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Sarmad, the Cheerful, Naked Martyr

Sharif Graham

When I returned home from a pilgrimage around India recently, my wife and daughter noticed I was wearing a new ring, the stone of a blood-red carnelian. They asked about it, and thus I told them the story of how I came to be wearing it: Sarmad's Tomb

It was perhaps ten years ago that I mentioned to Pir Zia Inayat-Khan my admiration for the Mughal emperor Akbar, and he expressed an even greater admiration for Akbar’s great grandson, Dara Shikoh, about whom I knew very little.

The first son and heir designate of Shah Jehan, Dara was plunged into a war of succession when his father became ill, and was bested in battle by one of his younger brothers, Aurangzeb, an intolerant, narrow-minded man. Dara was a brilliant scholar, and had written a treatise, The Convergence of the Two Oceans, reconciling Vedanta philosophy with Sufism. When he was defeated by Aurangzeb, he fled into the desert with his followers, and continued to wage war against his younger brother until, after another defeat, he was betrayed by a raja with whom he sought refuge, whom he had repeatedly protected against his father’s wrath. On Aurangzeb’s orders, Dara was assassinated.

While reading about Dara Shikoh, I saw several references to a strange figure called Sarmad who had been befriended and introduced into the court by the prince. Sarmad was an Armenian Jew from Iran who had converted to Islam, was an excellent poet, and always went around stark naked. I was intrigued by this odd dervish.

Once Shah Jehan died in 1658, having been held prisoner1 by Aurangzeb for his last years, Aurangzeb had Sarmad arrested and subjected to a judicial review, and eventually ordered him executed by beheading.

I made a point of discovering more about Sarmad on my visit to Delhi. William Dalrymple, easily my favorite writer about India, mentioned in his 1993 book City of Djinns that an enormously fat “descendent” of Sarmad had a lucrative healing practice adjacent to Sarmad’s tomb. I learned that the tomb was just next to the Jama Masjid, the enormous mosque built by Shah Jehan, and I made my way there. But before I relate my experience at the tomb, let me tell you what I found out about Sarmad.

The details of Sarmad’s early life in Iran are sketchy. He is said to have translated the Books of Moses into Farsi (Persian), probably while he was still a Jew. He is also said to have studied philosophy and to have been taught by the great Sufi Mir Findariski. This may be when he accepted Islam.

Sarmad decided to take up a career as a trader. Since Persian paintings were much esteemed in Mughal India, he bought many to take with him to India to trade for jewels, abundant in India and prized in Iran. No doubt he envisioned making many such journeys to ensure his prosperity. It is not exactly clear when he converted to Islam, but he was already a Muslim when he arrived in Mughal territory in what is now Pakistan (Sindh).
There, in the port city of Thatta, he is said to have fallen madly in love with a Hindu boy. Here is the account2: “For some days the attraction continued from afar. Eventually the sparks of this fire were fanned by the flames of love and began to blaze, and Abhai Chand moved in with Sarmad. Both the governor of the province and Abhai’s father tried to separate them, but eventually gave in when they saw how pure this love was. Sarmad is said to have taught Abhai all he knew.” Sarmad and Abhai left Sindh and travelled first to the Deccan (southern India) and then Lahore. As a result of his love for Abhai, Sarmad abandoned his ambition as a trader, and in fact lost all interest in social convention, eventually shedding all his clothing, never to wear anything again. He also began to write more very fine poetry in Farsi. What eventually became of his beloved Abhai Chand does not seem to have been recorded.

Dara Shikoh had experienced a miraculous healing in Lahore and thus had become a follower of the Qadiri3 Sufi Mian Mir. It is here that Sarmad encountered the Crown Prince, which resulted in a fast friendship which continued when they went to Delhi, where Dara introduced Sarmad to the court circle. When Dara was later forced to flee with his followers and became a desert wanderer, Sarmad remained in Delhi, having had a vision that his death would occur there. After Dara’s assassination, Sarmad is said to have entered Aurangzeb’s court naked, shouting poetry accusing the new emperor of injustice.

He was arrested and charged with several crimes. The first was going about naked, contrary to the Shari’a. However, the emperor himself intervened, saying that going around naked was not a serious enough offense to merit execution4. Then he was accused of denying the Prophet’s miraj5, as Sarmad had written:

        The mullah6 says that Ahmad7 went to the heavens;
        Sarmad says the heavens were inside Ahmad.

