From Khayyam to Mirzakhani: Iran’s beautiful minds

Both Omar Khayyam and Maryam Mizrakhani complicate the vision of their common homeland, Iran, in Western imagination.

Harvard Math Youtube
From the time that she achieved her coveted Fields Medal, Maryam Mirzakhani had begun to complicate the global image of her homeland,writes Dabashi [Harvard Math/Youtube]

“The Iranian mathematician Maryam Mirzakhani, who died on July 14, at the age of forty, was known to her colleagues as a virtuoso in the dynamics and geometry of complex surfaces – ‘science-fiction mathematics’, one admirer called it – and to her young daughter, Anahita, as something of an artist.” 

Siobhan Roberts’ words in the New Yorker sums up in simplest terms the sudden sense of loss and quiet mourning millions of Iranians around the world and, with them, the world of science at large feels at the tragic ending of a beautiful mind so early in its blooming.  

World-renowned mathematician and professor of mathematics at Stanford University Maryam Mirzakhani (1977-2017), the first woman to win Fields Medal prize, passed away battling cancer. Born and raised in Iran, Mirzakhani became a globally celebrated mathematician soon after she obtained her BSc in mathematics in 1999 from Sharif University of Technology in Tehran. She travelled to the US for her graduate studies earning her PhD from Harvard University in 2004. She was awarded the Fields Medal in 2014 for her “outstanding contributions to the dynamics and geometry of Riemann surfaces and their moduli spaces”. She has left her immediate family, her friends and colleagues, and with them her nation at a loss for words. 

Complicating the global image of a nation

Much of the reactions to the death of Mirzakhani was both normal and predictable. The Iranian President Hassan Rouhani and the Stanford University President Marc Tessier-Lavigne both issued solemn statements of condolences. The Iranian media competed in showering her with accolades. The Iranian oppositional venues in the United States and Europe began to use and abuse the occasion to denounce the Islamic Republic for its various policies, especially for the conditions conducive to “brain drain”.  

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Maryam Mirzakhani left Iran to pursue her advanced mathematical studies in the US. She would have gone to Baghdad to do so if she were born one thousand years ago – and she would have probably gone to Beijing if she were born just a couple of decades from now. The question of “brain drain” is, of course, a serious malady in Iran and many other similar countries. But Maryam Mirzakhani was no “brain drain”. Hers was a superior intelligence and she travelled where she could nourish it best – and that travelling did not suddenly turn her into this strange thing called “Iran-born”, instead of just plain “Iranian”.

But something else, something quite simple and significant, was also happening, just like Maryam Mirzakhani herself, gently and quietly.

Mirzakhani is comparable to Omar Khayyam not just because they were both Iranian mathematicians. But because like Khayyam, Mirzakhani too complicates the vision of their common homelands in the European and now American imagination in unpredictable ways.


Markedly brilliant minds and beautiful souls like Maryam Mirzakhani both upon their global recognitions and perforce upon their early and tragic passing become a symbol, a sign, a citation far beyond who they are and what they have achieved in their professional calling. From the time that she achieved her coveted Fields Medal, Maryam Mirzakhani had begun to complicate the global image of her homeland against the backdrop of the pervasive demonisation of Iran by one brand of warmongering or another.

Nations need to be simplified to be targeted for military strikes. Afghanistan was reduced to Mullah Omar. Iraq was reduced to Saddam Hussein. The more the image of a nation is complicated the more difficult it is for warmongers in Washington, Tel Aviv, or Riyadh targeting it for destruction. 

Precisely in the quiet dignity of her work, her avoiding publicity like a plague, the tiny, cancer-ravaged body of Maryam Mirzakhani shined like a beautiful star on the dark planet of her earthly life. An Iranian, a Muslim, a woman of modest middle-class background, rising gloriously to put a big brilliant question mark in front of everything mobilised against her people!

Those exonerating Iranian people when targeting “Iran” for demonisation should take a look at what they have done to Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, or Libya before they might believe their own delusions. Ordinary people, not governments, are the primary targets and the final victims of warmongering anywhere and everywhere. 

To be sure, much to the chagrin of warmongers, the image of Iran has been complicated by other prominent Iranians, in particular, those who have put Iranian cinema on the global map. I recall vividly when another accomplished Iranian young woman, Samira Makhmalbaf first appeared in Cannes Film Festival at the age of seventeen to premier her film “Apple” in 1998. She too succeeded that year, seriously altering the image of Iran from that of a bearded angry man to a gifted young woman.

