Not that it is high on their agenda, but loss of the cultural prestige of Islam is part of the collateral damage inflicted by terrorist groups like the Taliban and al’Qaeda. All we in the West see is news of suicide bombers and lunatic threats to annihilate the “Crusaders”. It’s easy to forget that Muslim cultures have inspired great art. If bin Laden is sincere about winning Western hearts, perhaps he should think of setting up a cultural mission to dazzle Westerners with the Alhambra and the Taj Mahal. Even Pope Benedict acknowledged the power of Islamic art the other day when he visited a mosque in Jordan:
“Places of worship like this splendid Al-Hussein Bin Talal mosque named after the revered late King, stand out like jewels across the earth’s surface. From the ancient to the modern, the magnificent to the humble, they all point to the divine, to the Transcendent One, to the Almighty. And through the centuries these sanctuaries have drawn men and women into their sacred space to pause, to pray, to acknowledge the presence of the Almighty, and to recognize that we are all his creatures.”
Muslim culture is far from homogeneous, stretching as it does from Indonesia to India to Persia to Turkey to Morocco. Apart from esteem for the Qu’ran, these traditions have little in common and their glories are almost unknown in the West.
One exception to this is the dazzling Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám, which contains some of the most frequently quoted lines in English poetry. I must be the only one who has noticed, but this year marks the 150th anniversary of its publication. In Victorian England it became a kind of Harry Potter for highbrows, one of best-selling books of verse ever to appear in English.
The Rubáiyát is a literary oddity. Omar Khayyám was a renowned Persian mathematician and poet who died about 1123. He was renowned for his work in algebra and astronomy — it has been claimed that we owe to him the use of “x” as a variable in algebra – but his fame as a poet overshadows his professional achievements.
He composed hundreds of quatrains, or ruba’i in the Persian language, which were selected and translated freely into English by Edward FitzGerald (1809-83). A friend had found a manuscript in the Bodleian Library at Oxford and Fitzgerald rendered them into English, hoping to make a “readable” introduction to Persian poetry. The result is a coherent series of sparkling aphorisms about the transience of human achievement, the joys of tippling, and scepticism about divine providence. “Vanity of vanities” is hardly an original theme; poets from Qoheleth to T.S. Eliot have proved that Weltschmertz is an inexaustible vein of inspiration. But the existence of literature like this certainly makes Islam a more complex and more humane cultural phenomenon than many people appreciate nowadays.
It’s not easy to know what Omar Khayyám really believed. Was he a sceptic, or a Sufi mystic, or just a frivolous dilettante? Like many poets, his work can be interpreted in many different ways. Apparently the Rubáiyát is little known in modern Iran, perhaps because Islamic authorities have regarded it as heterodox. However, in Victorian England its combination of theological scepticism and oriental exoticism struck a chord. Despite the prominence of the Anglican Church, the second half of the 19th century was a time much like our own, filled with doubt, atheism, and foreboding, notwithstanding spectacular wealth and technological progress. No doubt FitzGerald, a wealthy literary eccentric who never worked and devoted himself to translating Persian, ancient Greek and Spanish classics, wove his own perplexities into his rendering.
To give you an idea of the charm of the poem, here’s something that once happened to me. I had a brief stint as a cadet journalist for the Sydney Morning Herald chasing fire engines, train wrecks and drowned bodies. We would be whisked to the scene of the crime by drivers, mostly old codgers who lounged around the police rounds room and talked incessantly about the football. Bill, though, was different. Cranky and bitter, he stayed in his car, never spoke except to complain. He spat on the Herald and said that it was good for nothing.
One day on the way to a job, I tried to engage him in conversation. Being a bit of a show-off, I must have quoted a line from the Rubáiyát: “The Moving Finger writes; and having writ, Moves on”. From the front seat I heard Bill’s gravelly voice reciting the opening stanza:
Awake! for Morning in the Bowl of Night
Has flung the Stone that puts the Stars to Flight:
And Lo! the Hunter of the East has caught
The Sultan’s Turret in a Noose of Light.
“You’ve read the Rubáiyát?” I asked, a bit snotty, actually, at having been upstaged by a mere driver.
“Memorised it,” said Bill, and went on:
Ah, make the most of what we yet may spend,
Before we too into the Dust Descend;
Dust into Dust, and under Dust, to lie,
Sans Wine, sans Song, sans Singer and—sans End!
He would have recited all 101 quatrains, had I not cut him short by demanding an explanation. It turns out that he had been a cabbie and a fare had once left a copy behind, lavishly illustrated no doubt, as most editions are. He browsed through it and it appealed to his morose nature. So he learned it off by heart. After that we became friends. We had something to talk about. And I learned a bit of humility, because I have trouble remembering my phone number.
An infallible test of great poetry is that it makes your throat tighten when you read it. The Rubáiyát, cynical and epicurean though it may be, does that for me. Take this quatrain, which perfectly expresses the melancholy of life without trust in a loving God. You might not share the sentiment, but it is unforgettable:
Think, in this batter’d Caravanserai
Whose Doorways are alternate Night and Day,
How Sultan after Sultan with his Pomp
Abode his Hour or two, and went his way.
Some lines are open to a more optimistic interpretation. These, which capture the heart’s longing for eternity, have been quoted by a well-known Catholic writer because they express, or so he thought, what one ought to feel about God:
Ah, Love! could thou and I with Fate conspire
To grasp this sorry Scheme of Things entire,
Would not we shatter it to bits—and then
Re-mould it nearer to the Heart’s Desire!
According to the experts, Fitzgerald’s translations (he revised the Rubáiyát four times, although the first edition is the one most commonly anthologised), are loose and inaccurate. But they have forgiven him – a “venial infidelity”, in the charming words of Arthur J. Arberry, sometime Sir Thomas Adam’s Professor of Arabic, at the University of Cambridge. It was due to Fitzgerald’s loving research that the treasures of mediaeval Persian literature were discovered by the West. Interest in Persian increased enormously as a result.
So maybe there’s a lesson in this for Osama bin Laden’s next video from his hidden fastness in Pakistan. If he were to add allusions to the Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám, he might find a more receptive audience for his threats:
While the Rose blows along the River Brink,
With old Khayyam the Ruby Vintage drink:
And when the Angel with his darker Draught
Draws up to thee—take that, and do not shrink.
Michael Cook is editor of MercatorNet.