Re-Imagining Sikh-Muslim Relations in the Light of the Life of Baba Nanak

Yoginder Sikand

Posted Jul 24, 2005      •Permalink      • Printer-Friendly Version
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Re-Imagining Sikh-Muslim Relations in the Light of the Life of Baba Nanak

Yoginder Sikand

In common perception, many Sikhs and Muslims see themselves as inveterate foes. Echoing the views of Hindutva ideologues, some Sikhs even go to the extent of arguing that Sikhism is simply the ?sword-arm? of Hinduism, and claim that it was established in order to defend the Hindus from Muslim ?marauders?. This notion of the origins of the Sikh community bears little relation to historical fact, however. Indeed, the idea that Guru Nanak intended to set up a new community of his own, whether to defend the Hindus or otherwise, is not corroborated by what we know of him and his teachings. A dispassionate reading of the story of the Guru clearly suggests that he had no intention of founding a new religion. Rather, he seems to have seen his mission as reminding Hindus and Muslims of the oneness of God and humankind and the meaningless of empty ritualism, rather than seeking to convert them to a radically new religion. This is why he was deeply revered by many Hindus as well as Muslims in his time, as the following popular saying indicates:

Baba Nanak Shah Faqir
Hindu da guru Musalman da pir

(Baba Nanak the Faqir,
Guru to the Hindus, Pir to the Muslims)

The development of the notion of the Sikhs as a separate religious community vehemently opposed to Muslims is an entirely post-Nanak phenomenon. It can only be understood when placed in the historical context of rivalries between the later Gurus and their followers and the Mughal rulers in Delhi. Although this rivalry was essentially political, it was seen by many as religious, as a conflict between Muslims and Sikhs or between Islam and Sikhism. Over time, then, Sikh identity, which in Baba Nanak?s time was essentially open and fluid, came to be predicated on a fierce hostility to Muslims, who were depicted in Sikh lore as evil, bloodthirsty monsters. This image of the Muslim as the religious ?other? continues to powerfully resonate in contemporary Sikh popular memory. This found its most virulent _expression in the massacre of large numbers of Muslims by Sikhs in eastern Punjab in the wake of the Partition and killings of Sikhs by Muslims in western Punjab. Even today latent feelings of hostility between Sikhs and Muslims remain strong.

Given the deeply ingrained antagonisms against each other in both Sikh and Muslim popular consciousness, it is instructive to critically interrogate early Sikh history to gauge how very far the image of Sikh-Muslim enmity really is from the understanding of the early Gurus, particularly Nanak. Baba Nanak?s close interaction with numerous Muslims in the course of his life clearly suggests that contemporary Sikh notions of Muslims as the vile religious ?other? are a major departure from the practice of their own first guru.

Baba Nanak was born in 1469 at the village of Talwandi, near Lahore in a Hindu Khatri family. The village and its environs seemed to have a large Muslim population, perhaps forming the majority. Nanak?s father, Mehta Kalu, was a land revenue accountant in the service of a Muslim governor. As a child, Baba Nanak was sent to a Hindu pandit and to a Muslim maulvi to study. It is likely that from the latter he received a detailed knowledge of Islam, which is readily apparent in his mystical poetry. Legend also has it that, in the manner of some Sufis, Baba Nanak was also instructed by the mystical Khwaja Khizr, considered by many to be a hidden prophet referred to in the Qur?an. At a young age itself, therefore, Baba Nanak received a fairly profound knowledge of Islam through his association with his Muslim neighbours.

Like many Sufis before him, Guru Nanak was an iconoclast, bitterly criticizing pundits and mullahs alike for having deviated from God?s path. His critique of both Hindu and Muslim priests seems entirely balanced, and nowhere does he single out Muslims or the ?ulama for more harsh rebuke than the Hindus or the pandits. Thus, for instance, it is said that when he turned nine years old his father arranged for a ceremony for him to don the Hindu ?holy? thread or janeo. Baba Nanak, however, refused to wear it, saying:

Though men commit countless thefts, countless adulteries, utter countless falsehoods and countless words of abuse;
Though they commit countless robberies and villanies night and day against their fellow creatures;
Yet the cotton thread is spun and the Brahmin comes to twist it.
For the ceremony they kill a goat and cook and eat it, and everybody then says, ?Put on the janeo?.
When it becomes old, it is thrown away, and another is put on,
Nanak, the string breaks not if it is strong.

