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Walking With Nanak

An Interview with HAROON KHALID by PREETI SINGH

 

 

 




WALKING WITH NANAK, by Haroon Khalid. Tranquebar, 2016. English, hardcover, 321 pages, $26.63. Kindle, file size 10013 KB, $2.74. ASIN: B01MA2W5M3


 


Haroon Khalid is a travel writer and freelance journalist with background in Anthropology. He has been travelling extensively around Pakistan, documenting its historical and cultural heritage. “Walking with Nanak” is his latest book that documents the life and times of Guru Nanak, the growth of the Sikh Religion and the Gurdwaras in Pakistan.

In this interview with Preeti Singh, Haroon talks about his fascination with Guru Nanak and how he came to write this book.


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Question [Preeti Singh]:  How did you come upon the idea for this book?

Answer [Haroon Khalid]:  It is actually an amalgamation of three different ideas that I combined in this one book. I wanted to do a book on Guru Nanak’s gurdwaras around Pakistan and talk about their context in a Muslim Pakistan that defines itself in exclusive religious terms, almost in contradiction to Nanak’s message of religious inclusivity.

The second idea of the book was an exploration of Guru Nanak’s story. After reading every single biography of Nanak I could put my hands on, I had been quite disappointed. All of them are stories of his ‘miracles‘, rather than a story of Nanak the Man. I felt this was a grave injustice to the legacy of the man who himself in his poetry speaks vehemently against attributing stories of magic and miracles to saints.

The fictional biographical part of the book that deals with the story of Nanak the Man, and not Guru Nanak the Saint was therefore rather an attempt to write Nanak’s biography that I had always wanted to read.

Finally I was also fascinated with exploring the history of the evolution of the Khalsa, a distinct religious identity. I find this aspect of Sikh history rather fascinating because Nanak’s entire message, as expressed through his poetry and his life stories, has been against distinct religious identities. He talked about a blurring of the religious divide. In addition to that he spoke against religious rituals and dogma. I was therefore intrigued to know more about how a religious movement against institutional religion by Nanak eventually took the form of a movement such as the Khalsa.

What were the historical forces that led to this? Predominately it is these three themes that I explore in the book.


Q:  How many years did it take you to write it?

A:  The complete journey, of conceptualizing the book, traveling, researching and writing, must have taken around five years. This of course was not one continuous process. I was thinking about this book even when I was writing my first two books. I had done some travel and research at that time, which I then incorporated into the book, and then some was undertaken when I formally began writing the book. I think just the writing process took about one and a half years, followed by about six months of intense editing with my meticulous editor at Westland, Karthik Venkatesh.


Q:  As a person from another religion, what made you attempt a book on a Sikh Guru?

A:  My religious identity is only one part of my identity. There is yet another identity of mine, which unfortunately over the years in Pakistan has been undermined – my Punjabi identity. I think as a Punjabi, Nanak’s heritage and legacy are as much mine as they would be of any Sikh. After Baba Farid, whom Nanak revered, he is the second prominent Punjabi poet. His contributions to the language played a huge role in the development of Punjabi language and hence the Punjabi identity. I was curious to learn about Nanak the Poet, which I feel is the essence of his greatness.

My second interest in Nanak and his movement emerges from my own spiritual inclination. Nanak was someone who traveled the world, going to different sites of religious pilgrimage and taught that it was rather institutionalization of religion represented through rituals and rites which was the core of the problem. I find this message highly useful.

It might come across as a bit odd today for a Muslim to be interested and even in a way devoted to Nanak. But there was a time before the Partition of Punjab when Muslims revered Nanak and regarded him as their saint, along with several other Sufis. Even today at his shrine at Kartarpur Sahib, several Muslims from the local communities come to pay their respects to him.

Finally, I feel it was Nanak’s connection with the land that I call home is what pushed me to discover Nanak more. He spent a large part of his life in this land, which eventually came to be called Pakistan.

He was born and died here, yet official Pakistani history today is awkwardly silent about him. I wanted to end that silence and reclaim Nanak as part of our heritage and history.


