal and the hidden meaning of words of the Koran. Instead of relying on words and deeds attributed to Muhammad, the prophet, as Sunnis did, Isma'ilis advocated a "rational" interpretation of religion. The beautiful legend of three schoolmates - Khawjeh Nizam-ul-Mulk (b. 1018, the powerful vizier of Seljuk's kingdom), Hassan Sabah (b. 1034, the leader of the Isma'ili-Nizari partisans in Iran) and Omar Khayyam - who studied together under Imam Mowaffaq Nishapuri, thoroughly illustrates the battle of three ways of thought: reactionary orthodox Suniism, revolutionary "rationalist" Isma'ilism and agnostic hedonism of Khayyam in the eleventh and twelfth centuries. Khayyam was suspicious of the other two trends because they misled people with the popular mirage of resurrection. He looked for his paradise in this world:  

      I will kill sorrow with a huge jug of wine

      And enrich myself with two large goblets of it

      First I will divorce "reason" and "religion" forever

      Then I will marry the daughter of grapevines

      In the following quatrain, he makes fun of Isma'ili concepts, such as knowledge, the literal (appearance) and hidden (inside) meanings of the Koranic verses:

      I know the "surface" of being and not being

      I know the "depth" of each up and down

      Yet, I should be ashamed of my "knowledge"

      If I know a place above drinking

      The Isma'ili movement had created a new fever for change among the masses. But Khayyam knew that it was in vain and believed that, as a Persian proverb says, "It was milking a bull":  

      Those who work hard for "reason"

      Are milking a bull in vain

      It would be better for them to wear a fool's costume

      Because today no one swaps cabbage for "reason"  

      They consider themselves a knowledgeable elite, however in reality they are a handful of ignorant donkeys:  

      With these ignorant few who foolishly

      Consider themselves the intelligent ones of the world

      Be a donkey, because they are so deep in donkeyness

      Who call "blasphemous" whomever is not a donkey

      Khayyam mocked the Isma'ili's "reason", not because he did not believe in rational reasoning. He was himself a mathematician and astronomer. In order to reject revelation and the prophet's tradition, he relied on observation and reasoning. However, Reason ('aql) in Isma'ili's hands was only a banner by which they tried to cover their religious dogma. Therefore, the object of Khayyam's criticism was their dogmatism and not reason in and of itself. The two factions of Sunnis and Isma'ilis, although different in their slogans, methods, leaders and mythologies, both preached religious dogmatism:

      A group of people contemplate for the sake of "religion"

      Another group presumes they have found "truth"

      I am afraid that it will be announced one day:

      Oh you misinformed, the path is neither that nor this

      Mysticism also disqualified "reason" as a reliable method for knowledge, and replaced it with "intuition" or personal revelation. But Khayyam (contrary to what J. B. Nicolas, his first French translator believed) was not a sufi and his criticism of "reason", was aimed at Isma'ili dogmatism and not rationalism.  Nevertheless, one cannot consider Khayyam a "rationalist", neither in terms of ancient Greek philosophy nor modern European thought. In the following piece, he denies that he is a Greekophile:

      The enemy said wrongly that I am "philosophical"

      God knows that in fact I'm not

      Since I have come to this vale of sorrow

      Do I not even know who who I am?

      He does not despise knowledge and contemplation, but finds no certainty in their results:  

      My heart has never been deprived of knowledge

      And there are few secrets which are not revealed to me

      I contemplated seventy-two years, days and nights  

      It became known to me that nothing has been known

      In the above quatrain, he does not show false modesty, rather he presents his philosophical skepticism. Khayyam does not hope that riddles of "eternity" or "the relation between being and not being" will ever be revealed to humanity:  

      The primordial secrets will not be known either to you or me

      This gibberish will not be read either by you or me

      We are talking to each other against the curtain

      When the curtain is dropped, there remains neither you nor me  

      Those who think they have the truth in their hands, are in fact mythologizing:  

      Those who encircled knowledge and letters

      And set a candle for apostles to reveal knowledge

      At last they did not find a way out of this dark night

      Only told stories and then went to sleep

      Khayyam uses his philosophical doubt for the justification of his philosophy of joy:  

      Since "truth" and "certainty" are not at hand

      One cannot sit hypothesizing for one's whole life

      It would be better for us not to set down cups of wine

      Drink and become tipsy, neither drunk nor sober     

IV. Hedonism  

      By rejecting the religious responses to the riddle of death, Khayyam finds the doors to human victory over mortality closed.  What remains is a transitory life which should be treated as a loan and paid back. One should enjoy the moment; neither have a desire for the future, nor envy yesterday: 

