I just finished Rūmī: Poet and Mystic, an anthology translated by Reynold Nicholson. And by finished I mean struggled through. I love Khayyam, and I appreciated Attar, but Rumi is a slog.

Which may be surprising, because Rumi is booming right now. Checking Amazon right now, he’s got the #30 bestseller spot under “Poetry”, and takes 4 of the 50 top slots under “Ancient, Classical, and Medieval Poetry”, including #3. That’s pretty impressive for a Persian dude who died in 1273, and for a Sufi Muslim.

At least I can say after reading Rumi how un-Sufi Khayyam is. The contrast is evident when Rumi uses one of the same subjects, wine:

He comes, a Moon whose like the sky ne’er saw, awake or dreaming,
Crowned with eternal flame no flood can lay.
Lo, from the flagon of Thy love, O Lord, my soul is swimming,
And ruined all my body’s house of clay.

When first the Giver of the grape my lonely heart befriended,
Wine fired my bosom and my veins filled up,
But when His Image all my eye possessed, a voice descended:
“Well done, O Sovereign Wine and peerless Cup!”

This is obviously about God– there’s no worry that the poet is secretly tippling; he’s just using a quick metaphor of wine overflowing a cup. It’s a million miles away from

And much as Wine has play’d the Infidel,
And robb’d me of my Robe of Honour— well,
I wonder often what the Vintners buy
One half as precious as the stuff they sell.

It may not be mysterious that people who like devotional poetry like Rumi. It’s not hard to see that his message is all about a loving though imperious God, about the devotion expected of his disciples, about God’s omnipotence and even his own craving for communion with humanity. It could equally appeal to a Muslim, a Christian, or a bhakta of Shiva or Vishnu. However, it’s not likely to appeal to someone who just doesn’t believe that a god like that exists, or that devotion to one is lovely and moving.

And to be clear, there’s nothing wrong with devotional poetry. And it would be odd to complain that there’s not much here besides the devotion: why would we expect there to be? It would be like complaining that fantasy contains a lot of fantastical elements. But, well, in other poets sometimes there is more. Attar is more readable, if nothing else because he’s also telling a story, and because his paradoxes (like the Sufi saint who falls in love with a Christian) are striking. Sometimes devotional works have other things with wider appeal, such as a fervor for social justice, or a celebration of human love, or just really groovy language.

Nicholson’s edition, at least, makes it very clear that Rumi was firmly rooted in both Sufism and Islam. Sufis are the mystics of Islam, and big on love and devotion and God’s immanence. Sometime this looks like pantheism: some Sufis said “I am God”, but this was not a claim to be divine; it was a claim (or dream) to have so defeated the self that nothing was present in them any more but God.

But they take Muhammad’s pre-eminence for granted, and are full of quotations from the Qur’an. Rumi even makes it clear that he’s Sunni rather than Shi’a, and throws a few barbs at the Christians. And the Zoroastrians, for that matter. (He has a dialog where a pious Muslim tears up a foolish Zoroastrian; this might have been a literary trope even in his time, but the old Persian religion was undoubtedly far stronger then than it is today.)

One of the barbs, by the way, was the supposed preference of Christians for hermitage. (Islam arose when hermits were a big thing in the Christian East.) Islam is big on community; it seemed strange and wrong for supposed holy men to go off to live by themselves. Plus, Rumi says, there’s no great worth in avoiding temptation by running away from it. “Hark, do not castrate yourself, do not become a monk: chastity depends on the existence of lust.”

One poem has some interesting comments on asceticism:

The mystic ascends to the Throne in a moment; the ascetic needs a month for one day’s journey. […]
Love (maabbat) and ardent love (‘ishq) also, is an attribute of God; Fear is an attribute of the slave to lust and appetite. […]
The timorous ascetic runs on foot; the lovers of God fly more quickly than lightning.
May Divine Favour free thee from this wayfaring! None but the royal falcon hath found the way to the King.

