My grandfather used to tell me Sarmad's tale as a cautionary note against challenging orthodoxy and patriarchy. He had correctly guessed that I possessed germs of rebellion-- and thought by recounting the cautionary tale of sufi who lives his life defying the social norms and paid the ultimate price with his head--he could dissuade me instead I became fascinated with sufi rebels and religious iconoclasts and there is no figure more iconoclastic than that of Sarmad.
Sarmad was a Sufi, and he was murdered in a mosque by order of the Muslim king for heresy and accused of being an apostate.
Sarmad’s story and his eventual martyrdom reflect his rebellion against the shariah and orthodoxy and his imposing stand on the simple message of love that he represented.
His stature as a poet is often mentioned along with Ferdosi, Nizami, Saadi, Hafez, Jami and Omar Khayyam. Yet we know so little of this great Armenian who became a Sufi saint, and walked stark naked initially in the streets of Lahore, and then moved to Delhi, where he taunted the emperor Aurangzeb for his “murderous acts in the name of religion.”
The great mosque in Delhi, Jama Masjid, where Sarmad was killed, is still standing, a monument to this great man. He was killed in a very inhuman way: just his head was cut off. His head rolled down the steps of the Jama mosque.
Some Sufis run around naked and break the rules of shariah,as a means to rebel against the strict rules and dogmas of ulama. Most of these Sufis are known as the “Malamatiyas” or the blameworthy who discard shariah laws and show their own liberalized way of achieving union with God.For them, love was the ultimate means of achieving this.
Perhaps, Sarmad is the most famous Malamatiya Sufi saint of his time.
Who was Sarmad?
Very little is known about his early life. Some say that he was an Armenian while some claim that he was a Jew who later converted to Islam.We know that he dwelled in an open space just next to where today stands the Badshahi Mosque.
Many years later the great Ustad Daman was to also live there, and often, in a lighter mood, would claim that he slept where Sarmad used to sleep.
According to the eminent Persian scholar and historian Henry George Keene: “Sarmad was the poetical name of an Armenian merchant who came to India in the reign of the Emperor Shah Jehan. In one of his journeys towards Thatta, he fell so passionately in love with a Hindu boy that he became ‘distracted and would go about the stress naked’.
At Thatta in a musical concert, Sarmad happened to see the youthful Abhay Chand, who was the son of a rich Hindu trader. It was love at first sight for Sarmad and Abhay. Abhay Chand’s melodious voice that he rendered at a ghazal pierced the tender heart of Sarmad so much that he never recovered from the feeling of love. Sarmad began to attend the concert daily not caring that the ship on which he came had sailed away.
Abhay Chand also responded to his love with equal devotion and soon, the two began to live together at Sarmad’s place. Soon gossips started to abound in Thatta about the two men living in unnatural conditions. When this gossips spread, Abhay Chand’s parents took him away and confined him in his house. The pain of separation was too much for Sarmad who tore of his cloths and began to roam the streets of Thatta in a state of frenzy seeking his beloved Abhay Chand. Following the incident, he was to live in a state of total nudity for the rest of his life.
Meanwhile, Abhay Chand’s conditions were no better and at last, his parents gave in to their sons wish and let him reunite with Sarmad. But they were ostracized by the people of Thatta and so they moved to Lahore. Here they stayed for 13 years where Sarmad composed some of his most moving verses on love and God.
Abhay Chand would sing these verses in his melodious voice and Sarmad would break into a dance of ecstasy. For Sarmad, his love for Abhay Chand was a means to realize God, for Sarmad believed that God manifested in all his living beings and so he could not be separated from his beloved. Sarmad’s search for God in all of his creations blurred the lines of caste and creeds drawn by the society. This he clearly explains in this beautiful verse:
“Who is the lover, beloved, idol and idol-maker but You?
Who is the beloved of the Kaaba, the temple and the mosque?
Come to the garden and see the unity in the array of colours.
In all of this, who is the lover, the beloved, the flower and the thorn?”
From Lahore, the couple migrated to Golcunda in South from where, after a few years, they migrated to Agra in the North. In 1657, they came to Delhi and settled down at the Dargah of Khwaja Harey Bharey. Here Sarmad began to have a large following and the whole city of Shahjahanabad would move at his single instruction.
Sarmad was anti-orthodoxy and taunted the Mullahs.It was him who said:
‘In the shadow of great mosques does evil propser.’”
DARA SHIKOH & SARMAD:
People flocked round Sarmad and many found him to be a man of great sanctity and supernatural powers. It was Dara Shikoh who brought the miraculous powers of Sarmad to the notice of his father, Emperor Shah Jehan.The following letter which Prince Dara Shikoh had addressed to Sarmad shows the high regard the royal pupil had for his saintly master:
"My Pir and Preceptor, Everyday I resolve to pay my respects to you. It remains unaccomplished. If I be I, wherefore is my intention of no account? If I be not, what is my fault? Though the murder of Imam Hussein was the will of God: Who is (then) Yazid between (them). If it is not the Divine Will, then what is the meaning of “God does whatever He wills and commands whatever He intends”? The most excellent Prophet used to go to fight the unbelievers, defeat was inflicted on the army of Islam. The exoteric scholars say it was an education in resignation. For the Perfect what education was necessary?"
Sarmad’s reply to the above epistle consisted of two lines, in verse, which when translated says:
My dear Prince, What we have read, we have forgotten
Save the discourse of the friend which we reiterate.
