Sarmad Kashani

Okay, so, this one isn’t ancient like I’ve been doing but it’s pretty old. More importantly, I believe I’m venturing into a part of the world I haven’t talked about before, so that’s kind of exciting.

A depiction of Sarmad with Dara Shikoh

Sarmad Kashani, often called just Sarmad (in the same way that Cher is just Cher — you know you’re famous when you just need one name), was born around the year 1590 in Armenia. He was born into a family of Jewish merchants and, as such, he became fluent in Persian early on in his life because, well, you needed that language to sell things in Armenia back then. (His family was also pretty clear fluent in Persian before his birth, because Sarmad is a Persian name.) Before leaving his family to travel, he produced a Persian translation of the Torah.

It is believed that Sarmad converted to Islam, probably while he was studying under Mulla Sadra and Mir Findriski. He studied mysticism and philosophy and poetry with them. In 1634, Sarmad moved to present-day India which was, at the time, part of the Mughal Empire. He was still working as a merchant and had learned that art was being sold at high prices there — he brought his wares and set up shop.

Sarmad also continued to practice mysticism and began to gather disciples. One of his early disciples was a Hindu boy named Abhay Chand. Very little is actually known about Abhay. Most sources don’t even describe how they met at all, but I did find a story in the gay magazine DNA India that describes it. Abhay and Sarmad met at a Sufi shrine, where Abhay was performing as a singer. Sarmad would return to the shrine every evening to hear Abhay sing. Sarmad began teaching Abhay different languages — Hebrew and Persian specifically. Then he was hired by Sarmad to create translations of the Torah and of the Old and New Testaments. There is some evidence Abhay converted to Islam. The exact nature of the relationship between Abhay and Sarmad is pretty hotly debated, but the biography of Sarmad that was published by caretakers of his shrine outright states that Sarmad had fallen in love with him, and that, despite initially opposing their relationship, Abhay’s father eventually permitted them to have a relationship. Frankly, I think that should pretty much settle the debate, but whatever.

At some point — probably after this — Sarmad abandoned religion altogether, favoring spirituality instead, and also gave up all his material possessions — including clothing — stopped cutting his hair or nails, and began wandering the city streets naked. (I should probably note that mystics wandering around naked wasn’t actually that uncommon in India at this time. There’s at least two active sects where this was practically a basic tenet.) He was in a state called mazjub, which is apparently a state of “divine intoxication” in which one has no control over their own senses. From all accounts, Abhay Chand was still with him throughout this. There’s no actual records from the time indicating this, but its generally agreed that Sarmad traveled from Thatta to Lahore, then to Hyderabad, and then finally to Delhi.

It was during these travels that the crown prince of the Mughal Empire Dara Shikoh heard about Sarmad, and decided to invite him to appear in his father’s court. There, Sarmad impressed Dara Shikoh and he decided to become a disciple of the mystic — while still being the chosen heir to the throne of the empire.

So, fun fact about the Mughal Empire, they did not have the sort of tradition for line of succession where the eldest son (which was Dara Shikoh) was guaranteed to take the throne. Instead, they had the sort of tradition for line of succession where sons would overthrow their dads, kill their brothers, and take the throne for themselves. But, barring that, the empire’s ruler — Shah Jahan in this case — could always pick his favorite (which was Dara Shikoh). Now, Shah Jahan had four sons. They did not love that they were not picked. So, I’m sure you can guess, this led to thesort of transition where the sons went to war. When the dust settled in 1661, Dara Shikoh was not the last one standing. Instead, his brother Aurangzeb was victorious.

And for Sarmad, this was very bad news — for two reasons. The first of which was that Dara Shikoh was a prominent, and loud, disciple of Sarmad. Everyone knew he was a disciple of Sarmad. That meant Sarmad was sort of a rallying point for the population that still wanted Dara Shikoh to be the shah of the empire. The other was that Sarmad had prophesied Dara Shikoh’s victory….which means, his credibility as a mystic was ruined. He tried to salvage it by claiming that he meant Dara Shikoh would be a king in the afterlife, but you can only do so much damage control, right? So, Aurangzeb put Sarmad on trial. Aurangzeb wanted to prove that Sarmad was a heretic and, to that end, demanded that he affirm his Islamic faith by reciting the kalima (an Islamic creed). But Sarmad stated that he could not, that he was “drowned in negation” and would be lying if he said the entire kalima. That was enough for his conviction and an execution. A huge crowd gathered to watch his beheading.

Legend goes on to say that his severed head recited the full kalima, and that then his body got up and danced with his head. I’m going to go out on a limb and guess that did not actually happen. Pretty sure that would have been a much bigger deal in the history books.

