The Mission of Guru Nanak: A Muslim Appraisal

From SikhiWiki
Jump to navigationJump to search

by Professor Mushirul Haq

Looking back to the days of my childhood I still remember that I had no chance of seeing a Sikh because there was none in my village in the eastern part of U.P., far away from the Punjab. We were only told that Sikhs were different from the Muslims in their religious beliefs. The prototype image of a Sikh in our plain mind was somewhat similar to that of Tagore's Kabuliwalla. Sikhs were believed to be the worshippers of Guru Nanak who was known to us through our Urdu textbook which contained a poem by Iqbal in which he had paid rich tribute to him:

The land where

Chishti delivered the message of truth.
The land where Nanak sang the song of God's oneness,
The land where the Tatars made their home,
The land which lured the Arabs from Arabia,
That land is my home, that is my home. (1)

However, all we knew of Nanak was that he was born to Hindu parents, but had spent his life moving from one place to another spreading the message of truth and the oneness of God. Since we were told that only the Muslims believed in the concept of "tawhid", the oneness of God, we naturally concluded that Guru Nanak at some time may have changed his parental religion and got converted to Islam. That was quite convincing a conclusion. But why then were the Sikhs not Muslims? If Guru Nanak was a Muslim, then, logically, the Sikhs ought to be Muslims! There was no Sikh in our village to answer the question.

Once in a year there used to come an old Sikh to our village in the company of some real kabulliwallas whose business was to sell quilts on credit to village people on exorbitant rate of interest. We had, however, no courage to talk to either of them; they conversed only with the elders. We used only to watch them from a distance. The Kabulliwallas were very particular in going to the village mosque like other Muslims. Their Sikh friend went neither to the Mosque, nor even a temple. So he was not a Hindu either. Also, he was not a Christian because he spoke Urdu, wore a beard, and ate with his hands, whereas a Christian, according to our knowledge, was to converse in English, clean shave his beard, and ate with fork and knife. So who was he?

With the passing of time the question fell onto oblivion, and the inquisitive mind was lulled by the popular notion that the Sikh faith, preached by Guru Nanak, was in its initial stage a manifestation of Islam, but was eventually lost in the Hindu environment.

It was, however, quite late that I realised that to fully understand people like Guru Nanak it is really immaterial to ask if he was influenced by this religion or that religion. It is because the purpose of religion, I think, is to establish real, live and personal contact of man with God. The contact, naturally, then, has to be established in accordance with the conditions and the environment in which people are living. For this reason, factors like social and economic conditions, linguistic differences, historical realities, and geographical situations have to be taken into consideration. Since such factors may or may not differ from one to another, any similarity in external factors between two or more religions should not always be taken for granted. In fact, the only and real factor common among different religions is the divine message which is conveyed to the people through various means.

A religion devoid of such message is no longer a religion. But the existence of the divine message among various religions cannot be taken to mean that one religion has necessarily borrowed the message from another, because, as it has been pointed out, this very common message is the real essence of every religion.

Once it is understood that religion by itself is not a purpose but only a means of leading people nearer to God, there is no difficulty in realising that every religion can stand by itself. Likewise, it should also be understood that every individual is competent by his nature to be commissioned by God for spreading the divine message in the world. The choice however, always rests with God. In the language of the Qur'an, man is to fulfill God's will on this earth. In this respect the language spoken by him, his race, his social status, or his economic condition are not the real qualifications for his being chosen by God spreading the divine message. The only thing required is a pure and responsive heart.

There is hardly any evidence available to show that Guru Nanak ever studied the Islamic texts. Nor it can be said that he spent any considerable time of his life in the company of the ulama who could have taught him the basic tenets and teachings of Islam. The only source available to Guru Nanak for knowing Islam was in fact the Muslim society of his time. Therefore, if Guru Nanak was at all in debt to anyone for what he said, it was only those common Muslims among whom he had the occassion to live. But were those Muslims in a position to influence the heart of a man like Guru Nanak? I doubt very much.

