The Rubaiyat of Edward Fitzgerald as a Critique of Islam

According to Voltaire, “one merit of poetry few persons will deny: it says more and in fewer words that prose.” The Rubaiyat of Edward Fitzgerald is a case in point. It is a succinct refutation of the Judeo-Christian religions in general and Islam in particular.

I say the Rubaiyat of Edward Fitzgerald rather than the more familiar Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam because the version most English speaking people are familiar with, while it may have been inspired by the Persian poet, is really attributable to Fitzgerald. A book review in the Guardian coined the very appropriate term “transcreation” for it. Anyone reading the modern translation by Peter Avery and Heath Stubbs will get the point. Many of Fitzgerald’s quatrains bear only a vague resemblance to the original Persian, and others were apparently invented entirely by the English author. Taken together, however, they are consistent and effective critique of Islam, and an expression of the author’s own world view.

Fitzgerald was certainly an agnostic, and may have been an atheist. According to his bio-sketch at Wikipedia,

As he grew older, FitzGerald grew more and more disenchanted with Christianity, and finally gave up attending church entirely. This drew the attention of the local pastor, who decided to pay a visit to the self-absenting FitzGerald. Reportedly, FitzGerald informed the pastor that his decision to absent himself from church services was the fruit of long and hard meditation. When the pastor protested, FitzGerald showed him to the door, and said, “Sir, you might have conceived that a man does not come to my years of life without thinking much of these things. I believe I may say that I have reflected [on] them fully as much as yourself. You need not repeat this visit.”

If he did admit the possibility of God’s existence, and the inscription on his gravestone, “It is he that hath made us, and not we ourselves,” implied that he did, he nevertheless denied that we should devote our lives to some divine purpose, or that we could expect any reward in heaven or punishment in hell for our earthly deeds:

Whether at Naishapur or Babylon,
Whether the Cup with sweet or bitter run,
The Wine of Life keeps oozing drop by drop,
The leaves of Life keep falling one by one.


Some for the Glories of This World; and some
Sigh for the Prophet’s Paradise to come;
Ah, take the Cash, and let the Credit go,
Nor heed the rumble of a distant Drum!

He saw no reason to believe that any of the conflicting accounts in the different religions of life after death were factual:

And those who husbanded the Golden Grain,
And those who flung it to the Winds like rain,
Alike to no such aureate Earth are turn’d
As, buried once, Men want dug up again.

Strange, is it not? That of the Myriads who
Before us pass’d the door of Darkness through,
Not one returns to tell us of the Road,
Which to discover we must travel too.

The familiar Moslem and Christian accounts of heaven and hell, were simply human fantasies taken to their extreme:

I sent my Soul through the Invisible,
Some Letter of that After-Life to spell:
And by and by my Soul return’d to me,
And answer’d “I Myself am Heav’n and

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 emerg’d from, shall so soon expire.

The revelations of the prophets were so much imposture:

Why, all the Saints and Sages who discuss’d
Of the Two Worlds so wisely – they are thrust
Like foolish Prophets forth; their words to scorn
Are scatter’d, and their Mouths are stopt with

The Revelations of Devout and Learn’d
Who rose before us, and as Prophets burn’d,
Are all but Stories, which, awoke from Sleep
They told their comrades, and to Sleep return’d.

Having excluded the existence of a God, or at least a God who had any claim on our affections or actions, Fitzgerald concluded that there could be no legitimate “purpose of life.”

Alike for those who for Today prepare,
And those that after some Tomorrow stare,
A Muezzin from the Tower of Darkness cries
“Fools! Your Reward is neither Here nor There!”

That being the case, deep philosophical reasonings to uncover such a purpose and make sense of human existence were futile:

Myself when young did eagerly frequent
Doctor and Saint, and heard great Argument
About it and about: but evermore
Came out by the same Door where in I went.

With them the Seed of Wisdom did I sow,
And with mine own Hand wrought to make
it grow
And this was all the Harvest that I reap’d –
“I came like Water, and like Wind I go.”

If any answers to the questions posed by philosophers really existed, they were beyond the grasp of human understanding:

There was the Door to which I found no Key;
There was the Veil through which I might not see:
Some little Talk awhile of Me and Thee
There was – and then no more of Thee and Me.

Earth could not answer; nor the Seas that mourn
In flowing Purple, of their Lord forlorn;
Nor rolling heaven, with all his signs reveal’d
And hidden by the Sleeve of Night and Morn.

Fitzgerald rejected the Moslem belief, reiterated over and over in the Koran, that humans will suffer eternal fiery torture in hell for “sins” which are predestined, and therefore unavoidable. He points out the inconsistency of such a God, capable of calling beings into existence from nothingness in the full knowledge that he would later subject them to almost unimaginable tortures for the paltry sins he knew they would commit, with the moral sense that very God, if he existed at all, must have planted in our consciousness:

Oh Thou, who didst with Pitfall and with Gin
Beset the Road I was to wander in,
Thou wilt not with Predestin’d Evil round
Enmesh, and then impute my Fall to Sin!

