Omar Khayyam: Sufi Universalist
by Ken R. Vincent
Omar Khayyam is one of my heroes. I have read translations of his poem, the Rubaiyat, hundreds of times over the past 50 years. Amazingly, each repetition still brings some fresh insight! Rubai means “quatrain,” a four-line stanza in which there are two sets of rhyming lines.
The Rubaiyat is a collection of quatrains written over a period of many years by Omar Khayyam, a Sufi mystic living in the late 11th and early 12th Centuries.
Within Omar’s poetry, I recognize a person much like myself: someone unable to be an orthodox believer but too optimistic to be agnostic! His verses reflect the impossibility of certainty in religion, philosophy, or science; he questions the theological tenants of all religions. Ultimately, he was simply a lover of God. He believed his own mystical experiences which became the basis of his faith.
#287 Although the creeds number some seventy-three,
I hold with none but that of loving Thee;
What matter faith, unfaith, obedience, sin?
Thou’rt all we need, the rest is vanity.
One of Omar’s most important theological truths is that God is ONE. His mystical experiences convinced him that there is ONE TRUTH behind all the world’s religions:
#63 Hearts with the light of love illumined well,
Whether in mosque or synagogue they dwell,
Have their names written in the book of love,
Unvexed by hopes of heaven or fears of Hell.
Omar had the good fortune to live in Nishapur, a prosperous city on the Silk Road, at a time when the Moslems had ruled Iran for 500 years. Significantly, a large minority of followers of the Zoroastrian religion whom Omar called “Magians” still resided in this area. He was also acquainted with the beliefs of smaller religious minorities in the region – Jews and Christians, as well as Buddhist travelers. In his poem, he shows respect for all of these religions. He recognizes that ALL yearn for God – that all are seeking the ONE.
#34 Pagodas, just as mosques, are homes of prayer,
‘Tis prayer that church-bells chime unto the air,
Yea, Church and Ka’ba, Rosary and Cross
Are all but divers tongues of world-wide prayer.
While any monotheist may become a Sufi, they are most often associated with Islam. Ultra-orthodox Sufis may choose to obey Islamic law but add some mystical component. Other Sufis (like Omar) view Islamic law much the way Jesus viewed the ritualistic Jewish Law – that it is more important to obey the spirit than the letter of the law. Consequently, Omar was admired by someSufis who used his poem as a teaching tool but, like Jesus, he was cursed by those who were victims of his barbed criticisms of religious hypocrisy. In another behavior reminiscent of Jesus, Omar openly associated with sinners. Both believed that God wants us to speak, act, and live from our hearts.
#368 Hear now Khayyam’s advice, and bear in mind,
Consort with revelers, though they be maligned,
Cast down the gates of abstinence and prayer,
Yea, drink, and even rob, but oh! Be kind!
Omar was a scientist, astronomer, and mathematician. Everyone who has ever taken algebra has been taught his binomial theorem! As an astronomer, he revised the Persian calendar to be as accurate as our present Georgian calendar, but he did so 500 years earlier and without the use of telescopes!
Many people have attempted to translate the Rubaiyat; some translations are academic, literal, and “dry as a bone,” while others are simply paraphrases. At one time or another, I have owned 21 different translations. Probably the best-known one is that of Edmund Fitzgerald who first published in 1859 but subsequently made 4 other translations over the next 30 years. It is Fitzgerald’s version of this familiar verse that falls so easily on our ears: “A loaf of bread, a jug of wine, and thou, A book of poems beneath the bough.”
However, my favorite translator is E. H. Whinfield because of his effort to balance the meaning of the poems with a pleasing rhythm. While keeping the words as literally accurate as possible, he takes enough “poetic license” to insure that the poems remain beautiful when read aloud. Whinfield made 3 translations of the Rubaiyat. His second translation was selected by Joseph Campbell for the epic series, The Masks of God, so I assume that Campbell favored this translation too.
