The Epicurean Humanism of Omar Khayyam

This essay was previously published as the fourth in a series of articles on the evolution of humanist thought by Pat Duffy Hutcheon in Humanist in Canada (Spring 1998), p.22-25; 29.

KEY TERMS: Lucretius -- Epicureanism -- Byzantium -- Islam -- Baghdad -- Italian Renaissance -- Avicenna -- Buddhism -- naturalistic humanism -- the Persian quatrain -- the Rubaiyat -- Al Dashti -- Sufi -- Averroes -- Aquinas -- hedonism

The man who was to keep the torch of scientific humanism alight within early Islamic civilization was born a thousand years after the death of Lucretius, and into a vastly different cultural setting. Nevertheless, in all that Omar Khayyam wrote one can clearly recognize the influence of the great Roman poet, and of the naturalistic Epicureanism that he celebrated. This is doubly remarkable when we recall that, during the centuries between Lucretius and Khayyam, a Dark Age had engulfed and stifled Western Europe. The spread of a mystical form of religion throughout the remnants of the Roman empire, combined with the influence of the Germanic tribes, had gradually produced what amounted to a reversion to barbarism. Gullibility and ignorance pervaded life at all levels, while economic activity declined to primitive levels of barter. An attitude of contempt for earthly existence and bodily pleasures had become the norm, along with belief in all manner of superstition and magic.

Southward and eastward, however, two different cultural patterns had emerged. One was the Byzantine Empire -- populated by Hellenized Central Asians: Greeks, Syrians, Jews, Armenians, Egyptians and Persians. It existed as a static, class-dominated, authoritarian society, with change occurring only in extreme form and imposed from without. Yet, by the sheer fact of its existence, in those first cruel centuries following the fall of Rome, this remnant of the ancient civilizations performed a critical holding action for human culture. Within it were preserved many of the achievements of the Hellenic and Classical world. Then, in the seventh century, came the emergence of a new religion among the Arabs and Bedouins to the south, sparking a civilization which eventually encompassed and surpassed what little there had been of original Byzantine achievement.

Mohammed, the founder of Islam, became at the same time the founder of a new Arabic state with its capital at Medina. In the century after his death the Islamic rulers (called Caliphs or successors to the Prophet) expanded their jurisdiction from the Arabian Peninsula west to Morocco, north to Spain and Armenia and eastwards to Persia, Palestine, Syria and even to the borders of India. By the time another century had passed, however, the over-extended Saracenic empire had begun to disintegrate, and Baghdad had emerged as the centre of an independently functioning eastern part. In 1055, the Sultan of the Seljuk Turks conquered the city, assuming complete control over what was by then the Oriental Islamic Empire.

Baghdad is crucial to any story of the history of humanism. It was there that the transmission of Classical learning to the West really began. Learned Jews and free-thinking Persians with roots in both the Byzantine and Saracenic cultures were the heroic preservers of Greek, Roman and Oriental knowledge for more than five centuries. The result was that the ancient Classics, translated from the original Greek to Arabic by the Persian and Jewish scholars at the university and other centers of learning in Baghdad, eventually found their way to the Muslims in Spain. When Sicily, under Muslim control for 130 years, fell to the Normans in 1091 it, too, became a thriving source for the spread of Arabian science and medicine into the rest of Europe. From such centers powerful ideas from antiquity were disseminated, typically by Jewish scholars who traveled from monastery to monastery throughout Christian Europe. Thus were the sparks of learning provided for the flickering candles in those lonely outposts, where Christian monks labored to translate the Greek and Arabic into Latin and, in the process (no doubt unknowingly) to ignite the conflagration of the Italian Renaissance.

The story of Omar Khayyam's role in all this is a fascinating one. He was born in the eleventh century, at Nishapur. His birthplace was, at that time, the third or fourth most important city in the world. It was the capital of a prosperous province called Khorassan. His family was Persian, and probably affluent, for he was given the best education available. At his university the dominant philosophy seems to have been that sophisticated meld of Platonic and Aristotelian ideas elaborated by the Persian scholar Avicenna during the previous generation. But other influences were present as well. One of his biographers notes: "In that province of Khorassan where Omar was born, followers of the Buddha ... had for centuries existed."2 Significant also was the presence of the Brothers of Purity, a group of philosophers similar to the French Encyclopedists of a much later era. These scholars "conducted their speculations on a materialistic plain and attacked all problems with the instrument of human understanding. They had a bias to natural science and tried to found a philosophy on its discoveries.3

Omar lived from 1048 to 1131. During the decades preceding his birth, Turkish tribes had been steadily encroaching on the settled land from the north. In 1055, Seljuk mercenaries within the empire rebelled and joined the invaders, and all of Persia fell. Seljuk Sultans established themselves in Baghdad. By the close of the century, as Omar approached middle age, the conquerors had accepted Islam and were enforcing it with all the ferocity and fanaticism of the recently converted. Utterly unskilled in government and administration, they depended -- even more than had the Caliphs -- on their Persian advisors.

