The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam has long been one of the most popular poems in the English language. But the poem has had a sometimes controversial history. One in which Robert Graves played a major part.
The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam is a collection of around a thousand ancient four-line Persian verses translated into English that, from the 19th century onwards, was presented as a single poem. In the movie Back to the Future, it’s the book Marty McFly’s mother is holding when Marty time travels back to high school to introduce his father to her. A nod to the influence The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam would go on to have on the hippies of the 1960s perhaps.
Most of us know something of The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam even if it’s only the line ‘The moving finger writes and moves on’, which gave Agatha Christie the title for a Miss Marple mystery.
Who was Idries Shah?
Born in India in 1924, although he spent most of his life in England, Idries Shah was an extraordinary character who claimed to be descended from a family of Afghan nobles. By the time of his death in 1996, Shah had authored more than three dozen books. The most famous of these was The Sufis, published in 1964 with a long introduction by Graves.
Put extremely simply, Sufism is Islamic mysticism. Shah was responsible for repositioning Sufism as a form of timeless spiritual wisdom not necessarily attached to any specific religion. It was hugely appealing to spiritual seekers of the 1960s not turned on by conventional religion.
A meeting of remarkable men in Mallorca
Towards the end of the 1950s, Shah became secretary and companion to Gerald Gardner, the founder of modern Wicca.
In 1961, Shah visited Mallorca with Gardner. From his pension in Palma, Shah wrote to Graves, asking for the opportunity of ‘saluting you one day before very long’. The reason Shah gave was that he was researching into witchcraft and ‘mushroom-eating’ in Britain. ‘Mushroom-eating’ was, of course, a subject dear to Graves’s heart.
Shah was also, as he put it, ‘intensely preoccupied at the moment with the carrying forward of ecstatic and intuitive knowledge’. This, too, was very much in line with Graves’s belief in a certain kind of telepathic connection shared by a poet and his muse.
According to Graves’s biographer Miranda Seymour, Shah was then ‘a slight, dark, conventionally dressed man of thirty-seven [with] an easy, self-contained manner [who] seemed to hold the key to a new way of looking at the world.’ Graves immediately invested Shah with remarkable powers. Seymour writes that he threw his ‘glamour-cloak’ around Shah’s shoulders and began calling him a ‘great healer and mystic’.
Graves encouraged Shah to write a book about Sufism aimed at Western readers that was also a practical study guide. As he’d done before with other writers, Graves helped legitimise Shah. He wrote a long introduction to The Sufis. Maybe it was his attachment to the book that helped Shah win a large advance.
In a foretaste of controversy to come, conventional scholars criticised Shah for presenting classical Sufi writings as a modern tool for self-help. Shah’s readers, however, have considerable reason to be grateful to him. I’m one of them.
By the mid-1960s, Graves and Shah were great friends. But it was a friendship that was to seriously threaten Grave’s literary reputation.
The Rubáiyát controversy
In 1966 Graves was hospitalised. Idries’s brother Omar gave him a copy of what he claimed was a twelfth-century version of the The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam that had, he said, been his family had owned for centuries. Omar, also a Sufi scholar, convinced Graves The Rubaiyat was really a collection of deeply religious poems that enshrined Sufi beliefs. In Omar’s opinion, Edward FitzGerald, translator of the version that became world-famous had travestied the poem’s original religious nature.
Because of its ‘sacred nature as a family heirloom’, Omar refused to show Graves the original of the copy. Nevertheless, Graves went to work on a new translation of The Rubaiyat which was published in November 1967.
Graves’s translation was described as ‘the original Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam’, a claim which outraged scholars.
Never one to back down from a fight, Graves told an interviewer that ‘Khayyam’s original poem was written in honour of God’s love and spiced with satires against the Muslim puritans of the day. FitzGerald got it all wrong: he believed Khayyám really was a drunkard, and an unbeliever, not a man who was satirizing unbelievers. It’s amazing how many millions have been fooled by FitzGerald. Most of them will hate being undeceived.’
Faced with fierce criticism, Graves appealed to Omar to produce the supposed original manuscript of The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam. At one point, it was going to be presented to Graves by the Shah brothers’ father Ikbal Ali Shah but he died in a car accident in Tangier in 1969.
When Graves asked Idries for help in defending what had become ‘a matter of family honour’, Shah brushed him off, claiming that even if he had the document its authenticity could never be conclusively proven.
Despite what must have been a horrible situation, Graves – loyal to a fault – maintained that Omar and Idries were telling the truth. Later, a convincing case was made that what Omar gave Graves were notes based on a late Victorian translation made by someone called Edward Heron-Allen.
Why did Idries and Omar do it?
It’s hard to understand how the Shah brothers could stand by and watch their great friend Graves be made a fool of. Unless the document they claimed to possess never existed.
I don’t know if they stood to gain financially from Graves’s translation. But if all had gone well, their literary stock would surely have risen considerably. Idries’s reputation as a Sufi expert would have been boosted.
Maybe the Shah brothers simply thought it didn’t matter whether they were telling the truth or not about their document’s provenance or not. It was a good story and that was enough. Doing the translation gave their friend something to occupy himself with in hospital and made him feel better. They didn’t think about the potential consequences.
Whatever the reason, their actions – or lack of them – caused Graves to be greatly embarrassed. He was, however, somewhat vindicated when, apparently, it was later proven that the document FitzGerald himself worked from was, as Tomás Graves put it to me, ‘if not a forgery itself, as least not as old as had been claimed’.
Tomás Graves remembers Idries Shah
When I was researching the story of Graves’s friendship with Idries Shah, I asked Tomás if he had any memories.
‘Idries visited us several times,’ Tomás told me. ‘I think he stayed at La Posada, Robert’s guest house near the church. He also rented a house outside Fornalutx for a few months. Our families were very close.’
I asked Tomás if he could give me a sense of what Idries was like. He told me this story.
‘Once, in the Deia fiestas they were raffling a large ensaïmada and a woman tried to get Idries to buy a whole strip of numbers. “No,” he said. “That would be unfair. I would win the prize.” “Just buy one,” the woman said. “That would be even more unfair,” Idries replied. “Because I’ll win it anyway and you’ll get less money.” But Idries bought one ticket and of course he won the ensaïmada. Oriental Magic.’
According to Tomás, Idries was ‘a very affable and gracious person, as was Omar. Idries also had a laconic wit. He and Robert had a running catchphrase: “You very funny don’t you mister.”’
Apparently, when the controversy over Graves’s translation of The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam blew up, a retired General from Godalming took Robert to task in The Times´s Letters to the Editor. Robert answered him with ‘You very funny don’t you mister.’
I asked Tomás why Graves continued to support Omar even when he must have felt badly let down. ‘I think Robert defended Omar so staunchly purely based on his gut feeling that Omar was honourable,’ he said.
Despite my reservations about Graves’s wisdom in doing so, I can’t help but admire his loyalty to his friends and his willingness to set the cat among the literary pigeons. It’s one of the reasons he’s a hero to so many of us.