Interview with Makhdum Syed Chan Shah Pir Qadri

Memories of the carnage of 1947 are still deeply etched in the minds of many Muslims and Sikhs, moulding the ways in which they view each other. As a result of this, as well as of a selective and highly skewed understanding of the history of the relations between the Sikh Gurus and the Mughal Emperors, many Sikhs view the Muslims as inveterate enemiesђ, and vice versa. In the process, the more positive side of the complex history of Sikh-Muslim relations has been almost totally forgotten. How many people, for instance, recall that Guru Nanaks most trusted and closest disciple and companion, Mardana, was a Muslim and remained a Muslim till he died? That Nanak himself is said to have traveled to Mecca on the Haj? That the foundation stone of the Harminder Sahib at Amritsar, the Golden Temple of the Sikhs, was laid by none other than a Muslim Sufi, Hazrat Miyan Mir? And so on҅.

In this interview, Makhdum Syed Chan Shah Pir Qadri, the custodian (sajjada nashin) of the shrine (dargah) of Hazrat Miyan Mir in Lahore, talks to Yoginder Sikand on the little-known history of the close relationship between the Sikh Gurus and the Muslim Sufis….Excerpts:

Could you tell us something about Guru Nanak and his relations with the Muslim Sufis?

As I see it, Baba Nanak Sahib did not intend to establish a new religion of his own. One of his principal aims was to build bridges of love and harmony between people of different faiths and communities, exhorting them to serve the one God. Now, in Arabic, one who surrenders himself or herself to God and Gods Will is called a ґMuslim, and this is why many Sufis consider Baba Nanak Sahib to have been a true Muslim. The Udasis or accounts of the travels of Baba Nanak Sahib tell us that he traveled to Mecca for the Haj. He is also said to have spent six long years in Baghdad, which was then a major centre for the Sufis. Here he studied with many leading Sufis of his day, and it is said that he was presented by the Sufis of the city with a turban as a token of respect and honor. In Baghdad , in the courtyard of the shrine of Hazrat Bahlol Danaai, a famous Sufi, there is a shrine which mentions that Baba Nanak Sahib stayed there. The shoes, the Muslim-style prayer mat [ja-namaz] and the blanket of Baba Nanak and the copy of the Holy QurҒan which he used to regularly read, are also preserved there.

Baba Nanak Sahibs chief disciple was Mardana, who remained a Muslim till he died, and he served Baba Nanak Sahib for sixty-four long years. MardanaҒs descendants still live in Lahore. They describe themselves as Sikh-Muslims.

Besides Mardana, did Guru Nanak have any other Muslim disciples?

Yes, he did, for the Muslims of his times saw him as an accomplished Sufi. Thus, when he finally passed away, his Hindu and Muslim disciples started quarreling among themselves as to whether his mortal remains should be burnt or buried. When they removed the cloth that covered his body, they discovered, much to their surprise, that his body had disappeared, and all that remained in its place was a handful of flowers. The Hindu and Muslim disciples then disposed of the flowers in their own way. This happened at a place called Kartarpur, which is now in Pakistan, not far from Lahore. The shrine complex in Kartarpur still remains a major centre of pilgrimage, and is presently administered by the Punjab Awqaf Board.. It has two sections, one containing a Hindu-style shrine, and the other a Muslim-style structure. Many local Muslims, and occasionally, pilgrims from India, still come to the shrine, to ask for Baba Nanak Sahibs blessings.

How did Hazrat Miyan Mir get chosen to lay the foundation stone of the Golden Temple?

Hazrat Miyan Mir was one of the most pious Muslim Sufis of his times, a leading Pir of the Qadri order that traces its origins to the Holy Prophet Muhammad [may peace be upon him] through Hazrat Abdul Qadri Jilani of Baghdad. Hazrat Miyan Mir came to Lahore from Sind when he was around twenty years old. This was the time of Guru Ram Das Maharaj, the fourth Sikh Guru. Now, the Sikh Gurus, like most Sufis, believed in the doctrine of wahdat-al wujud or the ґunity of all being, seeing the light of God in every particle of GodҒs creation. Hence, Hazrat Miyan Mir would often go the Guru Ram Das Sahibs home in Lahore to listen to his spiritual discourses. It was there that Hazrat Miyan Mir befriended the GuruҒs son, Guru Arjan Dev Maharaj, who became the leader of the Sikhs after his fathers death. At this time, the Sikhs were not a separate, well-established community. Rather, in line with the teachings of Baba Nanak Sahib, they were a loosely organized group of Hindus and Muslims united in the quest to travel on GodҒs path.