And yet there are also justifications for the tribulation of the world: the Sufi saint accepts mortification and asceticism as the purifying fire of God.  It’s a very old paradox, found in many religions: someone comes along and breaks all the rules, emphasizes that the Path is simple and made of love, and invites even the sinful to walk it. But then that simplicity offends others, who put all the rules back (or invent a new set), because salvation should require overt virtue and work.  (For ease of exposition I talk about this as if it’s a cycle in time requiring opposite personality types, and often it is; but in any mature religion it’s possible to have both tropes coexisting in the same person.)

By the way, his name was really Jalāl ad-Dīn Muḥammad Balkhī. The epithet Rūmī simply means ‘Roman’! Or to be precise, it refers to Rūm. In the Qur’an, this means what we call the Byzantine Empire, but which till its very end called itself Rome. When the Turks conquered Anatolia, they continued to call it Rūm. Rumi lived for years in Anatolia, thus the name. (Balkhī means ‘from Balkh’, which was his home town.)

The “whirling dervishes” belong mostly to the Mevlevi order of Sufis– which was founded by Rumi’s followers, and is still led by one of his lineal descendants. The dance is a form of worship. Atatürk banned the order, but the dances are now allowed because tourists like them.

A curiosity of Rumi’s life was his intense devotion to a male companion. The first was Shamsu’l-Din of Tabriz; he so monopolized Rumi’s time that his followers chased him to Damascus, twice. Rumi sent his son to bring him back each time. He named one of his major works (“The Lyrics of Shams of Tabriz”) after him. And when Shams disappeared, he had similar relationships with other Sufi men, one of which succeeded him as head of the Mevlevi order.

These days, this is bound to arouse speculation that he was gay (or bisexual). His followers generally insist that it was a deep love but entirely non-sexual. But gay writers are quick to point out that at lot of these historical “oh they were just really close friends” judgments are rife with homophobia. So who knows?


I don’t like most poetry. I don’t know why, I lack the gene for it or something. But some stuff gets past the blocks. Chinese poetry, for one, but also the Ruba’iyyat of Omar Khayyam, the 12C Persian poet and scholar.


Wake! For the Sun, who scatter’d into flight
The Stars before him from the Field of Night,
Drives Night along with them from Heaven, and strikes
The Sultán’s Turret with a Shaft of Light.

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!

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!

You know, my Friends, with what a brave Carouse
I made a second Marriage in my house;
Divorced old barren Reason from my Bed
And took the Daughter of the Vine to Spouse.

But helpless Pieces of the Game He plays
Upon this Chequer-board of Nights and Days;
Hither and thither moves, and checks, and slays,
And one by one back in the Closet lays.

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.

Yesterday This Day’s Madness did prepare;
To-morrow’s Silence, Triumph, or Despair:
Drink! for you know not whence you came, nor why;
Drink! for you know not why you go, nor where.

And much as Wine has play’d the Infidel,
And robb’d me of my Robe of Honour— well,
I wonder often what the Vintners buy
One half as precious as the stuff they sell.

These are all in Edward FitzGerald’s translation— the 5th edition, from 1875. The first edition in 1859 was remaindered, and sold for a penny a copy. The artist Dante Gabriel Rossetti and the poet Algernon Swinburne happened to buy copies, and fell in love with the poems, leading to a craze for Khayyam for a century, at least. Thus the illo above, a 1950 strip from Walt Kelly’s Pogo.

It’s easy to feel that we’ve got the number of FitzGerald’s Khayyam. They’re melancholy and yet hedonistic, fiercely appreciative of the human predicament and skeptical of all cosmological doctrines. They frequently refer to wine-drinking— forbidden to Muslims— and yet one intuits that the drunkenness is not real; these are far from the musings of an alcoholic.

Who was the real Khayyam? Perhaps a glance at one of his scholarly works is in order.