But helpless Pieces of the Game He Plays
Upon his Chequer-board of Nights and Days;
Hither and thither moves, and checks, and slays,
And one by one back in the Closet lays.

Such a God would be more in need of forgiveness than the creatures he created:

What! Out of senseless Nothing to provoke
A conscious Something to resent the Yoke
Of unpermitted Pleasure, under pain
Of Everlasting Penalties, if broke!

What! from His helpless Creature be repaid
Pure Gold for what He lent him dross-allay’d:
Sue for a Debt he never did contract,
And cannot answer – Oh the sorry Trade!

Oh Thou, who Man of baser Earth didst make,
And ev’n with Paradise devise the Snake:
For all the Sin wherewith the Face of Man
Is blacken’d, Man’s Forgiveness give –
and take!

The poet elaborates on this theme with the metaphor of a potter and his pots:

And has not such a Story from of Old
Down Man’s successive Generations roll’d
Of such a Clod of saturated Earth
Cast by the Maker into Human mould?

The pots speculate about why they were made, their purpose, and their eventual fate. Once again, Fitzgerald returns to the theme of the Creator as tyrannical monster, a being capable of calling into life creatures far more inferior to Himself than amoeba are to human beings, and then torturing them for billions of years because they didn’t deliver what they “owed” him, even though he knew in advance that it would be impossible for them to do so:

Then said a Second – “Ne’er a peevish Boy
Would break the Bowl from which he drank in joy;
And He that with His hand the Vessel made
Will surely not in after Wrath destroy.”

He elaborates on the absurdity of eternal punishment for sins that are predestined, and therefore not the fault of the created but of the creator:

After a momentary Silence spake
Some Vessel of a more ungainly Make;
“They sneer at me for leaning all awry;
What! did the Hand then of the Potter shake?”

One of the pots suggests that such an irrational “potter” can only exist as a concoction of the pots themselves:

Whereat some one of the loquacious Lot –
I think a Sufi Pipkin – waxing hot –
“All this of Pot and Potter – Tell me then,
Who is the Potter, pray, and who the Pot?”

Whereat another agrees and concludes that the real Potter isn’t really capable of such an extreme departure from the notion of moral righteousness with which he has imbued his Pots;

“Why,” said another, “Some there are who tell
Of one who threatens he will toss to Hell
The luckless Pots he marr’d in making – Pish!
He’s a Good Fellow, and ‘twill all be well.”

It seems such thoughts must occur to anyone who has the courage to question the validity of received religious “truths.” In the Islamic world, of course, the amount of courage needed is somewhat greater, because the penalty for apostasy can be extreme. In Saudi Arabia, for example, it is death. When the penalty for thinking is that extreme, truth must inevitably be a casualty.

Fitzgerald did think, and the world view he arrived at did not include a Master of an eternal torture chamber as God. It was, however, somewhat pessimistic. In fact, the poet accepted notions of predestination usually attributed to Islam:

With Earth’s first Clay They did the Last Man knead,
And there of the Last Harvest sow’d the Seed:
And the first Morning of Creation wrote
What the Last Dawn of Reckoning shall read.

It’s interesting to speculate on the effect the revelations of the probabilistic world of quantum mechanics may have had on such a deterministic world view. For that matter, it’s interesting to speculate on whether Fitzgerald’s apparent conclusions about the ultimate purposeless of life might have been moderated if he’d taken a closer look behind the veil that Darwin had lifted more than 20 years before his death. As it was, those conclusions were lugubrious enough:

When You and I behind the Veil are past,
Oh, but the long, long while the World shall last,
Which of our Coming and Departure heeds
As the sea’s self should heed a Pebble-cast.

A Moment’s Halt – a momentary Taste
Of Being from the Well amid the Waste –
And Lo! – the phantom Caravan has reach’d
The Nothing it set out from – Oh, make haste!

There is some consolation in the fact that, if we must die, at least we’ve all been there before,

And if the Wine you drink, the Lip you press,
End in what All begins and ends in – Yes;
Think then you are Today what Yesterday
You were – Tomorrow you shall not be less.

Fitzgerald’s poem has touched more than a few readers over the years. In fact, more copies of it have been sold than any other English poem. I suspect many among those who can recite its lines by heart have come to conclusions similar to those above about what the author was trying to tell us. His quatrains have enabled them to repeat opinions they may have felt uncomfortable stating in so many words. As Thomas Hardy put it, “If Galileo had said in verse that the world moved, the inquisition might have let him alone.” Fortunately, the inquisition is no longer with us, but, until quite recently, there have been serious social sanctions against “free thinking” in matters of religion in the West. Of course, those sanctions not only still exist, but are becoming stronger in the Moslem world. There is some solace in the thought that that world provided the inspiration for one of the most devastating critiques of its own theocratic ideology.

Edward Fitzgerald

Author: Helian

I am Doug Drake, and I live in Maryland, not far from Washington, DC. I am a graduate of West Point, and I hold a Ph.D. in nuclear engineering from the University of Wisconsin. My blog reflects my enduring fascination with human nature and human morality.

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