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Guru Granth Sahib: A Model For Interfaith Understanding




Though all the religions of the world teach love, preach sympathy for others and encourage Man to exercise utmost self-restraint and have most profoundly been a source of inspiration for the highest good of mankind, the world today is torn by conflicts, enmity and religious hatred.

In this predicament, a lasting and peaceful society is impossible unless different faiths are understood in their proper perspectives. Therefore, it is necessary that people belonging to different faiths understand each other better. This necessitates a constant dialogue and effort to generate moral and hearty religious thinking.

The advocates of all the religions of the world emphasize the importance of certain virtues and moral values. Only these can foster unity and cohesion of mankind. But the moral and religious values cannot be invoked by force. This can be achieved through the exchange of words, kind words, sincere words and loving words that can reach the deepest fathoms of the heart.

There is no religion without peace and no peace without religion. We must admit that peace and religion are complementary to each other. When the good of all is desired with an undivided mind peace will definitely be ours. But people belonging to different faiths, in most cases, have betrayed religious ideals and commitment to peace. The time has come when this betrayal must be corrected. And this can be and should be done through knowledge, dialogue and demonstration of the fact that love, compassion, selflessness and the inner force of truthfulness have ultimately greater power than hatred, enmity and self-interest.

There was a time when various religions, precisely because of their own convictions, were unable to cooperate and were even antagonistic to each other. But the times have changed to a great extent. Improvement in the means of transportation has made the earth smaller. Now religions, in-spite of historic differences, must seek to unite all men for the attainment of world peace. Unless the peoples of faith come closer to each other the irreligious and antireligious forces will gain the upper hand. And this may lead to the further breaking up of the moral fibre of the human society. But at all cost we must preserve the moral aspect of the texture of human society.

Religious people represent a vast majority of the peoples of the world. But unfortunately, we are a confused, divided and silent majority. The religious people of the world have been quite silent for long, and their silence has worked against human welfare. Our division, our timidity, and our silence left the mighty forces of terrorism, fanaticism, racism, poverty, and war unchallenged. Our silence has been paid for by the suffering of millions, for whom we should have been advocates, friends, and spokespersons.

The time has come when religionists, instead of antagonizing each other because of what we once thought was a religious conviction, should cooperate with each other in order to contribute to the cause of peace for mankind.

Before I explain my own position as to what makes me feel that the Guru Granthh Sahib is a model for interreligious understanding in today's world, let me speak a few words about the attitude of Islam towards other religions. I believe, this will help us to understand Guru Granth Sahib's attitude towards other traditions better.

Islam seeks to bring about reconciliation between the followers of different faiths and establish a basis of respect and honour among them. Islam can claim uniqueness in that for a person to be a Muslim it is mandatory that he/she must have respect for the people of others' faiths, must believe in all the prophets and in all the revealed texts. The Qur'an teaches us that God has sent His revelation to all the people from time to time and no section of mankind has been left without Divine guidance. Many of the prophets of the Old Testament have been mentioned by name in the Qur'an, and so also is Jesus, who along with other prophets, is highly revered and honoured by the Muslims all over the world.

It is stated in the Qur'an : "Say (O Muslims): We believe in Allah and that which is revealed unto us and that which was revealed unto Abraham and Ismael, and Isaac, and Jacob and the tribes, and that which the Moses and Jesus received, and that which the Prophets received from their Lord. We make no distinction between any one of them, and unto Him we have surrendered."

If a man belies any one of them, he belies all and if a man confirms and believes in one of them he must and ought to confirm all. "One who does not believe in any one of the Prophets, would be a kafir, though he must believe in all the Prophets raised in India, China, Persia Egypt, Africa, Europe and any other countries of the world." But a Muslim cannot definitely say about a particular person outside the list of the prophets named in the Qur'an, whether he was or was not a Prophet.Muslims are also not permitted to say anything against the holy men of other religions.

Sikhism goes one step further in its attitude forwards other religions and in its world view.