      Today, you cannot reach tomorrow

      And thinking of tomorrow is but a fantasy

      Don't waste this moment, if you are not a fool

      Since the rest of your life will not last forever

      In the following quatrain, to convey his hedonistic message Khayyam uses puns: In the first line there is a pun on "no-ruz" (a new day) and "Noruz" (the Persian New Year celebrated on the first day of Spring). In the second line he makes puns on "Day" (a month that, like January, marks the beginning of Winter) and "day" or "di" (meaning yesterday):  

      How good is "New Day"'s dew on the face of a flower

      How good is a charming visage on the expanse of a lawn

      When "January" passes, whatever comes is not good

      Be happy and forget "yesterday", only today is good

      Khayyam drinks wine not only to forget his mortality but also to make his social life bearable. In this world, there is no justice.  A miserly person is wealthy and a freeman needy. So, to forget oppression and ignorance, he takes refuge in wine:  

      Oh time, you confess your injustice

      And you hide behind the walls of oppression

      You bless the trash and torment the good

      You're either a fool or a donkey

      The god of Khayyam is not just:  

      If the universe runs on justice

      Conditions of the world would all be sound

      If the wheel spins justly

      When would the men of knowledge be troubled?

      Nevertheless he knows that he should not be ungrateful. So he says sarcastically:  

      The one who gave to red jujubes smiling lips

      Gave also a bleeding liver to those in pain

      If he didn't give us joy, we shouldn't be sad

      We are happy because he's given us so much sorrow

      He wishes he could eliminate the unjust Wheel and replace sorrow with happiness:  

      If I had access to the Tablet of Fortune

      I would write it just as I wish

      I would eliminate sorrow from the world

      And joyfully, raise my head high as the Wheel

      In the eleventh century, the mystical discourse of "love" had not yet dominated Persian literature. Rumi (1207-73) and other mystical poets had to emerge before another hedonistic poet, Hafiz (1310-90) could appear whose main motif of poetry was "love". Contrary to Hafiz, Khayyam rarely speaks of "love" and the main motif of his hedonism is drinking. One can only wash off the sorrow of the world through wine:  

      Through coming of Spring and going of Winter

      The pages of our book are slowly passing

      Have wine, don't have sorrow, the philosopher said:

      Sorrows of the world are like poison, and its antidote, wine

      For happy drinking one must be alive. A dead person cannot feel pleasure. Life is an investment whose interest is joy. To acquire interest one should save the principal:  

      If there is only one breath left in your life

      Do not let it pass unless joyfully

      Behold, the capital of the kingdom in this world

      Is life, it will be spent the way you spend it

      Prohibition of wine by religion, especially during Ramadan (the holy month of fasting), only adds to the "diabolic" desire of Khayyam to drink during this month:    

      They say do not drink wine in Sha'ban, it is not lawful

      Nor in Rajab, which is God's special month

      Sha'ban and Rajab are the months of God and his prophet

      We will drink in Ramadan which belongs to us

      If the blowing of God's spirit into the human body resembles the pouring of wine into a cup, then it might as well follow that God becomes drunk and breaks Khayyam's cup:

      You broke my jug of wine, my Lord

      You shut the door of the feast on me, my Lord

      You spilled my red rosy wine on the ground

      Forgive me! Are you drunk? My Lord

      The rebellious Lucifer also has to follow God and drink. Then he can overcome his arrogance and prostrate himself to Adam:  

      Wine reduces the arrogance of the mind

      And it unties the strong knots

      If Lucifer had wine for a moment

      He would bow to Adam two thousand times  

      Drinking has its own rituals and one should drink in moderation:  

      If you drink wine, have it with wisemen

      Or drink it with a laughing, tulip-faced boy

      Don't drink too much, don't brag or tell secrets

      Drink a little, on occasions and surreptitiously

      Sometimes his drunkenness becomes so mild that it takes on a tone of sobriety:  

      As long as I am sober, joy hides from me

      When I become drunk, my reason diminishes

      There is a mood between sobriety and drunkenness

      I am its slave, all of life is that moment

      Sometimes moderation in drinking ends in repentance:  

