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Sikhism – Some Distinctive Beliefs

Saleem Ahmad Malik
The Review of Religions, November 1994

The Sikh religious thought originated in the Punjab, the land of five rivers, in north western India. On the present day map of India one can see East and West Punjab but in the days of Sikh origin, there were no divisions and there was only one Punjab. Sikhism could be described as a conclusion of thought processes and experiences in the life of one person. This event was the life of Guru Nanak. Guru Nanak, the first of the Sikh Gurus, was born in Talwandi in 1469. The village is now known as Nankana Sahib and is situated about fifty miles west of Lahore, the capital city of the Punjab. It was a period of comparative peace and security under the reign of Sultan Bahlol Lodhi (1451-89) and the formative years of Guru Nanak coincided with the period of Lodhi ascendancy under Bahlol and his son Sikandar. It seems that Nanak was born into a favoured period of peace, law and order and economic prosperity. He grew up in his father’s village. At sometime in his early manhood he moved to Sultanpur where he worked in the employment of Daulat Khan Lodhi, Governor of Punjab. From Sultanpur he began a period of travels to places such as Mount Sumeru, Mecca, Madina, Baghdad and Bokhara.

In India he visited Panipat (Sheikh Sharaf), Delhi (Sultan Ibrahim Lodhi), Pak Pattan (Sheikh Farid Ibrahim), Saidpur (Babur) and Pir Bahauddin of Multan besides other places in Ceylon, Kashmir and the south of India. On his journeys he was usually accompanied by his close companions variously named as Mardana, Saido, Gheho, Hasu Lohar and Sihan Chhimba.

Many authors have contended that Guru Nanak was influenced by the sanyasis and Hindu religious thought. But one look at the life of Guru Nanak makes it obvious that he lived amongst Muslims, was employed by a Muslim, visited and prayed at Muslim shrines sometimes spending as long as forty days in contemplation (culminating in his visit to Mecca) and that his religious thoughts were deeply influenced by the Islamic teachings. A reading of the Janam Sakhis also makes it clear that Guru Nanak spent more time with the Pirs and Sufis of his time and his teachings and practices were nearer to the Islamic faith. This subject has been dealt in detail by the Promised Messiah, Hazrat Mirza Ghulam Ahmad, in his book Sat Bachan.

The word GURU needs some explanation. It has two components, GU meaning one who dispels ignorance and darkness, and RU meaning one who brings enlightenment. When one reads the Janam Sakhis of Guru Nanak, it is possible to argue that Guru Nanak was a reformer speaking and acting against the caste system and trying to improve the status of women. Equally one can say that he was a religious synthesizer attempting a blend of Hinduism and Islam in his own cult or that he was a defender of pure religion against superstition and innovations. A more satisfactory evaluation of Guru Nanak is probably to regard him as a mystic and a Sufi who had realised the ultimate Unity in existence, who always spoke of ‘The One without a second’.

Whether he wanted people to follow him is uncertain and unlikely. It was the truth of his message not a community of followers which he seemed most eager to establish and yet he became the need of a community which emerged as an independent religion with its own rituals and distinctive characteristics.

Soon after Babur’s invasion of Northern India, around in 1521, Guru Nanak decided to end his life of a wandering teacher and settled down in Kartarpur. He discarded his dress of the Sufis and dressed in the manner of ordinary people and started teaching the community that grew around him. He rejected the Vedic teachings of magical spells, worship of ancestors, astrology, auspicious days and the rituals of Brahmin priests. His teaching was pure and simple, meditation and worship of one God without an Equal, a personal God, the omnipotent Creator of the universe, a being that was beyond time and human comprehension and yet was causing by His grace the salvation of man and for this purpose revealing Himself to His own creation. To achieve salvation man is called to respond by a life of meditation. By his honest endeavours, man grows into the likeness of God and ultimately into a union with the Timeless One. If he refuses, he follows a path of spiritual death.