Sikhism is a religion which was founded on the principles of interfaith understanding, mutual respect and harmony. From the very beginning the leaders and the followers of this tradition preached the principles of interfaith respect, dialogue and understanding. To be a Sikh it is mandatory that he/she must respect and accept all other religions of the world and at the same time must protect, guard and allow the free-practice of the customs and rituals of others. The Guru Granth Sahib teaches its followers to love all creation as God's own manifestation. Acceptance of all faiths, and interfaith tolerance and understanding are basic to the teachings of Guru Granth Sahib.

History of the Sikh tradition shows remarkable consistency in the pursuit of these ideals and in the defence of the right to free worship of peoples of all faiths.

The Sikh Gurus perceived that there was lack of real love among the people and, therefore, they always laid great stress upon spiritual practices and preached the philosophy of one God, the supreme Reality. They understood that a new strength and vigour had to be imported into the field of religion and religious practices, it had to be brought home to the minds of the people that there really existed no differences in places of worship resorted to men of different faiths.

That is why Guru Gobind Singh, the tenth and the last Guru, states: "The temple and the mosque are the same, the Hindu worship and the Muslim prayer are the same, all men are the same; it is through erroneous judgment they appear different ...  All men have the same eyes, the same ears, the same body, the same build, a compound of earth, air, fire and water ... let no man, even by mistake, suppose there is a difference."

The Sikh Gurus systematized all the past Hindu and Islamic philosophies and brought a confluence in an organized manner for the temporal and spiritual uplift of all humanity without any discrimination. Guru Nanak made friends with both Hindus and Muslims. He never discriminated against any one. He treated the whole world as his own family and all human beings as his brothers and sisters. He raised his voice against injustice anywhere. Like him, all the Sikh Gurus were large-hearted. None of them were parochial or narrow-minded, communal or caste-ridden. They set out for the regeneration of mankind.

The Guru Granth Sahib is a unique sacred text in the history of world religions. The pattern of this text was conceived and worked out in such a way that it can integrate various religions and varnas of India, spiritually, religiously and emotionally. Guru Nanak gave the idea of this kind of scripture, his successor Gurus subscribed to it and worked to collect material for most of the Granth.

Guru Arjan collected most of the materials and contributed a major portion of the Granth in the form of his bani and completed editing this sacred text in 1604 C.E. Guru Gobind Singh added the hymns of Guru Teg Bahadar to the Adi Granth and then installed it as the Guru-Eternal in 1708 C.E., abolishing the personal guruship thereon.

The unique catholicity and egalitarian approach of Guru Arjan is evident in the fact that, other than the hymns of the Sikh Gurus, he incorporated the compositions of as many as thirty men of God, belonging to various castes, creeds, religions and vocations. Among them were Jaidev of Bengal, Surdas of Awadh, Namadev, Pipa, Sain, Kabir, Ravidas and Bhikhan of Uttar Pradesh, Dhannu of Rajasthan and Farid of Multan.

Kabir was a weaver, Sadhna was a butcher, Namdev a seamster, Dhana a farmer, Sain a barber, Ravidas a cobbler, Farid a Muslim Sufi ...  It may be mentioned here that Guru Gobind Singh hosted fifty two poets in his court to translate various ancient texts of India with the object of unifying the people of the subcontinent through their own literature and culture.

What a wonderful example of catholicity! What a wonderful instance of egalitarianism! And what a remarkable endeavour for interfaith understanding!! I salute all those who made this possible.

Sikhism advocates four kinds of unity: unity of God, unity of mankind, unity of religions and unity of classes. In fact, the Oneness of God and the essential oneness of humanity is the basic teaching of Guru Granth Sahib. Guru Nanak was an advocate for peace and unity. For all the religions of the world, he envisaged a fellowship of faiths. His efforts for creating an atmosphere for world-reconciliation and world-amity were much ahead of his time.

