Awake! for morningin the bowl of night
Has flung the Stone that puts the Stars to Flight:
 And Lo! the Hunter of the East has caught
 The Sultan's Turret in a Noose of Light.

Omar Khayyam, the Shakespeare of Iran

Omar Khayyam, the Shakespeare of Iran
By Gane Gordon

Many countries have a great national poet who is called the Shakespeare of... – well Pushkin is called the Shakespeare of Russia, Taras Shevchenko is known as the Shakespeare of the Ukraine. Many people place Pablo Neruda of Chile alongside Shakespeare. Tagore is the Indian counterpart of Shakespeare. In Scotland when they talk about “The Bard” they mean Robert Burns, not William Shakespeare. The Shakespeare of Iran is Omar Khayyam.
Khayyam and Shakespeare were alike in a number of ways. First, they both came from a humble background. Shakespeare’s father was a glove maker; Khayyam’s father a tent maker. The work “khayyam” means a maker of tents.

They both valued love and placed it in the heart of their writing. Both were men of the people with feet planted firmly on the ground – not with noses in the air. And not with heads in the clouds either, for both were concerned with the here and now, not the hereafter. Both were skeptical, in fact, about a life after death and the existence of gods.
Yes, and here is the most important respect in which they were alike: both Shakespeare and Omar Khayyam were well familiar with the Greek philosopher Epicurus.
Shakespeare comes to Epicurus by way of Ovid. The great Roman Ovid was Shakespeare’s favorite poet. “All things change,” said Ovid, “nothing perishes.” Imagine that! The law of the conservation of matter more than 2,000 years ago: matter cannot be created nor destroyed, it just changes form - so said Ovid. Shakespeare adored Ovid. Ovid admired Epicurus.
Shakespeare mentions Epicurus now and then. In the play Julius Caesar, for example, Cassius says “You know that I held Epicurus strong and his opinion.”

Omar does not mention Epicurus, but the Epicurean philosophy comes through loud and clear in Omar’s poetry. This in spite of the fact that it was extremely dangerous to hold such a philosophy in Omar’s time and place! The philosophy of Epicurus was subversive of both the religious and of the governmental rulers. Why, they were one and the same!
Who was Epicurus?

Of all the great Greek philosophers Epicurus was the most radiant - and the most reviled. He was one of the magnificent materialist philosophers of Greece. What is a materialist in philosophy?

A materialist philosopher takes this world as his starting point and he remains in this world; he does not make an unnecessary and unwarranted leap to another world, a so-called higher or spiritual world. No, there is one world, the world of nature – one universe. The materialist is a monist as opposed to a dualist who believes there are two worlds, a natural world and a supernatural world.

I guess a monist is like a Unitarian: both agree that reality is one rather than two or three.

If I myself upon a looser Creed
Have loosely strung the Jewel of Good deed,
Let this one thing for my atonement plead:
That one for two I never did misread

With this declaration we hear Omar give good reason for his “loose” philosophy. Yes, he loved wine and women; he lived for the pleasure of each day. He was not a severe moralist. But he atones for it with this most important of all considerations: he never mistook our one world for two.

The materialist attempts to understand this one world and the natural causes by which all things come about in it. Cause and effect, cause and effect in which something always comes from something... This leads to infinite regression, and therefore the materialist philosopher reasons that the universe has always existed. The universe has no beginning and no end; it was not created by a ghost or god.
We should not fear gods or death, Epicurus taught. He was the most beloved of philosophers; his pupils idolized him. Epicurus emphasized friendship as an important ingredient of happiness, and his school resembled in many ways a community of friends living together. Epicurus admitted women and slaves into his school and was the only philosopher to do so.
I take so much time on Epicurus because it is impossible to understand Omar Khayyam – or Shakespeare, for that matter – without knowledge of Epicurus.
And so when Omar says...

Ah, my Belov’ed, fill the Cup that clears
To-day of Past Regrets and Future Fears:
To-morrow! - Why, To-morrow I may be
Myself with Yesterday’s Sev’n Thousand Years

...we hear an echo of Epicurus in that.

 Waste not your Hour, nor in the vain pursuit
Of This and That endeavour and dispute;
Better be jocund with the fruitful Grape
Than sadden after none, or bitter, Fruit.

Oh, threats of Hell and Hopes of Paradise!
One thing at least is certain - This Life flies;
One thing is certain and the rest is Lies;
The Flower that once has blown for ever dies.

Ah, make the most of what we yet may spend,
Before we too into the Dust descend;
Dust into Dust, and under Dust to lie
Sans Wine, sans Song, sans Singer, and - sans End!

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

Shakespeare too is keenly aware of the impermanence of all things, the passing of time.

