Omar Khayyam | Biography & Teachings Of An Outstanding Mathematician, Astronomer, And Poet

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In 1072 AD, Omar Khayyam calculated the most precise year length ever documented, a figure that remains so accurate that it is still used today for most practical purposes. 

Claimed as “the philosopher of the world” by scholar Al-Zamakhshari, Omar Khayyam was famous in the scientific and mathematical community for his contribution to fundamental theories of equations (developing algebra), and the theoretical laws of geometry.

Despite being renowned in medieval Iran for his scientific accomplishments, Omar Khayyam is best known to the Western world for “The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam,” a collection of his quatrains translated by the English writer Edward FitzGerald in 1859.

Despite his numerous literary and mathematical contributions, Omar Khayyam remains somewhat of a mysterious figure. 

Biographers have portrayed him in various ways, describing him as a fun-loving, wine-drinking agnostic, a closet Zoroastrian, a Sufi Muslim, an orthodox Sunni Muslim, and even as a follower of Ancient Greek philosophy. 

Nevertheless, they all agree he was one of a kind.

In this article, we’ll take a look at the below:

  • His Life And Background
  • His Poetry: The Rubaiyat Of Omar Khayyam
  • A Yogic Interpretation Of His Philosophy
Omar Khayyam statue
The statue of Omar Khayyam”, by Kiana-R, licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0

Life And Background

1. Origin Of His Name

The origin of Omar Khayyam’s name suggests that his father may have been a tentmaker, as “Khayyam” is an Arabic term that translates to “tentmaker”. 

2. Early Life

Born in the town of Nishapur in ancient Persia, Omar Khayyam received an excellent education in sciences and philosophy. 

Although his family practiced the Muslim faith, his father had a relatively liberal approach to religion and hired a tutor for Omar who followed the ancient religion of Zoroastrianism

This tutor had studied himself under the renowned physician, scientist and philosopher Ibn Sina, and set the tone for Omar’s encyclopedic knowledge throughout his life. 

Additionally, Omar was taught in astronomy and astrology, centered on the study of Ptolemy’s “Almagest” – a 2nd-century Greek treatise on the coordination of the stars and heavens.

3. Samarkand (medieval Uzbekistan) And The Algebra Treatise

As a young man, Omar Khayyam made his first mathematical mark on the history of the world.

From his native homeland, he traveled to Samarkand (in medieval Uzbekistan), where he completed his famous Algebra Treatise. A treatise is a written systematic and formal breakdown of a subject matter.

artefact of Omar Khayyam's algebra work
Omar Khayyam Algebra”, by Wiki:Omar Khayyam , licensed under CC0 1.0

Omar Khayyam was only 22 years old upon completing the treatise. His work was groundbreaking in its theorems and principles of Algebra, which later defined and informed Western mathematics. 

Samarkand was a hotbed of scholarship, and an important epicenter of science and philosophy at the time.

The Algebra Treatise is his mathematical magnum opus. The treatise gave a systematic overview of how to solve cubic equations by intersecting conic sections. 

Furthermore, he expounded coverage on what is known today as Pascal’s Triangle. For more information on the mathematical ins and outs, see this short summary.

4. Esfahan And Astronomy

Teaching in Samarkand, Omar Khayyam was developing a name for himself.

The reigning sultan of the Turco-Persian empire invited Khayyam to medieval Esfahan. It was here he made his second great contribution to the world of mathematics and science in the form of calendar reformation through astronomical observation. 

star gazing with a telescope

In aid of this happening, Khayyam had an astronomical observatory built for him by the sultanate, with an aim of a 30 year span of observation, during which Saturn would make a complete orbit. 

This calendar reform was based on making 8 out of every 33 years ‘leap years’, and made this calendar more accurate than the Gregorian calendar.

While in Esfahan, he not only offered crucial critiques of Euclid’s theory of parallels and theory of proportion, but his ideas also gained influence in Europe. His criticisms of Euclid’s theory of parallels impacted the English mathematician John Wallis (1616-1703).

In 1092, Khayyam’s hosts the sultan and his vizier both died, likely by assassination. In the aftermath of their deaths, Khayyam went into hiding to maintain his welfare

This was because Khayyam had developed a close relationship with the sultan and there were rumors he was anti-religious.

The court displayed hostility towards Omar Khayyam, accusing him of sympathizing with Zoroastrianism and holding other unaccepted religious beliefs. In response, he made a pilgrimage to Mecca to demonstrate his orthodoxy.

5. Return To Nishapur

Omar Khayyam led a nomadic lifestyle for the remainder of his life, constantly on the move until he eventually settled in his hometown of Nishapur. 

There, he worked as a teacher, astronomer, and served the court while continuing to make contributions to the fields of math, astronomy, and poetry.

statue of Persian empire soldiers
Apadana Hall, 5th century BC carving of Persian and Median soldiers in traditional costume”, licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0

6. Death And Legacy

Omar Khayyam died aged 83 in 1131. 

Known in Persia predominantly for his mathematical prowess, he is conversely well-known in the West for his poetic musings, in which he tackles the metaphysical, spiritual, and calamity of the human condition.

Teachings And Impact

In summary, with his scientific and mathematical prowess, Omar Khayyam made these substantial contributions:

  • Treatise Of Algebra
  • Critiques of Euclid’s Parallel Postulates
  • Accurate Calendar Reform

Considered a polymath, Omar Khayyam’s acumen transcended his mathematical genius. 