The attitude of the Sikh Gurus towards the leaders or founders of other faiths and their sacred texts is unique and genuinely praiseworthy. For instance, the attitude of Guru Nanak towards Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) was one of unbounded love and respect. In a verse which is given in the Janam Sakhi of Bhai Bala, Guru Nanak is stated to have said:

dita nur muhammadi, ditha nabi rasool
Nanak qudrat dekh ke, khudi ghei sab bhool.

"I have seen the light of Muhammad (with my mind's eye). I have seen the prophet and the messenger of God, in other words, I have understood his message or imbibed his spirit. After contemplating the glory of God, my ego was completely eliminated."

In the same spirit Guru Gobind Singh said in his Bacchittar Naatak ("The Wonderful Drama") that prophet Muhammad was a divine messenger and a great man of religion and faith.

Guru Arjan had profound respect for Mian Mir, a celebrated Muslim Sufi and had the foundation stone of the Darbar Sahib (Golden Temple) laid by him. This instance alone is enough to prove the magnanimity and catholicity of the Sikh Gurus.

It may be mentioned here that Muslim scholars had also tremendous appreciations for the Sikh Gurus. For instance, Mirza Ghulam Ahmad, the founder of the Ahmadiyya sect of Islam, observed in his Sat Bachan that Guru Nanak was a treasure-house of divine knowledge and knower of all mysteries. The most famous poet-philosopher of this subcontinent, Dr. Mohammad Iqbal, in one of his immortal verses expressed that Guru Nanak was a perfect human being and awakened India from a dormant, dreamy condition to the realization of God.

To the Muslims and Christians, Guru Nanak advises: "Practice within your heart the teachings of the Qur'an and the Bible; restrain the ten sensory organs for straining into evil. Tie up the demons of desire and restore faith, charity and contentment, and you shall be acceptable."

Guru Nanak vehemently opposes those who criticize the holy books of other religions. He categorically asks his followers: Do not say that the Vedas, the Bible and the Qur'an are false. Those who do not contemplate them are false. Guru Arjan says :

"Neither am I Hindu nor Musalman
This body and spirit is of Allah-Rama"

He also asserts:
"Says Nanak! The Guru removeth delusion, Only Allah is Parbrahma."

This indicates he had tremendous respect for God variously seen as Allah, Ram and Parbraham; in other words, he loved both the religious traditions in the same spirit.

The principle which underlies the pattern of Guru Granth Sahib is that every Sikh gives the same reverence to the Sikh Gurus which he gives to the other 30 contributors writers of this sacred text. A Sikh bows to the Guru Granth Sahib in reverence and recites the bani of all the writers included with the same devotion and respect. It may be noted here that in the Darbar Sahib as well as in all other historical or local gurudwaras, the hymns of all these saints, Gurus and Sufis of India are sung.

The followers of the Guru Granth Sahib pay homage to these Muslim and Hindu saints ... in addition to the Gurus ... and recite their writings with equal amount of faith, reverence and devotion.

This is not so and cannot be so in any other religion of the world.

Guru Nanak strongly pleaded for an egalitarian society where all people could be regarded as equals. In order to eradicate caste distinction and the social stratification based on caste system, he created two institutions: Sangat and Pangat. Sangat is the community congregation where all people sit together for divine contemplation and prayer and Pangat is the free kitchen where different people irrespective of their caste and creed sit at the same level and dine together.

The distinction between poor and rich is forgotten, because all share the same food at the same place. This was, indeed, a revolution against the inegalitarian society.

A successful revolution without a single drop of blood!

These Sangat and Pangat not only promote egalitarianism but also promote and enhance interfaith understanding.

Let me give an example of the gurdwara inside Dhaka University campus. In Bangladesh there is not a single Sikh citizen. Despite that, on every Friday in this gurdwara, hundreds of people belonging to different religious backgrounds attend Sangat and join Pangat and these are promoting interfaith understating in this country. Not only in Bangladesh where there is a gurudwara, but particularly in Europe and America, the sangat and pangat have enriched the prestige of the Sikh community and helped to promote inter-religious harmony.

