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Omar Khayyam: food for atheists

July 5, 2013

In the last issue of Omariana, the question was raised by Johan ter Haar, whether Christopher Hitchens was right when he pulled Khayyam into the atheists’ camp. In “The portable atheist” (2007) Hitchens selected thirty-five quatrains from Le Gallienne’s translation.

We thought this might give cause for a discussion on the blog, so we post the article by Ter Haar here as well.

Christopher Eric Hitchens (April 13, 1949 – December, 15, 2011) was a well-known English-American author, who loved seek the media to express his explicit opinions on a large variety of (current) affairs, unscrupulous of established reputations such as that of Bill Clinton, Henry Kissinger, pope Benedict XVI and many others.
He became best known through his fierce position against any form of religion, not as an atheist, but as an anti-theist. Someone may be an atheist and yet fervently hope that God does exist, but an anti-theist is someone who, to his great relief, has come to the conclusion that there is no rational evidence for God’s existence. Hitchens’ best known books in this field are God is not great. How religion spoils everything and The portable atheist: essential readings for the nonbeliever, both published in 2007.
In both books Hitchens deals with Omar Khayyam. God is not great. How religion spoils everything opens with three quotations that apparently serve as a motto for this book. One of these quotations is the following quatrain by Omar Khayyam, as translated by Richard le Gallienne:

And do you think that unto such as you
A maggot-minded, starved, fanatic crew
God gave a secret, and denied it me?
Well, well—what matters it? Believe that, too!

In the second book, The portable atheist : essential readings for the nonbeliever, Omar Khayyam is one of a number of authors, from Lucretius to Ayaan Hirsi Ali, who Hitchens believes to be obligatory stuff for the unbeliever. Chapter 2, on Omar Khayyam, comprises about thrity-five quatrains, also translated by Richard de Gallienne. The quatrain quoted above, whichHitchens cited as his “favorite quatrain” in an account of a journey to Iran (in Arguably: Selected Essays, published in 2011) is also included here. Other examples are:

Yea! what is man that deems himself divine?
Man is a flagon, and his soul the wine;
Man is a reed, his soul the sound therein;
Man is a lantern, and his soul the shine.

Would you be happy! hearken, then, the way:
Heed not TO-MORROW, heed not YESTERDAY;
The magic words of life are HERE and NOW—
O fools, that after some tomorrow stray!

Men talk of heaven,—there is no heaven but here;
Men talk of hell,—there is no hell but here;
Men of hereafters talk, and future lives,—
O love, there is no other life—but here.

Of all my seeking this is all my gain:
No agony of any mortal brain
Shall wrest the secret of the life of man;
The Search has taught me that the Search is vain.

Yet sometimes on a sudden all seems clear—
Hush! hush! my soul, the Secret draweth near;
Make silence ready for the speech divine—
If Heaven should speak, and there be none to hear!

Allah, perchance, the secret word might spell;
If Allah be, He keeps His secret well;
What He hath hidden, who shall hope to find?
Shall God His secret to a maggot tell?

The Koran! well, come put me to the test—
Lovely old book in hideous error drest—
Believe me, I can quote the Koran too,
The unbeliever knows his Koran best.

“Did God set grapes a-growing, do you think,
And at the same time make it sin to drink?
Give thanks to HIM who foreordained it thus—
Surely HE loves to hear the glasses clink!”

From God’s own hand this earthly vessel came,
He shaped it thus, be it for fame or shame;
If it be fair—to God be all the praise,
If it be foul—to God alone the blame.

These quatrains are preceeded by a short introduction in which Hitchens writes: “Medieval Persia also produced a long and beautiful poem satirizing the claims and practices of religion. Though Omar Khayyám (1048–1131) is best remembered for his warm recommendations of wine, women, and song (preferences that would land him in trouble in today’s Iran, as well) he was actually a very serious astronomer and mathematician who made many contributions to algebra, helped refine the calendar, and may have been an early proponent of the idea that the earth revolved around the sun. Khayyám clearly doubted that god had revealed himself to some men and not to others, especially in light of the very obvious fact that those who claimed to interpret the revelation were fond of using their claim in order to acquire and wield power over others in this world. He was not the first to notice this aspect of religion, but he was among the wittiest.” Despite the fact that Hitchens presents Omar Khayyam’s quatrains within the framework of denying any form of religion as such, they are used here specifically to support an attack on the special position of the clergy.
Regarding Hitchens’ choice for Le Gallienne’s version, he states: “The most celebrated translation of his immortal Rubáiyát into English was done by Edward Fitzgerald, but the verses as rendered by Richard Le Gallienne are sometimes better at conveying the pungency that underlies the ironic charm of these quatrains.”
However, the question remains whether Le Gallienne can be considered of the same congeniality of mind as Hitchens, as he seems to suggest in choosing for this translation. In his introduction Le Gallienne talks of “a mystic materialism which, obviously, is the very heart of his philosophy.” At the same time he points to the fact “in his [Omar’s] attitude to the Deity, the ‘he’s a good fellow’ note is more frequently sounded, a curiously complete and abandoned faith alternating paradoxically with the most savage criticism and despair. In this my paraphrase accords more nearly with the Omar of the more literal translators–for Omar is always ready to curse God with one cup and love Him with the next.” It seems to me that the grim determination that Hitchens exposes in his attitude against God and religion is strange to Le Gallienne.