In the beginning of the reign of Aurangzeb, he was put to death outside the Jamia Masjid Delhi on account of his disobeying the orders of that emperor, who had commanded him not to go about naked. This event took place in the year 1661.
After Dara was killed and Aurangzeb usurped the throne, he set about killing all of Dara’s close associates and soon, his attention turned towards Sarmad. Sarmad’s popularity disturbed him and he feared Sarmad might someday incite the people to rebel against him.
When Aurangzeb had usurped the throne, he taunted Sarmad about the succession of his favourite disciple, Dara Shikoh, to the throne, which he had promised him.
Sarmad calmly replied: “God has given him eternal sovereignty and my promise is not falsified.” The supreme moment had at last arrived for Aurangzeb to wreak his vengeance on the harmless naked saint and scholar, and he immediately ordered his execution.
Once as Aurangzeb went to Jama Masjid to offer Friday prayers, he spotted Sarmad sitting nude in the street. When he rebuked Sarmad for violating shariah by being naked, Sarmad asked him to cover him with a blanket lying nearby.
When Aurangzeb picked up the blanket, the story goes that the heads of all he had killed during his ascent to the throne rolled out of it.
To this, Sarmad told the emperor, “Should I hide your sins or my nakedness?” Sarmad’s fearless attitude was too much for Aurangzeb who soon called on his chief Qazi, Mullah Qawi, and plotted to do away with Sarmad.
Sarmad was dragged to the Qazi’s court where he was accused of defying the shariah by living naked. Sarmad had befitting replies to all of the Qazi’s accusations, and this frustrated him even more.
To make him relent, the Qazi had Abhay Chand flogged in front of Sarmad. The whip lashed Abhay Chand’s body, but miraculously, the pain was inflicted on Sarmad.
Sarmad cried out, “GOD who does not let me see my beloved is like an iron cage that smothers the spirit and bruises the heart.”
For the Qazi, Islam was a set of stern and inflexible laws.
For Sarmad, it was nothing but a message of love.
The Qazi demanded that Sarmad recite the kalimah shahada (acceptance of oneness of God), which “La Ilaha Illallah, Muhammad-ur Rasul Allah” (there is no God but Allah, and Muhammad SWT is the messenger of Allah), in order to prove that he was a true Muslim.
Sarmad refused to go beyond “La Ilaha,” which means there is no God, as he had still not found the end of his search for God. This enraged the Qazi who awarded him death sentence. And so Sarmad was dragged through the streets of Delhi and promptly beheaded for being an apostate.
But as the story goes, he emerged victorious in death. Sarmad picked up his severed head much to the fright of his executioners. He started climbing the stairs of the Jama Masjid, while mocking the emperor and his false men of God all the while.
In death, Sarmad had found God, testifying to the truth of his own understanding of Islam.
Just as he was about to enter the mosque, a voice called him out from the grave of Harey Bharey and asked him to relent as he had reached the end of his journey and had united with God at last.
Sarmad turned round and went to Harey Bharey’s tomb. There he was buried by the side of Harey Bharey, where they share a common dargah today. And the curse of Sarmad fell on Aurangzeb as the Mughal Empire gradually crumbled in front of his very eyes.
It is said that when the condemned man was being led away from the tribunal to the place of execution, he uttered, extempore, a long poem of immense beauty, the last lines of which are:
There was an uproar and we opened our eyes from eternal sleep
Saw that the night of wickedness endured, so we slept again
Aqil Khan Razi, the court chronicler of Aurangzeb, writes that when the executioner was about to inflict the fatal blow, Sarmad uttered:
The nakedness of the body was the dust of the road to the friend
That too was severed, with the sword, from our head.
According to another popular version Sarmad uttered:
My head was severed from the body by that flirt, who was my companion
The story was shortened, otherwise the headache would have been too severe
As I left the shrine of Sarmad Shaheed and reflected on this story, I realized that Sarmad’s homosexuality and rebellion was not the main fact that made him unique---what was unique about him was that he had dared to understand God in his own way against the established norms: he exhibited the intellect God has bestowed upon mankind.
There are a lot of stories of Sarmad about his life --I don′t know whether all the legends are true or not, but they must be: they have to be!
Even truth has to compromise with a man like Sarmad!
I love Sarmad because he died for his beliefs ---because he challenged the hypocrisy and those who kill in the name of Religion---they killed him too but it doesn't matter; because he still lives while nobody visits their graves.
Sarmad had made love( of a pagan man) the transformative experience and finally, achieved God through this mean.
Orthodoxy and laws of love be damned!
He had just one message for all of us: God is the only God, there is no one between you and God. There is no mediator, God is immediately available. Just all that is needed is a little madness and a lot of meditation.
For Sarmad, God manifested in the persona of Abhay Chand.He didnot believe in walls of cast and the demarcation lines between faiths---for him, all roads led to the Almighty.
For us, it can be anybody or anything. If God is love, it is everywhere-- that is the message of Sufism.
Here what has etched in my mind is a verse of the holy Qura’an, which is written on a signboard on the outer wall of the shrine.
It read, “And call not those who are slain in the way of Allah ‘dead.’ Nay, they are living, only ye perceive not.” I think nothing sums up Sarmad’s life better than this. He still lives on as a messenger of love and finding your own path to God and those who killed him ---they were just merchants of hate, now withering away in pages of history.