Guru Nanak argues that if God is one, then all the souls coming from Him are of the same essence. The natural corollary of monotheism is oneness of humanity. All the Gurus regarded the whole of mankind as an organic unity and repudiated the distinction on a mundane plane. They held that the distinction of colour, language or territory cannot and should not form the ground for claims of superiority of one group over the other.

Guru Nanak strongly emphasized the highest common factor in all the religions of his time which were existing side by side but unfortunately clashing with one another. He conceived the idea of a new type of scripture, formed a wholesome approach and attitude towards fellow religions and philosophical schools.

He provided directions for religious co-existence, philosophical accommodation and social integration. As we have already mentioned above, Guru Nanak did not believe in the false barriers of religions and rigidities of caste. Some scholars hold that he was an ideal Muslim among Muslims and a model Hindu among Hindus. He believed in the fatherhood of God and brotherhood of man and he not only propagated this philosophy but also practiced this vigorously in his life.

Universalism is a cardinal value of Sikhism. It is not bracketed with a particular ethnicity or a particular region. The whole earth has been revered by Guru Nanak as "mother earth" and as a result he did not believe in any promised land or holy land.

Sikhism is universal because its primary essential concerns - social, political, cultural and economic - are of a universal nature, embracing humanity as a whole. Guru Gobind Singh held that God cannot be bound to a particular creed, place or era. He (God) cannot be bracketed with any particular ethnicity. Indeed, He is the Lord of all the peoples of the world. This makes Sikhism a truly universal religion.

In today's pluralistic world, the teachings of the Guru Granth Sahib can play a vital and constructive role. Sikhism not only acknowledges and appreciates other faiths but also accepts their validity and integrates worldly life with the idea of divinity. Guru Granth Sahib seeks to unite people belonging to different faiths and holds that the object of religion is not to divide mankind, but to unite it, not to act like scissors and tear asunder the social fabric, but to act like a needle and sew it together.

In today's world we must feel that we are all members of one great family of beings, having different forms of working. We must remember that we are all marching towards the spiritual realizations of truth and love.

Some in ignorance say, ‘My religion is the only one, my religion is the best'.

But when his heart is illumined by true knowledge, he knows that above all these wars of sects and sectarians presides the one invisible eternal all-knowing bliss. In fact, the different faiths are like spokes of a wheel in which God forms the hub. Therefore, let us - all the religionists - radiate towards that hub and find peace and solace.

Guru Granth Sahib, I am quite confident, can be a guiding force to the world in this regard.

[Dr. Kazi Nurul Islam is Professor and Chairman of the Department of World Religions and Culture at the Dhaka University in Bangladesh.]

December 15, 2010

Conversation about this article

1: Sangat Singh (Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia), December 15, 2010, 12:00 PM.

To add to this excellent piece, especially as a sequel to "Cheating God: Proxy Won't Work in Sikhi" by I. J. Singh, might I add what Dr. Mohammad Iqbal had to say: Maulana Iqbal, one of the most famous poets of Punjab was full of devotion, love and respect for Guru Nanak. He writes at one place that the advent of Guru Nanak was of the same importance as that of prophet Ibrahim (Abraham) who came into this world 5000 years ago. He writes that Guru Nanak was such a divine power that with his love he used to enchant people of various religions, nations and castes. People couldn't resist him. And the outcome of this was that they used to follow his teachings. He was such a majestic personality. To be honest and truthful in all things in life was Guru Nanak's advice. Sayyad Habib Shah who has studied different religions was a very good friend of Mohammad Iqbal. Habib became deeply influenced by Guru Nanak's bani, particularly Japji Sahib. He decided to translate this bani for the betterment of humanity. When his friend Iqbal came to know about his plan, he immediately sent a telegram to Habib, cautioning him to be just and righteous while translating the sacred bani. He writes in his telegram: "Habib, ask God to give you strength to be honest and just while translating Guru Nanak's Japji Sahib in Urdu. Be neutral while translating it because this has been penned by the great creator Guru Nanak. And the way Guru Nanak has served Islam is remarkable and unrivalled."