When I consider every thing that grows
Holds in perfection but a little moment...
...says Shakespeare. Or in his Sonnet No. 65:

Since brass, nor stone, nor earth, nor boundless sea
But sad mortality o’ersways their power
How with this rage shall beauty hold a plea,
Whose action is no stronger than a flower?
O! how shall summer's honey breath hold out,
Against the wrackful siege of battering days,
When rocks impregnable are not so stout,
Nor gates of steel so strong but Time decays?

Shakespeare’s Sonnets and Omar Khayyam’s Quatrains – it seems that between them both all the austere truth and sad beauty of the world is contained.

Come, fill the Cup, and in the fire of Spring
Your Winter-garment of Repentance fling:
The Bird of Time has but a little way
To flutter - and the Bird is on the Wing

How many among you in your younger years became familiar with – or even fell in live with Omar Khayyam? Does anyone remember when that was or how you felt when you first read or heard those daring and wonderful verses? Do you still retain a favorite verse or two?

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!

Omar Khayyam was born 960 years ago, almost on this day – on May 18, actually - in the year 1048, born in a province that is now in Iran. Shakespeare is only 444 years old: we just celebrated his birthday with a big party last month at Dollar Clubhouse.

There is a fascinating story told about Omar. He studied with one of the greatest of the wise men of Naishápúr, a revered teacher over eighty-five years old, the Imám Mowaffak. It was the universal belief that every boy who studied the traditions in his presence, would assuredly attain to high honour.
A boy named Nizám ul Mulk went to Naishápúr to study with this illustrious teacher. When Nizám arrived, he found two other pupils his own age newly arrived, Omar Khayyám, and Hassan Sabbáh. The three formed a close friendship.

One day Hassan said to Nizám and to Khayyám, “It is a universal belief that the pupils of the Imám Mowaffak will achieve great fortune. Now, even if we all do not attain thereto, without doubt one of us will. Let us make a vow, that to whomsoever this fortune falls he shall share it equally with the other two.”
Be it so,” they both replied, and mutually pledged their words. Years rolled on, and Nizám visited many lands. When he returned, he was invested with high office, and became Vizier to the Sultan.

 More years passed, and both his old school-friends found him out, and came and claimed a share in his good fortune, according the school-day vow. The Vizier Nizám was generous and kept his word. Hassan demanded a place in the government, which was granted. But Hassan plunged into the maze of intrigue of an oriental court, and, failing in a base attempt to supplant his benefactor, he was disgraced and fell.

Hassan then became the head of the Persian sect of the Ismailians - a party of fanatics who had long murmured in obscurity, but rose to an evil eminence under the guidance of Hassan’s strong and evil will. Hassan became the “Old Man of the Mountains,” and spread terror through the Mohammedan world. His was the Cult of the Hashashin. It is from this root word that we derive the English words for assassin and Hashish.

One of the countless victims of the Assassin’s dagger was Nizám himself, the old school-boy friend.
Omar Khayyám also came to the Vizier to claim his share; but not to ask for title or office. “The greatest boon you can confer on me,” Omar said, “is to let me live in a corner under the shadow of your fortune, to spread wide the advantages of Science.”

When the Shah determined to reform the calendar, Omar was called upon to do it. After 18 years of watching the stars at night Omar computed the year as consisting of 365.24219858165 days – correct up to eleven decimal points!
And yet with all that night-time study, Omar could not see in the sky what so many pious believers swore they found there – and swore it so fanatically
they killed you if you did not find it too!

Look not above, there is no answer there;
Pray not, for no one listens to your prayer;
Near is as near to God as any Far,
And Here is just the same deceit as There.

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 moves as you or I
 Omar’s achievements in mathematics were as distinguished as his astronomical work. He provided many algebraic equations with geometric proofs. He was the first to develop the binomial theorem. He contributed to the theory of parallel lines. He invented a method for solving cubic equations, a feat considered to be the highpoint of mathematics in the Middle Ages. He is revered in the world of mathematics to this day.

Omar was fully familiar with the great Greek Euclid, and he wrote papers on Euclid’s mathematics. Yes, Omar Khayyam was a Renaissance Man more than 300 years before the European Rennaisance began. He was called “King of the Wise Men.”

And what a poet! A poet who had to defend himself against charges of atheism... Of course if he lived in Rossmoor, where “atheist” is not a dirty word, Omar Khayyam would enjoy great celebrity. Why, we would sit at his feet to hear him ask...
Strange, is it not? that of the myriads who
Before us pass’d the door of Darkness through, Not one returns to tell us of the Road, Which to discover we must travel too.

Then to the lip of this poor earthen Urn
I lean’d, the Secret of my Life to learn:
And Lip to Lip it murmur’d – “While you live
Drink! - for, once dead, you never shall return.