The true janeo, Baba Nanak then explained, was the ?janeo of the soul?. To the exasperated Brahmin he said:

Out of the cotton of compassion
Spin the thread of contentment
Tie knots of continence,
Give it the twist of truth.
That would make a janeo for the soul,
If you have it, O Brahmin, put it on me.
Such a thread once worn will never break
Nor get soiled, burnt or lost,
The man who wears such a thread is blessed.

Baba Nanak?s criticism of the worldly Muslim ?ulama appears to be similarly caustic. Thus, for instance, Baba Nanak is said to have joined his employer, the Muslim Nawab Daulat Khan Lodhi of Sultanpur to offer prayers in the mosque. While the Nawab and the Qazi kneeled and bowed in prayer, Baba Nanak remained standing. After the prayer was over the Qazi and the Nawab asked him why he had not prayed. The Guru answered that he had indeed taken part in the worship, while they had not. While they were engaged in the physical actions of prayer, he said, their minds were occupied with worldly desires. Then, it is said, both the Qazi and the Nawab realized the truth of Baba Nanak?s statement and accepted him as a true saint. Baba Nanak explained to them the inner reality of namaz, the Muslim form of worship thus:

Five prayers you say five times a day,
With five different names;
But if Truth be your first prayer,
The second to honestly earn your livelihood,
The third to give in God?s name,
Purity of mind be thy fourth prayer,
And praise and prayer to God your fifth;
And if you practise these five virtues,
And good deeds are your kalima (article of faith)
Then you can call yourself a true Muslim.

Baba Nanak further elaborated on the true Muslim thus:

He who is firm in his faith,
Has the right to be called a Muslim.
His acts must be in accord with his faith in the Prophet,
He must clean his heart of his pride and greed,
Not being troubled by the two imposters life and death,
Resigned to the will of God;
Knowing Him as the Doer,
Free [ing] himself from the self,
Be [ing] compassionate towards all beings, O Nanak,
Such a one may call himself a Muslim.

These two touching, powerful sets of verses, contained in the Guru Granth Sahib, show Baba Nanak as deeply grounded in Islam and in the Sufi tradition. Far from displaying any hostility towards Muslims or Islam, they show him to be genuinely respectful of Islam, the Prophet and those following sincerely in the Prophet?s path.

Guru Nanak maintained close relations with numerous Muslims throughout his life. He had many Muslim disciples, who, while respecting him, remained Muslim, for Baba Nanak only exhorted them to become better Muslims rather than to change their faith or communal allegiances. The Janamsakhis or biographical accounts and Udasis or travel accounts of Baba Nanak also show him as visiting numerous places in India and beyond in order to meet with accomplished Sufi saints, such as Shaikh Brahm (Ibrahim?) in Pak Pattan, Sayyed Shah Husain in Nanded, Shaikh Sharf in Panipat, Pir Hamza Ghaus in Sialkot and Shaikh Bahlol in Baghdad. Sikh sources tell us that Baba Nanak went as far as Mecca to perform the Haj. Since only Muslims are allowed to enter Mecca, many Muslims believe that Baba Nanak had, by this time, himself become a Muslim, although many contemporary Sikhs would contest that suggestion.

Several Muslim writers, including noted Sufi saints, considered Baba Nanak to have been a Muslim wali or ?friend of God?. Ample evidence exists to suggest a strong Islamic influence on the Guru. One of the most intriguing relics of Baba Nanak is the Chola Sahib, which is preserved at a gurudwara at Dera Baba Nanak. It is a long cloak with short sleeves made of brown cotton cloth. It was first used by Baba Nanak, and then passed on to his successor Guru Angad, who is said to have wound it around his head when being ordained as guru. The ceremony of wearing the chola about the head while being ordained as guru continued till the fifth guru, Arjan Das, after which the chola was preserved to prevent further decay.

