Omar Ali-Shah entrusted me, a year ago, with the task of translating Omar Khayaam's Rubaiyyat into English verse from a Persian text, the “Jan Fishan Khan” manuscript, which has been in the possession of his princely Afghan family, senior in descent from the Prophet Mohammed, since a few years after Khayaam's death, when a contemporary Sultan presented it to them. That was in the year 1153 A.D. I had long enjoyed a close friendship with Omar Ali-Shah and his elder brother Idries, who is “Grand Sheikh of the Sufi Tariqa,” meaning Chief Teacher of the Sufic Way of Thought—a Way exemplified in the poems of Hafiz, Rumi, Saadi, Khayaam—in fact of all the best-known classical Persian poets. I am, however, no Persian scholar and therefore closely followed an annotated English text with which Omar Ali-Shah had supplied me; and made the first draft of my verse-rendering in the corner bed of a large surgical ward at St. Thomas's hospital, London, where the ghost of Florence Nightingale still walks, lamp in hand, and the quiet atmosphere encourages a careful reading of poems. The night nurse allowed me to work in bed until midnight so long as I shaded my light-bulb with its green silk shade.
I foresaw, but was not daunted by, the hostility that publication would excite among such English and Americans as were too well indoctrinated in Edward Fitzgerald's mid-Victorian Rubaiyyat not to make a sacred cow of it. I use this metaphor without disrespect for Hindus, but in the sense that sacred cows, which yield no milk and may never be slaughtered for beef, often invade Indian country market-places and greedily browse on the fruit and vegetables which poor peasants have brought for sale. Though Hindu stall-holders dare not take offense, trouble arises when sacred cattle make free with Moslem produce. In such cases I incline to the Moslem side, being also descended, like many other Britons, including Her Majesty the Queen, from the Prophet Mohammed. Edward Fitzgerald, I feel, has also browsed and pillaged without moral right in Moslem territory. Omar Khayaam is revered as a religious teacher by some fifty million Sufis throughout the East, and especially honored in Persia, where a national Omar Khayaam Trust has been set up to preserve his memory. He is read not so much for the felicity of his language as for the concentrated power of his thought, and for his rejection of formal dogma in favor of divine grace. Yet by an outrageous freak of fortune this blameless Moslem celebrant of mystical love has come to be elected patron saint of fifty million hearty boozers throughout the Christian West.