I have been reading about Sarmad for a while, especially since I got know about him for the first time in Maulana Abul Kalam Azad’s writings. I have a habit of reading about the Indian freedom fighters especially their writings and books they read. It offers a great insight into many forgotten people in the past of Indian history, Sarmad Kashani is one of them, a Sufi of Qadiri Order.
Maulana Azad uses Miratul Khayal by Sherkhan Lodhi and Riaz-ul-shuara by Ali Quli Valeh Daghistani to narrate Sarmad.
From many accounts which I have read of him, Sarmad is described as a Jew Trader from Iran or Persia who came to India during 5th Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan’s time for selling his items. Here he landed in Thatta province, Sind in in 1631 (Modern Day Karachi, Pakistan).
He resided in Iranian town of Kashan, hence getting the surname Kashani. Sarmad, I think is his Sufi name, I do not have any information about his Jewish name. He also had a Muslim name Muhammad Sa’id.
The accounts of his conversion to Islam are bit hazy, some scholars point that he had already converted in Iran before coming and some say that he converted after coming to Thatta, Sindh. There are multiple scenarios narrated.
It is narrated that since Sarmad was a trader from Iran or Persia who wanted to make money, he was told by his friends about India where Persian is official language and people gave a lot of money to purchase Persian goods. It was because Mughals have given patronage to Persian culture (owing to King of Persia’s assistance to 2nd Mughal king Himayaun for recapturing Delhi).
He was informed that in India or Hindustan as it was called then, people value Sufis a lot, even the Mughal Kings listen to their opinions. As a trader he wanted to get more information about the place before he sets out to sell off his items in an unknown distant land.
Since he was Jew, he did not know about Sufism or Islam, so in order to get acquainted he read about it and got knowledge from the Islamic scholars and eventually got converted and set off for India to sell precious items.
He was born a Jew and had written on Judaism in Persian. He was interested in other religions’ working. In order to get more knowledge, he read Christian teaching and got converted to Christianity and then read Sufi Islam, later converted to Islam. Finally arriving in Thatta, Sindh to sell off his precious artcraft.
When Sarmad reached Thatta in Sindh, he fell in love with the local girl, but due to some unfortunate events lost every possession, including the local girl. The impact of this destructive love made him give up his clothes and worldly things. He would walk the streets of Thatta naked. In this state of absolute renunciation, Sarmad achieved the heights of spiritualism.
During this process he met Abhay Chand, who decided to become his disciple and their relationship helped soften the bruises of Sarmad’s heart. In short starting the Murshid– Murid relationship and his walk towards Sufism.
This is the more vocal one, scholars say that he came to Thatta as a Jew, having knowledge of Sufism and India. His meeting with a boy named Abhay Chand led to his transformation into Sufi and conversion into Islam.
The account goes that he saw Abhay Chand (18 year old son of a rich Hindu Trader) sing in a gathering multiple times and fell in love with him. This love help him transform into a Sufi.
Now this account of love has been interpreted by many as him being homosexual (in short a sexual love) by some scholars and making him more at odds with the Orthodox Islamic scholars. Since Islamic scholars or Mullahs abhor and detest such unnatural relationships. However such homosexual relationships were found to be common in Middle East and Central Asian region, so this might have led to interpretation.
There is another viewpoint of scholars stating that this was father-son type relationship or love. This can also be called as Teacher and student relationship in Sufi way of life, Murshid– Murid relationship. Nothing of sexual nature, however since people like to put all love in sexual domains and enjoy scandalous things, Abhay Chand and Sarmad’s relationship was termed homosexual (to make fun of them in the eyes of more disapproving individuals).
It is said that Sarmad’s attachment to Abhay Chand let to his downfall, his items were all gone which he brought to sell. The ship in which he came, went back without him. The Governor of Thatta Province and Abhay Chand’s father tried to separate them, but were unsuccessful. In the end both were ostracized and asked to leave Thatta.
Note to the Reader on Abhay Chand & Sarmad relationship
I would like point here that the relationship between Murshid– Murid has always been close in Sufism, it is a spiritual relationship and not of any sexual nature. There are many examples in this regard.
Amir Khusroo sang many songs in praise of his Murshid and voiced his love for him. Khusroo died within few weeks after the death of his master and his tomb lies only forty feet away from his master.
It is said in Sufism that there is no relationship more sacred than between Teacher and student.
Many Islamic Scholars favored by the royal court of Aurangzeb and currently many orthodox Islamist in world use this relationship to tarnish the clean image of Sarmad.
Sarmad’s search for God blurred the lines of religion, caste and creeds drawn by the society. He wrote verse in this regard:
“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?”
Life after Thatta
It is said that both (Sarmad and Abhay) left for Lahore, where Sarmad wrote many verses of Rubayat, which later become famous. He stayed there for 13 years and thereafter went to Golconda in south India (Currently known as Hyderabad, Telangana, India). From there both moved to Agra and finally in 1657, they came to Delhi and settled down at the Dargah of Khawaja Harey Bharey.
Sarmad taught Abhay Chand Arabic, Persian and Jewish. He helped him translate many works from Persian to Local language of India at the time.
Life in Delhi
Sarmad reached Delhi on 1657 and in couple of years started to have a massive following. He use to reside near Delhi’s Meena Bazar (besides Jama Masjid).
