The Mission of Guru Nanak : A Muslim Appraisal by Professor Mushirul Haq
Copyright © 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