In order to answer this question we have to examine those teachings of Guru Nanak which are supposed to have been borrowed from Islam. The features common between the two are, for example, belief in the One, Omnipresent and Omnipotent God, and the equality of mankind. It appears as if, it was Islam which directed Guru Nanak towards such realities. But if we go into the depth of the matter we will see that such an assumption has really no ground. There could have been justification in assuming that Guru Nanak was influenced by Islam if his insistence upon, say, monotheism was found only in Islam.

As a matter of fact, monotheism is the real foundation of almost every religion. Even in an apparently polytheistic religious community people have always been believing in an unseen Power who was the creator of the world and its destroyer.

As an extreme case, we may take the example of the so-called polytheists of Mecca at the time of Prophet Muhammad. It is said that the Meccans did not believe in the existence of the supreme God. But according to Qur'an they did believe in one supreme God, known to them as Allah. The Qur'an says:

And if thou went to ask them: who created the heavens and the earth, and constrained the sun and the moon (to their appointed work), they would say: Allah.2

Not only that, they believed that Allah had created the universe but also that they, too, were created by the same God. Again the Qur'an says:

And if thou ask them who created them,

they will surely say: Allah. (3)

However, the point is that monotheism cannot be taken as the sole property of any particular religion. Every religion in one way or the other affirms the existence of the one Supreme God. It is not the religion but the people who differ with each other in comprehending the truth of religion, and thus give the impression that there are many religions. As Maulana Abul Kalam Azad says:

One of the greatest causes of the differences and conflicts in this world is the unity of truth and the varieties of names and terms. Truth is one and the same everywhere, but it has various dresses. Our misfortune is that the world worships 'terms' and not their meanings. Thus though all may worship the same truth, they will quarrel on account of differences of terms...If all the curtains due to external forms and terminologies could be removed and Reality were to appear before us unveiled, all the religious differences of this world would suddenly vanish and all quarrelsome people would see that their object was the same, though it had different names. (4)

It, therefore, can be said that if he possessed a pure and receptive heart, Guru Nanak, like Prophet Abraham, could have independently realized the oneness of God. According to the Qur'an, Prophet Abraham was born in a predominantly polytheistic society, but was always in search of the real God.

One night he saw the stars twinkling in the sky and took them for God. When they became dim after the rising of the moon he rejected them and bowed before the shinning moon. In the morning sun appeared to him as the God because it had obliterated all the stars and the moon. By the time of sunset Prophet Abraham was again to change his opinion. None of them was God: the real God, to Abraham, was the one who was driving and controlling the stars, the moon and the sun.5

Similarly, it cannot be taken for granted that Guru Nanak could not have learnt about the equality of mankind without knowing Islam. It is true that the Hindu India of Guru Nanak's time had almost forgotten the concept of equality of mankind, and it was Islam which reminded the Indians that all humans were equal, but we must remember that there is a difference between belief and practice.

No doubt that the Muslim society of Guru Nanak's time believed in the ideal of equality, but their belief hardly manifested itself in their daily life. According to the Qur'an, piety and good deeds are the only standard for judging the status of a man.6 If only this teaching the Muslims had followed sincerely they could have attracted many more people towards Islam, especially in a society which was caste ridden.

But what happened in actual life was that the Muslims practically disregarded the Islamic ideal of equality and lived in a kind of society where one was, like in a caste-society, judged not by one's own deeds but by the fact that one was born in a particular family. For example, the Sayyids, the so-called descendents of Prophet Muhammad, were given an unduly highly place in the society as against those Muslims who were unable to trace their geneology to the Prophet or to his companions. Commenting on the social life of the Indian Muslims of that time Professor Mujeeb says:

Law and custom made further division on the basis of kufw, which signifies similarity of status, culture, vocation, way of living. It governed the contradiction of marriages. The Sayyid, for instance, could practice any profession, they could be rich or poor, but it would be considered unfortunate if a Sayyid girl married someone who was not a Sayyid. (7)

That was utterly against the teachings of the Prophet who is reported to have told his own daughter, Fatimah, that she should not rely for her salvation on her father: instead she should do good work to present before God on her own behalf on the Day of Judgement. But the Muslims had forgotten the admonition. In such a situation, it is rather difficult to believe that his contemporary Indian Muslims could have convinced Guru Nanak that Islam really stood for equality of mankind.

