Minaret of Freedom Institute
4323 Rosedale Avenue
Bethesda, MD 20814

Delivered to the Third International Conference on the Inspiration of Astronomical Phenomena, Mondell, Sicily, January, 2001

ABSTRACT.   Omar Khayyam was both an astronomer and a poet.  We examine the astronomical references in different translations of his poetry and in Elihu Vedder's illustrations of the first American edition of Edward Fitzgerald's famous translation as the takeoff points for discussing the controversy as to the meaning of his poetry and the differences in culture between 11th-century Iran where he wrote them and 19th-century Britain and America where Fitzgerald and Vedder respectively were born.

Like Padre Piazzi whom this conference honours, Omar Khayyam had a theological background, started a career in mathematics, and is noted in history for achievements in astronomy.  For centuries this eleventh century scholar was best known for his treatise on algebra (that was used as text in Europe until the eighteen hundreds), but since the nineteenth century he has been best known as “The Astronomer-Poet of Persia” for his quatrains thanks to Edward Fitzgerald's beautiful, but free-wheeling, translation. The ruba’iyât explore with vivid imagery, sly humour and profound thought the great questions that have always absorbed mankind: life and death, the nature of being and identity, the questions of the origin and destiny of all things.

Coming from a society in which science and religion are viewed as antagonists, Fitzgerald misconstrued Omar’s poetry as a materialist diatribe against religious belief.  Like all great poetry, Omar’s verse is so deep and so rich in meaning that it can be understood on many different levels and in different ways.  Thus, many people from atheists to Christian clerics, from materialists to mystics, have professed that Omar is one of them.  Speaking as an astronomer, I can say without fear of contradiction, that Omar was definitely "one of us."  For that reason it is appropriate for this meeting to take a look at the astronomical allusions in his poetry and compare how their interpretation is affected by cultural context.

I here focus on the literary translations of the Iranian-American scholar Ahmad Saidi (1991) and the British poet Edward Fitzgerald and the artistic interpretations of the American artist Elihu Vedder who illustrated the first American edition of the Rubaiyat (Fitzgerald 1884).  Given the location of this conference, I should mention that Vedder executed his illustrations during his lengthy stay in Italy in the early 1880’s.  My research has also been informed by reviewing a number of literal translations, notably those of Graves and Ali-Shah (1967) and Arberry (1952).

Ahmad Saidi was raised in a cultural milieu as close as a contemporary of ours can get to that of Omar himself.  Fitzgerald, of course, lived at that moment in Western history when Darwin’s theory seemed to many Westerners’ to put a final nail in the coffin of the Church’s side of a long battle between reason and religion.  Vedder, as befits a true artist, it seems to me, sees all the possibilities in Omar’s poetry.  Even though he is working from Fitzgerald’s translation, his illustrations allow for a broad range of interpretations of Omar’s deep poetry.
Awake! The turret’s caught in noose of light,
Day’s Khosrow flung the wine in bowl of night;
Carouse! The Morning Crier let resound 
The melody Drink ye with stars in flight.      [Saidi, v. 1]

Wake! For the Sun who scatter’d into flight
The Stars before him from the Field of Night, 
Drives Night along with them from Heav’n, 
and strikesThe Sultân’s Turret with a Shaft of Light.     [Fitzgerald, v.1] 

The astronomical reference is clearly to the dawn, but the image is starkly different in the two translations.  Fitzgerald has dropped the reference to Kai Khosrau, the famous Persian king.  All that remains is the suggestion that sun drives out the stars from the morning sky as a British Imperial officer drives the enemy from the field.  But Saidi knows that Kai Khosrau renounced power at the pinnacle of his career, fearing that retaining it after he completed his work would threaten his account with God.  Saidi understands, as Fitzgerald does not, that the wine flung into the bowl of night (the red colour of dawn dropped in to the dark sky) is an analogue to the pebble dropped in a bowl by the commander signalling his own troops to break camp (also at dawn).  The astronomical markers that delimit the time in human affairs appear as metaphors throughout the poem with various metaphysical implications about the lifetime of a man, in particular, the poet.