It was only later that new rituals were introduced. When Guru Nanak died in September 1539, the Sikh religion was only in its embryonic state. What he left behind was his teaching preserved in 974 hymns, many of which were written down and committed to memory and were in daily use. There was a community obedient to his discipline and meditating on the divine name and he left his successor Guru Angad who continued to develop the religious philosophy. After Guru Angad, the other Gurus kept on developing and adding rituals and procedures to make Sikh religious philosophy comprehensive and moulded it into its present form. It should be remembered that the first four Gurus were born Hindus from the Khashatriyya caste, who accepted the Sikh religion and in turn brought, consciously or unconsciously, Hindu influence into the teachings, the rituals and the procedures in the everyday life of the Sikhs. It would require dissemination of history to establish all the causes that helped to make Sikh religion what it is today. The Sikh clash with Moghal Dominance of India fashioned a new and militant community cemented together by the turban and other external marks characteristic of Sikh community. The peaceful religious thought syncretised by Nanak evolved into a militant organisation which was finally fashioned by the tenth guru, Guru Gobind Singh (1666-1708) and it was in the time of Gobind Singh that the Sikhism as we know it today was formed.

During the period of 1500 to 1708, Sikhs had ten human Gurus, the last being Guru Gobind Singh. For the Sikhs the significance of his Guruship is of the greatest importance. He created the new brotherhood of the Khalsa (Pure Ones) and gave them the distinctive five symbols uncut hair, a comb, a steel wrist band, a sword and short breeches and hence forth the initiated Sikh took the name ‘Singh’ (lion) and women were admitted to the Khalsa, taking the name ‘Kaur’ (princess). Secondly he created ‘Panj Payare’ (five beloved ones). One came from the five Khashatriya caste and another from the Jat and the rest from the Shudra group thus symbolising the caste and sex equality in the Sikh philosophy. One of the fascinating evolutionary aspects of Sikhism is the process which began with a human Guru and ended with the present situation in which full authority is enjoyed by the Sikh scriptures. Two names are usually given to the Sikh scriptures, the ADI GRANTH and the GURU GRANTH SAHIB. The first title is the earlier one. GRANTH simply means collection, anthology or book. The word ADI means first. This not only distinguishes the scriptures from the collection of the tenth Guru’s writings, known as the DASAM GRANTH, but also ADI gives a uniqueness of its own. For instance Guru Nanak is ‘Pehle Guru’ (First Guru) and the ADI GURU is God.

The origin of the Guru Granth Sahib lies in the hymns of Guru Nanak. They did not exist as a collection during his lifetime but were made into a collection during the times of the later Gurus that followed. There is a statement of Bhai Gurdas the (most authentic Sikh historian during the time of the 5th Guru Arjan and cousin of the 4th Guru Ram Das) that when Guru Nanak visited Mecca “he carried a staff in his hand, a book under his arm, and a water pot and prayer carpet for the call to prayer” (Var 1, pawri 32). There are many speculations in history about it and readers can best make up their own minds. The form of the Guru Granth Sahib is poetry and it is unique among the world’s scriptures in its inclusion of non-Sikh hymns. Hindu and Muslim writings are included in what is called the ‘BAGHAT BANI’. The Granth Sahib has been recorded in the Punjabi language called Gurmukhi. The order of the hymns are Guru Nanak 974, Guru Angad 62, Guru Amir Das 907, Guru Ram Das 679, Guru Arjan 2218, Guru Tegh Bahadur 116, Kabir 541, Farid 116, Namdev 60 and Ravidas 41. One hundred and thirty four hymns of one Sufi, Sheikh Farid, are also found in the Guru Granth Sahib. They are probably by the Head or his successors of the Chishti order at Pak Pattan in Punjab. ‘Farid’ was certainly the name of the pir of Pak Pattan when Guru Nanak visited the place.

The Gurdawara (Sikh place of worship) is the most important indication of the presence of Sikhs anywhere. It may be a magnificent white ornate building rising above other buildings, or it may be a plain flat-roofed building. In the UK it may simply be a terraced house. Strictly speaking a gurdwara is any place where a copy of Guru Granth Sahib is installed. The unique and distinguishing feature of a gurdwara will always be ‘NISHAN SAHIB’, a flagstaff with the yellow flag of Sikhism flying from it. This serves as a statement of Sikh presence and enables any traveller, Sikh or not, to know that hospitality is available at that place.

