Omar Khayyam



Omar Khaiyyam's full name was Ghiyath al-Din Abu'l-Fath Umar ibn Ibrahim Al-Nisaburi al-Khaiyyami. A literal translation of the name al-Khayyami (or al-Khayyam) means 'tent maker' and this may have been the trade of Ibrahim his father. Khayyam played on the meaning of his own name when he wrote:-

Khayyam, who stitched the tents of science,
Has fallen in grief's furnace and been suddenly burned,
The shears of Fate have cut the tent ropes of his life,
And the broker of Hope has sold him for nothing!

Omar Khaiyyam was born at Naishapur in Khorassan in 1038 and died 1241. He lived under the patronage of the Vizier of that time, Nizam-ul-Mulk 'busied,' said the Vizier, 'in winning knowledge of every kind, and especially in astronomy, wherein he attained to a very high pre-eminence.' Omar was a mathematician as well as an astronomer and contributed to the reform of the Muslim calendar. According to some accounts he left his academic studies to take up Sufic training under a Sheik or teacher. It may have been at this time that he wrote the verses that Edward Fitzgerald found and translated some seven centuries later.

Fitzgerald's Rubaiyyat of Omar Khaiyyam was very well received as an English poem, but Persian writers have expressed concern about the distortions he introduced by his very free translation. Fitzgerald spoke of his work as a 'transmogrification' and mentioned that he 'mashed' together verses. His poem stressed living for the day, because of the impossibility of understanding the universe. It emphasized the immensity of space and time and the insignificance of man, and advocated shared friendship and conviviality, particularly the vinous delights of the tavern. Persian Sufis, however, might argue that Omar Khaiyyam's verses were written in the context of Sufi thought. This would mean that wine would be symbolic of the ecstasy of divine love, much as wine is part of the Christian sacrament or an important part of the marriage rites in the Hebrew Song of Songs. Missing this interpretation, and rejecting it when it was pointed out to him (although admitting its possible validity), Fitzgerald produced a poem that in some places might be regarded as a misrepresentation of Omar's thought.

Sufi or not, Omar wrote verses that stressed the insignificance of man, living for the day, and sharing friendship and conviviality through wine. Independent of whether the words have a secret meaning known only to initiates, they undoubtedly have an explicit meaning that can be enjoyed by the non-initiate.

Al-Khayyam made major contributions in Mathematics, particularly in Algebra. His book 'Maqalat fi al-Jabr wa al-Muqabila' on Algebra provided great advancement in the field. He classified many algebraic equations based on their complexity and recognized thirteen different forms of cubic equation. Omar Khayyam developed a geometrical approach to solving equations, which involved an ingenious selection of proper conics. He solved cubic equations by intersecting a parabola with a circle. Omar Khayyam was the first to develop the binomial theorem and determine binomial coefficients. He developed the binomial expansion for the case when the exponent is a positive integer. Omar Khayyam refers in his Algebra book to another work on what we now know as Pascal's triangle. This work is now lost. He extended Euclid's work giving a new definition of ratios and included the multiplication of ratios. He contributed to the theory of parallel lines. 

Omar Al-Khayyam is famous for another work which he contributed when he worked for Saljuq Sultan, Malikshah Jalal al-Din. He was asked to develop an accurate solar calendar to be used for revenue collections and various administrative matters. To accomplish this task, Omar Khayyam began his work at the new observatory at Ray in 1074 C.E. His calendar 'Al-Tarikh-al-Jalali' is superior to the Gregorian calendar and is accurate to within one day in 3770 years. Specifically, he measured the length of the year as 365.24219858156 days. It shows that he recognized the importance of accuracy by giving his result to eleven decimal places. As a comparison, the length of the year in our time is 365.242190 days. This number changes slightly in the sixth decimal place, e.g., in the nineteenth century it was 365.242196 days. 

Al-Khayyam contributed also to other fields of science. He developed a method for accurate determination of the specific gravity. He wrote two books in metaphysics, 'Risala Dar Wujud' and 'Nauruz Namah'. As a poet, Omar Khayyam is well known for his Rubaiyat (quatrains). His themes involved complex mystical and philosophical thoughts. 

Omar Al-Khayyam's ten books and thirty monographs have survived. These include four books on mathematics, one on algebra, one on geometry, three on physics, and three books on metaphysics. He made great contributions in the development of mathematics and analytical geometry, which benefitted Europe several centuries later.


' Arab World Books