Is this brew too strong for us? Imagine its effect 1,000 years ago! And in the midst of inflexible Islam! Why, in spite of the magnificent achievement of his calendar, it was rejected by the conservative Muslim clerics. But Omar took them on directly:

Myself when young did eagerly frequent
Doctor and Saint, and heard great argument
About it and about: but evermore
Came out by the same door where in I went
With them the seed of Wisdom did I sow, And with mine own hand wrought to make it grow;

And this was all the Harvest that I reap’d -
"I came like Water, and like Wind I go."
Why, all the Saints and Sages who discuss’d
Of the Two Worlds so wisely - they are thrust

Like foolish Prophets forth; their Words to Scorn
Are scatter’d, and their Mouths are stopt with Dust.
Some for the Glories of This World; and some
Sigh for the Prophet’s Paradise to come;
Ah, take the Cash, and let the Credit go,
Nor heed the rumble of a distant Drum!
When You and I behind the Veil are past,
Oh, but the long, long while the World shall last,
Which of our Coming and Departure heeds
As the Sea’s self should heed a pebble-cast.

Now this was strong stuff back in the days of the Seljuk Turks, the Baghdad Caliphate - the Muslim absolutism. Call his philosophy pessimism if you like, or nihilism, or just plain realism. Whatever else it is, it is honesty. Courageous honesty!

Omar’s poetry – controversial, skeptical and nonreligious - was disseminated secretly, anonymously and with substantial danger for its author. Only ninety years after his death were the verses first mentioned under Khayyam’s name - and then only to slander the author for a wicked and corrupt mind! Ironically, his poetry is not known by the Iranians today. It’s astonishing, but most people in present day Iran do not know Omar Khayyam, cannot quote a line of his verse.

But around the world... – ah! It is translated into many, many languages.
Omar Khayyam is a topic of discussion between two characters in Jack London’s novel The Sea-Wolf.

The 1953 musical “Kismet” features a character based on Omar Khayyám.
Salman Rushdie’s novel Shame makes reference to Omar Khayyam with a character by the same name.

Eugene O’Neill’s drama “Ah, Wilderness!” and Agatha Christie’s story “The Moving Finger” take their titles from Omar Khayyam.
A sparkling wine made in India, sometimes referred to as “Indian Champagne” is called Omar Khayyam.

A crater on the moon was named Omar Khayyam in 1970. In 1980 Lyudmila Zhuravlyova, a Soviet astronomer, discovered a minor planet and named it Omar Khayyam.

Khayyám is quoted in Martin Luther King Jr.’s speech, Why I oppose the war in Vietnam. “It is time for all people of conscience to call upon America to come back home. Come home America. Omar Khayyám is right,” said Martin Luther King, “‘The moving finger writes and having writ, moves on.’”

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.

Yes, Omar Khayyam is one of the most brilliant figures of Islamic civilization, his poetry one of the treasures of world literature. He was a radical freethinker. His was a philosophy of naturalistic humanism. His philosophy is the well known “Carpe Diem” of Horace - Seize the Day and make the most of it, it will never return. With his concern for the here and now, as opposed to the hereafter, Omar Khayyam’s poetry is especially relevant today: it is a powerful antidote to Muslim fanaticism.

Ah, Love! could thou and I with Fate conspire
To grasp this sorry Scheme of Things entire!
Would not we shatter it to bits - and then
Re-mould it nearer to the Heart's Desire

Omar’s life is dramatized in the 1957 film “Omar Khayyam” starring Cornel Wilde, Debra Paget, Raymond Massey, Michael Rennie, and John Derek.
Most recently, his life was dramatized by the Iranian-American director Kayvan Mashayekh in “The Keeper: The Legend of Omar Khayyam.”
The film portrays Omar embracing art, science and secularism. He also embraces (drinking and stripping off his clothing) the beautiful slave girl Darya.

Omar’s friend Hassan takes a path of religious fervor. Omar rejects religious fanaticism that leads to killing, but instead adopts the Greek philosophical emphasis on reason.
I hope to give this same talk soon to the Atheist/Agnostic Group. And then I’d like to ask that group and the Unitarians here to co-sponsor these two films – screen them at Peacock Hall. It’ll be fun and interesting.
So, to conclude... Can we speak of Omar Khayyam in the same breath as Shakespeare? Well, you all know how much I love Shakespeare and think he is the greatest genius in the world – in a class all by himself.

But I have to say that Omar Khayyam is in some respects greater than Shakespeare. Omar was a great scientist; Shakespeare – even though 500 years later – was so backward in science he apparently did not even accept Copernicus and the reality of the earth traveling around the sun!
Most important, Omar was an unmistakable Epicurean. And Epicurus, we know, was a materialist. A materialist is an atheist, or a person without a need for gods to explain events.

Let us hear Epicurus make his final utterance on earth as it were in the exquisite words of a materialist philosopher. He accepts death with courage and with humor. These words are sunshine and rain, laughter and tears at once; they make you laugh and cry. See if this doesn’t break your heart.

When I die, scatter my dust away,
And teach others my life's play.
Mix my body's dust with wine,
And mold a wine barrel's cap with my clay.

By Gene Gordon   

Khayyam Scholar
2019 June