Ğiyāṯ al-Dīn Abū al-Fatḥ ʿUmar ibn Ibrāhīm al-Nišābūrī Ḫayyāmī (Ḫayyām) was born in Nīšābūr, Ḫurāsān ca. 440/1048 where he supposedly died in or shortly after 525/1130. The suggested dates are drawn from near contemporary sources, the birth-date being based on the account of the historian Abū al-Ḥasan al-Bayhaqī (fl. ca. 556/1160-570/1174) who knew Ḫayyām personally and left a record of his horoscope, and the death-date is derived from Niẓāmī” ʿArūżī’s (fl. ca. 551-2/1156-7, see author 175) account in the Čahar Maqālah
about his visit to Ḫayyām’s tomb in 530/1135 four years after his death, a date that is confirmed elsewhere.
The life and works of Ḫayyām are subjects of much uncertainty or ambiguity, beginning with the epithet, Ḫayyāmī, the supposed reference to tent-making as a family trade. He may be best known as a world-famous poet today, especially after the Fitzgerald’s translation of his “Couplets” (no. 88.01), but to his contemporaries, he seems to have been known mostly as a mathematician and astronomer, and many of his scientific works in Arabic have been published in recent times. Niẓāmī” ʿArūżī’s account in the Čahar Maqālah, however problematic, reflects something about other aspects of Ḫayyām’s life and period as well, including the nature of his reputation at the time:
“In the year A.H. 506 (A.D. 1112-1113) Khwāja Imām ʿUmar-i Khayyāmī and Khwāja Imām Mużffar-I Isfizārī had alighted in the city of Balkh, in the street of the Slave-sellers, in the house of Amīr Abū Saʿd Jarrah, and I had joined that assembley. In the midst of our convivial gathering I heard Ḥujjat al-Ḥaqq ʿUmar say: ‘My grave will be in a spot where the trees will shed their blossoms on me twice a year. This thing seemed to me impossible, though I knoew that one such as he would not speak idle words.
When I arrived at Nishāpur in the year 530 (A.D. 1135-6) in being then four years since that great man had veiled his countenance in the dust, and this nether world had been bereaved of him, I went to visit his grave on the eve of a Friday (seeing that he had the claim of a master on me), taking with me one to point out to me his tomb. So he brought me out to the Ḥira Cemetery; I turned to the left, and found his tomb situated at the foot of a garden-wall, over which pear-trres and peach-trees thrust their heads, and his grave had fallen so many flower-leaves that his dust was hidden beneath the flowers.”
The best-known work of Ḫayyām is called the Rubāʿiyyāt
(Quatrains) for which there are countless editions and translations. About that work as well as the intellectual biography of Ḫayyām, the passage quoted below from the preface by one of the best known modern Persian literary figures, Sadegh Hedayat, may itself be as fitting as when it was written close to half a century ago.
" Scarcely any book in the world has been admired, rejected, hated, altered, calhuminated, carded, renown the world over, and finally remained unknown like that of Khayyam’s quatrains. If all the books written regarding Khayyam and his Quatrains be gathered in one place, a large library would be formed ; but the book known as the collection of Khayyam’s Quatrains, and is within the rich of everybody is one that gernerally involves from eighty to one thousand and two hundred Quatrains or so ; but all of them form a melee of conflicting ideas…If we refer to Khayyam’s biography written in the olden times, too, we are faced with the same discord… "