The chola is no ordinary cloak. It is said to be written over entirely with verses from the Qur?an, testifying to the oneness of God, the truth of Islam and the prophethood of Muhammad. Given this, some Muslim writers assert that this shows that Baba Nanak wore the cloak in order to stress that he was actually a Muslim. On the other hand, Sikh writers, while admitting the authenticity of the chola, claim that it was bestowed upon Baba Nanak by the Caliph when he visited Baghdad as a sign of respect and honour. Muslim writers, and especially the Ahmadis, retort by suggesting that this incident is not mentioned in reliable historical accounts. Further, the question of why a Muslim Caliph should bestow a cloak with Qur?anic verses written all over it to Baba Nanak if he was not a Muslim, in the sense that the Caliph understood the term, remains unanswered.

Baba Nanak?s close relations with Muslims is most readily evidence by the fact that his dearest disciple, who remained with him wherever he went, Bhai Mardana, was himself a Muslim. Like Baba Nanak?s other Muslim disciples, Mardana remained a Muslim throughout his life. Today his descendants live in Pakistan and describe themselves as Sikh-Muslims. Mardana is said to have been some nine years older than Baba Nanak. He was born in Talwandi in 1459, which was also Baba Nanak?s ancestral village, in a family of Muslim Mirasis, hereditary singers. Mardana?s father Badra was the family bard of Mehta Kalu, Baba Nanak?s father. Every morning Badra and Mardana would go from house to house in the village seeking alms, while singing songs to the accompaniment of the rabab. As a child, Baba Nanak was deeply touched by Mardana?s music, and is said to have felt a strong love for him. When Baba Nanak was employed to look after the stores of the Lodhi Nawab of Sultanpur, he managed to convince the Nawab to give Mardana a job. From then onwards, the two lived together as inseparable companions for the next 54 years, till Mardana?s death in 1520. Baba Nanak would sing his mystical verses and Mardana would play the rabab. Mardana also composed his own verses, three of which are included in the Adi Granth.

According to some accounts, Mardana passed away somewhere in Afghanistan when he and Nanak were returning from the Haj. In his last wish to Baba Nanak he asked, ?[F]erry me across this ocean of the world for the sake of the word of God, which I have been singing to you and your people?. Baba Nanak then headed for the Punjab, and, back in his village, he persuaded Mardana?s eldest son, Shahzada, to take his father?s place. Shahzada accompanied Baba Nanak to Kartarpur and served as the chief minstrel to him and his other followers.

More could be said on the close links between the early Sikhs and Islam to argue that the notion that Sikhs and Muslims have always been inveterate foes or that Sikhism was Hinduism?s ?sword-arm? against Islamic ?aggression? is completely misplaced. If that were indeed the case, one may well ask how and why did Guru Arjan Dev, the fifth Sikh Guru, invite Hazrat Miyan Mir, a renowned Qadri Muslim mystic, to lay the foundation stone of the Golden Temple? Clearly, contemporary understandings of Sikh-Muslim relations have little to do with the original teachings of the early gurus. The image of the Muslim as the religious ?other? in contemporary Sikh consciousness thus owes entirely to political, rather than religious, factors, in particular to the conflicts between the later gurus and the Mughals. It was this troubled political relationship that laid the ground for the transformation of Sikh-Muslim relations, from warm and intimate, at the time of the early gurus, to oppositional and violently conflictual, in later years, leading to the crystallization of a Sikh identity premised on a fierce hostility towards Muslims.

History, of course, cannot be undone. All we can learn from it is to abstain from the errors of the past, and to seek inspiration from its achievements. Re-reading the history of the early Sikh movement, particularly Baba Nanak?s relations with the Muslims of his times, provides us with an alternate way of imagining Sikh-Muslim relations. This, needless to add, would both be an authentic representation of the Baba Nanak?s own mission as well as a urgently needed corrective to the deeply ingrained notion of Sikhs and Muslims as sworn enemies of each other.

Originally printed at, and reprinted at TAM with permission.