After graduating, Omar entered the service of the Seljuk Sultan Malek-shah. During his career he wrote ten books, although only three have survived: two pioneering treatises on algebra and one book of verse. Along with other leading astronomers, he constructed an observatory for the Sultan in 1074. He is also famous for having compiled a set of astronomical tables so complete that they formed the basis for a calendar more accurate than the Gregorian one compiled five centuries later. However, the death of the Sultan in 1092 heralded a drastic change in Omar's prospects. His good friend and protector, First Minister Nizam-ul-Mulk, was murdered soon after. This double tragedy ushered in a period of dynastic and sectarian conflict, along with international and civil warfare. A violent sect of Ismaelis became powerful, and religious reaction and persecution were rampant. As if that were not enough, the First Crusade, pursued by the feudal knights of Western Europe and the feeble Christian court of Byzantium, had begun its incursion into the troubled Islamic empire. In the devastation of Jerusalem that ensued, 70,000 Muslims were murdered and thousands of Jews burned in their synagogues. The city's magnificent libraries were also destroyed.

We can assume that Omar, who was above all a free thinker, would have felt increasingly imperiled as the new century wore on. A biographer wrote that the last three or four decades of his life were spent "in this welter of fanaticism and superstition, of disorder and brutality."4 It is easy to imagine how desperate he would have been to express his real thoughts; to pass on something of his philosophy of naturalistic humanism to succeeding generations. The usual methods of the academic were not safe options. In fact Omar refused to teach -- and one can understand why. At least two of his professional contemporaries, not nearly as deviant as he in their world views, had been put to death for heresy.

In such a situation, what remains for the philosopher of integrity but apparently harmless verse? It seems that there is a phenomenon known as "ketman" which is a Persian proclivity for observing in public the current orthodoxy (no matter how distasteful) while proceeding in private according to one's own lights. It is a way of surviving in dangerously bigoted and authoritarian regimes. Clearly Omar resorted to this, combining it with his own unique survival mechanism in the form of the Persian quatrain: a poetic invention of considerable antiquity.

For at least a century, scholars from both East and West have been studying what has come down to us as the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam. Much time and many keen minds have been devoted to separating the wheat of his original expression from the chaff of folk accretions, fraudulent imitation, well-intentioned but misleading interpretation and deliberate distortion with malicious intent. Al Dashti, a Persian scholar, has produced the most credible selection of authentic quatrains to date, based on a thorough study of contemporary accounts documenting Omar's abilities, character, philosophical premises and writing style. He was able to make the considered judgment that "at least thirty or forty of these quatrains, scattered in so many sources, are completely consistent in both style and thought, and seem clearly to be the product of a single genius."5 From these early sources, Dashti formed a relatively clear picture of Omar's beliefs. He took careful note of comments such as "Although the learned Omar, Proof of the Truth, did not believe in prognostication by the stars."6 On the basis of a great deal of similar evidence he has strongly repudiated popular descriptions of Omar as a sensually indulgent hedonist, or as a mystic. Dashti demonstrated that the verses emphasizing these orientations were later additions.

It is true that, for a time after Omar's death, the mystical Islamic sect known as the Sufis claimed him as one of theirs. However, Dashti concludes that this idea has been thoroughly discredited by modern Persian scholarship. The Sufi-like quatrains were probably added to the repertoire by Sufis who were attracted by the original verses but failed to understand what they were really saying. Indeed, they were warned of their error by a more discerning (albeit disapproving) reader of the period. "In recent times the Sufis have fallen victim to the outward charms of his poetry. They do not realize that these poems are like beautiful snakes, outwardly attractive but inwardly poisonous and deadly to the Holy Law."7

The "true believer" who penned these words was, of course, quite right. He knew his Omar Khayyam. For, as Dashti pointed out, "We can judge from the early authentic quatrains that his thinking on life and death, on the pre-existence or createdness of the earth, on the first cause of creation, and on the possibility of return to one's original form, was very different from that of the theologians."8

It was not only that Omar's ideas were in direct conflict with those of every Islamic sect of the period; he also differed radically from the philosophical orthodoxy of his age, as expressed in the works of his early intellectual hero Avicenna. In general, the various biographers of Omar Khayyam seem somewhat puzzled by this, for it is apparent that they accept the Platonic-Aristotelian philosophical stance of Avicenna (refined later by Averroes of Cordoba and ultimately inherited by Aquinas) as the most enlightened of the idea systems of ancient Greece.

However, there was another current of thought that would have been translated by the Persians and made available to scholars like Omar. We know it was present in the Arabic intellectual culture because it was passed on in succeeding centuries through the Moors and Jews in Spain to an awakening Italy. It was the philosophy of Epicurus: a perspective far more subversive of the status quo than Plato's elitist dualism and Aristotle's reconciliation of reason and faith could ever be. And it comes through loud and clear in the poetry of Omar Khayyam.

