Omar Khayyam, that is. I was doing readings for my college English Literature course when I was introduced to him through the nineteenth century poet Edward Fitzgerald, who did the classic translation of his poetry from Persian into English in his work entitled The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam.* Since I was still in my late teens and just learning about feelings of romantic attraction, it’s no wonder that the first stanza that jumped out at me included the famous lines:
A Book of Verses underneath the Bough,
A Jug of Wine, a Loaf of Bread – and Thou
Beside me singing in the Wilderness –
Oh, Wilderness were Paradise enow! [enow =. enough]
At that point, I had never had a jug of wine or a woman beside me underneath the bough, but both sounded delicious.
I dove back into the poem to learn what happened next, but I soon found myself in darker places:
The Moving Finger writes; and, having writ,
Moves on; nor all your Piety nor Wit
Shall lure it back to cancel half a Line,
Nor all your Tears wash out a Word of it.
Each stanza confronted me with more and more hopelessness, cynicism, fatalism. The author repeatedly answered life’s disappointments and defeats with another glass of wine, and another, and another, until, in his last stanza, he asks his friends to mark his grave by “turning down an empty glass.”
It was even sadder to read of Khayyam’s loss of faith in God, who seemed to him to be elusive, and even mocking. The lines that slapped me in the face were:
A moment guessed — then back behind the Fold
Immerst of darkness round the Drama rolled
Which, for the pastime of Eternity.
He doth Himself contrive, enact, behold.
I had to find out more about this man, so I did a little background research. Khayyam lived long, long ago, from AD 1048 to 1131. He was not only from another time, but from a very different place and culture. He was born and died in Nishapur, a city in Persia (now Iran). This was located on the Silk Road, the four-thousand-mile trade route extending from northeastern China to Constantinople, and from there to all of Europe and North Africa. So, Khayyam was exposed to all the world’s goods, cultures, thoughts and religions.
Khayyam’s Persia had been the birthplace of the Zoroastrian religion,** but it had been dominated by Islam for four centuries by Khayyam’s time. Contrary to our Western prejudice, the Islamic world was far ahead of Europe in state-of-the-art knowledge and thinking during the Middle Ages. Omar was an avid student of mathematics and astronomy, and he developed into one of the edgiest thinkers in those areas. His geometrical formulas and proofs changed the study of geometry and paved the way for scientists from Newton to Einstein. He charted the movement of the earth around the sun and calculated the length of one day with accuracy unmatched in the West until the nineteenth century, and he did this more than 600 years before Galileo described the solar system. The truth is, before Edward Fitzgerald published the Rubaiyat in 1859, Khayyam was far better known as a mathematician and scientist than as a poet.***
Fortunately, the Lord led me to C.S. Lewis shortly after my literary encounter with Omar Khayyam. Lewis’ intellectual search for meaning followed a similar path to Khayyam’s, but instead of falling into atheistic despair and trying to escape through wine and women, Lewis was “surprised by joy,” as he put it in his autobiography. The Joy that surprised him was that God was real, and personal, and loving, and gracious.
In one of his later writings, Lewis said, “We may ignore, but we can nowhere evade, the presence of God. The world is crowded with Him. He walks everywhere incognito.”****
I’ve experienced what Lewis was talking about: the world, as I see it, is “crowded with God.” I don’t know how Omar Khayyam missed this.
I recently heard a veteran pastor put it this way: “I’ve got so much history with God that I don’t worry about the mystery of God.”*****
– Pastor George Van Alstine
* For a beautiful reading of selected Rubaiyat portions, see https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4PQdgV1p-MI
** Zoroastrianism is said to be the oldest continuing religion in the world. It’s monotheistic and advocates high ethical standards. However, less than 200,000 people worldwide follow it.
*** This documentary on Khayyam’s life is excellent https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8ETpoy3ox_Y
**** Letters to Malcolm (1964)
***** Pastor Tim Hunt, at Rev. William Turner, Jr., retirement service.