Contrary to what you may have assumed when you were exposed to the Rubaiyat as an adolescent, the poem is NOT about living for the moment without regard for tomorrow! Omar does not advocate irresponsibility, but he does want to persuade people to BE ALIVE IN THE MOMENT – to enjoy what we have today –NOW! He is addressing those who live “in the past” or those who imagine that happiness is not possible until some imagined goal is achieved or current problem resolved!
#30 To-day is thine to spend, but not tomorrw,
Counting on morrows breedeth naught but sorrow;
Oh! Squander not this breath that heaven hath lent thee
Nor make too sure another breath to borrow!
Omar’s respect for the insight of other religions includes the “middle way” of Buddha and Lao Tzu which asserts that it is best to live modestly – shunning poverty or wealth.
#168 Let him rejoice who has a loaf of bread,
A little nest wherein to lay his head;
Is slave to none and no man slaves for him;
In truth, his lot is wondrous well bested.”
Like Jesus who told us that “the Kingdom of God is within you,” Omar claims that one can attain mystic union with God in the “here and now.” This is the universal insight repeated by all mystics throughout the ages. When our primary goal is to truly seek and love God, we are joined by persons from a diversity of religious affiliations, and academic arguments on textual minutia become irrelevant.
#49 In Synagogue and cloister, mosque and school,
Hell’s terrors and heaven’s lures men’s bosoms rule,
But they who master Allah’s mysteries,
Sow not this empty chaff their heart to fool.
Omar explains that some time may be needed to achieve mystic unity with God – it can’t be bought or obtained through reason alone:
#302 The “Truth” will not be shown to lofty thought,
Nor yet with lavished gold may it be bought;
But, if you yield your life for fifty years,
From words to “states” you may perchance be brought.
One of the many points argued by scholars is Omar’s meaning of the word, “wine.” Obviously, wine is forbidden in Islam. Is the meaning of “wine” literal, symbolic, or both? Personally, I think Omar often uses “wine” literally as “beverage,” but he also uses it metaphorically to express
“mystical ecstasy.” In this stanza, “wine” is clearly symbolic:
#262 In taverns better far commune with Thee
Than pray in mosques and fail Thy face to see!
Oh, first and last of all Thy creatures Thou
‘Tis Thine to burn, and Thine to cherish me!
In this stanza, the meaning of “wine” is literal:
#349 Tell Khayyam, for a master of the schools,
He strangely misinterprets my plain rules:
Where have I said that wine is wrong for all?
“Tis lawful for the wise, but not for fools.
In all Abrahamic religions (Judaism, Christianity, and Islam), there is tension between GOOD WORKS and GRACE as the basis for Salvation. Is Heaven earned by good works or does God’sunconditional love insure our place in Heaven? Another paradox involves EVIL: If God is all- powerful, why does evil endure?
#102 If grace be grace, and Allah gracious be,
Adam from Paradise why banished He?
Grace to poor sinners shown is grace indeed;
In grace hard-earned by works no grace I see.
This verse speaks to the philosophy of the late Russian mystic Rasputin who saw sin as a prerequisite to redemption:
#46 Khayyam! Why weep you that your life is bad?
What boots it thus to mourn? Rather be glad.
He that sins not can make no claim to mercy,
Mercy was made for sinners – be not sad.
Omar touches on the idea of predestination, which is a major theological position in Islam, as well as the “Christianity” of Protestant Reformer John Calvin. As an astronomer, Omar is aware of the predictability of most of the visible cosmos, and he fears that predestination is a possibility:
#100 When Allah mixed my clay, He knew full well
My future acts, and could each one foretell;
Without His will no act of mine was wrought;
Is it then just to punish me in Hell?
One of the recurring analogies in Omar’s poetry is God as “potter” and humankind as “pots.” Literally, we are made of dust, and to dust we return. Omar reminds us that the clay in our earthenware cup could, in the past, have been human!
#32 This jug did once like me, love’s sorrows taste,
And bonds of beauty’s tresses once embraced.
This handle, when you see upon its side,
Has many a time twined round a slender waist!
He acknowledges the possibility that there may be no afterlife:
#107 Drink wine! Long must you sleep within the tomb,
Without a friend, or wife to cheer your gloom;
Hear what I say, and tell it not again,
“Never again can withered tulips bloom.”
