Joydeep Hazarika for BeyondHeadlines
I remember reading about Sarmad, when I was in college, in many books on Sufi culture and saints. There, he was mentioned as one of the most influential Sufi saints of Delhi from the Mughal era. But what made me interested in knowing more about him was the fact that somewhere he was described as a homosexual. A Muslim saint being a homosexual was interesting enough for me. But sadly, I could not find much information about him at that time.
The quench to know more about Sarmad made me pose various questions to many of my Muslim friends who either knew too little about him or never knew him at all. Most were scandalized with the very thought of a Muslim Pir being a gay.
Homosexuality among Sufi saints is nothing new. There have been numerous records of Sufi saints having love affairs with “young beardless lads.” In India, the most well-known among them are Shah Hussain from Lahore and Ras Khan from Brindawan.
Homosexuality, which is a heinous crime in shariah (Islamic law), was seen as these Sufis 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. And here, homosexuality acted as no bar for them.
The quest to know more about Sarmad finally lead me to his dargah (shrine) in Old Delhi. Situated in front of the imposing Jama Masjid near the Meena Bazar, the small shrine largely remains unnoticed by many visitors who visit the great mosque daily. The shrine in the vicinity where Sarmad shares his resting with another famous Sufi saint Khwaja Harey Bharey (the evergreen one). Harey Bharey was Sarmad’s preceptor and his tomb was where Sarmad had settled down when he first came to Delhi.
The unique feature of this dargah, which is a dual shrine of Sarmad and Harey Bharey, is the colour of the wall which is green on Harey Bharey’s side and blood red on Sarmad’s side. This is to depict Sarmad’s martyrdom because of which he has been given the title of “Shaheed” (martyr). Red ceramic tiles lined his side of the flooring and red threads hung by his grave’s railings by devotees hoping for their wishes to be granted. Incense sticks and candles continuously burn on the side while qawwali singers vent out numbers in praise of their Pir as the evening sets in.
Sarmad’s story and his eventual martyrdom reflect his rebellion against the shariah and his imposing stand on the simple message of love that he represented.
Perhaps, Sarmad is the most famous Malamatiya Sufi saint of his time. 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.
Sarmad’s life gets a clearer picture from the time he came to India and landed in the port of Thatta in Gujarat along with a band of Sufi saints on a merchant ship. From here onwards, Sarmad’s life took the eventual course for which he is remembered today.
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.
Among his followers was Dara Shikoh, the Mughal crown prince and son of Emperor Shah Jahan. 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.
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, “The 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.
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.
As I left the shrine of Sarmad Shaheed and reflected on this story, I realized that Sarmad’s homosexuality 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, whereby he exhibited the intellect God has bestowed upon mankind. Sarmad had made love the sole motive of his life and he finally, achieved God through this means. He had just one message for all of us. To see God in all humans around us. For Sarmad, God manifested in the persona of Abhay Chand. For us, it can be anybody or anything. If God is love, it is everywhere. We just have to see it.
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 reads, “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.
Reference to Sarmad’s verses or other important informations are from Yoginder Sikand’s book Sacred Spaces. Views expressed here are that of the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect BH editorial policy.