Johan ter Haar
June 2013

PS. Hans de Bruijn alerted me to an article on Le Gallienne’s translation of Khayyam, by Adam Taleb: “Le Gallienne’s Paraphrase and the Limits of Translation”, published in FitzGerald’s Rubáíyát of Omar Khayyám: Popularity and Neglect”, edd. Adrian Poole, Christine van Ruymbeke etc., (London: Anthem Press, 2011, pp. 174-192).

6 Comments leave one →
  1. Ebrahim permalink
    March 24, 2014 9:30 am

    In Islamic Philosophy from its Origin to the Present, Seyyed Hossein Nasr debunks the interpretation of Khayyam’s philosophy by scholars that use the Rubaiyat primarily. If Khayyam’s philosophical works are studied instead, it shows very orthodox beliefs 🙂

  2. April 23, 2014 6:17 am

    Ebrahim, I’m not sure what you mean by orthodox. Does it exist anywhere in any of the religious dogmas? Now we are sharing my native tongue and one thing I’m sure of is that Omar was one of, at least the greatest of mediaeval minds but in the English speaking world, euro-centric has never been accorded the accolades he deserved. I’m no scholar but describe myself as an analytical logician. From what I can see he identifies the inconsistencies inherent in all religions and we are surrounded by them still though the world is becoming more secular. None of us have any way of knowing what his beliefs were to the existence of deity but if he had any I’m inclined to believe his was of a Hindu kind.

  3. Jamilla permalink
    October 30, 2014 1:40 pm

    Hitchens is (was?) an idiot – and dishonest at that*. However, I’m inclined to forgive him since his book prompted you to make this posting -and through it I found Richard Le Gallienne’s version which, while keeping to the quatrainic style and ‘mood’, is far, far superior in translation to that of Fitzgerald.

    * If anyone claims Khayyam was an atheist they must needs totally ignore what the man himself said (see #74):
    “Here is the creed of Omar : I believe
    In wine and roses, also I believe
    ln woman (what a foolish thing to do !)
    And in the God that made them I believe. ”
    as well as several others scattered thoughout the work.

    That he was a Sufi is pretty obvious, too. Wine as a metaphor is widely used in sufic literature. Indeed, it was Hafiz of Shiraz who later wrote ” Stain your prayer mat with wine if the Magus tells you to, for such a traveller knows the road, and the customs of its stations.”
    His allusions to wine (drunkenness is the mystical state), to women (a metaphor for ‘the Beloved’, i.e. God), the nightingale (Hans Anderson later retold the old story for western ears), are all sufic in origin, and his dislike of mullahs and their hipocracy is common to most sufic orders.
    For just one example, a clue as to his metaphorical useage of these elements, at #94, see
    “True wine has many meanings more than wine.
    True wine will even warn us against wine —
    Any intoxication of the soul.
    Yea ! or the senses, is the angel Wine. ”
    But there are many more for those who know how to look.

    With regard to your comment, Scott, about his belief in the deity being more ‘of a Hindu kind’, I’m reminded of an evening spent in the Himalayan foothills with a group of friends, muslim and hindu.
    At one point of the evening I said to them “You know, our religions are the same really.” (They looked at me in astonishment.) “You Hindus have 300+ Gods but you know they are all really different attributes of Bhrama.” (They nodded.) “Well, we muslims have only one God, but we have 99 different names for him.”
    Everyone looked around the circle in amazement, Then they all nodded and looked very happy. THIS is the Sufi tradition…:>)

    • sudarto permalink
      May 9, 2015 2:17 am

      Hi, Jamilla,, i like your comments too. Buti really like omar khayyam words,his words remembering me of Buddha

      • Tigger permalink
        May 9, 2015 4:22 pm

        But of course, Sudarto. ALL the great religions, at source and in their purest form, are saying the same thing – even though we all use different metaphors to express the undefinable.

    • mdebailes permalink
      October 4, 2015 9:40 am

      Jumila – mmh! – Hitchens may or may not be an idiot .. in the same vain might you not be too ? – you certainly seem very self satisfied in your wisdom making all so happy ..Ho Hum!
      Personally I feel Hitchens has an awful lot of common sense in what he says –

      Overall in matters of faith I simply don’t know – I guess that makes me an ignoramus – Woe is me!

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