If it is said that existence is a concept that cannot be described through existence by negating the attribute, that is: not to negate either of the two sides even if it is said, “either it is an existent or a non-existent in reality.” We ask them, moreover, that both sides be negated and we say, “is existence an existent in a reality or is it non-existent in reality?” So, if the answer is positive, it becomes necessary for what is axiomatic to become impossible, and if the answer is negative, then existent is not existent in reality and this position is false.

This is less likely to be quoted in a popular comic strip.

I just finished a book which attempts to explain all sides of Khayyam: The Wine of Wisdom: The Life, Poetry and Philosophy of Omar Khayyam, by Mehdi Aminrazavi (2005). In his time, Khayyam was known as a mathematician and an astronomer.

  • He attempted to shore up Euclid’s fifth postulate, making use of Saccheri quadrilaterals, which were adopted by Western science half a millennium later.
  • He made a systematic study of cubic and quadratic equations, finding ways to solve them all, though his analysis is marred by considering only positive roots. He closely linked algebra with geometry, which was a new thing.
  • He used continued fractions to deal with rational numbers, and was one of the first to seriously consider four or more spatial dimensions.
  • He led a Seljuk commission to create a new solar calendar, the Jalāli, which is slightly more accurate than the Gregorian calendar we use. A variant of this is still used in Iran.

In philosophy, he was a follower of Avicenna, and more remotely of Aristotle. If you’ve read some early philosophy, Khayyam’s philosophical treatises (which are included in Aminrazavi’s book) will seem dense but unsurprising. Essence and existence are concepts that go back to Aristotle, as is Khayyam’s deriving the idea of God from that of causation: everything we see has a cause, but there can be no infinite chain of causation, so something is the uncaused cause of everything else, and that is God.

He considers the problem of evil, concluding that by creating good attributes, God could not help but create their opposites, without intending to. That leads to the meta-question: wouldn’t he know that creating those goods would also bring in evil, and therefore avoid it? But, he maintains, the sheer quantity of good to evil is overwhelming, and to deprive the universe of those goods simply to prevent a small amount of evil would itself be wrong.

There’s also a version of the ontological argument for God:

The Necessary Being… is an essence that is not possible to be conceived except by an existent. Therefore, the attribute of existence before the the intellect is due to His essence and not because one has placed it there.

It all sounds familiar because Aristotle, Avicenna, and Averroes influenced Anselm and Acquinas, so such concepts are part of Catholic theology. To put it another way, Muslims and Christians think very similarly about God, except for the bit about Jesus. And yes, the divinity of Jesus is a big deal, but not when you’re at the level of uncaused causes and essences that include existence.

So far, it looks like Khayyam is an orthodox philosopher who believed in a rationally supported God who was (with some steps better left unexamined) that worshipped by the local religion. He studied Islamic theology and jurisprudence, and was seen in his own time as a respected scholar and even called imām. What he’s not known for is entering the theological disputes of his time. He didn’t write discourses about them, not least because this could be dangerous.

But he treated them indirectly in Ruba’iyyat, taking advantage of the greater freedom offered to poets. His position was consistently skeptical: issues of life after death, or the justice of the world, or the nature of the attributes of God, could not be resolved and the disputes were not worth one’s time.

The sphere upon which mortals come and go,
Has no end or beginning that we know
And none there is to tell us in plain truth
Whence do we come and whither do we go.

All the biographical information we have on Khayyam relates to his scholarly life. He lived most of his life in Nishapur, a city in eastern Iran, at the west end of the Silk Road; for a time it was the capital of the Seljuk Empire. He took some students (apparently reluctantly), but lived on a generous stipend from the Nizam al-Mulk, the Seljuk vizier. He’s said to have had a photographic memory: twice he traveled to read a manuscript he was not allowed to copy, and came home to dictate a near-perfect match. (The poet Attar was also from Nishapur; he was born a few years after Khayyam’s death.)

The first ruba’iyyat (quatrains) attributed to Khayyam— not much more than a dozen— occur in manuscripts dated about a century after his death. We can add about twenty more in books about a century later. Over the centuries the total mushroomed to over a thousand.