      Alas, my whole life passed in vain

      I am both an unlawful eater and an unclean breather

      Disobedience to the ordained, made me a sinner

      Woe unto me, because of my unlawful deeds

      Perhaps, the above-mentioned cheap and phony quatrain has been fabricated by the religious censors. Perhaps the poet himself has added it to his divan to escape persecution. But no one knows for sure. It is possible that Khayyam, like many other writers, had different phases in his intellectual life, vacillating between faith and doubt:  

      We have on one hand the Book, and on the other the cup

      We are sometimes sinners and sometimes men of faith

      We are under this raw turquoise-colored dome

      Not absolutely blasphemous, not thoroughly Moslem

The sinful lovers are better than the hypocritical faithful:  

      One sip of wine is better than the kingdom of Kavus

      And it is better than the throne of Qobad and the seat of Tus

      Each sigh that a lover takes in the early morning

      Is better than the prayers of the hypocrites  

      The clergy is not only hypocritical but also blood-thirsty,  

      Oh holder of holy decrees, are we more blood-thirsty than you?

      In spite of all this drunkenness, we are more sober than you

      We drink the blood of vines and you the blood of people

      Be fair, which of us is more blood-thirsty?

Khayyam is brave and does not want to hide his belief:  

      Those who found asceticism on deceit

      In fact, separate the soul and the body

      From now on I will put the jug of wine on my head

      Even if they slash my neck like a rooster

And finally he proclaims war against the religious leaders:  

      Do not spill the tears of a new bride of vine

      Or shed blood except of the uncleansed worshipper's heart

      Shed the blood of two thousand rotten hypocrites

      But do not pour your sip of wine on the ground

Suppression ravages Khayyam's society:  

      One has to be sober in the world of the living

      One has to keep quiet on affairs of the world

      In order to save one's eyes, tongue and ears

      One has to be without eyes, tongue and ears

Social suppression not only makes him silent, but also pushes him to preach seclusion:  

      It would be better for you to seek fewer friends now

      Friendship with people at present is best at a distance

      The person you rely on in your life as a friend

      When you open the eye of your wisdom, is your enemy

The feeling of social inability in Khayyam stems from his philosophical determinism and, in turn, helps it to grow. That human individual who, in a couple of Khayyam's quatrains is voluntaristically  called "the end of the whole creation", in the following fatalistic poem is equated with a fly:  

      It was a drop of water, joined to the sea

      It was a speck of dust, returned to the earth

      What is the reason of your coming and going in this world?

      A fly did appear and then vanished

One cannot find a message more biting nor a wine more bitter than this. He finds no difference between being and not being, or sorrow and joy. What he offers, is a death-like life, or a bitter joy:  

      Since to whatever is, there is not but wind at hand

      Since to whatever is, there is but flaw and defeat

      Imagine that whatever is in the world does not exist

      Or whatever is not in the world, does exist
V. The Dominance of Death over Life  

      Despite his denial of resurrection and reincarnation, Khayyam is not able to leave the religious point of departure, that is, the dominance of death over life.  Religion, as prophet Muhammad says, views "this world as a farm of the hereafter", meaning the fruits of life will be harvested in the world after death. Of course, the degree of death-worship differs from one religion to another. For example, one should compare the cult of martyrdom in Islamic Shiism with the doctrine of "non-violence" in the universalist society of Quakers in the US. Nevertheless, in all religions, the other world is the basis for our thoughts and behaviors in this world. All religious obligations such as prayer, fasting, charity, pilgrimage and holy war, as well as all of the temples and social networks of religions are directed towards the other world, and only find meaning there. A religious man plans his life in terms of the afterlife and permanently carries his anxiety about the afterlife. Khayyam, like the faithful, also views this world as a farm of the hereafter with one difference: the faithful irrigate their farms with the blood of their martyrs, whereas Khayyam does so with the bitter wine of forgetfulness.

      Anxiety about death consumes Khayyam's soul so much that he spends his whole life trying to forget this nightmare. Of course, grief for those who have gone, and anxiety about one's own death, are painful feelings. But if we accept that death is part of life, sorrow for it will disappear in the cracks of the joys of life. That day will come inevitably. But, as long as one is alive, why should one live with this nightmare? Love for other people, being in touch with nature, passion for knowledge and an endless energy for artistic, scientific and productive creativity, these are the desirable motivations for living, and not a sickly effort to forget death. In fact, the religious wine of eternity and the bitter wine of Khayyam both are means to the same goal: escaping life to forget death. Therefore, both are death-oriented.