He hopes that, at death, all our questions will be answered:
#87 Make haste! Soon must you quit this life below,
And pass the veil, and Allah’s secrets know;
Make haste to take your pleasure while you may,
you wot not whence you come, nor whither go.
This stanza is a favorite of mine and Joseph Campbell’s:
#491 Man is a cup, his soul the wine therein,
Flesh is a pipe, spirit the voice within;
O Khayyam, have you fathomed what man is?
A magic lantern with a light therein!
Omar knows he is a heretic and cannot be otherwise:
#60 From Mosque an outcast, and to church a foe,
Allah! Of what clay didst thou form me so?
Like sceptic monk or ugly courtesan,
No hopes have I above, no joys below.
Omar is comfortable with Christianity – in the sense that all religions are one:
#293 Did no fair rose my paradise adorn,
I would make shift to deck it with a thorn;
And if I lacked my prayer-mats, beads, and Shaikh,
Those Christian bells and stoles I would not scorn.
A discussion about Omar wouldn’t be complete without mentioning his affinity for Zoroastrians. Another Sufi, Attar of Nishapur, went so far as to declare, “We are the eternal Magians – we’re not Moslems.” Attar felt that the Islamic religion, as it was practiced, lacked the quality of love that dominated the old Persian religion of Zoroaster and Christianity. In the next verse, Omar talks about being a Zoroastrian and not being a good Moslem:
#281 Ofttimes I plead my foolishness to Thee,
My heart contracted with perplexity;
I gird me with the Magian zone, and why?
For shame so poor a Moslem to be.
Some scholars postulate that Omar was a Zoroastrian and that his frequent use of “tavern” is a symbol for “Magian fire temple,” but the following verse suggests otherwise:
#334 Am I a wine-bibber? What if I am?
Zoroastrian or infidel? Suppose I am?
Each sect miscalls me, but I heed them not,
I am my own, and what I am, I am.
Sufiism is pantheist or panentheist. Pantheist means that God is all. Panentheist means that God is all and more. Panentheism is acceptable to Islam – as it is to Christianity, Judaism, and Zoroastrianism. The next verse speaks to this:
#389 Nor you nor I can read the eternal decree
To that enigma we can find no key;
They talk of you and me behind the veil
But, if that veil be lifted, where are we?
The mystic knows the panentheistic reality that God is everywhere, although many people fail to realize this or take the time to recognize it. The following verse echoes William Blake’s idea that, if the doors of perception were cleansed, all could see the reality of God and God’s Universe:
#247 The world is baffled in its search for Thee,
Wealth cannot find Thee, no , nor poverty;
Thou’rt very near us, but our ears are deaf,
Our eyes are blinded that we may not see!
Omar also expressed his belief that nothing bad can come from God – the same doctrine of Universal Salvation espoused by Zoroaster and Universalist Christians:
#305 Allah, our Lord, is merciful, though just;
Sinner! Despair not, but His mercy trust!
For though today you perish in your sins,
Tomorrow He’ll absolve your crumbling dust.
#318 Sure of thy grace, for sins why need I fear?
How can the pilgrim faint whilst Thou art near?
On the last day Thy grace will wash me white,
And all my “black record” will disappear.
#193 They say, when the last trump shall sound its knell,
Our Friend will sternly judge, and doom to hell.
Can aught but good from perfect goodness come?
Compose your trembling hearts, ‘twill all be well.
#276 O Thou! Who know’st the secret thoughts of all,
In time of sorest need who aidest all,
Grant me repentance, and accept my plea,
O Thou who dost accept the pleas of all!
#204 Can alien Pharisees Thy kindness tell,
Like us, Thy intimates, who nigh Thee dwell?
Thou say’st, “All sinners will I burn with fire.”
Say that to strangers, we know Thee too well!
This last verse refers to mystical insight in which the knowledge of God is gained directly. Like mystics and Universalists everywhere, Omar knows that in the end, we will ALL be united with God.
Ken R. Vincent