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Image: An old painting depicts Guru Nanak at repose in the City of Mecca, while Mardana and a local mullah look on.

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A Postcard From Arabia

JOGINDER SINGH BHACHU

 

 

 





Abdulla Allah La Mazahabu’ / ‘I am God’s servant; I have no religion’.

 

As Sikhs our history is relatively short in comparison to Hinduism, Buddhism and the Abrahamic religions. However I have always felt that this affords us with the opportunity to feel closer to our history and ultimately find relevance in its religious teachings.

Guru Nanak, born in 1469, came into this world at a time of significant change, not only within his native land but across the globe.

Europe was witnessing the Early Renaissance with the continent moving towards the ‘European Miracle’ of civilisation along with the Protestant Reformation in Britain.

In Asia the Ming Dynasty was reaching its zenith and the growth of the Mughal Empire on the subcontinent continued, a powerful dynasty which would shape the trajectory of Sikhism for the next 300 years.

It is remarkable that a figure who continues to shape the lives of millions of people across the world to this day, was born little over 500 years ago yet his life and travels largely remains untold.

It was this thought that struck me as I landed in Jeddah Airport, Saudi Arabia, this year. As a Sikh, and like many others who have travelled to this city, I was stepping on the same land the founder of my faith had travelled five hundred years ago.

In the build-up to my business visit to the region’s great economic powerhouse, I was preoccupied with ensuring my visa documentation was valid and educating myself on the cultural etiquette of a country which houses both the political and religious nucleus of Islam.

Indeed, it was only when I found myself within the Saudi Kingdom that I appreciated my faith’s history, a history which stretches much further than the landscape of Punjab and the expanse of the subcontinent where my ancestors hail from.

The progress and evolution of Sikhs in countries such as Canada, Britain and the USA  has been well profiled. However, there is a dearth of untold stories documenting the successes and challenges of the Sikh community within the Middle East. Spanning across the Middle East from Saudi Arabia to Iraq, many Sikhs are making a significant impact upon the Arab region.

But how many Sikhs are au fait with the religion’s historical connections with this part of the world? How many Sikhs recall that the founder of their faith experienced the Arab culture and walked across the same sand as Sikhs do today?

Guru Nanak travelled across the Arab world between 1519-1521 during one of his Four Udasis (Great Journeys). Sailing along with pilgrims through the historic Red Sea and arriving at the Port of Jeddah, a port which many millions of Muslims still use to this day for the Hajj, Guru Nanak along with his companion Mardana, made his way to Mecca.

During Guru Nanak’s stay in the spiritual centre of the Muslim world he encountered a contrasting people from his first three Udasis. He entered a world comprised of Sufis, pious teachers, and pilgrims, all aligned with the teachings of Prophet Mohammed and the Qur’an.

When questioned by fakirs on the purpose of his visit, Guru Nanak replied “I have come all the way to meet noble divines of this holy city, and feel blessed.”

His fluent Persian and Arabic, which he acquired at a young age, allowed Guru Nanak to communicate to his new audience made up of spiritual people, where he echoed Islam’s tenet of one God whist promoting the values of charity and honourable living.

Guru Nanak departed Mecca for Baghdad, travelling through one of the world’s harshest climates and virtually crossing the Arab peninsula. This interesting part of Sikh history is being further researched through the work of dedicated Sikh scholars who are unravelling interesting artefacts, such as evidence of monuments dedicated to Guru Nanak in great Middle-Eastern cities such as Istanbul and Cairo. The work of these historians highlights the fact that there still remains so much to discover about the life of Guru Nanak. 

Returning to Punjab through Iran and Afghanistan, Guru Nanak arrived in Kiratpur where followers flocked to the Guru. Kiratpur would soon witness the first foundations of a Sikh community as the Fourth Udasi to the 'Muslim world' would prove to be the last time Guru Nanak left the Punjab region.

Sikhs have flourished in the Middle East just like in other regions of the world where they now live. The principles and values which were developed through the foundations of Guru Nanak’s early teachings can still be seen through observing Sikhs across the globe. The values of an honest, charitable, truthful life are instilled in Sikhs and have become our compass as we navigate our lives.

In the few scattered Gurdwaras across the Arab world, the principles of charity and seva still thrive whilst the basis of truthful honest living is alive evident from the Sikh way of life practiced by Sikhs across the region, whether it be as engineers, doctors or construction workers.

Despite the Arab world essentially representing the globe’s majority of Muslims, Sikhs have assimilated into the culture and fabric of the society, demonstrating tolerance and appreciation of other religions and practices, which has been the very signature of Guru Nanak’s teachings.