      A religious man and Khayyam are both permanently living in a nightmare, the former caused by the existence of the world after death, and the latter because of its absence. One spends his life doing the death-oriented  religious practices and the other in drinking and destroying body and soul. Both see man as a tool in the hands of a metaphysical force beyond being and humanity. One kneels before this superbeing seeking its blessings, and the other turns his back and insults it, but both are captured in its labyrinth.  

VI. Herbert Spencer vs Edward Fitzgerald  

      Any ideology which views man as an obedient pawn in the hands of a super being, may tend toward death-worship, even if this super-being could be called "epoch-making" and "life-provoking".  A contemporaneous example is the school of social evolutionism of the English philosopher, Herbert Spencer (1820-1903). After reading Charles Darwin's book On the Origin of Species, he coins the term "survival of the fittest" and erroneously applys Darwin's biological principle of "natural selection" to society. Spencer perceives life as a battleground, and man as the foot soldier of the forces of evolution. Through predetermined patterns, an invisible force dominates nature and society, and evolves slowly but regularly, from simple to complex and from lower to higher stages. In spite of the resistance of the counter-evolutionary forces, the army of evolution will triumphantly continue to march. The end of evolution is a final equilibrium in which perfect man dominates the earth.

      The finalistic interpretation of evolution was widespread in the Victorian era (1837-1901) in England, where profits gained from British colonies as well as industrial improvement at home brought prosperity for the middle class.  Under the influence of capitalism, the economic rate of growth was recognized as the only standard for measuring the level of evolution. In this view, nature and society both resemble a capitalist market, in which the higher the rate of profit and productivity of labor-power, the greater the possibility of victory over competitors. Based on this economic model, a society is considered higher on the ladder of evolution if it has a more developed economy, just as in nature an organism is regarded as more complex when it can create more productive energy. Thus, it is not accidental that an economic-oriented society such as Victorian England had an exaggerated sense of purpose, as did the early Moslems in Arabia, or the Isma'ilis in Khayyam's time. In these societies, man felt subordinate to forces which are not under his control. In Khayyam's Iran, the Koranic verses, and in Spencer's England, scientific laws were used to recruit and mesmerize carriers of the mission, and legitimize their brutality against enemies. The mission must be accomplished, The messianic cult had to prevail, and the machine of progress and evolution ought to open the gates of "barbarism".

      When the millenarian mission is accomplished, signs of despair and disillusion gradually appear in the mission-stricken society, and it becomes clear that the mystical mission has been but a mirrage, and has achieved nothing but destruction of life. Khayyam lived in such an epoch, when both Sunnii and Isma'ili society were suffering from a hang-over, which appeared after their holy drinking.  In the second half of the nineteenth century, the bourgeois society of England, too, was gradually showing the disappointing symptoms caused by its mission of industrial progress. At this time, the translation of Omar Khayyam's quatrains by Edward Fitzgerald (1809-1883) spread the name of this great Persian poet in the West. Fitzgerald knew little Persian but he had captured the hedonistic spirit of Khayyam's poetry. The first edition of Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam, published in 1859, contained 75 quatrains but in later editions increased to 101. In the beginning, the public did not show interest in this little book which even did not have the name of the translator, but later, especially after the death of Fitzgerald, the "cult of Rubaiyat" took off and until 1920's was popular in England, the United States and other Western countries. The last decades of the nineteenth century are the time of defying dogmas, disillusionment and falling of idols, as well as a period of defeat, despair and isolation. The bitter joy of Kayyam contains both of these characteristics. On one hand, he ridicules missions, messengers and mission-stricken people, and on the other hand, he extends his sarcasm to humanity as a whole, and sees nothing for man but defeat and destruction.

      Today, ... our Iranian society both at home and abroad  faces a period of defeat and disillusionment, and as of now, one can taste the bitterness of Khayyamian joy in one's mouth. Who will be the next Sadeq Hedayat? (3)  

1. This essay was written in 1987 and first published in Akhgar, No. 7, Paris, 1989. Later it was included in my book In Search of Joy: A Critique of Death-Oriented and Male-Dominated Culture in Iran (dar jostojuy-e shadi: naqdi dar farhan-e margparasti va mardsalari dar Iran) Baran publisher, Sweden, 1990.

2. All of Khayyam's quatrains in this essay have been translated from Persian to English by Majid Naficy from Sadeq Hedayat's taraneh-ha-ye Khayyam Tehran, 1934.