In fact, it was not so necessary for Guru Nanak to look at any particular religion for the high ideals of life. Man is instinctively after them. If one stands for fulfilling God's Will, one undoubtedly has to esteem the high ideals. Guru Nanak stood for them: hence the striking similarities between his and Islam's teachings.

However, leaving aside the question of influence one cannot fail to see the affinity between the two. See, for example, how the Qur'an and Guru Nanak have described God.

According to the Qur'an:57:3

"He is First and the Last, the Outward and Inward;

and He is the Knower of all things."

To Guru Nanak:

"The True One was in the begining;

the True One was in the primal age.
The True One is now also, O Nanak;
the True One also shall be."(Japu)

When this and other passages from the Qur'an and the hymns of Guru Nanak are placed side by side, one can understand the reason of the Muslims' regarding Guru Nanak as one of them.

Section II

This is also a fact that even though Muslims at large esteemed Guru Nanak, the Muslim orthodoxy did not take much notice of what he was saying or preaching. Before knowing the reason of the indifference of Muslim orthodoxy towards Guru Nanak it must be made clear that by the term Muslim orthodoxy, we mean the class of the 'ulama' which was the backbone of the government in the medieval India. This class supplied the personnel for the judiciary and other religious establishments. The Shaykhu-Islam, the Qaziz, the Muftis, to name a few, were recruited from this class without whose help no government at that time could properly function.

The Muslim orthodoxy considered it its duty to keep a watchful eye on every heretical movement emerging from amongst the Muslims. But as a rule it did not take exception to movements arising amongst the non-Muslims as long as they did not directly aim at the disintegration of the Muslim society.

In such a situation, we can understand the reason behind the indifference of the Muslim orthodoxy to the movement initiated by Guru Nanak. Guru Nanak was born of Hindu parents. At no time did he claim to be a Muslim. His being a Hindu by birth made him an outsider as far as the Muslim orthodoxy was concerned. And this saved him from persecution to which a Muslim would have ordinarily been subjected had he said half of the critical things against Islamic traditions that Guru Nanak did.

Guru Nanak is reported to have said to Babur:

There are millions of Muhammads, but only one God.

The unseen is True and without anxiety.
Many Muhammads stand in His court.
So numberless, they cannot be reckoned.
Prophets have been sent and come into the world.
Whenever He pleaseth, He hath them arrested, and brought before Him.
The slave Nanak hath ascertained,
That God alone is pure and all else is impure. (8)

Babur is said to have listened to it. But could he have allowed a Muslim to say so? Near impossible, I should say. The century in which Guru Nanak was born was in fact the century of religious ferment insofar as the Muslim community was concerned. There were Muslims who claimed themselves to be the mahdi, the rightly guided one, and were ultimately persecuted on the behest of the ulama because their utterances were regarded contrary to the Islamic faith. A well known example of this trend was Sayyid Muhammad of Jawnpur (1443-1504) who was forced to run from pillar to post on account of his cryptic sayings.9

Sikh literature suggests that Muslims used to meet Guru Nanak and listen to him. There are evidences to show that sometimes they even had religious discourses with him.10 Nevertheless, it cannot be said that Guru Nanak ever asked any Muslim to renounce Islam in order to become his disciple.

Formal conversion was not the mission of Guru Nanak. People may not like my saying so but it is a fact that Guru Nanak would have failed in his mission had he started proselytizing people. Normal conversions in fact mean the rejection of one set of norms and codes in order to accept another set of norms and codes. But so long as the heart is not converted, mere transfer from one religion to another is like changing a dress. That was immaterial in the eyes of Guru Nanak. If a man extinguished his life to keep the divine light burning he served the purpose of his life. As long as one did it the Guru did not care much whether one called oneself a Muslim or a Hindu.