Guru Ram Das Sahib had purchased a large plot of land in Amristar and built a tank there, and had forecast that a holy shrine would be established on the spot and that its foundation stone would be laid by what he described as the best person of the timeђ. After his demise, when Guru Arjan Dev-ji became the Guru, he decided to build the Harminder Sahib, what is popularly called the Golden Temple, the holiest shrine of the Sikhs, on the spot. In accordance with his fathers wishes, he decided to request Hazrat Miyan Mir Sahib, whom he considered to be the most pious and God-fearing man of his times, to lay the foundation stone of the shrine. 

Accordingly, Guru Arjan Dev Sahib sent a party of 101 of his followers, bearing a palanquin, to Lahore to bring Hazrat Miyan Mir to Amritsar to lay the foundation stone. In the meanwhile, the Hindu diwan or prime minister of the Mughal governor of Lahore, Chandu Mal, heard of the Guru SahibҒs plans. Now, he, like many other Brahmins, was scared at the rapid expansion of the Sikh movement among the lowerђ castes, fearing that if the lowerђ castes were all to turn Sikh the stranglehold of the upperђ castes would be threatened. You wont find this in the history books, because those who have written the history of the Punjab have deliberately concealed it. But this is what I have heard from my elders. In order to draw away the ґlower castes, who were joining the Sikhs in droves, he established what he called the ґRam Rahim movement. As soon as he heard about the GuruҒs plans of inviting Hazrat Miyan Mir to Amritsar, he sent one of his deputies, a Brahmin who called himself as Ahmad Das, to Hazrat Miyan Mir, seeking to convince him not to lay the foundation stone of the Harminder Sahib. Instead of helping the Guru, he said, Miyan Mir should co-operate with Chandu Mal, for Chandu, too, he insisted, believed that Ram and Rahim are oneђ. But Hazrat Miyan Mir rebuked him, saying, The Ram you believe in was not God himself, but a mere mortalїthe son of Dasrath, the father of Luv and Kush, while God has neither parents nor children. And then he said, ґPeople can be united only on the basis of the love for the one formless God, and this task Arjan Dev is doing best and so I shall help him.

It is said that Ahmad Das and his followers attacked the caravan in which then Hazrat Miyan Mir was traveling to Amritsar. Although they failed to kill Hazrat Miyan Mir, they injured several of his followers as well as some of the men whom Guru Arjan Dev Sahib had sent to accompany him from Lahore.

What happened in Lahore then when Hazrat Miyan Mir arrived?

After his arrival in Lahore, Hazrat Miyan Mir Sahib stayed with the Guru for two weeks, during which time he was given the honour of laying the foundation stone of the Harminder Sahib. The story goes that after Hazrat Miyan Mir placed the stone, the mason picked it up to place it in a straight line. When Guru Arjan Dev Sahib heard of this, he was very angry and said, ґHow can you change what a true man of God, a true dervish, has decided? Because of what you have done, the foundation of this shrine will always be shaky. And this is why the Golden Temple has been attacked so many times till now.

Shortly after, owing to Guru Arjan DevҒs growing prestige, the diwan Chandu Mal instituted a series of false cases against him and had him arrested. He ordered him to be placed on a hot iron plate and had burning sand poured over his head, just outside the fort in Lahore in full view of the public. Hazrat Miyan Mir rushed to his rescue, saying, My friend, just give me one word and I shall cause the thrones of Delhi and Lahore to come crashing downђ. But the Guru Sahib answered, This is the will of God, and I must give an example to the people, or else how will they know what true martyrdom is?ђ. On Hazrat Miyan Mirs intervention, however, the torture was stopped, but a few days later the Guru Sahib breathed his last. Then, when the Mughal Emperor Jahangir heard about what Chandu Mal had done to the Guru Sahib, he had him arrested, and arranged for him to be dragged by the neck through the streets of Lahore, after which he died.

What about Hazrat Miyan MirҒs relations with the successor of Guru Arjan Dev?

Guru Arjan Dev Sahib was succeeded by his son, Guru Hargobind Sahib, who was then a young lad still in his teens. Soon after he was made the Guru, he came to Lahore to meet with Hazrat Miyan Mir, who, after all, had been one of the closest friends of his father. The story goes that as the young boy was dismounting from his horse, Hazrat Miyan Mir stopped him, saying that he should place his feet in his hands instead. And so, the Guru placed both his feet in Miyan Mirs outstretched hands. Hazrat Miyan Mir did this to stress that the true Sufi is one who is humble and has no trace of egoism left in him. Also, he wanted to publicly acknowledge the high spiritual status of the Guru Sahib and to show that only a true dervish can really respect another true man of God.

Later, when because of political enmity, the Mughal Emperor Jahangir had Guru Hargobind Sahib arrested in Gwalior, Hazrat Miyan Mir was instrumental in getting him released, after which the Guru sahib then went with him to Lahore and spent some time with him.

What role did Hazrat Miyan Mir play in the conflict between Guru Hargobind and the Mughal Emperor Aurangzeb?