The mention of the false dawn in the second verse appears to be an interpolation by Fitzgerald, yet the assumption that it must be such on the grounds that the false dawn is a modern discovery is incorrect, since the phenomenon is mentioned in a tradition of the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) in warning not to mistake the false dawn for the true in setting the time of breaking the fast:  "The Prophet said, 'The Adhan pronounced by Bilal should not stop you from taking Suhur, for he pronounces the Adhan at night, so that the one offering the late night prayer (Tahajjud) from among you might hurry up and the sleeping from among you might wake up. It does not mean that dawn or morning has started.' Then he (the Prophet) pointed with his fingers and raised them up (towards the sky) and then lowered them (towards the earth) like this (Ibn Mas'ud imitated the gesture of the Prophet). Az-Zuhri gestured with his two index fingers which he put on each other and then stretched them to the right and left. These gestures illustrate the way real dawn appears. It spreads left and right horizontally. The dawn that appears in the high sky and lowers down is not the real dawn [i.e., is the false dawn]."  (Khan 1976)

In verse 10 Saidi translates "And sour or sweet, why fuss since life shall fly,/At Balkh or Baghdad—why care where we die?/Drink wine, for silv’ry Moon will keep its beat/From full to new long after you or I."  Fitzgerald (verse 8) drops the reference to the Moon, speaking instead of "Leaves of Life" falling.  While the ephemerality of a single human life is the same in both renditions, the Saidi version emphasizes the relative durability of the moon's course.  In the Muslim cosmology the moon too will eventually end its travels, but only "long after you or I."
Since no one can Tomorrow guarantee,
Enjoy the moment, let your heart be free;
Ah, drink, my Moon, in moonlight for the moon
Will make its rounds but wont find you and me! [Saidi, v. 15]

And Yon rising Moon that looks for us again—
How oft hereafter will she wax and wane;
How oft hereafter rising look for us
Through this same Garden—and for one in vain!    [Fitzgerald, v. 100] 

Saidi makes more effecive use of the multiple significance of the Moon in Islamic poetry.  Here is the physical moon, the romantic moonlight, and the beloved herself in the metaphor of the moon.  Also Saidi notes that the moon will find neither lover nor beloved (or is it poet and reader?), while Fitzgerald notes the absence of but one of the two.
From core of Earth to Saturn’s apogee, 
I loosed the knots of heaven’s mystery;
The barriers of fake and fraud I crossed,
Yea, all the bars save that of Destiny.     [Saidi, v. 53]

Up from Earth's Centre through the Seventh Gate
I rose, and on the Throne of Saturn sate, 
And many a Knot unravel'd by the Road;
But not the Master-knot of Human Fate.    [Fitzgerald, v. 31] 

Both translations reflect geocentric cosmology, but Saidi's implies the Islamic distatse for astrology with the mention of "barriers of fake and fraud" missing from Fitzgerald.  In both cases the astronomer's sceintific research has resovled one problem after another, but not the main one, what happens to us after death, to which only revelation gives the answer.  In the picture above Vedder depicts the muse sitting on a modern conception of Saturn while in the picture below we see the astronomer ponder a naked-eye vista of the sky.
This Wheel, amazed at which we gaze below,
Is like a magic lamp in shadow-show;
The Sun the candle is, the world the shade,
Whereon we, phantom figures, come and go.    [Saidi, v. 63]

We are no other than a moving row
Of Magic Shadow-shapes that come and go 
Round with the Sun-illumin'd Lantern held
In Midnight by the Master of the Show;    [Fitzgerald, v. 68] 