The Guru says:

Heavens and earths are numerous.

Prophets, saints, avatars, and sidhas have attained
perfection through devotion to God.
And everyone who strives in the worship of God,
by whatever path he wishes, becomes
a favourite of God.
The means of (attaining) proximity to God is
no-injury to any living being.
Be righteous then you become freed (saved).
Righteousness from you (shall bring to you)
success from God. (11)

Probably that was the reason that Guru Nanak did not like to give categorical answers to questions in which he was asked to name his religion. The best example of this is found in his dialogue with the sidhas who wanted him to state his 'name', 'sect' and 'tenets'. Without committing himself to any name, sect, or tenets, Guru Nanak replied:

I dwell in God who hath His seat in every heart;

I act according to the will of the True Guru.
I came in the course of nature,
and according to God's order shall I depart.
Nanak is ever subject to His will. (12)

The same attitude Guru Nanak adopted when he is said to have met the King of Ceylon who wanted to know if the Guru was a yogi, a Brahmin, or a shopkeeper, a Hindu or a Muslim. (13)

Section III

About a Persian poet it is said that one day he passed by the gate of a school where a teacher was giving some fantastic meaning to some of the former's verses. On hearing the school teacher's utterances the poet complained that who had taken his poem to the school. The same seems to have become the fate of the sayings of Guru Nanak. What would he say if he should come to know of the way he is being analyzed and scrutinized in the name of research and scholarship. The words and sentences from his hymns are picked out for linguistic and grammatical studies as if he was a linguist or a grammarian.

Theological concepts are deduced in his teachings as if he was a theologian and had only come to introduce a new theology. His travel accounts are minutely scrutinised as if he was no more than an Ibn-i-Batutah. The routes and roads which are supposed to have led him to places like Ceylon, Baghdad or Mecca are checked to conclude that he had really been to those places. In fact we have reached a point where one is unhappy if every reported incident of Guru Nanak's life is not verified 'scientifically' and 'objectively', without giving enough attention to the fact that this attitude of ours is of no help in feeling the aura of Guru Nanak.

Let us take, for example, his much debated visit to Mecca. It is reported that during his sojourn in Mecca, one day he stretched his feet towards the "Ka'bah", the House of God. On the objection of some Muslims that the feet must not be directed to the House of God, Guru Nanak is reported to have said that his feet might be turned in any direction they desired. The keepers of the House turned his feet in the opposite direction but, lo! the House also turned around and followed the feet of the Guru.14 Muslim and many non-Sikh scholars reject this and other similar stories, obviously for different reasons.

However, there is no reason for anyone to be disturbed if this or other stories fail to satisfy the requirements necessary for scientific and objective study. In fact, such stories, whosoever its main character may be, should not necessarily be taken literally. They are basically meant for teaching people certain realities of life. For example, the above mentioned travelogue of Guru Nanak seems to have been narrated to hammer into people's head the idea of the omnipresence of God. Guru Nanak as well as his early biographers knew very well that Muslims believed in an omnipresent God. They might have also come across the following Quranic verse:

Unto Allah belong the East and the West, and

Whithersoever you turn, there is Allah's
countenance. (15)

And also:

It is not righteousness that ye turn your faces to the East and the West; but righteous is he who believeth in Allah and the Last Day and the Angels and the Scripture and the Prophets; and giveth his wealth, for the love of Him, to kinsfolk and to orphans and the needy and the wayfarer and those who ask, and to set slaves free, and observeth proper worship and payeth the poor due. And those who keep their treaty when they make one, and are patient in tribulation and adversity and time of stress, such are they who are sincere. Such are the God-fearing. (16)

Keeping these Quranic admonitions in mind we can safely assume that the Mecca travelogue of Guru Nanak, was and still is a reminder to the Muslims who claim to believe in the omnipresence of God without really realising the implications of such a belief. What actually the story hinted at was the fact that the Muslims were reminded that their belief in the omnipresence of God must be manifest in their actions. The same was meant at Haridwar from where Guru Nanak was throwing water to his rice fields in Punjab.17 That was as much a reminder to the Hindus as it was to those millions of Muslims to whom Islam, the total submission before the will of God, has come to mean observing some rites and rituals on some fixed days.

