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Birth of Sikhism

Professor Abdul Jaleel
The Review of Religions, March 1993

Sikhism is known as the religion founded by Guru Nanak who was born in 1469 A.D. It is commonly understood as a compromise between the teachings of Hinduism and Islam. But a careful study of Sikh traditions and relics of Sikhism lead to an irrefutable conclusion that Guru Nanak discarded the Hindu doctrines and assimilated the teachings of Islam to such an extent that Sikhism, in its pristine form, can be looked upon as a sect of Islam.

Baba Nanak, by birth, was a Hindu. The elasticity of Hinduism makes it difficult to draw a line, crossing which a man ceases to be a Hindu. Deficiency in one’s beliefs in the doctrines of Hinduism can be compensated by one’s way of living and customs. But if one mixes with Muslims to such an extent that he eats and drinks with them and publicly performs religious rites of Islam, one would never be tolerated by Hindu society. The whole history of Sikhism shows that its founder, though born a Hindu, mixed with Muslims, joined in their prayers and performed other Islamic obligations, all in public. He wore none of the marks of Hindus upon him. On the other hand, he dressed like a Muslim and had all the insignia of a Muslim faqir on him. He passed his days with Muslim pirs and saints and ate and drank with them. It was a Muslim sufi he constantly turned to for advice and there is not a single instance in his life which indicated that he bowed his head to a Hindu pandit. There are many places associated with his name, where he is known to have performed Chillas, Nanak’s chilla at Sirsa, a small town in the Punjab, is an example. (Chilla is an Islamic form of meditation). Travelling through Muslim countries he reached Mecca where he performed Haj (pilgrimage) and is also known to have visited the holy city of Medina. His choicest friend during these travels was a Muslim, Sheikh Farid, in whose company he passed twelve years of his life. Baba Nanak, while on pilgrimage, dressed like a pilgrim, carried with him a stick, Quran, a prayer mat and a water jug for performing ablution. Even his first four successors are represented in pictures as Muslims, carrying rosaries in their hands.

Guru Nanak also married in a Muslim family. This point is very important because no respectable Muslim family would have taken Nanak as a son-in-law, unless he was known to be a Muslim. Nanak lived in a country under Muslim rule where the marriage of a Muslim woman to a non-Muslim would on no account be tolerated. This clearly indicates that Guru Nanak was accepted as a Muslim by his contemporaries.

The Chola, or the cloak of Baba Nanak, is the holiest relic of the Guru and is preserved in Dera Baba Nanak, a small village in Gurdaspur District of the Punjab. This is a cloak which Nanak wore in his life-time and it is considered so sacred that his immediate followers took every care to keep it safe. The regard and reverence rendered to the Chola by the Sikh community is a testimony to the authenticity of the cloak. The words of Guru Nanak as contained in the Guru Granth Sahib (Sikh scriptures) were not collected until the time of Guru Arjan Dev, the fifth Guru, and therefore cannot be relied upon as accurate particularly as Sikhism had by that time assumed an attitude of hostility towards Islam. But the Chola is clear from this charge, because it was handed down by Nanak himself and has come down to our times in its original condition. It is commonly alleged that verses from different scriptures in different languages are written on the Chola. But this is not true. The verses chosen for writing on the Chola are quotations from the Holy Quran as revealed by photographs recently taken. The religion followed by the man can be none other than Islam.

But strangely, the misconception has gained upper hand in the case of Chola as in the case with teachings of Baba Nanak, which, in spite of being purely Islamic, came by and by to be looked upon as a compromise between Hinduism and Islam.

The congruence of the teachings of Baba Nanak with those of the Holy Quran is so perfect that one cannot escape the conclusion that the Guru had accepted Islam as his religion. He declared that there was One God and He was the same for all and that He was formless. There is none else who is equal to Him. He is the sole Creator of this Universe. Everything is created by Him. He is the ultimate determinant in terms of all forms of His creation.

Sikhism believes in a one and formless God and it does not believe in idol worship. According to it, idol worship promotes attachment of God with something other than God and God cannot limit Himself in the form of an idol or a stone. He is beyond everything and in everything at the same time.

Sikhism does not believe in Avatar, i.e. God descending on earth to protect humanity. On the other hand, it believes that there are men who are spiritual to the highest degree, are blessed souls and therefore are assigned the duty to liberate humanity from its continual suffering.

The book Janam Sakhi of Bala Sahib is an authoritative source of Sikhism. Bala was Nanak’s constant companion and he accompanied his Master for twenty years during his travels. It is true that in Janam Sakhi one finds much fiction mixed with facts. Bala was a Hindu and after Nanak’s death, estrangemant of Sikhism from Islam had started. As such any statement contained in Janam Sakhi in favour of Islam has the weight of a hostile witness.

The following passages are quoted from the third edition of Bala Sahib’s Janam Sakhi, printed by the press, Anarkali, Lahore in the early part of this century.