Unfortunately, the story of Aurangzeb has been totally misinterpreted and in the history textbooks he is portrayed as an evil religious fanatic. Actually, he was nothing of the sort, and his policies were dictated essentially by political motives and interests, and not by religion. That is why many of his top military officers were Hindus. Likewise, it is wrong to say that the Sikh community was set up to defend the Hindus from the Muslims. If that were true, then how is it that the Sikh Gurus had such close relations with the Muslim Sufis? No, in actual fact, the conflict between the Gurus and the Mughals was purely political and had nothing to do with religion whatsoever. Moreover, the early Sikh Gurus had much closer links with the Muslim Sufis than they had with the orthodox Hindu Brahmins.

Aurangzeb came to the throne by imprisoning his father, Shah Jahan, and waging war against his elder brother, and the rightful heir to the Mughal throne, Dara Shikoh. Dara himself was a great Sufi and a disciple of Hazrat Miyan Mir Sahib. He was the first to translate the Upanishads into Persian, and it was his translation which was used by later European scholars to render them into various European languages. Because Dara was a disciple of Hazrat Miyan Mir, who, in turn, was a close friend of Guru Hargobind, when Aurangzeb declared war on Dara, Dara fled to the Guru, seeking refuge with him. The Guru gave him a sum of 500,000 gold mohurs, with which Dara was able to rebuild his army. Yet, in the end, Dara was caught by AurangzebҒs agents, and Aurangzeb ordered him to be killed. Then, Aurangzeb set about eliminating all those who had supported Dara, fearing that otherwise they might oppose his rule. And so he sent his forces against the Guru Sahib, for instance, and also ordered the beheading of a famous Muslim Sufi of Delhi, Sarmad Shahid, who was a friend of Daras. Aurangzeb also ordered the destruction of several Sufi shrines, fearful that these might emerge as centers of popular opposition to his rule. Because the family and followers of Hazrat Miyan Mir had supported Dara Shikoh and Guru Hargobind against Aurangzeb, they were forced to flee from Lahore and they took shelter elsewhere. My own ancestor, Hazrat Abu Saeed Fatehullah Masum, who was Hazrat Miyan MirҒs successor, fled to the Guru at Amristar. The Guru granted him refuge and a large plot of land in the village of Dharamkot Randhawa, near Amritsar, where he spent the rest of his life, and was buried there.

In short, then, there is absolutely no truth in the argument that Aurangzeb or other Mughal Emperors were against the Sikhs because of any religious prejudice, or else why would the Sufis, who are the most pious of the Muslims, have supported the Gurus? Rather, it was entirely a political conflict, because the Emperors, sections of the Mughal nobility and the highђ caste Brahmins found the growing Sikh movement among the lowerђ castes a threat to their own rule.

Given the historical role played by Hazrat Miyan Mir in promoting love and harmony between people of different communities, what role do you envisage for Sufis today in helping build bridges between Muslims and others?

Hazrat Miyan Mir Sahib would often say, Karni Parvan Kya Hindu Kya Musalman, which means In the path of effort [for God], there is no difference between the Hindu and the Muslim. The Holy Qurђan tells us that God has sent prophets to all peoples of the world, and they all taught the same basic faith, which, in Arabic is called al-Islam, which simply means submission to Godђ. Now, India is such a huge country, and so how could it be that God did not send any prophets here? He must surely have, and this is why some Sufis believe that perhaps Rama, Krishna or Buddha might have been messengers of God. The Holy Quran also tells us that the Prophet Muhammad [peace be upon him] had been sent by Allah to fulfill, and not to negate, the teachings of the previous prophets and to correct the wrong beliefs and practices that had crept into the religion of those who claimed to be their followers. This understanding of universal revelation, I feel lays a very firm foundation for inter-religious and inter-communal dialogue, which today is really the need of the hour. Unfortunately, few organized efforts are being made by Sufis in this regard today.

As the custodian of the shrine of Hazrat Miyan Mir, himself something of a pioneer in the field of inter-faith dialogue, how are you trying to carry on with his mission?

I donҒt wish to talk about myself, but since you have asked me I shall answer. I run a school in Lahore, and many of our teachers and students are Christians. On Christmas day I invite my Christian friends, including priests, to come to the dargah and join them in praying to God. I also often visit Sikh gurudwaras in the United Kingdom, where I address Sikh gatherings, reminding them of the teachings of the great Gurus and Sufis, and their message of love for all of Gods creatures. 

One last question. Have you ever visited the Golden Temple yourself?

Unfortunately, I have not had the chance, although I would love to. After all, Hazrat Miyan Mir laid the foundation stone of the shrine and so we do have a centuries-old association with it. But now, given the relations between India and Pakistan, it has become so difficult for Pakistanis to travel to India.

Originally printed at http://www.islaminterfaith.org/feb2003/interview.html, and reprinted with permission.


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