Kids Corner


The Sikh-Sufi Connection




That Hindu-Sikh mixings stem from the times of the first Guru and continue to today is beyond question. The connections remain familial, cultural as well as philosophical.

This remains true even though ten generations of Guru-Founders of Sikhi rejected much of Hindu religious practice and heritage.

To an extent this was inevitable. Hindu culture even today defines the larger framework of the Indian subcontinent's population, its history and mythology. Though a constant thorn in one's side, it is not surprising then to find reputable Hindu scholars straining mightily to deny any original strands of thought in Sikh ideology so as to claim it as a refined offshoot of Hindu belief.

But some years ago, I was caught absolutely off balance when a Muslim in the audience loudly proclaimed that Guru Nanak, the founder of Sikhi, was a most wonderful exponent of Sufi Islam.

Sufis are Muslims and yet their place within Islam has always been insecure. Sufis are perhaps the mystical face of Islam.

History is not so clear but Ali, the son-in-law of Prophet Mohammed, may have been the one who grasped the need for mysticism and spiritualism in Islam and thus founded the movement that is now called Sufism. But Sufi perspective found its true colors and responsive soil in Persia where it grew under the light of great Sufi poets and teachers like Rumi, Jami, Hafez and others.

Senai, perhaps one of the greatest Sufi teachers, was born in Afghanistan; thus along with trade and Muslim warriors, Sufism also entered India. Readers should note that in recent years Rumi's writings have captured the imagination of young Western readers in the multitudes.

Sufism's arrival and advent in India remains obscure but its spirit found a ready congruence in Vedanta and in the Indian "Sant tradition." The most successful blending of the Indo-Aryan Snatana-Dharma and the Arabic-Persian Islamic mysticism is a peculiarly Indian product that germinated and flowered in Sind and Punjab.

Keep in mind that Multan was the bridge between greater Punjab and Sind until 1947, so Punjab has produced some notable Sufis, such as Bullay Shah and Mian Bahu. Sufi influence extended as far as Kashmir.

In time, undivided Punjab (pre-1947) became the land of the Gurus and their Sikhs, and Sufis became less visible in that part of the world. Even though Sikhi came into regular and violent conflict with the Islamic rulers of state, there was never any conflict between Sikhi and Sufi-Islam.

Sind, too, came under Sikh influence and even today Sindhis revere Guru Nanak's message, but it remained relatively free of religious orthodoxy and Hindu-Muslim conflict and thus retained much more of Sufi influence that is clearly seen even today.

What Sufism brought to India was its core teaching of secularism and a simple message of the oneness of God. A preeminent exponent of Sufism in India was Sheikh Farid [1173-1265] who lived a full three centuries before Nanak, the Founder of Sikhism.

Sheikh Farid (alt. Fareed) is rightly celebrated as the first poet of modern Punjabi. He wrote exclusively in Multani Punjabi, not in Arabic or Persian, the languages favored by Quranic scholars. His base was in Pak-Pattan in Punjab.

Bhai Gurdas tells us that Guru Nanak and Mardana stayed with Sheikh Bahlol, a renowned Sufi of the time,  during their travels in Baghdad, and engaged in interfaith dialogue with him.

There is a satisfying congruence between Sikh and Sufi perspectives.

A fundamental basis of Sufism is that Truth is One. The alphanumeric Ik-Oankar constructed by Guru Nanak posits a similar Oneness.

To interested readers, I would recommend a 1973 monograph in English published by Punjabi University: "Baba Sheikh Farid - His life and Teachings."

Muslim Sufi mysticism differs markedly from what we find in Islamic orthodoxy. History tells us orthodox Islam has often bred intolerance, forced conversions, religious wars, hatred, discrimination, even the wholesale banning of music, dance and musical instruments. Sufi Islam, on the other hand, celebrates religious reality as one of joy of life and worship.

Given the culture of Punjab, this has particularly resonated very successfully in its people.

Like Sufi practice, Sikh worship, too, revolves around music. Except for minor exceptions, the major body of the Guru Granth is set to the classical modality of Indian musicology.

The Fifth Nanak, Guru Arjan, while compiling the Adi Granth, included in it112 sloks (couplets) and 4 shabads (hymns) by Baba Farid. This is a rare recognition of the teachings of Farid who sparkled as a bright star in the age of dreadful despotism, degrading social iniquity and debasing theological bigotry.

This is not to deny that significant differences in Sikh and Muslim fundamentals in belief and practice continue to exist.

Now perhaps the only available source of Farid's awesome poetry remains the Sikh scripture - Guru Granth.

Dana Wilde reminds us: "...all the mystical traditions seek to reveal is that the cosmos is a unified whole, one, or One. The music of poetry and the images and metaphors of poetry intoxicate the body and mind - together they change the state of outer and inner awareness of the hearer. Poetry affects the whole human being. It is where each person creates his own heaven or hell."

This is what I see when I encounter the poetry of the Guru Granth and of the Sufis.

But the ways of realpolitics are strange and no human activity is immune. Orthodox Islam, particularly in Pakistan, has often denied Islamic identity to Sufis. And now there are reports of increasing violence against them by mobs that have been aroused by Muslim leaders in Karachi, Lahore and many regions of Pakistan. Many have been killed and their mosques destroyed.

Evidently, the increasing Taliban activity in that country is responsible - these are Muslims who do not approve of singing and dancing in their faith.

I wonder if they are striving to recapture the times of Aurungzeb, the dedicated Muslim who ruled India in the 17th century in a time that saw the worst atrocities against Sikhs. His religious zeal took him to ban music from public places and ordered that all musical instruments be buried.