Gurdwaras fall into two categories. First there is the community gurdwara, built by Sikhs for their day to day religious needs, and secondly better known, are the historic gurdwaras, such as Sish Ganj, in Delhi, a place marking where Guru Tegh Bahader was killed, and the Kashgarh, at Anandpure, commemorating the spot where Guru Gobind Singh instituted the KHALSA. There are four seats of religious authority for Sikhs: Sri Akal Takht Sahib (Darbar Sahib), Amritsar Takht Siri Patna Sahib, Patna Takht Siri Keshgarh Sahib, and Anandpur Takht Siri Hazur Sahib, Nander.

The architecture of the major gurdwaras is normally in the Mughal style of Shah Jehan, whatever the brick or stone used, the finish is usually white. Gurdwaras also serve as schools, where children are taught the basics of Sikhism, and as a rest place for travellers. They have kitchens, where food can be prepared, and sometimes they are used as clinics. The primary and main function however, is that of a places of worship and as mentioned the main room is that where the Granth Sahib is installed, and where the community gathers for diwan. The focal point in this room is the book itself, placed upon a cushion and under a canopy set inside a wooden frame called a TAKHT or PALKI. Worship can take place at any time and no quorum is required. It is common for Sikhs to assemble for congregational worship early in the morning or, more specially, in the evening. This is in the tradition of Guru Nanak’s community at Kartarpur.

Before going to the gurdwara, whether in the morning or the evening, the Sikhs are required to bathe. Like the mosque, you take your shoes off before entering the gurdwara and wash your feet. Men and women must cover their heads before entering the building and they are seated separately. The worship begins by the opening of the Granth Sahib by any man or woman who can read it. Sikhism has no priesthood or ordained ministry, no human being can take the place of the Gurus or rival the Granth Sahib. In some gurdwaras, a man called a GRANTHI may be paid a salary to read the scriptures, conduct services or perform ceremonies such as marriage, but his role is purely functional. He is a servant of the community and his position cannot be compared to that of priest or an ordained minister.


The Concept of God – “God is one, the only One”, “The One without a second”. These are the most repeated observations contained in the Adi Granth. One could easily say that the major subject of the Adi Granth is the description, glory and attributes of God. As a result Sikhism can be described as uncompromisingly monotheistic. As already mentioned, Guru Nanak believed in a personal God whom he worshipped and loved. The first poetic utterance of Baba Nanak, known as Mool Mantra (fundamental ode), summarises the Sikh beliefs. It reads:

There is one God. Eternal Truth is his name. Creator of all things and all pervading spirit. Fearless and without hatred. Timeless and formless. Beyond birth and death. Self enlightened. (AG 223)

In Guru Nanak’s view, a man should not be afraid of God but feel the awe of His Glory. “To be possessed by any fear but God’s is vain; all other fears are but phantoms of the mind” (AG 151).

A God fearing person who follows the right path will find that his fears disappear as he experiences nearness of God. “The Guru’s servants are pleasing to the Lord. He forgives them and they no longer fear death. The Lord dispels the doubts of those who love Him and He unites them with Himself. The Lord is free from fear, limitless and infinite. He is the creator and He is pleased with truth.” (AG 1190).

Man – The starting point of any Sikh belief is the statement that “All forms have come into existence according to His Will” (AG 1). Man is not only the latest or the highest product of an evolutionary process or the result of an accident but he is also the consequence of God’s specific intention. Sikhism asserts that human existence is the best because man is unique. Among creations, he alone possesses discrimination and within him he carries the divine spark.

“O my soul, you have emanated from the light of God, know your true essence” (AG 441).

Man is intelligent, he knows right from wrong, has moral law written in his heart and yet he misses the chance of doing the right thing. Guru Nanak expresses this in the simplest way, “One receives in accordance to what one does. As one sows so one eats” (AG 662). And yet, “All bounties come from God. No one can claim them as a matter of right. Some who are awake do not receive them, others He rouses from their slumber to be blessed” (AG 83). Nothing can be achieved without His Grace (the words used are NAZAR or DARSHAN). Again “Good actions may procure a better existence, but liberation comes only through His Grace” (AG 2), and “God cannot be understood or realised through cleverness” (AG 221). The stage of Grace (KHARAM KHAND) is only possible with spiritual strength which comes from God. Help is given willingly by the loving God to achieve the Grace, “If a man goes one step towards Him. The Lord comes a thousand steps towards man” (Var Bhai Gurdas).