This makes for a huge textual puzzle, and many scholars have attempted to find the “authentic” ruba’iyyat. The puzzle is really impossible to solve, because it becomes an investigation into what the poet Khayyam really was: FitzGerald’s hedonist Epicurean? The Aristotelian deist of the scholarly works? An eccentric but orthodox Sufi?  Which answer you choose affects which ruba’iyyat you consider authentic. Aminrazavi suggests that the quest is futile, and that one might as well just call the whole mass the Khayyamian school of poetry.

In Persia, the received wisdom is that he was a Sufi. This is the mystical side of Islam, which emphasizes divine love and simple living, sometimes shocks the fundamentalists, and has little patience for doctrine and ritual. On the plus side, the philosophical Khayyam, in On the knowledge of the universal principles of existence, reviews four possible paths: theologians; philosophers; Ismā’ilis, and Sufis, and declares of Sufism, “This path is the best of them all.” Khayyam is known to have preferred solitude and a relatively simple life, though there’s also that stipend, an indication that he was no ascetic. There’s no evidence that he had a Sufi master or adhered to any particular Sufi school.

Aminrazavi concludes that the poet was comfortable with Sufism and used Sufi themes, but wasn’t a Sufi. It’s true that the Sufis were also fond of the metaphor of wine; a French translator carefully footnotes every reference to wine in the Ruba’iyyat with the annotation Dieu. I have to say I agree with Aminrazavi, simply because the atmosphere of the Ruba’iyyat is a thousand miles (or about 250 parasangs) from that of Attar, who was an actual Sufi poet. Like many a religious teacher, Attar likes to shock the student with paradox, but it’s all in the service of an ascetic though emotional devotion to God. And Attar’s allegories are not at all hard to decipher (hint: one of the parties represents God, another the human).

Khayyam (or if you like the Khayyamian school) doesn’t seem to talk about devotion to God at all. God is referred to, but as the inscrutable hand behind fate and the mixed justice and injustice in the world. The jug of wine in the wilderness is not a jug of God. It might not be a real jug of wine, but if not it still represents the pleasures of this world, the only one we can be certain of.

Could the same man who wrote those very dry treatises also have written the Ruba’iyyat? Well, sure. It’s a bad scholarly habit to declare that the same person couldn’t have created very different kinds of works. As a modern example, Richard Feynman was both a serious scientist, a musician, and a humorous storyteller with a taste for roguish adventures.

If you want to know more, pick up FitzGerald’s translation. It’s short— my copy is only about a hundred pages and includes three of his five editions. Curiously, Aminrazavi agrees: he says that FitzGerald is still the best gateway for readers who don’t know Persian, that he captured the spirit of Khayyam better than translators who were trying to be more accurate. He did choose the more Epicurean ruba’iyyat, and his idea of translation is very free, but it’s hard to argue with a version that comes alive so fiercely.

And if you want to know more than that, read Aminrazavi’s book. It reviews both Persian and Western scholarship and attempts to reconcile the scholarly and the poetic Khayyam. I do think he spends too little time on the scientific works (admittedly it would probably take a long and difficult chapter to do justice to them), and a little too much on various “Omar Khayyam Clubs” in the West. Though there’s probably a lesson about research there: once he had all that material, it was difficult not to use it.




Time for another excursion into non-Western literature. Today it’s Farid Attar’s The Conference of the Birds.  This is a classic of Persian literature, written around 1187. It’s about the search for God. By birds.


It’s a long poem, in rhymed couplets, where a few hundred thousand birds get together and talk about finding the mythical king of the gods, the Simorgh. They decide they need a king, and elect the hoopoe.

The what? About all I knew about hoopoes was that they were biblical, somehow. That’s a hoopoe above.  It’s certainly a pretty bird, and apparently in Arab legend, Solomon was shielded by hoopoes from the burning sun, and in return gave them a crown-like crest of feathers. The hoopoe in Attar does say he gained his wisdom from Solomon.