This, however, was ruled ambiguous, and therefore insufficient. The charge that stuck was that he was an atheist, since he said only “La ilaha” (There is no god) without completing the traditional phrase with “illa’llah” (except God). He answered:

        Presently I am drowned in negation;
        I have not yet attained the station of affirmation.
        If I said the whole phrase in this state,
        I would be telling a lie.

This the judges considered blasphemy, and thus sentenced him to be executed.

The next day he was taken to the place of execution, near the Jama Masjid, and when he saw the executioner’s gleaming sword, he smiled, lifted his eyes to heaven, and declared:   

        May I be sacrificed for You.
        Come, come, for in whatever guise
        You come, I recognize You.

Then he said:

        There was a commotion
        and I opened my eyes
        from the dream of non-existence.
        I saw that the night
        of sedition still remained,
        and so I went back to sleep.

He then offered his neck and “drank the goblet of martyrdom.” The year was 1070 A.H. (1660 CE in our calendar). He was buried at the bottom of the steps leading to the East Gate of the Jama Masjid, next to his teacher, Hare Bhare Shah.

According to legend, before he was interred, his severed head uttered the whole kalima (La ilaha illa’llah) several times, indicating that he had attained the station of affirmation, a little too late to save his earthly life. His head is also reported to have said:

        My head was severed from my body
        by that Flirt who was my Companion.
        Otherwise, the headache
        would have been too severe.

From the moment of his death he became known as Sarmad Shahid, literally meaning “the Witness” but in practice meaning “the Martyr.”

On the day I made my way to his tomb, I drank in the atmosphere of the place. It has a feeling of profound peace, punctuated with an impish humor. I thoroughly enjoyed my hour there, often laughing quietly to myself. Around twenty people came and went while I was there, mostly women, but there were two young men together at one point. Everyone was very reverent, and no one was naked. I would have liked to ask them why they came there, but I thought it might be impolite. There were very few visitors compared, say, to Nizamuddin Aulia’s dargah, always crammed. There were no men with notebooks (kadim) trying to get you to promise to send funds, and no one even asked for baksheesh (tips) for looking after your shoes. Clearly, Sarmad is not a commercial opportunity, unlike most of the other Sufi saints of India, and no rules seemed to be in effect (appropriate for an antinomian like Sarmad).

As I left and took some exterior photos, I noticed a little shop. They had a case of rings, and I spied one with a carnelian of appealing color. I tried it on, and it would only fit my little finger. I asked the price, and the man said 250 (about $5), but I looked in my wallet and I only had 150 ($3) left, so I offered that and it was accepted. I wear it on the little finger of my right hand; at first, it turned my flesh black underneath, but that has now stopped.

I hope this little account may ignite some interest in this extraordinary Sufi whom I have come to treasure as a predecessor on the path. For a little humor at the end (Sarmad, despite his tragic story, laughed often and was said to be constantly cheerful), let me pass on a quatrain of Sarmad’s:

Sarmad, intoxicated on love’s glass,
Was propped aloft then dropped upon his ass;
Sober and pious was his only goal,
But now: a drunken heretic—alas.

Sharif Graham is a scholar and former professor of Literature and Comparative Religion at University of Arizona and Pima College. For the past twelve years he has authenticated and edited the lectures of Pir-o-Murshid Inayat Khan, and regularly given seminars on Inayat Khan’s teachings. Sharif lives in Suresnes, France.

Read more about Donald A. Sharif Graham


1. In an exquisite while marble apartment in the Red Fort, from which the Taj Mahal can be clearly seen, but nevertheless his prison

2. From Same-Sex Love in India (2000)

3. Most Sufis in India belong to the Chishti Order; the Qadiri Order, another of the four major orders, is widespread, occuring in Afghanistan, India, Bangladesh, Pakistan, Turkey, the Balkans, China, as well as Africa, especially Morocco

4. Of course, then as now, there were many naked sadhus in India

5. The Prophet Muhammad’s journey on a flying steed, Buraq, from Mecca to Jerusalem, and then his ascent into the heavens accompanied by Jibril (Gabriel)
Islamic lawyers

6. A name for the Prophet Muhammad

7. Some sources say this is just another name for Sarmad; Sarmad’s half of the tomb is blood red, and Hare Bhare’s is deep green



1 October 2010

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