On page 134 of Janam Sakhi, we read, The Quran is divided into thirty sections, proclaim thou, this Quran in the four comers of this world. Declare the glory of one name only for none other is an associate with me. Nanak proclaims the word of God that came to him, thou hast been granted the rank of Sheikh, so thou shouldst abolish the worship of gods and goddesses and the old Hindu idol – temples.

The fundamental article of the Islamic faith, the Kalima, has been given the greatest stress in Janam Sakhi. A few Shaloks (verses) from this Sakhi read:

I have repeated one Kalima, there is none other.I have repeated one Kalima, there is none other.

Those who repeat the Kalima and are not devoid of the faith, shall not be burned on fire.

Repeat the Holy Kalima of the Prophet, it shall cleanse thee of all sins.

By repeating the Kalima, the punishment of this world, as well as the next is averted.

Who ever repeats the Kalima, how shall he be punished? the merit of repeating the Kalima is that a person is cleansed of his sins.

In Bala’s Janam Sakhi, we also read that during his pilgrimage to Mecca, Baba Nanak met Qazi Rukn-ud-Din, the Imam and had long conversations with him. It is reported that Nanak said, 0: Rukn-ud-Din, it is written in the Book (i.e., the Quran) that those who drink wine or ‘Bhang’ shall be punished on the Day of Judgement.

Baba Nanak was not a Muslim in belief only. He recognised the necessity of worship in the form enjoined by Islam and laid stress on this point in his teachings. On page 193 of Bala’s Janam Sakhi, we have: Nanak said, 0: Rukn-ud-Din, hear from me the true reply: the saying of the Lord is written in the Book. That person will go to hell who does not repeat the Kalima, who does not keep the thirty fasts, and does not say the five prayers, who eats what is not lawful for him. These shall receive the punishment and the fire of the bottomless pit shall be his abode. It is also reported that Baba Nanak kept fasts for a whole year at Mecca and put his fingers in his ears and gave the call to prayer. It is also related that Nanak recited the Khutba of the Prophet and became happy.

The few quotations are sufficient to show that Nanak not only made a full confession of the absolute truth of Islam but also performed the obligations of Islamic law and enjoined others to follow them. Now the question arises how the religion preached by Nanak came to be identified as an offshoot of Hinduism. Anybody who is acquainted with the history of Sikhism would reach the conclusion that the transformation was due to political, not religious reasons.

Baba Nanak was not a mere convert to Islam. He felt he had been called to act as a spiritual guide and to take people into his discipleship after the manner of many Muslim sufis. This has lead later historians to conclude that Baba Nanak founded a new cult which took into his fold Muslims as well as Hindus and hence Sikhism was a compromise of the two religions. We have to reject this conclusion because no Muslim disciple of Nanak is known to have given up his belief in Islamic principles nor to have acted against any Islamic injunctions regarding prayers and fasting. Punjab, at the time of Nanak, was under Muslim rule and if Nanak had converted any Muslim to a faith other than Islam, he would have been sentenced to death for apostacy, (though it is un-Islamic to the core!) was strictly enforced by all Muslim rulers in the Middle ages, but Nanak’s disciples were not harmed in any way let alone being stoned to death. This clearly shows that Nanak was looked upon as a Muslim sufi by his contemporaries. It is indeed difficult to explain fully the causes which led to the identification of Sikhism with Hinduism rather than with Islam. But so subtle and variant are generally the causes which shape the religious thought of a people, that a complete satisfactory explanation is often impossible in such matters.

The transformation of Christ’s monotheistic teaching to Paulean Trinity offers a greater difficulty when one analyses the course of history. Originally a branch of Judaism, it soon developed into a movement entirely opposed to the parent religion. As plainly as Guru Nanak said that the injunctions of the Islamic law should be followed to attain salvation, Jesus also insisted that the Mosaic law was under no circumstances to be altered. Within a single generation, however, his teachings were altered, lock stock and barrel. Baba Nanak took Hindu disciples, but did not insist on their outright conversion to Islam. They could call themselves Hindus with their traditional life-style and still continue to be in his company.

Nanak probably knew that those who really accepted him as their Master, would ultimately follow him in the Islamic way. There is a strong reason to believe that with Nanak’s death the influx of Muslims into his movement stopped all together. It was his personal charisma that drew Muslims towards him, and won their conviction that he was a Muslim saint. Accordingly, Nanak’s death was the turning point and with this, the Muslim element began to disappear. The movement remained in the hands of Hindu disciples, who, by lapse of time, relapsed into their old faith. The political circumstances accelerated this estrangement. The culmination of this can be seen from the perception of the tenth Master Guru, Gobind Singh Ji, that the power of God on the earth was symbolised by the khanda, a double edged sword. From the fifth Guru, Arjun Dev, onwards, the Islamic elements started disappearing from Sikh literature including the Granth Sahib with only some of these teachings remaining in some Janam Sakhis written earlier.