On the Great Omar Khayyam and His Struggles with Islam

Some of the Islamically dominated world’s greatest cultural and intellectual achievements have been completely unconnected to religion.

Think of Omar Khayyam, the twelfth-century poet and polymath who did so much to advance algebra and conducted an “outstandingly accurate” measurement of the length of a year. Having lived in Khorasan, Bukhara, Samarkand and Isfahan, he was practically an Eastern Erasmus, a historical figure shared by Persia, Turkey and Central Asia.

He was also, as many have speculated based on his poetry, likely an atheist or agnostic. This would only have been appropriate, as Khayyam hailed from Iran, one of the clearest examples of a country that had been, to recycle Atatürk’s phrase, “a great nation even before [it] accepted the religion of Islam.” One analysis that leans relatively heavily towards deeming Khayyam to have been a believer is the entry on him in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. The authors cite the great Persian scholar’s philosophical treatises, in which he defends certain religious ideas, and interpret those verses he wrote which suggest an attitude of scepticism or agnosticism as reflecting merely his emotional experiences of the world around him, rather than what he believed on an intellectual level. This interpretation seems highly dubious, as the same article quotes the following lines from Khayyam’s pen:

“The secrets which my book of love has bred,
Cannot be told for fear of loss of head;
Since none is fit to learn, or cares to know,
‘Tis better all my thoughts remain unsaid.”

Against this backdrop, given the conflict between what Khayyam explicitly wrote on religious matters in his treatises and what he subtly implied in his poems, it seems much likelier that the latter reflects his true convictions, whereas the former was written to protect himself, or simply as an intellectual exercise. Even if Khayyam truly believed all he wrote in the treatises, there is little, if anything, the authors attribute to him which implies a religious belief beyond deism. Meanwhile, the article acknowledges that “Khayyam challenged religious doctrines, alluded to the hypocrisy of the clergy, [and] cast doubt on almost every facet of religious belief.”

Moreover, even these commentators see fit to observe:

“It is noteworthy that Khayyam’s philosophical treatises were written in the Peripatetic tradition at a time when philosophy in general and rationalism in particular were under attack by orthodox Muslim jurists—so much that Khayyam had to defend himself against the charge of ‘being a philosopher.’”

More broadly, the main effect that Mohammad’s creed had on Khayyam was to trip him up and hold him back. The polymath’s powerful patron, Seljuk vizier Nizam al-Mulk, was assassinated by a member of a rival Islamic sect, whereupon the mathematical maestro fell out of favor with the royal court. J. J. O’Connor and E. F. Robertson write:

“Funding to run the Observatory [where he worked] ceased and Khayyam’s calendar reform was put on hold. Khayyam also came under attack from the orthodox Muslims who felt that Khayyam’s questioning mind did not conform to the faith. He wrote in […] the Rubaiyat [, the collection of his quatrains] :

‘Indeed, the Idols I have loved so long
Have done my Credit in Men’s Eye much wrong:
Have drowned my Honour in a shallow cup,
And sold my reputation for a Song.’”

According to various online sources, though I have been unable to locate the source of this claim, Friedrich Nietzsche once remarked “that he would never forgive Christianity for taking [Blaise] Pascal.” The great iconoclast, it seems, was not a little distraught to see such a brilliant mathematician waste his exceptional brainpower on Christian apologetics. To speak similarly of what Islam appears to have done to Khayyam, forcing him to veil his true thoughts and squander time and energy fending off religious attacks, would be entirely justified.


I enjoyed reading that.

It has given me new information about Omar Kayyam. I did not know that he accurately measured a year.

I was, however, pretty certain that he was an atheist.

I will quote your post on our website.

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