Maya – Sikhism believes in the reality of the created universe. It accepts it and regards it seriously as it has been made by God. Therefore the world exists for man to use and enjoy, it is not to be shunned or regarded as evil. ‘Maya’ is a term used to describe the temporal world in the broadest sense. Maya can be translated as wealth or nature or their synonyms. “Through His hidden omnipotence, He has created the earth and the sky infusing His true might the Lord has sustained them without pillars. The Lord has created the three worlds and their binder, maya, of Himself He creates and Himself He destroys.” (AG 1037).

Attachment to maya is to be replaced by attachment to God. Sikhism differs with Hindus in that it insists that true salvation is gained through everyday living and participating in GARHASTA.

God is active in the Universe and is present in everyone and is active in the form of conscience and enlightenment. This is the function of God, as Guru or God speaking through the Holy books. To achieve ultimate salvation, one must adopt a discipline of prayers and change from a selfish being to a God oriented being. Everything that he does, he should do to please God. This discipline is not easy but every Sikh should strive to achieve it. As Guru Nanak said,

“By prayer I live, without it I die. The name of True One is hard to say.” (AG 349)

Sikhs reject the view that God descends into this world and takes bodily form, either human or animal. Their concept of revelation is one that holds that God is continually expressing Himself. As God is the one without a second upon whom the creation of all life depends, He must be constantly active. “His bounties are so great that the Giver keeps on giving but receivers grow weary of receiving. It is not just now but in every age that man has been living in his bounty” (AG). In the same way he is constantly communicating individually and through prophets such as Moses, Jesus, Muhammad as well as through the Gurus. For this reason Sikhs reject reincarnation. They regard the Prophets to be people whom God chose to bring light and guidance to the world.

Prayer – Although meditation is very important in Sikhism, prayer is also an essential part of Sikh worship. The word for prayer is “ARZAS”. Although Hindu scholars take its origin from the root ‘ARZ’, to ask or beg, its immediate source could be Persian, ‘ARZDASHT’, meaning a petition or address made by an inferior to a superior. The congregation stands as a mark of respect and humility facing the throne of Guru Granth Sahib. A man or woman of any social status then comes forward to offer the prayer on behalf of the gathering. The prayer is in three parts. First the Sikhs are told to remember God and the Gurus. Then the congregation is then told to keep the Guru Granth Sahib, the repository of Gods word, in mind as being the manifest form of guidance.

Then, the final section of ARZAS is supplicatory and God is asked to keep the Khalsa faithful, to bless the whole of mankind and listen to the individual prayers for the sick, the bereaved, and the newly married.

In brief, the Sikh ethics are based upon three fundamental concepts. They are KIRT KARO, NAM JAPO and VAND KHAO, i.e. that work, worship and charity should dominate one’s complete life. Guru Nanak’s saying sums it up:

“Remain in towns and near the main high roads, but be alert. Do not covet your neighbour’s possessions. Without the Name, we cannot attain inner peace nor still our inner hunger. We must be traders in truth, moderate in our eating and sleeping. This is true life.” (AG 939)


Primary and Secondary Sources for Study of Sikhism.

The primary source is the ADI GRANTH and is available in two recent English versions under the title of SRI GURU GRAKTH SAHIB by Gopal Singh (Gurdas Kapoor And Sons, Delhi 1962) and translation by Manmohan Singh and issued by Shiromani Gurdwara Prabandhak Committee, Amritsar. ALL QUOTATIONS FROM ADI GRANTH ARE BASED ON THIS VERSION VARS OF BHAI GURDAS. Bhai Gurdas was secretary to Guru Arjan and a nephew of Guru Amar Das. From 1579 until 1637 he was at the centre of affairs. Some of the passages of his Vars have been translated by W. H. Mcleod in “Sources on me Life of Guru Nanak”, Punjab Past and Present, Vol. 13, 1969, (Punjabi University, Patiala). Hymns of Guru Nanak, Trans. Khushwant Singh, Orient Longman Press, Calcutta, 1972. History of the Sikhs, Oxford University Press, 1966. The Sikh Religion, M. A. Macaulife, Oxford University Press, 1909, Reprinted 1963. The Sikhs, W. Owen Cola, Rutledge B Keegan Paul, London, 1978. Guru Nanak and the Sikh Religion, W. H. Mcleod, OUP, Delhi, 1976.