2: Irvinder Singh Babra (Brampton, Ontario, Canada), December 15, 2010, 4:12 PM.

A renowned Muslim scholar, Dr. Islam's study and appreciation of Guru Granth Sahib here, provides an extension to all others we have so far, from Macauliffe to Duncan Greenlees to Dr. Manohar Sehgal to Dr. Pashaura Singh. But unless we make it more easier to comprehend the contents, from ther perspective of the many diffrent faiths and religions, study of the Guru Granth will remain the domain of the few outside Sikhdom. Guru Granth Sahib is a massive gift of divinity to history, the Gurus having arranged teachings of the Sikh Gurus and some writings of non-Sikh as well. For it to become a working model of world-wide interfaith understanding and attention, leading to the knowledge that there is one God, who is absolute, eternal, infinite, beyond all human comprehension, more needs to be done. What is that and how it should be done, I do not know!

3: Mohan Singh (Toronto, Ontario, Canada.), December 16, 2010, 10:37 AM.

Guru Nanak traveled to the religious center of each faith to enlighten their preachers and the masses with his revelatory divine thought of One God. He remained on his missionary tours for over twenty years walking through dusty paths, jungles and hills, with Mardana visited all the major centers of Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism and Islam ... as well as the Siddhs in the Upper Himalayas, who considered themselves to be the 'learned ones'. They all submitted themselves before his divine revelation. Guru Nanak narrated the highest qualities of a Muslim: "It is difficult to be called a Muslim. To be truly Muslim, first, let him savour the religion of the Prophet as sweet; then, let his pride of his possessions be scraped away. Becoming a true Muslim, a disciple of the faith of Mohammed, let him put aside the delusion of death and life. As he submits to God's Will, and surrenders to the Creator, he is rid of selfishness and conceit. And when, O Nanak, he is merciful to all beings, only then shall he be called a Muslim." [GGS:141]. In one of his lectures, Maskeenji said the meaning of Muslim is "Aman-Salamati" but today this is not visible. There is no peace in the world. There are many international personalities who pay reverence to the Guru Granth, but there are few who attune their lives to it and live life accordingly. A Gurmukh businessman of Toronto had a dream to see Parkash of Guru Granth Sahib in each and every home of a Sikh. He decided to offer Bir (saroop) of Guru Granth Sahib as free seva within the community to those interested in having one, willing to pay it due respect, to read, understand and live their lives accordingly. In the last 30 years, the family has given a few thousands saroops to the Sikhs of Canada. Today this gentleman is no more but his worthy son has continued this seva to fulfil his father's dream. Some gurdwaras have also availed the services from this family. They have maintained the record of all those who have availed this opportunity. The condition is that one has to pick up the saroop personally by maintaining full respect and maryada.

4: Harbans Lal (Arlington, Texas, U.S.A.), December 16, 2010, 5:05 PM.

I am pleased to read Dr. Islam's narration of the universal appeal of Guru Granth Sahib and its 36 contributors. Without doubt this scripture is the most interfaith in its scope, as it engages the followers of all religions in the service to humanity. Dr. Islam has well illustrated Sikh universalism. Besides, he has made another intriguing observation. He wrote: "Let me give an example of the gurdwara inside Dhaka University campus. In Bangladesh there is not a single Sikh citizen. Despite that, on every Friday in this gurdwara, hundreds of people belonging to different religious backgrounds attend Sangat and join Pangat and these are promoting interfaith understating in this country." Dr. Islam is Professor and Chairman of the Department of World Religions and Culture at the Dhaka University in Bangladesh. His observation is very pertinent as I was told the same by two other eminent professors of Dhaka University who off-and-on visit the Dhaka gurdwara. They too related to me their observation and curiosity that many not overtly recognizable as Sikhs regularly paid visit to the gurdwara and took care of it. Like Dr. Islam, they too were not familiar with the sehajdhari Sikh segment of the Sikh Panth. When told about the sehajdhari Sikhs who had not taken khande-de-pahul but were proud and committed followers of the Sikh religion and its practices, they were pleasantly surprised. They were pleased to learn that there were millions of Sikhs who did not conform to the external form of the Khalsa but nonetheless were committed Sikhs. They were spread out all over the world. I am heartened to learn again that sehajdhari Sikhs in Bangladesh are performing their historical role of taking care of the Sikh sacred places under the circumstances that do not permit the Khalsa to do the same. This is a long recognized tradition among the sehajdhari Sikhs.