Sarmad’s grave

Sarmad was buried in a simple grave, which has now been painted red — to represent that he is a martyr of love — and turned into a somewhat more elaborate dargah (or saint’s tomb). Sarmad’s writings, the Rubaiyat-e-Sarmad (Quatrains of Sarmad) have gone on to be translated many times, but never more famously than by Maulana Azad. Azad was a leader in the movement for Indian independence from Britain, and considered Sarmad to be a hero, an example of freedom of thought and expression at work. Not only did he translate Sarmad’s writings, he also wrote a length essay on the mystic that has been very insightful for both historians interested in Sarmad and historians interested in Azad.

As for Abhay Chand? I have no idea. The last thing I can find about him is that he was still with Sarmad when he came to Delhi. Much like the whole beginning of his life, the end of it is a mystery.

Scientific-Humanitarian Committee

Most of us are aware of some of the LGBTQ+ rights groups active throughout the ’60s and ’70s — the Mattachine Society, the Daughters of Bilitis, the Metropolitan Community Church, etc. But these kinds of organizations existed before that — in fact, the very first one was founded near the end of the 19th century. That society was the Scientific-Humanitarian Committee or, in German, the Wissenschaftlich-humanitäres Komitee. Wikipedia abbreviates that to WhK, so I’m doing that too.

The Whk was founded on May 15, 1897 — three days before Oscar Wilde was released from prison for homosexuality (not a coincidence) — by Magnus Hirschfeld, a German-Jewish sexologist and physician. Founding members also included Max Spohr, Eduard Oberg, and Franz Joseph von Bülow. At its height, the WhK would have nearly 500 members in 25 chapters across Germany, Austria, and the Netherlands.

Magnus_Hirschfeld_1929
Magnus Hirschfeld, 1929

Hirschfeld is probably going to get his own piece written about him at some point, because he keeps showing up in events from that time period as I research them — the man did a lot for the LGBTQ+ community, and not just in Germany! But the reasons he had for starting this organization were primarily that he noticed his homosexual patients were most likely to commit suicide, and he believed that was largely because society told them that they were unnatural, and criminalized them for their natural urges and desires. (Smart guy.) Spohr was a publisher and was one of the first, if not *the* first, to publish LGBT publications (although he does not appear to have been queer himself — just an early and important ally!). Oberg was a lawyer, and Bülow was a writer and former member of the German military.

Kurt_Hiller
Kurt Hiller

They were soon joined by Kurt Hiller — a writer, Adolf Brand — a writer, significant also for basically inventing that thing where a writer outs a politician who is anti-gay but is secretly engaging in same-sex behavior, and Benedict Friedlaender — a sexologist and anarchist. You should note, at this point, that between Hirschfeld, Friedlaender, and Hiller the WhK has a pretty significant Jewish membership. Queer Jews. In Germany. At the beginning of the 20th century. Think about how damn brave these people were considering what that country was building up to.

Jahrbuch_für_sexuelle_Zwischenstufen_-_1914
Yearbook for Intermediate Sexual Types

The main goal of the WhK was to repeal Paragraph 175, which was a specifically anti-gay piece of the penal code of Imperial Germany. They gathered over 5,000 signatures on a petition to repeal the law — some of the people who signed it included Leo Tolstoy and Albert Einstein. The WhK was also committed to educating the public and so they hosted lectures on topics about human sexuality and gender. The WhK strongly supported the idea of a third gender outside the gender binary — which is pretty revolutionary for Europe at the turn of the 20th century. The WhK also helped in criminal trials, defending accused homosexuals. Lastly, they published a journal called the Jahrbuch für sexuelle Zwischenstufen (or Yearbook for Intermediate Sexual Types) which is considered by many to be the first scientific journal to deal with sexual diversity. The journal was published on a regular schedule from 1899 to 1923, and then published a sort of haphazard schedule for another ten years after that.

In 1929, Kurt Hiller took over as chairman for Magnus Hirschfeld — Hirschfeld was about to embark on a world tour speaking about his theories about human sexuality. The organization persisted until 1933 when its base of operations, the Institute for Sexual Sciences in Berlin, was destroyed by Nazis. Paragraph 175 remained in effect for another sixty years in East Germany, and was not repealed in West Germany until the two nations were reunited in 1994.

After World War II, there were efforts to reform the group. In 1949, Hermann Weber tried to restart the group — and even had the help of Kurt Hiller (who had survived being in a number of Nazi concentration camps before escaping to London). The group disbanded and then ultimately became the Committee for the Reform of Sexual Criminal Laws, which lasted until 1960. Hiller — after returning to Germany in 1955 — tried to resurrect the WhK in 1962, but was unsuccessful. Finally, in 1998, an organization was formed with the same name. The new incarnation of the WhK appears to still be around.

(Adapted from this Facebook post.)