The fact that Sikhs flourish here in the Middle East without the socio-cultural religious and organisational frameworks found in other western countries, demonstrates that the values Guru Nanak stood for are an innate part of the Sikh way of life and can be practiced anywhere, even today within the same arid Arabian desert.


November 11, 2014
 

Conversation about this article

1: Aryeh Leib Lerner (Israel), November 11, 2014, 2:19 AM.

Interesting. Guru Nanak - like any non-Muslim - would never be permitted into today's Mecca. If we're talking about Sikhs flourishing in the Middle East, I'm still curious as to why virtually no Sikhs have come to settle here in Israel, a nation which supports the right to freely practice one's own religion, and which would offer untold opportunities to Sikhs across a wide spectrum of endeavors.

2: Aryeh Leib lerner (Israel), November 11, 2014, 2:24 AM.

There is an apocryphal story about a visit to Jerusalem by Guru Nanak. If anyone has any real information about this, I'd be interested in hearing.

3: Gurjender Singh (Maryland, USA), November 11, 2014, 6:44 AM.

Very informative that Sikhs have settled in the Middle East and have been successful. But I know from some of my relatives that religious freedom is not there. You cannot openly perform any religious function, etc.

4: Bant Singh (New York City, USA), November 11, 2014, 8:53 AM.

Aryeh ji, I've also wondered why there are no Sikhs in Israel. So, the question then becomes how do people settle in Israel. 1) For Jews the Israeli 'Law of Return' from the 1950s makes it simple to land in Israel and announce your intention to become an Israeli citizen. Of course, Israel performs certain checks to verify the individual is not evading authorities in other countries. 2) If a Sikh is the spouse of a Jewish person, he/she can come under point #1. In 1970, the law was amended to include people of Jewish ancestry and their spouses. 3) Israel gives temporary work permits to labor. Most of this is taken up by people from Philippines, Thailand, etc. This could be an opening for Sikhs from India. Again, not sure if these laborers can get permanent residency in Israel. 4) If a home-grown Sikh-Israeli community is established. Joginder Singh ji: While Sikh communities have lived and even thrived in Muslim majority countries like Iran, Pakistan, Malaysia, Afganistan, etc, I've not read of any Arab country that has an established Sikh community. By that, I mean their presence for a few generations. Even though there may be many Sikhs living and working in the Arab countries, I don't think they or the locals consider them to be natives. Besides UAE (Dubai), I know of no other Arab country that has a state recognized gurdwara. Many Arab countries tolerate 'illegal' gurdwaras. Do you have any examples of established Sikh communities in the Arab world?

5: Manjit Singh Bara Pindia (Canada), November 11, 2014, 10:24 AM.

@ Aryeh Leib. One of the reasons for many Sikhs not going to Israel could be that the Indian Government did not officially recognize Israel till a few years ago, which posed obvious hurdles for the Sikhs living in India. The passports issued by India were not endorsed for travel to Israel (and a few other countries, e.g., Taiwan).

6: Sangat Singh (Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia), November 11, 2014, 6:11 PM.

Joginder Singh jI, where have to been hiding? Your writing is most refreshing. Please keep writing. Yes, I hope that Sikhs do settle in Israel. I did spend about two weeks once in Israel attending the International Amateur Radio Union Conferences and had some interesting encounters. At the opening of the conference by the then Foreign Minister, I was the only turbaned Sikh, together with some African participants wearing their traditional dresses. We were singled out and appeared on the front page of their Israeli Newspaper shaking hands with the foreign minister. Next day at the breakfast someone said to me: "Eh, you are on the front page of our National Newspaper today." I went down to the hotel book shop and as soon as I appeared, without asking me what I wanted, the shopkeeper handed me the newspaper and said: "That'll be 2 Shekels!"

7: Kaala Singh (Punjab), November 12, 2014, 10:00 AM.

A Sikh community in Israel would be a fantastic idea. Two great races having so much in common and united by enormous suffering and pain, suffered no more than a generation ago, healing and rejuvenating each other!

8: Aryeh Leib Lerner (Israel), November 13, 2014, 7:34 AM.

Manjit ji (#5): I now see many Indians in Israel who come as caregivers. Plus, the current Indian government (perceived shortcomings notwithstanding) appears to be doing everything possible to establish closer ties with Israel. Why should Thais dominate the agricultural sector, when Sikhs have farming in their blood? Why should Sikhs not be studying and teaching at the Technion? Why not deeply involved in the manifold start-ups this country produces by the hundreds every year? Well, so far, everyone seems to like the idea. Now, how to make it happen?

9: Aryeh Leib Lerner (Israel), November 13, 2014, 7:37 AM.

(In a sheepish tone of "voice") Apologies for hijacking the thread. Maybe, "A Postcard from Arabia" can morph into, "An email from Israel"!?

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