Omar compares the universe to shadow-show.  The sun, illuminating the physical universe is the metaphor for God illuminating the spiritual universe.  In Saidi's translation  the focus is the standard Muslim view that God is the true reality and and all else the contingent reality.  For Fitzgerald the focus is on the implications for a deterministic universe such as Newtonian physics had inspired in the philosophy of his time.  Similarly note in the verses below rejecting the notion of appealing to the physical heavens for help that Fitzgerald paints the heavens only "as" impotent as man, while Saidi renders the translation "a thousand times more" helpless.
The good and evil in the mold of Man
The joy and grief in Fate and Fortune’s plan,
To Wheel impute not, for in fact the Wheel
A thousand times is more helpless than Man.    [Saidi, v. 71]

And that inverted Bowl they call the Sky, 
Whereunder crawling coop'd we live and die, 
Lift not your hands to It for help—for It 
As impotently rolls as you or I.     [Fitzgerald, v. 72] 

In verse 94 in the Saidi translation, missing from Fitzgerald's, Omar calls Man the "child of Seven and the Four."  This is a reference to the spheres of the seven planets and to the four elements.
I tell you this—When started from the Goal,
Over the flaming shoulders of the Foal 
Of Heav’, Parwin and Mushtari they flung,
In my predestined Plot of Dust and Soul.    [Fitzgerald, v. 75] 

Saidi’s translation lacks the verse mentioning Jupiter and the Pleiades (Parwin and Mushtari), but his translation of the concluding verse in the thread (Saidi, v. 165) shows that Omar’s quarrel is not with God, but with those who profess to be His interpreters but achieve no communion with the All-Merciful (as He is repeatedly called in the Qur’an) in their rituals.

I think Vedder has seen through to the true heart of Omar’s poetry with his swirl that forms the backbone of all his illustrations of the poem.  Obviously Sufis and hedonists are equally comfortable interpreting Omar’s wine as they wish, whether as the love of God or the juice of the grape.  But all must admit that Omar is fascinated with time.  His focus, like the pivot of Vedder's swirl, is on the present moment.  Fitzgerald is well aware of this, but he overstates the case in this verse, which is absent from the Saidi and Graves-Ali-Shah editions:

Ah, but my Computations, People say,      Reduced the Year to better reckoning?—Nay, 'Twas only striking from the Calendar      Unborn To-morrow, and dead Yesterday.   [Fitzgerald, v. 60]

Omar’s quarrel is with those who would insist on sacrificing the certain present for an uncertain future.  The Qur’an itself supports Omar when it says:  “… nor forget thy portion in this world, but do thou good as God has been good to thee…” (Ali 1988, 27:77).

The Qur’an says that there is only one unforgivable sin, and that is to assign partners to God.  Thus, Omar expresses his hopes for forgiveness in the following quatrain, missing from Fitzgerald’s translation.  It is mathematical rather than astronomical in inspiration, but I can’t resist concluding with it.  Omar declares that in avoiding the unforgivable sin (Ali, 1988, 16:51), he has hope for God's mercy:

The pearl of worship though I did not thread,
Nor wiped the dust of sin from off my head,
I don’t despair of mercy of Thy Court,
Because I never ‘One is two’ have said.
[Saidi, v. 163]


I thank the Minaret of Freedom Institute and INSAP III for the grants that made this presentation possible.


Ali, Abdullah Yusuf: 1988, The Holy Qur'an: Text, Translation and Commentary. (Elmhurst, NY: Tahrike Tarsile Qur'an).

Arberry, Arthur J.: 1952, Omar Khayyam: A New Version Based upon Recent Discoveries (London: John Murray).

Fitzgerald, Edward: 1884, Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam.  Illustrated by Elihu Vedder.  (Boston: Houghton Mifflin).

Graves, Robert, and Ali-Shah, Omar: 1967,  The Rubaiyyat of Omar Khayyam: A New Translation with Critical Commentaries. (London: Cassell).

Khan, Muhammad Muhsin: 1976, Sahih Bukhari. (Medina: Islamic University) v. 1, #595.

Saidi, Ahmad: 1991, Ruba’iyat of Omar Khayyam (Berkeley: Asian Humanities Press).