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Today, in much of the Muslim world, a writer who casts doubt on heaven and holy men is likely to be jailed or targeted by a religious death decree.
Yet nine hundred years ago, a brilliant Persian scientist dared to voice eloquent agnosticism in the most famous poem ever to come from an Islamic land. The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam scoffs at theologians, laments the unknowability of the hereafter, and hails worldly pleasure as the only tangible goal.
"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."
The poet advised seekers to stop pondering contradictory religious dogmas, and escape with a flagon of wine - "The grape that can with logic absolute / The two-and-seventy jarring sects confute."
Abuol-Fath Omar ibn Ibrahim was called Khayyam (tentmaker), perhaps because his ancestors had practiced that trade. Omar was educated in science and philosophy in his native Nishapur, then went to Samarkand where he wrote a treatise on algebra. Sultan Malik Shah commissioned him to help build an observatory in Isfahan and make astronomical observations to reform the calendar. After the death of his patron in 1092, Omar returned to Nishapur as a teacher and served the ruling court through his knowledge of mathematics, medicine, history, law, philosophy, and other subjects.
Omar wrote quatrains expressing his wistful musings on the meaninglessness of life. After his death in 1131, copies were made, and evidently embellished with improvisations by other poets. For centuries, the old manuscripts were forgotten until chance turned them into a literary sensation.
In 1856, a librarian at Oxford University sent an aged Persian manuscript to a talented English poet, Edward FitzGerald, who was studying Persian. The skeptical-minded FitzGerald was captivated by the existential tone of the verses, which reminded him of the ponderings of Epicurus. FitzGerald wrote to Alfred, Lord Tennyson, who had been his classmate at Cambridge:
"I have ... got hold of an old Epicurean so desperately impious in his recommendations to live only for today that the good Mahometans have scarcely dared to multiply manuscripts of him."
FitzGerald rewrote the quatrains into English - not as direct translations, but as poetic creations based on Omar. Publishing them was risky, because blasphemy was a crime in Victorian England, and skepticism was taboo. Fraser's Magazine refused to print the Rubaiyat. FitzGerald finally paid to have five hundred copies printed privately in 1859, without his name attached.
The small books lay unnoticed for two years at a London bookstore, and some were sold as wastepaper. Remaining copies were put in a bargain bin for a penny each. A young man bought one and gave it to the painter Dante Gabriel Rossetti, who was fascinated and bought copies for the poets Robert Browning and Algernon Charles Swinburne. But the public remained unaware.
FitzGerald produced enlarged versions in 1868 and 1872. The anonymous book began drawing public attention. The translator's identity became known, and FitzGerald was pleased by the "little craze" caused by his work.
FitzGerald's eyesight failed, and he died in 1883. He never knew that his Rubaiyat went on to become a world classic that sold millions of copies in hundreds of editions.
Subsequently, researchers have found as many as 1,391 ancient quatrains attributed to Omar, and have attempted to separate the genuine ones from derivative concoctions, with little success.
Segments from the Rubaiyat, translated by FitzGerald:
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