And what’s the Simorgh? It’s a creature of Zoroastrian (that is, ancient Persian) mythology, ancient and semi-divine. (It’s also normally considered to be female, but this doesn’t appear in Attar.)

You may be expecting an allegorical epic now, like Journey to the West.  Well, no.  It’s inspirational Sufi poetry. The Simorgh is God, as he appears to birds. Various birds express their fears and hesitations about the voyage to find God, and the hoopoe responds eloquently. Much of his discourse is in the form of parables about real or imagined figures, often designed to undermine traditional religious ideas.

Sufism is the mystical side of Islam, and so far as I can see, it’s pretty much identical to certain traditions in Christianity, and also to the bhakti movement in Hinduism. It’s all about love, you see.  You are supposed not just to love God, you fall in love with him, with all the unrestrained passion of the most carnal love affair. You give up everything, he forgives everything, you live in poverty and pain in this world and simultaneously in ecstasy.

All of these traditions are a revolt against rules and doctrines and divisions and stodginess, so the first order of business is generally shock, as old ideas have to be questioned. An early parable is about the Sufi spiritual leader Sanan, who runs off to Rome and falls in love with a Christian girl. From an Islamic point of view, this is shameful and heretical, but the point, I think, is that if you don’t have that much passion, your more orthodox faith is worthless. (It all ends happily, though– the Prophet himself intervenes, and brings both the wayward leader and the girl back to the faith.)

So, there’s lots of stories of people discovering and losing great treasures, and Joseph in Egypt (a great symbol of a person of great worth despised by his peers), and kings being rebuked for their worldly splendor. There seems to be a progression: the early stories are mostly about the passion of God for us and us for God, and later chapters lay on the difficulties of the path.

Eventually– about 90% of the way through the book– the actual journey takes place, and of all the throng of birds, only thirty make it to the antechamber of the Simorgh. At this point Attar unveils the pun that perhaps led to the creation of the whole work: they see the Simorgh, but what they see is si morgh, ‘thirty birds’.

They gazed, and dared at last to comprehend
They were the Simorgh, and the journey’s end.

That is, more or less: they find God, but God is immanent in the world, and thus in them. As they have finally defeated the Self, all that remains in them is God, and so they see him– and disappear in him.

So, should you run out and read this? Well, it depends on your tolerance for this type of religious thought. The translators (Afkham Darbandi and Dick Davis) emphasize the earthiness and variety of the parables. But honestly, you’ll have more fun reading (say) The Ten Princes. The religious message is not, to put it mildly, hidden under a bushel. If you don’t think there is a God, falling in love with him probably won’t make much sense or have much appeal.

Now, if your idea of religion is that it’s all stupid rituals and oppressive rules, in service to the powers that be, then maybe you should read it to understand that there is an ecstatic and anti-authoritarian side to religion. Whatever you might think of their goals, a Sufi was someone who could thumb their nose at kings and rich men. (And if all you know about Islam is shari’a and jihads and religious fighters, Attar is a good counterweight.)

How is the poetry?  I’m no great judge, but here’s a sample of the translators’ work:

A naked madman, gnawed by hunger, went
Along the road – his shivering frame was bent
Beneath the icy sleet; no house stood there
To offer shelter from the wintry air.
He saw a ruined hut and with a dash
Stood underneath its roof; a sudden crash
Rang out – a tile had fallen on his head,
And how the gaping gash it cut there bled!
He looked up at the sky and yelled, “Enough!
Why can’t you clobber me with better stuff?”

I’ve been studying some Persian, so maybe in a few months or years I’ll be able to tell you how the original sounds. But I’m not sure that the English rhymes or the pentameter add much.

Wikipedia, by the way, informs me that the poet’s name is properly ʿAṭṭār. But this is an Arabicization; there are no emphatic or pharyngeal consonants in Persian, so his name really is just Attar. It’s really a pen name, ‘perfumer’, after his profession. The old name ‘attar of roses’, for rose oil, is a cognate.