5: Ranjit Singh Vahan (Singapore), March 08, 2011, 9:34 AM.

The need of the time has been to treat all humanity as one ... the creation of the One Creator. Life is too short to waste in hatred and destruction.

6: Kirpal Singh (Daytona Beach, Florida, U.S.A.), June 17, 2011, 10:12 AM.

This is a beautiful article by Dr. Islam and needs to be circulated widely in inter-religious circles to facilitate mutual understanding among world religions through the United Nations and other peace promoting agencies of different countries, especially where Sikhs are living.

7: Simran (Oceanside, California, U.S.A.), June 17, 2011, 12:38 PM.

Thank you, Dr. Islam and the team! Thank you for sharing this. A big hug :)

8: G.S. Premi (Cupar Fife, Scotland), September 08, 2011, 1:57 PM.

Thank you, Dr. Islam. I wish the Sikhs today could also understand what you have put in words - we are desecrating the Guru Granth Sahib, trying to discredit it, trying to fool ourselves by introducing other books in parallel. In Punjab, India, the state and central governments are bent on destroying Sikhi. The Guru Granth is a ray of divine hope for Sikhs if they can open their eyes.

9: Bahadar Singh  (Birmingham, United Kingdom), September 10, 2011, 1:04 PM.

Excellent article by Dr. Islam. I feel a bit sad remembering that a few Muslims individually have paid great tributes to Guru Granth Sahib but historically followers of Islam, in the name of Islam, have treated Sikhs and Sikh Gurus so inhumanely. What we need to do is to eliminate the great big gap between our words and our actions. I do honour Dr. Islam's precious views on Guru Granth Sahib.

10: Trishna Singh (Edinburgh, Scotland, United Kingdom), November 03, 2012, 6:16 AM.

I have just found this site and would like to thank Dr Islam for this excellent article. This article should be circulated among the gurdwaras so that Sikhs themselves can wake up and see that all the different names on their resepctive gurdwaras promoting their particular sects are harmful to their Sikhi belief and the community and that they are not following Guru Nanak's message.

11: Harinder Pal Singh (Patiala, Punjab), August 06, 2013, 1:24 PM.

A precursor to this understanding was, perhaps, Baba Bulley Shah who witnessed the kar seva at Makhowal during the time of Guru Tegh Bahadar and wrote: "Itt kharikka, duppar vaje naale balle chullah. Enhi galin rab raji rehnda naale rehnda Bullah!" - "The construction of the holy place is going on along with the musical devotion of God. The langar is taking care of hunger. God remains happy with this devotion and so does Bulleh Shah!"

12: Amy Yawanrajah (Seremban, Malaysia), August 06, 2013, 8:59 PM.

I humbly submit my thoughts with all the deep and thought provoking writings of those before me. As a Hindu, I feel that all religions and the prophets who instilled in us our religious guidelines, no one has ever said that any specific religion is the ONLY religion that is great. I am so glad that one as great as Dr Islam has spoken with such conviction that all religions are from one base and WOW! to use "Paarbraham" - it just sets us right with no distinction among the religions and shows to those who remain blind in the belief that their own religion is supreme, that they need to take off the blindfold restricting their view and see reality as is. Indeed, Dr Islam has researched this writing par excellence, and leaves no doubt in my mind we are all of only one religion.

13: Shreya (India), December 26, 2013, 2:28 PM.

Wow, nice article. Highly impressed by Sikhism.

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