He was also a renowned astronomer (and astrologer), philosopher and poet. He left a lasting creative legacy that is deeply rooted in the familiar struggles of human existence. 

His works included relatable philosophical and existential poetry.

stacked books with a candle and a quill

These emotional writings included doubt of faith, his desire for mindfulness and happiness, and his recognition of how the limitations of the self and the pain of change in contrast to moments of appreciation can create a bittersweet love of life.

Omar Khayyam’s objective mathematical findings are infused with his appreciation for their spiritual beauty, as he believed that mathematics is a manifestation of something divine in the world.

Fame In The West – The Rubaiyat Of Omar Khayyam

Beyond this, Omar Khayyam is one of only a few globally recognized polymaths, someone who has extensive knowledge of a wide range of subjects.

As a polymath, it is claimed that Omar Khayyam’s creative legacy extended beyond the world of mathematics and geometry, into the world of philosophy and poetry.

It is within this field that he left the greatest mark in a romantic, existential sense, as a famous 19th century poet called Edward FItzgerald translated his stanza poems in 1859 titled the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam.

The translated verses conjure an image of a man in deep introspective thought, frustrated with the reality of life and his place in it. He challenges the relationship we have with the divine, the struggles of impermanence, and the small joys of life.

picture of the cosmos

These stanzas have been translated into numerous languages and are the leading influence for European perspectives on Persian poetry: stiflingly beautiful, concise, and romantic.

Scholars are uncertain if Omar wrote poetry since his contemporaries overlooked his verse. 

A few quatrains surfaced under his name two centuries after his death, but they were mainly used to refute ideas ascribed to Omar. This has led some people to question their authenticity.

A Yogi’s Interpretation

Paramahansa Yogananda, a yogi considered to have been enlightened, interprets the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam as mystical spiritual insights behind his poems, going as far to call them the “Revelations Of Omar Khayyam”.

Here we take a look at some of the reflective quatrains of Omar Khayyam, and Yogananda’s yogic interpretations:

#1: Meditation And Divine Unity

Here with a Loaf of Bread beneath the Bough,

A Flask of Wine, a Book of Verse – and Thou

Beside me singing in the Wilderness – 

And Wilderness is Paradise enow.

– Omar Khayyam

Yogananda considered this verse to be a reflection on meditation and communion with God. 

Kayyam’s poem is describing an internal wilderness of deep silence, nourished by the ‘bread’ of prana. In concentration, one finds joy, according to Yogananda’s interpretation.

#2: On Fulfillment

The Worldly Hope men set their Hearts upon

Turns Ashes—or it prospers; and anon,

Like Snow upon the Desert’s dusty Face

Lighting a little Hour or two—is gone.

– Omar Khayyam

Yogananda interprets Khayyam’s poem as representative of man’s plight to attain lasting satisfaction from earthly pleasures, inevitably resulting in pain upon death.

clouds with the sun breaking through

#3: On Spiritual Seeking

With them the Seed of Wisdom did I sow,

And with my own hand labour’d it to grow:

And this was all the Harvest that I reap’d

“I came like Water, and like Wind I go.”

– Omar Khayyam

Yogananda interprets Khayyam’s poem to reflect that a seed of wisdom is given by an external influence, like a guru, however the cultivation and progress happens from the willingness and reception of the individual devoted to their spiritual quest.

#4: On The Law Of Karma

‘Tis all a Chequer-board of Nights and Days

Where Destiny with Men for Pieces plays:

Hither and thither moves, and mates, and slays,

And one by one back in the Closet lays.

– Omar Khayyam

Yogananda perceives that Khayyam is poetically observing the changing states of people’s lives through the accumulated actions on a chessboard, where karma reverberates through the law of cause and effect.

Further Information

If you’d like to learn more about spiritual philosophers, why not check out our other articles on yogis:

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Born and raised in London, Luke is a passionate writer with a focus on travel, yoga, philosophy, and meditation. As a certified yoga teacher having studied under a swami in Rishikesh, Luke now lives in India pretty much just practising yoga, meditating and writing articles! Luke's life arc has gone from somewhat turbulent to peaceful, and he considers yoga and meditation direct methods to sustain introspective insight to manifest peace and happiness, despite life's challenges. Luke's passion for meditation has led him to complete multiple meditation retreats, where he spent almost 40 days in silence in the last two years. He practices various meditation techniques such as Vipassana, Anapana, and Metta Bhavana, each adding to his knowledge and experience of the true self. Most recently he meditated in Jaipur, India, and before that lived for a short spell in a monastery with forest monks in Northern Thailand. To Luke, yoga is more than just a physical exercise; it's a way of life that helps him cultivate a stronger mind-body connection. As a young man with arthritis, Luke understands the importance of observing and controlling his body, and yoga has been a vital tool in his journey to better health and well-being. The practice of yoga has not only helped him manage his symptoms but has also given him a new perspective on life. Luke's love for yoga and meditation is not limited to a single tradition or practice. He's fascinated by the spiritual teachings of all types of religious philosophy, including Buddhism, Hinduism, and Christianity for their essence and wisdom. His passion for spirituality is what drives him to continue learning and growing, and share his knowledge with other people. Luke in his spare time is an avid chess player, cyclist and record collector. He also has experience with addiction, and so sponsors multiple people from different walks of life in their recovery programmes.

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