November 2012

John Ranelagh
November 2012

I have become imprisoned, O beloved, by the mole on your lip!
I saw your ailing eyes and became ill through love.
Delivered from self, I beat the drum of “I am the Real!”

Like Hallaj, I became a customer for the top of the gallows.
Heartache for the beloved has thrown so many sparks into my soul

That I have been driven to despair and become the talk of the bazaar.
Open the door of the tavern and let us go there day and night,
For I am sick and tired of the mosque and seminary.
I have torn off the garb of asceticism and hypocrisy,
Putting on the cloak of the tavern-haunting shaykh and becoming aware.
The city preacher has so tormented me with his advice

That I have sought aid from the breath of the wine-drenched profligate.
Leave me alone to remember the idol-temple,
I who have been awakened by the hand of the tavern’s idol.

(The New Republic, September 4, 1989)

That was written by Ayatollah Khomeini and published by his family after his death. It goes to show that his public image was not the whole man. “I am the Real” was taken to mean “I am God”, a blasphemy, and in 922 Mansur al-Hallaj, a mystic poet and teacher, was executed in Baghdad – which had become Muslim 300 years earlier – for saying this.

Poetry that simultaneously examines man’s erotic relationships to this world and to the mystical world has been a hallmark of Persian – and through Persian of Islamic – culture. Our Omar is a clear example, as is Khomeini.

One thousand years ago knowledge of Islamic poetry was brought to us by Petrus Alfunsus (1062-1110), a remarkable man. A Jew who converted to Christianity; physician to Alfonso I of Aragon and then probably to Henry I of England; a scholar learned in Hebrew, Latin, Spanish and Arabic; a contemporary of Omar Khayyam (1048-1131). Time has almost forgotten him: he did not even have an entry in Wikipedia until February this year. Around 1106 he produced the Disciplina Clericalis. He called it his ‘little book’. It was the first deliberate import of Muslim and Arabic tales to the West and it gave – and gives – a fascinating window to the Muslim world at the height of its glory. From it we can trace phrases, situations, parables that Omar also used. ‘The Hermit Who Admonished His Soul’ is illustrative:

Where are the kings? Where are the princes, the rich men who gathered treasures and were proud because of their wealth? Now they are as if they had never existed; now they are dead, as if they had not lived.

Then this thought in Fitz’s Omar:

Think, in this batter’d Caravanserai
Whose Portals are alternate Night and Day,
How Sultan after Sultan with his Pomp
Abode his destined Hour, and went his way.

Another – anonymous – early Persian poet traversed the same ground:

The arch is broken and the splendour fled
Where every aspect once was brave and fair,
The Palace none inhabits save the dead
Whose ivory bones the desert breezes stir.

The Hall of Audience lies –
Though Princes came to make obeisance here –
And from a ruined tower an owlet cries:
‘The glory is departed -where? where? where?’

(John Bowen, Poems from the Persian, 1961)

The question resonates. Where did the glory go? Omar was a member of the House of Wisdom when, as Borges wrote, ‘on an island to the north and west that is unknown to the cartographers of Islam, a Saxon king who defeated a king of Norway is defeated by a Norman duke’. This was not quite right: the cartographers of Islam did know about the island. The House of Wisdom, founded in Baghdad in the early ninth century, was a massive library and centre of debate and research, a theatre of the intellect, somewhat akin to the Royal Society. Omar had lived within a four centuries long Muslim golden age of intellectual, scientific and artistic life far ahead of ideas and imaginations in the West.

The Mongol Golden Horde, created by Genghis Khan (1162-1227), ended this age 127 years after Omar died. These inter-continental nomadic invaders came to control a sixth of the earth’s land area in the greatest contiguous empire the world has ever seen, extending into China, Korea, Russia, Poland, Hungary, Turkey, Iran, Iraq and Syria, dominating an estimated 100 million people. By 1240 they had destroyed Moscow and Kiev. In 1258 they invaded Iraq and razed Baghdad, wiping out much of Middle Eastern civilisation. They did not become Muslims until a century later.

Iraq in 1258 was very different from present day Iraq. Its agriculture was supported by canal networks thousands of years old. Baghdad was arguably the most brilliant centre of learning in the world. The total destruction of Baghdad 750 years ago was a psychological blow from which Islam has never recovered. Islam had already been turning inward, preferring faith to reason and becoming more conservative. With the sack of Baghdad, the intellectual power of Islam was snuffed out. The House of Wisdom was destroyed. It was reported that its books were thrown into the Tigris and that the river ran black with ink.

