By Rana Safvi
March 18, 2018
Delhi’s Jama Masjid is the pulsating heart of the city. It is always full of devotees who come to pray and tourists who come to admire Shah Jahan’s architectural perfection. Outside its lofty gateways are markets teeming with people shopping for clothes, utensils and books, or digging into delicious street food and drinking cool sherbets to beat the heat. To the right of the eastern gateway is an often-missed Dargah. This belongs to a man who long ago came to buy goods in India but instead got ‘sold’ in the bazaar of love.
A Divine Glance
That was Muhammad Sa’id Sarmad Kashani. He was born an Armenian Jew in the Iranian city of Kashan in Isfahan province around 1590. He later converted to Islam, the details of which are hazy, and adopted this name. He came to Thatta in Sindh in 1634 to trade Iranian goods for famed Indian rubies, emeralds and spices. Instead, a divine glance from a young boy named Abhai Chand changed his destiny.
In Sufism, Ishq-E-Majazi (pure love for God’s creation) is often the way to Ishq-E-Haqeeqi (love for the divine). This is exactly what happened in Sarmad’s case. He said: “I am sold in the market of love/ I know not my buyer, nor my price” (translated by Maulana Abul Kalam Azad).
Initially Abhai Chand’s parents were against their son meeting Sarmad. The earliest written account of the relationship between Sarmad and Chand is in the 1660 work, Dabistan, written by Mubad Shah and translated by David Shea. Shah writes about the meeting: “Abandoning all other things, like a Sanyasi, naked as he came from his mother, he sat down before the door of his beloved. The father of the object of his love, after having found by investigation the purity of the attachment manifested for his son, admitted Sarmad into his house, and Abhai Chand became Sarmad’s student, studying Jewish religion and the Hebrew and Persian languages well enough to translate sections of the Hebrew Bible into Persian.”
Sarmad then gave up all worldly attachments. He stopped wearing clothes and roamed around naked in a state of divine intoxication. He was not in control of his senses — a state known as Majzub. He went to Lahore from Thatta and appeared in Delhi some years later. He became a spiritual teacher of Dara Shikoh, the favourite son of Mughal emperor Shah Jahan. Dara Shikoh, himself a mystic, found a worthy preceptor in Sarmad and admitted him in his circle of saints and Sufis.
Sarmad’s Rubaiyat-e-Sarmad (Quatrains of Sarmad) in Persian provide knowledge and delight. They were translated by several people, but one of the most famous translations was by Maulana Azad who compared himself to Sarmad for his freedom of thought and expression. Azad later wrote an essay on the great Persian mystic. Historians have traced in this essay the growth of Azad's own religious thought and political life.
When Dara Shikoh lost the war of succession, he was executed by his brother Aurangzeb, who became the next Mughal emperor. Sarmad’s disapproval of Aurangzeb and constant praise of Dara Shikoh were a thorn in the emperor’s flesh. Aurangzeb asked his Qazi, Mullah Abdul Qavi, to find charges against Sarmad. Sarmad’s nudity became the charge but it was not serious enough to warrant severe punishment. Other Ulema were then called and charges of blasphemy were framed against him, one of them being that Sarmad did not go beyond the first few words of the Islamic creed (Kalima). He only said, “La-Illaha” (There is no God) and did not complete it by adding “except Allah”.
Affirmation of Faith
When he was asked to complete it Sarmad replied: “Presently, I am drowned in negation; I have not yet reached the (spiritual) station of affirmation yet. If I read the full Kalima in this state, I will be telling a lie.” Sarmad refused to retract his words and was taken to the Jama Masjid to be executed. A crowd gathered to watch the execution. According to legend, his decapitated head started reciting the full Kalima (La-ilaha illa’llah or, there is no god but Allah), showing that in death he achieved his affirmation of faith.
He was buried there in a simple grave next to his spiritual master, Syed Abul Qasim Hare Bhare Shah. Today, the portion with Sarmad’s grave is painted a bright red as testimony to the fact that he was a martyr of love and Hare Bhare Shah’s side is painted green.