Q:  What are the parallels you drew between Sikhism and Islam?

A:  There is no doubt that Nanak was highly inspired by Islam. Some of the formative influences on him were of Muslims. There is a popular story that there was a man called Hassan Sayed from an area now known as Nankana Sahib; he was Nanak’s first introduction to Sufism when he was a young boy.

Similarly we know that Nanak was very impressed with Baba Farid, who was also a prominent Muslim Sufi. Nanak keeps on referring to him throughout his travels. What we also need to understand is that this is not the Islamic culture of today, which is wrought with fundamentalism and extremism, rather than the belief system of 15th century when the Muslim civilization was at its zenith.

Nanak was a passionate proponent of monotheism which I believe was inspired by Islam. Similarly he impressed upon his followers to always follow the middle path and find a delicate balance between spirituality and materialism, another important feature of Islamic teachings. There are many instances of him reminding Muslims of the true essence of Islam during his travels.


Q:  In what ways do you find Nanak‘s teachings not being adhered to today, and what does this mean for the society at large?

A:  I won’t make that strong of a statement. It is rather the contradiction of history that I am interested in.

My argument is Nanak’s spiritual movement was a rebellion against institutional religion. He argued that the essence of religions is lost in the obsession with rites and rituals. I therefore find it rather odd that a new religion emerged out of Nanak’s movement against institutional religion.

But then we have to understand that it would have been impossible to carry forward Nanak’s teachings without any form of codification. His movement would have otherwise faded away. In one way in fact it is Nanak himself who is responsible for this institutionalization, when he appointed Guru Angad as his successor. This was the first step towards the formation of a new Faith.

I think in many ways Nanak’s message is perhaps even more relevant in our present day society than it was at his time. We live in a time when rigid cultural and traditional boundaries have been constructed between different religions. There is a strong sense of “us” and “them” in all religious groups.

It is against this otherization that Nanak spoke. His writings should be compulsory study for adherents of all religious groups.


Q:  What were your main discoveries/takeaways from the writing of this book?

A:  One of the most important discoveries for me was the history of Guruhood. Right at the death of Nanak, this seat of religious power became a coveted one.  When Guru Angad was named the Second Master, Nanak’s son refused to acknowledge him. Guru Angad’s son did the exact same thing when Guru Amar Das was proclaimed Guru. There was some sort of a conflict at the succession of each subsequent Guru. In fact matters became so ugly around the time of Guru Arjan that even the Mughal Emperors became involved in it.

There are historical references which state that it was this fight for succession, with the meddling of the Mughals, that led to the martyrdoms of Guru Arjan (the Fifth Master) and Guru Tegh Bahadar (the Ninth Master) at the hands of Emperor Jahangir and Emperor Aurangzeb, respectively.


Q:  How did you walk the fine line between honestly expressing your opinions and not offending those Sikhs who, like many believers, hold their beliefs sacrosanct?

A:   I hope I have not offended any Sikhs. That was never my goal. I was therefore particular about my research, especially when I was talking about the conflicts that sometimes arose around succession to Guruhood. I made sure that I had my references and was not making unsubstantiated claims. I also never claimed in the book that the subsequent Gurus did wrong or that they should not have gotten dragged into Mughal politics or militarized their followers. In fact I tried explaining the historical contingencies that led to these processes.


Q:  You mention Iqbal Qaiser as your mentor and as someone who has helped in the protection/upgrading of gurdwaras in Pakistan. Can you tell us a little more about him?

A:  Iqbal Qaiser is quite a fascinating man and features as an important character in the book. He is a simple man from Lahore who has spent his entire life researching and writing about the history of Punjab and Sikhs. His seminal work on Gurdwaras in Pakistan was pivotal for me in writing this book. He is someone without much formal education, yet is one of the most learned persons I know. I think in many ways his personality resonates with that of Nanak for me. I was able to understand Nanak better through him.