3. Sadeq Hedayat (1902-51) the most prominent Iranian novelist who committed suicide in Paris. In recent years at least four Iranian writers and poets have killed themselves: Nooshin Amani (1994, Los Angeles(, Ghazaleh Alizadeh (1996, Iran), Eslam Kazemiyeh (1997, Paris) and Hassan Honarmandi (2003, Paris).

My gratitude to Shayda Naficy who edited the English version of this essay with me.


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Dear Mr. Naficy

by Monda on

Yours was the most comprehensible and concise interpretations of Khayyam that I know.

With much gratitude to you,

ماندا تاج بخش

Hedieh Sajadi

Someone asked Einstein

by Hedieh Sajadi on

Someone asked Einstein , " Do you believe in God ?"

he answered, "Which God? The God who has been created by people?  or the God who has created the universe and the entire being? "

Khayyam gave the same answer and it is obvious throughout his poetry. let us not forget that he was also a great scientist as well as a believer...

I enjoyed reading your article on Khayyam ...

let Khayyam himself has the final word


      Bewildered like a ball in the polo of fortune

      Go left, go right and say nothing

      Because one who dropped you in this feverish running

      Only he knows, only he knows, only he       



"At the touch of love, everyone becomes a poet." - Plato


Were Khayyam and Hassan-i

by ganselmi on

Were Khayyam and Hassan-i Sabbah ever in contact? I've always seen the the two as pioneering a sort of proto-existentialism some 900 years before the advent of Western existentialism...



A dissenting voice

by Korosh.Khalili on

I appreciate the thoughtful analysis and comments entered here.  However, I disagree with some points.  I am not an authority on Khayyam and below is just an opinion, strong as it may be.

Firstly, the final paragraph of the article reflects nothing of Khayyam but of the author, who sounds disillusioned or depressed.  Khayyam's poetry does not advocate suicide, but rather merriment in spite of the inevitable fate.  The author should really update this.

Secondly, Fitzgerald's quatrains are beautiful works of art to an English speaker.  Clearly they are not an academic translation and in a number of cases not attributable to a single quatrain of Khayyam.  However, in many cases they do reflect the essence of the original.  True that they are select and not the whole, but then no one is certain how much of the robayiaat was actually written by Khayyam either. 

It is impossible to translate poetry exactly and artfully. Something is always lost.

Some years ago, in this very website, I wrote against the notion that Khayyam owes a debt to Fitzgerald.  Now I have to write that the literary world owes a debt to Fitzgerald, for artfully disseminating the essence, if not the exact words, of Khayyam to the rest of mankind.

If you doubt this point, read the wonderful poem Borges wrote in reference to Khayyam.  



by Anonymous11 (not verified) on

Process Without End

My Poetry
Has no beginning of the end
And no end of the beginning
For to have an end
It is necessary
To start a new beginning

It is like oxygen in planet earth
It will never end
In order to require a new gas
To begin to refill the planet
To eliminate the void

--abOl danesh

Ali A Parsa

May the Real Omar Khayyam Stand Up!

by Ali A Parsa on

I fully agree with comments made by Ramin Tork and RKM5 about Western mistepresentation of Omar Khayyam( I nicknamed him OK because he was one of the most OK people in the world!) OK, like all great men has also been of the most controversial because he had a positive message for everyone. You can consider great people as a majestic mountain that give give different perspective to each viewer in different time of the day and different metrorological conditions. Ok had impressed everyone and that is not an attribute of an ordinary person.

I have written before and repeat that OK is not a promoter of "a jug of winde and a loaf of bread" or "wine, women and song" as Fitzgerald made him to be as Ramin put it, to fit the demands of Fitzgerald's time without regard to the real message of OK. The real message cannot be expressed by someone who did not know Farsi and was not familiar with Persian culture. This does not mean that I do not give credit to Fitzgerald. I do, because he was the first to make OK known in the Western world. It is understandable that a Persian speaking person with understanding, appreciation and perservation of Persian culture can do a better job of making OK known. In fact several have done this far better than Fitzgerald of 1800's. I do not go into detail because these are discussed in the book I published, Rediscovery of Haikm Omar Khayyam that can be looked at or google. In that book I tried to highlight the attributes of OK than make him a role model for humanity at large very much like our other great poets and philosphers like Saadi, Rumi, Hafez, Ferdowsi, just to name a few.

Mr. Nafici's work is commendabel in going into detail on OK. However, seeing OK from the perspecrtive of Sadegh Hedayat and his suicidal outlook obliterates the shining character of OK, not speaking of lack of rhyme in quatrains which is essental ingrededient of our traditional poetry. 