Recent research by Persian scholars has unearthed a comment by Omar which reveals something of his uneasy relationship with his fellow scholars. "We are the victims of an age when men of science are discredited, and only a few remain who are capable of engaging in scientific research. Our philosophers spend all their time in mixing true with false and are interested in nothing but outward show; such little learning as they have they extend on material ends. When they see a man sincere and unremitting in his search for the truth, one who will have nothing to do with falsehood and pretence, they mock and despise him."9 We can gather from this that Omar saw himself as above all a scientist, committed (in the manner of Epicurus) to open, critical inquiry into the nature of things. It is not difficult to extract this commitment from his quatrains. One can imagine Omar's frustration at the contradiction inherent in any attempt to pursue unfettered scientific inquiry into all aspects of existence, in an orthodox and authoritarian society intent on setting rigid limits to belief. Omar must have been fully aware that transgression of those limits meant death. He could have seen only one way to express the tragedy that he felt.

I cannot hide the sun with muddy clay,
Nor can I probe the mysteries of Fate
From contemplation reason only brings
A pearl that fear will never let me pierce.10

Emerging in many of his quatrains is an Epicurean skepticism concerning the survival of the soul, or of the possibility of the type of human spiritual transcendence taught by the dualistic and mystical philosophers around him. His references to an omnipotent God seem to be solely for the purpose of challenging the concept. Another consistent message in those quatrains now accepted as authentic is that of skepticism concerning final truths or unchallengeable notions about the meaning of life. One can only imagine how dangerous it would have been to express such ideas directly, in that place and time. Yet, through the medium of poetry, Omar could drop hints. An emphasis on the need to seek knowledge of humanity as well as of other aspects of nature is also present. We find a pervasive concern for a kind of practical, common-sense morality, with a noticeable absence of justification in terms of supernatural or worldly authority.

In addition to the accusation of Sufi-like mysticism, Omar has frequently been charged with pandering to sexual licence, gluttony and drunkenness. It is true that many of the quatrains attributed to him in earlier times seemed to extol excess. However, it has been ascertained by modern Persian scholarship that these were later accretions, written either by his detractors or by supporters who understood neither his use of imagery nor his Epicurean philosophy. For Omar -- as for Epicurus before him -- wine and female beauty symbolized enjoyment of life in the here and now, rather than in some imagined heavenly paradise. He employed them as metaphors for that fellowship among human beings seen by Epicurus as both a means and tentative end of human existence. Similarly, the clay wine pot so often found in Omar's poetry represents the inorganic matter out of which humanity was formed. It is through the quatrains replete with such references that Omar is revealed as thoroughly Epicurean.

The more one thinks about the overriding naturalism of Omar's quatrains, and the cultural context in which they were expressed, the more remarkable it seems that they were written at all. And once written -- that they survived. For what followed was worse than even Omar, at his most pessimistic, could have envisioned. Less than a century after his death, the Mongol hordes from the Asian Steppes had reached Nishapur, devastating the surrounding land and laying waste to the beautiful city and its centers of learning. There is no way to guess the full extent of the destruction of precious manuscripts that occurred during the several generations before the Mongols were converted from their primitive Shamanism to Islam. A student of the legacy of Islam wrote that, after the Mongol invasions, the Moslem world "lost forever its ideal and even its cultural unity."11 Another (quoted in the same source) concluded that the Mongols "stamped out the fire of learning in the East so effectively that it never recovered."12

The immediate result was that the center of enlightenment moved north-westward in the twelfth century. Four centuries earlier, Islamic Arabs and Berbers from North Africa had invaded and settled in Spain. It was from this community -- known as Moors -- that wandering Jewish scholars distributed their precious legacy of Classical and Arabian-Persian thought among the far-flung monasteries of Western Europe. Most of those flickers of learning were nourished by Platonic and Aristotelian ideas, and it is chiefly to the refinement of that current of thought by Arabian scholars that we owe the survival of the physical sciences. Nevertheless, there must have been a few Epicurean sparks from material such as Omar's subversive quatrains that smoldered through the centuries until fresh breezes stirred within the process of cultural evolution. Omar could have been thinking about his own version of immortality when he wrote:

I seek in vain to find a resting place,
I trudge despairingly this endless road,
How many thousand ages must I wait
Till hope springs blooming from the dusty earth?13


  1. This essay was previously published as the fourth in a series of articles on the evolution of humanist thought by Pat Duffy Hutcheon in Humanist in Canada (Spring 1998), p.22-25; 29.
  2. Rothfield, Otto. 1922. Umar Khayyam and His Age. Bombay: D.B.Taraporevala Sons, p.20.
  3. Ibid., p.36.
  4. Ibid., p.44.
  5. Dashti, Ali. 1071. In Search of Omar Khayyam. Trans. L.P. Elwell-Sutton. London: George Allen and Unwin, Ltd., p.38.
  6. Ibid., p. 45.
  7. Ibid., p.43.
  8. Ibid., p. 66.
  9. Ibid., p. 78.
  10. Ibid., p. 56.
  11. Ibid., p.241.
  12. Ibid., p. 241.
  13. Dashti, p190.