"The moving finger writes, and having written moves on. Nor all thy piety nor all thy wit, can cancel half a line of it. "

The greatest achievements of Omar Khayyám (1048-1131) were in the field of mathematics, but in the West he is now remembered for The Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám, although some doubts exist as to whether it was his work. The book became known in the West following Edward Fitzgerald's 1859 translation.

His full name was Ghiyath al-Din Abu’l-Fath Umar ibn Ibrahim Al-Nisaburi al-Khayyami. A literal translation of the name al-Khayyami (or al-Khayyam) means ‘tent-maker’, which may have been the trade of his father. The political situation in the eleventh century had a major influence on Khayyám’s life as he grew up in an unstable military empire, which was also experiencing religious problems as it attempted to establish an orthodox Muslim state.

He was an outstanding mathematician and astronomer, and despite the various difficulties, he wrote several works, including Problems of Arithmetic, a book on music and one on algebra before the age of twenty five. In 1073 he was invited by the ruler of Esfahan, to set up an observatory, and for eighteen years he was the leader of a learned group of scientists and astronomers. It was a period of peace and allowed Khayyám to devote himself to his scholarly works.

In 1092, political events conspired to end Khayyám’s peaceful existence. The ruler died a month after his vizier had been murdered, the funding to run the observatory was withdrawn, and Khayyám’s other work was put on hold. He also came under attack from orthodox Muslims who felt that his questioning mind did not conform to the faith. He eventually moved to Merv, a centre of Islamic learning, where he continued to write further books on mathematics.


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