I submitted a collection inspirational poems from OK and some other Persian poets, but I never saw them published on this site. Perahas they were sacred! I am not going to paste them here without the permission of our editor either. I can send that to anyone of you upon request.




just adding an extra note on something which is often misread!

by ramintork on

What I'm stating sounds slightly radical but as an agnostic 'de facto atheist' ex practitioner who currently enjoys wine and has no intention of promoting religious ideas I can assure you that the wine drinking that is refered to in our literature refers to a form of tantric like excercise whereby the practicioner does a breathing inhaling-exhaling of oxygen and focuses on a pivotal point of mind and by so doing relaxes part of the brain and reaches a trance state where a state of hyper-alertness is reached, it is called drunkeness but it has the opposite effect in that you reach full alertness not lose it.

These practices and Sufism of Khayam's age did not have a religious base they were part of the practices of fraternity who held it as secret wisdom. Without wanting to make it sound too mystical these are excercises you could learn in a Yoga class!

Having belief in God/ or not was not mandatory in such fraternities, being pure of heart and altuistic however was an imporant quality.

This was a wisdom predating Islam which was kept in our so called ruined taverns and to this day guarded as secret.

Whether Khayam also drank actual wine I would not be surprised as these men rebelled against mainstream dogmatic faith.

If Khayam was here with us today and living in a secular society perhaps he would drop his secrets and tell us that God is a plastic dummy you give children to stop them cry, these children become toddlers and need support and parenting to get through life and one day the children become parents for those who need their support and then die and that is the circle of life.

He would perhaps tell you that his wine drinking is the same alertness and taking in of nature as of Gaudi reading nature and translating it into architecture or Lucian freud reading every pound of flesh and putting it on a canvas or anyone else who would see the loose strands on a rope, the geometric crystals of snow on a car windscreen, softness of pettles and intricate patterns of a bark of a tree.



by Reza Khaneh Mir Five (not verified) on

Thanks for the writing and I wish you would have posted the original Persian transcript. I tend to agree with Ranmin's interpretation of Khayam's thought process. It seems quite strange and unfair to think of Khayam as a man being negative about life and more concerned about death! That would be many other poets, but not him. Khayam we understand was far above such fears and based on his wisdom, he most likely the happiest and the most free spirit person of his time.

Khayam is positive. Reflections can be deceiving. But please correct us if we are still misinterpreted your sentiments.



Thank you for such an indepth article on Khayam

by ramintork on

I’m going to comment on Khayam and yet its been a while since I read it!


Comparing Khayam in Persian compared to the Fitzgerald translation one feels that Fitzgerald was inevitably influenced by his contemporaries and twisted the translation into a style to fit the Orientalist fetish and eroticism that would make Khayam more sexy!


Fitzgerald added what I would call the Houri element to Khayam hence the hedonistic rather than nihilistic aspect of the work and as a reaction to the age of enlightenment the Art forms had rebelled and turned to the bosom of Romanticism hence the added spice on fatalism which was fashionable with romantics. Fitzgerald was living in an age obsessed with death. The High Gate cemetery in London really reflects this obsession.

I recall that as a persian reader of Khayam my first reaction of reading the English translation was to have nausea! so if some translators are sometimes traitors then Fitzgerald was their chief!


Of course, it is the power of Art that leaves the audience with their own interpretation but I see him drinking in the moment rather than binge drinking wine in a hedonistic manner.

I don’t think Khayam emphasises wine drinking as in a drinking orgy type of sense. 


As for the bitterness and death, the bitterness of death can be a very cultural thing so for instance the goal of a Hindu mystic is to reach it in a way that he/she would not be reborn. Khayam does say, accept it, enjoy life embrace the moment but the sorrow part is perhaps ours in resisting the truth of what he has to say and not neccesserily his. If we evolve to his level of experience perhaps we accept life and death as it just is. We would not add our sorrow or be mournfulness and everyday carry a cultural luggage full of fear of death.


Khayam would have gone through a lot of Indian writing both on Philosophy and Mathematics so his acceptance of death he would perhaps be closer to that of an inert Hindu Guru who drinks water out of a human skull without even batting an eyelid.

 Of course despite all that intellect he was human and his hippocampus did not always follow his heart the evidence being that he wrote it down hoping a part of him would survive rather than throw away his poems, something an absolute nihilist would do and Thank goodness for that.

In summary Fitzgerald invented his own Khayam and the translation does not reflect the man or his cultural references, and his Khayam should not be our reference to this great man.