Whether it is in families or in religions, the closer the kinship the more tragic is the consequence of internecine warfare. The Taliban are busy killing their own brethren in Islam.

Today I want to take note of the enduring Sikh-Sufi connection which lives in the writings of Sheikh Farid, the kirtan of Guru Granth and in the music of such diverse artists as Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan and Rabbi Shergill.

I also want to draw your attention to the killing and targeting of Sufis in neighboring Pakistan and elsewhere by Islamic clergy.

April 6, 2011 

Conversation about this article

1: Brijinder Singh (New York, U.S.A.), April 06, 2011, 2:14 PM.

My father's family is from Faridkot. Baba Farid held court there and the city was subsequently named after him. A memorial was built on the site where he meditated, and his belongings are still kept in Gurdwara Godari Sahib. His memorial is visited by Sikh, Muslim and Hindu admnirers. Before the Partition of Punjab, Faridkot had a large Muslim population. If you go into some of the houses in the villages, you can still see their names scribbled on the walls in Urdu. It's endearing to think that they wanted to leave their mark on their homes, before departing for Pakistan. It reminds us that no matter what our religion, we are all insaan. I think this is the legacy of Baba Farid and our Gurus.

2: Akal (Portland, USA), April 06, 2011, 4:48 PM.

Okay, first of all, the Taliban is not the same as the cowards who are terrorizing Pakistan and India today. The "terorrist" fighters by and large are poor kids fighting for a few crumbs of rotis provided by the shadowy CIA types who are busy promoting an agenda only they know. They for sure are staining the reputation of Islam. Who does that benifit? Wahabi Islam, like the Tea Party in USA, is funded by, dare I say, rich devils with an evil agenda. So there!

3: I.J. Singh (New York, USA), April 07, 2011, 5:42 AM.

Akal, Your comment is welcome (I suppose you are from Portland, Oregon and not Maine. In the 1960's I spent 8 years in Portland, Oregon.) Your comments are valid - the politics in that area is murky. But in the AfPak part of the world - the poorly defined and controlled border where Taliban influence and presence is pretty widely recognized. Who knows even Osama and Zwahiri might be hiding out there, and secret records of he CIA and the ISI (Pakistan) are not available to us. The news-media readily reports the hounding of the Sufis in that part of Pakistan. I don't know what presence the Wahabis have over there. My intent was to focus a bit on the Sufis, explore some connections - philosophic and personal - they have historically had with Sikhi and the fact that orthodox Islam has never really accepted them. The Tea party is a different kettle of fish entirely. More of that another time.

4: Rawel Singh Anand (East Meadow, New York, USA), April 07, 2011, 6:03 AM.

I have always known Hazrat Ali as being connected with the Shias. So I went on the net to confirm and found Wikipedia saying: "Sunni Muslims consider Ali the fourth and final of the Rashidun (rightly guided Caliphs), while Shi'a Muslims regard Ali as the first Imam." There are similarities between Sufi and Sikh faiths, but not completely. Both faiths treat the relationship between the human soul and the Supreme Spirit as being akin to he one between wife and husband or servant and Master. They both advocate to totally dissolve the human ego for union between the two. However, whereas the Sufi looks at this relationship with despondency, Sikhi looks at it with hope which results in consummation of the relationship. Again, whereas the Sufis believe in worshipping at mausoleums, it is forbidden in Sikhi. All this is covered in gurbani. The author has stated: "But the ways of realpolitics are strange and no human activity is immune. Orthodox Islam, particularly in Pakistan, has often denied Islamic identity to the Sufis. And now there are reports of increasing violence against them by mobs that have been aroused by Muslim leaders in Karachi, Lahore and many regions of Pakistan. Many have been killed and their mosques destroyed". This may need verification. Except for the very recent incident of attack on a Sufi shrine at Dera Ghazikhan, I have not heard of attacks on the Sufis. We have all noticed that whenever Muslims come to India they go to Ajmer and Delhi to pay homage at the famous Sufi shrines. The conditions mentioned above, as I have noticed, particularly apply in the case of Ahmadiyaas. The Sunnis do no treat them as Muslims because they do not accept Hazrat Mohammad as the last prophet. As I said this needs to be verified.

5: Akal (Portland, Oregon, U.S.A.), April 07, 2011, 8:58 AM.

I want to thank you for bringing to our attention this mutual connection to God based on Divine Love. Sometimes politics distracts from an otherwise great article.

6: Pertinderjit Hora (New York, NY, U.S.A.), April 09, 2011, 7:07 PM.

Thank you for pointing out this connection and enlightening us.

7: Gurdeep Singh (London, United Kingdom), October 09, 2015, 12:27 AM.

Correction: Aurangzeb was a devote Sufi and took advice from his Sufi saint.

8: Martha (Oregon, USA), February 09, 2016, 9:58 AM.

Thank you for posting this information. I have been impressed with how much the teachings of Sikhism have in common with the mystical teachings of Jesus of Nazareth. I am now pleased to know that there are those in Islam who have similar beliefs.

9: Mohammed Salim (Toronto, Ontario, Canada), February 14, 2016, 3:11 PM.

My mother tells me that when the Partition of Punjab occurred her father had many friends who were of the Sikh Faith. They were closer to him than the Muslims of the village and he thought of them as brothers. The only difference was political. We are the same people. I have more in common with a Sikh from Amritsar than I do with someone from Peshawar or Quetta (in Pakistan).

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