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In the realm of art, no one, of course, did more to complicate the image of Iran than the late master Abbas Kiarostami who was the principal engine bringing the rest of Iranian art to global spotlight. 

But much of that complexity has been in the realm of arts, not sciences. In the realm of science, the only thing publicly related to Iran is, of course, the nuclear scientists who are the targets of assassinations presumably by a settler colony on planet Mars that is very concerned about the Iranian nuclear programme. These Martians are suspected to have occasionally sent their assassins to kill these Iranian nuclear scientists. 

Mirzakhani was not a nuclear physicist. A breed apart, she was a world-renowned mathematician. Her accomplishments, as a result, assume entirely historical proportions comparable to other Iranian and Muslim scientists at the historical level of Muhammad ibn Musa al-Khwarizmi, Muhammad ibn Zakariyya al-Razi, and above all to Omar Khayyam, the towering astronomer and mathematician.

Mirzakhani’s uplifting of her homeland to its historical memories alerts the world to a whole different register of consciousness about Iran as a Muslim a country in circumstances that, because of pervasive Islamophobia in the US, even Rumi is read as if he were a New Age guru from California. 

Mirzakhani is comparable to Omar Khayyam not just because they were both Iranian mathematicians. But because like Khayyam, Mirzakhani too complicates the vision of their common homeland in the European and now American imagination in unpredictable ways. 

The reputation of Omar Khayyam as a poet, however, widely outshines his fame as a mathematician. But the difference is only on the surface. The beauty of Khayyam’s mathematical mind, it now seems, had to be translated, as it were, into poetic scepticism to be registered for mortal beings, whereas Maryam Mirzakhani’s poetry was and remained in pure mathematics. 

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Khayyam’s mathematics was sublated into his poetry for a larger aesthetic register: 

“But helpless pieces in the game He plays
Upon this chequer-board of Nights and Days
He hither and thither moves, and checks … and slays
Then one by one, back in the Closet lays”

But if Khayyam’s penchant was for the poetic absurdity of being, Maryam Mirzakhani dwelled in the poetic precision of her numbers. “I like crossing the imaginary boundaries people set up between different fields – it’s very refreshing,” she once said, “There are lots of tools, and you don’t know which one would work,” she said. “It’s about being optimistic and trying to connect things”. In mathematics, Mirzakhani crossed imaginary boundaries other poets do with the very mystery of life itself. 

The mathematician, poet, painter 

On another occasion, she said: “Of course, the most rewarding part is the ‘Aha’ moment, the excitement of discovery and enjoyment of understanding something new – the feeling of being on top of a hill and having a clear view. But most of the time, doing mathematics for me is like being on a long hike with no trail and no end in sight”. That is the mind of a mathematician in the soul of a poet. That is Khayyam incarnate.  

Mirzakhani’s mathematical equations were her poetry – a poetry only a happy few can decipher to their delight. The world at large is baffled at the beauty of that poetry. Thus, the other more recent kindred soul of Mirzakhani was, of course, the Indian mathematician Srinivasa Ramanujan (1887-1920) who died even younger than her. 

The famous story narrated by Ramanujan’s English colleague, the prominent mathematician GH Hardy, is now known as “Hardy-Ramanujan number 1729”. According to Hardy, he was once going to see Ramanujan when he was bedridden. Hardy had just ridden in a cab number 1729 and upon arrival, he remarked to his friend that the number seemed to be quite dull and that he hoped it was not an unfavourable omen. “No”, Ramanujan replied: “It is a very interesting number. It is the smallest number expressible as the sum of two cubes in two different ways”. The two different ways are: 1729 = 13+123 = 93+103

Now, that is pure poetry – for what is poetry other than a truth so obviously beautiful that mortals cannot see it. The joyous eyes of Maryam Mirzakhani’s little daughter could see what her mother’s beautiful mind knew with mathematical precision: “At the family’s home, near Stanford University,” Roberts tells us in her essay on the Iranian mathematician, “Mirzakhani would spend hours on the floor with supersized canvases of paper, sketching out ideas, drawing diagrams and formulae, often leading Anahita, now six, to exclaim, ‘Oh, Mommy is painting again!” 

At the summit of her sublime mathematical visions, Maryam Mirzakhani left us too brutally early for her full story to unfold and yet in her little daughter Anahita (named after Avestan, the old Persian goddess of fertility, healing, and wisdom), she has left us a picture of what she was up to teaching us. 

Hamid Dabashi is Hagop Kevorkian professor of Iranian Studies and Comparative Literature at Columbia University in New York.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.