During this time he came in contact to Dara Shikoh, who was eldest son of Shah Jahan and Mumtaz (Taj Mahal Couple). Dara was supposed to be crowned the next Mughal king. He was well read and had translated many texts to Persians from Indian religions. The most prominent of his translation was Upanishads. He was a devout Sufi of Qadiri order.
Fate had other plans for Dara and Sarmad, Dara’s youngest brother ‘the more radical’ Aurangzeb became the next Mughal king. Sarmad and Aurangzeb were ideological enemies, Sarmad stood for everything that Aurangzeb hated. Hence it led to many run-ins between both of them.
There are many legendary tails between Aurangzeb and Sarmad, but it can be attributed to stories people build for spirit and shape viewpoint of Sarmad and Aurangzeb’s supposed encounters.
On story goes that as Aurangzeb’s procession was passing through the streets of Delhi, he saw Sarmad sitting by the roadside. Aurangzeb ordered march to halt and demanded the mystic to cover himself. The peer or saint looked at him with wrathful eyes and said, ‘If you think I need to cover my nudity so badly, why you don’t cover me yourself ?’
When the emperor lifted the blanket lying on Sarmad’s side, he saw the bloodied heads of all the family members he had had secretly murdered. Bewildered, Aurangzeb looked at Sarmad, who said, ‘Now tell me, what should I cover — your sins or my thighs ?’
In another such story, Emperor Aurangzeb’s daughter, Princess Zebunnisa (she was eldest daughter and inspired by Sufism), saw Sarmad making clay houses on the roadside. After paying her respects, she inquired: ‘Are these for sale?’
‘Yes,’ Sarmad said, ‘I will sell them for some tobacco.’
Upon receiving the tobacco, Sarmad wrote around the border of one of the clay houses: This clay house is sold to Princess Zebunnisa for some tobacco. That night Emperor Aurangzeb saw a dream.
He was roaming around in Paradise, when he saw a beautiful palace. When he approached it, he was barred from entering it. Then he noticed that the palace had Princess Zebunnisa’s name written on it.
Aurangzeb ascended throne on 1658 AD and had Sarmad executed in 1661 AD, after having Dara Shikoh executed in 1659 AD.
Maulana Abul Kalam Azad referred to the Pro-Aurangzeb historian Sher Khan Lodhi in his writings, who described Sarmad in his book “Miras-ul-Khyal” in the following words:” Sultan Dara had an affinity to mad people so he became friend with Sarmad.”
Maulana Azad commented: “He (Lodhi) doesn’t know that there is set of scales in which this madness would outweigh all wisdom in the world. Dara was probably fed up with the pernicious wisdom of the likes of Aurangzeb that he preferred the company of Sarmad.” Sarmad suffered the same fate as Dara.
Azad adds – “Dara Shikoh had a unique mind and temperament and all should mourn the unfortunate day when his enemies triumphed.”
The trial given to Sarmad was farce, orchestrated by the Salafi Islamic Mullahs in Aurangzeb’s court, Aurangzeb himself wanted to get rid of all those associated with his eldest brother Dara Shikoh.
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. In order to make him relent, the Mullah had Abhay Chand flogged in front of Sarmad. It is said that the whip lashed Abhay Chand’s flesh, but the pain was inflicted on Sarmad.
For the Mullah Qazi, Islam was a set of stern and inflexible laws (this is Salafi interpretation of Islam). For Sarmad, it was nothing but a message of love (Sufi Interpretation of Islam).
Aurangzeb knew that public of Delhi was behind Sarmad and if he gives him execution sentence on lesser crime like nakedness or being with Abhay Chand, it will create a rebellion. Hence he instructed Mullah that Sarmad be asked to recite Kalima-e-Tayyaba.
The Mullahs demanded that Sarmad should 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 Mullahs who awarded him death sentence. Hence, Sarmad was dragged through the streets of Delhi and promptly beheaded.
A story goes, that Sarmad emerged victorious in death. He picked up his severed head much to the fright of his executioners. Then he started to climb the stairs of the Jama Masjid, while mocking the emperor and his false men of God all the while. In his death, Sarmad had the one God, testifying to the truth of his own understanding of Islam.
At the moment he was about to enter the Jama Masjid 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.
The curse of Sarmad fell on Aurangzeb as the Mughal Empire gradually crumbled in front of his very eyes. He did not have any peaceful day in his old life.
Sarmad would be best described as :
a Jew who became a Christian,
a Christian who became a Muslim,
a Muslim who became a Hindu and
a Hindu who renounced everything and became an Atheist.
His refusal to recite the full Kalima-e-Tayyaba led to him being classified as Kafir and apostate, thereby making him fit to be killed in Aurangzeb’s Empire.
His Martyrdom made him a revered figure, but his tomb does not seems to have that much footfall as of Chishti order Sufis.
Sarmad will always be remembered more as the most fearless Sufi in Delhi, who challenged Emperor and his ‘bigot’ Islamist Mullahs’ interpretation of Islam.
I would like to point it here that, I being a native of Delhi, never went to his tomb. Even though I have gone to Jama Masjid area innumerable times for food and Chandani Chowk to purchase books. Infact I didn’t even know where his tomb resided, it is situated in Meena Bazaar lane. However, I must say that it was a very fulfilling experience knowing about Sarmad Kashani, a Qadiri Sufi. I have been more familiar with only Chishti Sufis. India offers you many answers on spiritual level, it is just that people are not aware of the place to look at.