For example Nanak born to an ‘upper caste’ family was learned in Arabic and Persian, the powerful languages of his time. However he chose to record his message in the vernacular. In this way Nanak completely rejected his formal educational training. Iqbal Qaiser for me represents that. I have formal education and while he lacks it, yet after interacting with him I realized that my formal education was completely insufficient when it came to understanding my own culture and region. I could only access that through the informal education I received through Iqbal Qaiser.

Since his book on gurdwaras was the first book of its kind, he helped identify many gurdwaras that did not exist any more on any maps. It is through his book that prominent Sikh organizations that had a relationship with the government of Pakistan were able to pressurize the government to secure and renovate these shrines.

Q:  What did Iqbal Qaiser have to say about this book?

A:  Since he lacks formal education he cannot read English fluently. I am heart-broken that my mentor has not been able to read any of my work, all of which has been inspired by him, besides the few that have been translated into Urdu.


Q: Have you got any reactions to it in India and Pakistan?


A:  So far the response to the book has been phenomenal, much better than what I expected. I followed a rather unique literary device in the book, merging fiction with non-fiction, magical-realism with academic historical writing, poetry with prose, and I was quite apprehensive about the response I would get.

But I am humbled by the appreciation I have received so far.


Edited for sikhchic.com
January 19, 2017

 

Conversation about this article

1: Sangat Singh (Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia), January 20, 2017, 7:55 AM.

Here is an apt legacy that you are sharing with Dr. Mohammad Iqbal, the poet laureate, and Iqbal Qaiser: “The worthy get inspiration from stories of their forefathers" [GGS:951]. For some parochial reason Mohammad Iqbal’s famous lines are not often quoted. They are: “After an age once again the temple became radiant; Aazar’s house shone with the glory of Abraham once again. The call of God’s unity arose from Punjab to awaken from its deep slumber the Hind by a Perfect man.” Now you have Iqbal Qaiser, a living encyclopaedia who is historian, anthropologist, poet, friend and a guide. Guru Nanak started his arduous odyssey of some 25,000 miles on foot accompanied by a Muslim (who was then considered lowest in the social order) as his rababi and a friend. Guru Nanak called himself lowest of the lowly and a bard to sing praises of God. Dr Kazi Nural Islam’ opus, “Guru Granth Sahib: A Model For Interfaith Understanding" describes Guru Nanak in the same vein as Haroon Sahib. May you, Haroon ji, be blessed for walking with Guru Nanak, the Universal Teacher.

2: Amrik Singh Gill (Punjab), January 21, 2017, 4:45 PM.

What religion do the religious belong to? One big puzzle of the world is that some followers of religions often don’t resemble their founders. Guru Nanak hailed the woman as equal of man, yet female foeticide remains a plague in India. What are Sikh leaders doing in Punjab? Mohammed raised the status of women in his time, yet today most Islamic clerics bar women from many normal, day-to-day activities, and even brutalize them. Buddha would be aghast at the apartheid imposed on the Rohingya minority by Buddhists in Myanmar. “Our religions have rather come to stand for the very opposite of what their founders stood for," notes Brian D. McLaren, in a powerful new book, “The great Spiritual Migration”, hijacking religion for personal gains and self-glorification. Religion is not for pontification. Founders were typically bold and charismatic visionaries who inspired the world with their moral indignation. But their teachings have often been morphed into unrecognizable practices. That tension is especially pronounced with Christianity, because Jesus was a radical who challenged the establishment. Yet Christianity has successfully established itself in much of the world through terrible crimes and abuses. "No wonder more and more of those who are Christians by birth, by choice, or both, find themselves shaking their heads and asking, ‘What happened to Christianity’”. “We feel as if our founder has been kidnapped and held hostage by extremists. His captors parade him in front of cameras to say, under duress, things he obviously didn’t believe. As their blank-faced puppet, he often comes across as anti-poor-, anti-environment, anti-gay, anti-intellectual, anti-migrant and anti-science. That is not the Jesus we met in the Gospels!” writes McLaren.

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