Not least because ink on paper was the method of recording, Omar and others were swept away. Indeed, hardly anyone knew about Omar until FitzGerald recreated him. In the Preface to his First Edition, he drew attention to the fading of Omar from the Muslim world and the consequent difficulty of finding him in the West:

Omar Khayyam … has been but scantily transmitted abroad. The MSS. of his Poems, mutilated beyond the average casualties of oriental transcription, are so rare in the east as scarce to have reached westward at all … There is no copy at the India House, none at the Bibliotheque Nationale of Paris. We know but of one in England: … at the Bodleian, written at Shiraz, A.D. 1460. … One in the Asiatic Society’s Library at Calcutta … [Von Hammer’s copy and] …the Lucknow MS.

The Austrian Joseph von Hammer was an early orientalist who translated many texts from Persian, Arabic and Turkish in the first half of the nineteenth century.

In Fitzgerald’s grim assessment of the paucity of Omar texts lies the answer to where the glory had gone: the fragility of transcription. Omar’s Muslim world had ready access to paper (from China), centuries before Europe, and scribes copied books and poems. Thousands of texts were regularly sold in bookshops. Authors had standing and distribution and worked in an intellectual environment. Transcription was a huge industry. It was the last time the Middle East enjoyed superiority over the West.

Inevitably, after so many centuries, few if any of these transcripts survived. The earliest surviving record of Omar’s Rubaiyat is the copy in the Bodleian made about 325 years after the original and almost certainly corrupted over time. Without sustained accurate recording, texts and knowledge gradually disappeared.

In the West, texts and knowledge were saved by printing. Perhaps ironically, much of what we have today of the Middle Eastern golden age – let alone the Koran itself – that might otherwise have had a Baghdad fate, survived because of Western interest and technology. The first Koran was printed in Hamburg in 1694: closer in time by about 450 years to Muhammed than the Gutenberg Bible was to Jesus. Movable type printing was known in the Ottoman Empire as early as 1483 when the sultan made the use of books a capital crime. But until the eighteenth century, sultans explicitly forbade Muslims from printing in Arabic script, though non-religious printing came to be accepted. There were no Muslim presses in the Empire until 1727, and the Koran and other religious texts were not allowed to be printed.

Outside the Empire printing spread even more slowly in other Muslim countries. Religious authorities claimed that printing diminished the importance of the oral transmission of the Koran. The mass production of books threatened their control of the educational and legal systems, and of course threatened the livelihood of thousands of transcribers. Probably the first Koran printed by Muslims was in St. Petersburg in 1787. In the nineteenth century the use of presses became widespread in the Muslim world, and in 1828 in Kazan the Koran was printed and distributed by Muslims. Not until 1877, however, was a Koran printed in the Ottoman Empire.

Politicians in theocracies depend upon conforming to the strictures of religious authority to maintain their legitimacy. Violating these strictures risks gaol, fines, banishment, sometimes death, and for unbelievers in Muslim worlds the misery of the realm of Iblis where, depending upon your circumstances, you may also be tortured with every conceivable use of fire. Few in the Muslim world – politicians or otherwise – are prepared to break Islam’s strictures, and accordingly religious authorities have had little incentive to reinterpret or change. Thus inter alia the decline of science and arts in favour of an anti-intellectual culture of religion with ossified rules that has now had over five centuries of traction. Kemal Ataturk recognised the damage to welfare and advancement that this had caused and overturned the remaining bans on printing, including religious books, after overthrowing the Caliphate.

Sadly, Ataturk’s legacy is being eroded: part of the evidence against the pianist, Fazil Say, presently on trial in Turkey for insulting Islam, is that he tweeted a message based upon a verse of Omar suggesting that angels, taverns and drinking are combined:

And lately, by the Tavern Door agape,
Came shining through the Dusk an Angel Shape
Bearing a Vessel on his Shoulder; and
He bid me taste of it; and ’twas–the Grape!

Any version of the Rubaiyat – printed or not – has long been a challenge to the monochrome view of the mullahs and their cohorts. Sensuality, pleasure, laughter in theocracies is invariably political and threatening.

