Omar Khayyam (1048-1131 CE) was born in Nishapur, in northern Persia, and was famous during his lifetime as an astronomer and mathematician, producing, among other achievements, a method for solving cubic equations and some equations of a higher order. Nevertheless, he is known in the modern world more as a poet, although it is likely that not all of the thousand or more verses attributed to him are his, nor is his poetic thought justly served by the most well known English translation of one hundred quatrains by Edward Fitzgerald. Khayyam’s insistence that we have only this present moment, and his frequent reference to wine, a well-known metaphor for Divine love in Sufi poetry, led Fitzgerald to interpret these quatrains as those of a cynical and sensual bon-vivant, urging us to indulge in our passions while we can. From a Sufi point of view, he is indeed urging us to take advantage of the moment, but in a quite different sense.
Only one breath separates
blasphemy from prayer.
One breath alone carries us
from doubt to faith.
So make sure you love this sweet
dear breath of yours.
the one and only true fruit of your life.
* * *
One can live in Baghdad,
or one can live in Balkh.
The cup can be bitter or it can be sweet.
Choose joy then! For long after you,
that moon will still be shining,
the old one and the new.
* * *
Those who have gone before us, my friend,
now sleep in the dust of humanity’s pride.
Come, drink the elixir of wine
and listen to its truth.
Whatever worthy words they said
are now scattered far and wide.
* * *
This strange caravan of life
sweeps by so swiftly.
See how the sweetness of each moment
takes its flight.
Why suffer from that enemy, Tomorrow?
Come fill the cup!
We pass so quickly through the night.
Translation Mary S. O’Connell with Roshanak Vahdani