I remember reading about Sarmad back when I was in college among the 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 interested me the most was the fact that somewhere it was mentioned about him being a homosexual. A Muslim saint being a homosexual was interesting enough for me. But sadly, I could not find much information about him back then.
My search for Sarmad’s story 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 Islamic Shariat law, was seen by these Sufis as a means to rebel against the strict rules and dogmas of the Ullemas. Most of these Sufis are known as the ‘Malamatiyas’ or the blameworthy who discard the laws of the shariat and show their own liberalized way of achieving union with God. Love, for them, was the ultimate means of achieving this. And here homosexuality acted as no bar for them.
The quest for Sarmad’s story finally took me to his Dargah in Old Delhi. Situated in front of the imposing Jama Masjid near the Meena Bazar, the small monastery largely remains unnoticed by the many visitors who visit the great mosque daily. The monastery, is one where Sarmad shares his resting place beside that of 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 acting as a dual shrine for 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 due to which he has been given the title of ‘Shaheed’ or martyr. Red ceramic tiles lined his side of the flooring and red threads hung by his grave which are tied to the 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 shariat and his imposing stand on the simple message of love that he represented.
Sarmad is perhaps 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 which 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. Soon 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. From that day on, 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 thirteen 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 realizing 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 men. 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 the Jama Masjid to offer his Friday prayers, he spotted Sarmad sitting in the nude in the street. When he rebuked Sarmad for violating the shariat law 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 the men he had killed during his ascent to the throne rolled out of it. To this, Sarmad said to the Emperor, “Should I hide your sins or my nakedness?” Sarmad’s fearless attitude was too much for Aurangzeb who soon called upon 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 shariat 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 kalima shahada, the Islamic creed of confession of the faith- “La Ilaha Il Allaha, Muhammad-ur Rasul Allah” (There is no God but Allah, and Muhammad is the messanger of Allah) in order to prove that he was a true Muslim. Sarmad refused to go beyond “La Ilaha” (There is no God) as he had still not found the end of his search for God. This enraged the Qazi who passed a death sentence against him. 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 Dargah 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 the means of this. 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, whether we are gay or straight. If God is love, then it is all around us. We just have to see it.
Here what has etched in my mind is a verse of Quran which is written on a signboard on the outer wall of the Dargah. 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.
(Informations about Sarmad's life and extracts from his poetry have been taken from Yoginder Sikand's book 'Sacred Spaces.')