Indeed, one of Ayatollah Khomeini’s first decrees upon driving out the Shah in 1979 was that the writings of Omar Khayyam should be burnt. And they were. Khomeini’s family came, like Omar, from Nishapur. It’s probably fair to say that Khomeini was acutely aware of what he was doing.

Today, in the Muslim world, along with many other notable Middle Eastern literary figures, Omar is difficult to come by. Some editions have been published in Iran since the 1979 revolution there: as usual, there is no clear black-and-white with censorship. But in Cairo, Alexandria and Istanbul I have tried in bookshops to find Omar and have had no luck.

Omar’s Rubaiyat was rejected by Khomeni because of its heritage, its veiled homosexuality, and its joie de vivre. It is probably not in bookshops for these reasons that are seen by mullahs as undermining Islamic values and because, with time, awareness of the work has faded – as it had in the centuries before FitzGerald retuned it. Its heritage is a counterweight to eternal religious claims and attitudes; its joy defies fundamentalism. As Fitz said of Omar, ‘He sang, in an acceptable way, it seems, of what all men feel in their hearts but had not had expressed in verse before.’ The expression of a single intense heart living entirely in this world, and not of an impersonal code proclaiming heaven and other absolutes, is the red flag for fundamentalists. Quatrain 72 from the second edition embodies this:

Heav’n but the Vision of fulfill’d Desire,
And Hell the Shadow from a Soul on fire,
Cast on the Darkness into which Ourselves,
So late emerged from, shall so soon expire.

‘We seem to have the Man–the Bon-homme–Omar himself,‘ wrote FitzGerald, ‘with all his Humours and Passions, as frankly before us as if we were really at Table with him, after the Wine had gone round.’ Given that his passions may have been familiar to the Greeks, and his humours too rational to be swayed by mere assertions, it is not surprising that 9 centuries later he should be banned and burnt by men wedded to overbearing certainties.

His humours and passions generated disagreement in Omar’s own lifetime. There is some debate as to whether he was a mystic, a devoutly orthodox Muslim, or an atheist. FitzGerald’s view was clear:

Omar’s Epicurean Audacity of Thought and Speech caused him to be regarded askance in his own time and country. [The Sufi] poets … borrowed largely, indeed, of Omar’s material, but turning it to a mystical use more convenient to themselves and the people they addressed; a people … delighting in [floating] luxuriously between heaven and earth, and this world and the next … Omar was too honest of heart as well of head for this. Having failed (however mistakenly) of finding any providence but destiny, and any world but this, he set about making the most of it.

And Omar’s view as presented by Fitz:

Oh, threats of Hell and Hopes of Paradise!
One thing at least is certain–This Life flies;
One thing is certain and the rest is Lies;
The Flower that once has blown for ever dies.

Sensuality is a major driving force of curiosity. The exploration of a body is naturally thrilling, and the exploration of thought runs a close second. Omar was a man of sensuality, knowledge and mathematical precision. Fitz was similar, without trained numeracy. Their curiosity was and is subversive to any inflexible authority and to any calcified order. Their determination to look life in the eye, to call a spade a spade, is creative, challenging and finally life enhancing. Thus the mullahs’ antagonism. But few – if any – of us, let alone Omar and Fitz, take an anarchistic position. We need social and political structures. The tension that curiosity generates is not destructive: it is supportive, like a flying buttress on a Cathedral, and healthy structures know this. Omar clearly enjoyed jockeying with a political and social order confident of its realm and within which disagreement, challenge, irreverence and individuality were a part that he made his own. Let us hope that generosity in our world survives.
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I have passed around a photograph of two men. The one on the right, it may astound you to know, is Omar Khyam (with one ‘y’), a British citizen born in Crawley in 1982. This is his actual name, chosen by his parents, raising an interesting question about their awareness – or lack thereof – of our Omar in the Muslim world. They were not religious and probably did not connect the name with Ayatollah fire. At school, Omar captained the cricket team. Two weeks after 9-11 he trained in Pakistan to make bombs, and then planned to detonate a massive explosion in London. He was forestalled by MI-5, arrested, tried, found guilty and gaoled in 2007. The photograph was taken by a surveillance team in a Heathrow car park showing him meeting a Canadian fellow conspirator to receive an electronic trigger for his bomb.

Let us give Omar the last uplifting word as he moves in a rubaiyat from darkness to living life:

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.