This is indeed a tragic phenomenon in the sphere of religion that sooner or later the simple and pure truth is lost in the jungle of rites and rituals. As for instance, on the question of sacrificing animals in the name of God, the Qur'an says:

Their flesh and their blood reach not Allah,

but the devotion from you reacheth Him. (18)

But the Muslims seem to have taken little notice of it. They appear to be more concerned with the 'flesh' and 'blood' than the devotion and piety which should come out from the life of those who offer sacrifices at the altar of God. This applies to every religious community without exception.

Section IV

To a man like me who was not born and brought up in the Sikh tradition, Guru Nanak may not appear in the same light in which a devout Sikh would like to see him. As an outsider I see in him a man who was determined to remind the people of their forgotten lesson of the oneness of God and the oneness of mankind.

However, the difficulty in comprehending personalities like Guru Nanak arises chiefly because of the fact that people look at them with certain reservations. Since one believes that the truth lies only with the group to which one belongs, and the message conveyed through one's religion is final and complete, one hesitates to accomodate any new person who claims to have been chosen by God for conveying the divine message.

The situation becomes worse when the person chosen by God for His work is found dissociating himself from all the religious groups of his time. Although his dissociation is only to reduce groupism in the religious sphere, he is always misunderstood. This happened to Guru Nanak also. He identified himself neither with the Hindus nor with the Muslims because he found them having gone astray from the real teachings of the religions which they claimed to follow.

If Muslims and Hindus had realized the essence of his message they could have regarded him as one of them. But since Guru Nanak refused to be reckoned as either a Hindu or a Muslim, both the religious groups regarded him as one who was determined to weakening the roots of Hinduism and Islam.

If we look at the problem dispassionately we will see the logic in Guru Nanak's dissociating himself from both of them. Once he was satisfied of having himself been divinely commissioned he could not have associated himself with either the Hindus or the Muslims, because the association would have destroyed his mission. His mission was to bring the people back to the original teachings of their own religions.

He was to remind them that all the messengers and the prophets in history came only to lead people to the right path. These messengers never considered themselves belonging to one group. They were for all. It were the people who created a new group. Guru Nanak really did the right thing when he declared that he was neither a Hindu nor a Mussalman. Certainly that was not a denial of Islam or Hinduism. That was only a declaration that even those who called themselves Muslims were not really Muslims judged by the standards of their own religion. Nor was there a Hindu found in the world as he ought to be.

Had Muslims and Hindus understood his message they would have certainly returned to the real teachings of their own religions. And that would have completed the mission of Guru Nanak.


  1. Iqbal, "Bang-e-dara"
  2. The Qur'an, 29:61
  3. Ibid., 43:87.
  4. Abul-Kalam Azad, "Presidential Address, Bengal Khalifat Conference" in his Khutabat-e-Azad, Delhi, 1959, p.93
  5. The Qur'an, 6:76-79
  6. Ibid., 49:13
  7. M. Mujeeb, "The Indian Muslims", London, 1967, p.211
  8. Cf. Max Arthur Macauliffe, "The Sikh Religion," Oxford, 1909, Vol.I, p.121
  9. For a detailed account of Sayyid Muhammad of Jawnpur, see M. Mujeeb., op.cit., pp.102-112
  10. Cf. Macauliffe, op.cit., (between Guru Nanak and Sheikh Ibrahim) pp.84 ff, and (between Guru Nanak and Mian Mitha) pp.122 ff.
  11. Guru Granth Sahib as quoted in "The Punjab: Past and Present", Vol. III, 1969, Parts I and II, Patiala, p.49.
  12. Macauliffe, op.cit., p.171
  13. Ibid., pp.154 ff.
  14. Ibid., p.175
  15. The Qur'an, 2:115
  16. Ibid., 2:117
  17. Macauliffe, op.cit., p.50
  18. The Qur'an, 22:37