For peace and harmony in South Asia, some lessons from Sikhism and Sufism

Published - June 16, 2015 12:39 am IST

The relationship between Sufism and Sikhism dates back to the time of Guru Nanak, who led a modest life of profound, spiritual devotion, focussed on building bridges of love, tolerance, co-existence, and harmony among peoples of diverse faiths and socio-economic status. He was so immersed in piety and teaching his disciples to live spiritually, honestly, and harmoniously that many of his Muslim contemporaries, especially Sufis, called him a true Muslim.

Guru Nanak travelled extensively — including to Mecca for the Haj, different provinces of Afghanistan, and Baghdad — in search of divine knowledge and mystic scholarship. This exposed him much more to Islam and its mystic schools of thought than to any other religion. And, of course, for 64 long years, one of Guru Nanak’s closest companions was Mardanda, who remained a Muslim until he died. According to the custodian of the shrine of Miyan Mir in Lahore, Mardana’s descendants still live there, and refer to themselves as Sikh-Muslims.

Guru Nanak left behind many Hindu and Muslim disciples, and each claimed him as theirs for he had lived with them so harmoniously and treated them so equally, so respectfully and so sincerely that neither side was willing to give up his body to the other. Today, the shrine of Guru Nanak is visited not only by Sikhs but also by Hindus and Muslims, each seeking his blessings in their own ways.

It was in such a mutually reinforcing spiritual relationship, which had been evolving between Sufism and Sikhism, that Guru Arjan Dev invited Miyan Mir, a leading Sufi of his time and Pir of the Sufism’s Qaderi Order, to lay the foundation stone of the Golden Temple in Amritsar. Indeed, the commonality of the values and principles, which the Gurus and Sufis had been teaching their followers, was so deep with a focus on humanism that the Guru Granth (the central religious text of Sikhism) includes 112 couplets and four hymns by Khwaja Fariduddin Ganjshakar, a prominent Sufi of the Chishti Order, who lived in Punjab during 1266 A.D. This signifies the deep relationship between Sufism and Sikhism, and the influence they had on each other.

Since the emergence of Sikhism in the 15th century, the differences between the Sikh and Muslim communities have been traced to realpolitik. Such differences have hardly emanated from the shared path which the Sufis and the Gurus followed to reach truth by serving the vicegerents of God on this earth, while inviting them to love, tolerate, and help one another.

Afghanistan is the birthplace of many great Sufis, including the sultan-ul hind: Khwaja Moinuddin Chishti. He was born in Chisht, Herat, in 1141 A.D., and settled down in Ajmer, following a dream in which Prophet Mohammed blessed him to do so. Afghanistan has recently proposed to establish a sister-city relationship between Chisht of Herat and Ajmer to honour the legacy and contributions of the great Sufi and to strengthen cultural ties between Afghanistan and India, based on the two countries’ shared past and intertwined destiny.

The Chishti Order of Sufism — which influenced the thinking and teaching of Guru Nanak — interpreted religion in terms of human service, inviting its followers “to develop river-like generosity, sun-like affection, and earth-like hospitality”.

To implement these universally good deeds, the followers of Chishti and other Orders of Sufism set up khanaqas, community centres with feeding and lodging facilities, which were built throughout rural India. The Chishti Order khanaqas welcomed anyone, regardless of faith, race, or caste, and offered them food and shelter, spiritual guidance, psychological support, and counselling. By creating egalitarian communities within a stratified society, the Sufis spread their teachings of love, spirituality and harmony. It was this example of Sufi brotherhood and equity that drew people to Islam.

In order to restore peace and harmony in South Asia today, we do not need to look further afield. We simply should revisit the basic precepts of Sufism and Sikhism for lessons to be learned. In a shrinking, inter-dependent world, nations should tear down walls of hatred, hostility, and self-defeating, zero-sum designs to undermine each other. These artificial human obstacles to their collective progress should be replaced by honest, result-oriented efforts to achieve regional integration for peace and prosperity. That is what the great Sufis and Gurus of Central Asia and South Asia preached and promoted so that human tragedy was replaced by human harmony through universal human service and fraternity under one beneficent, merciful God and its many different, beautiful manifestations.

This year’s Summit of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) in Kathmandu debated the common challenges that confront the nations of South Asia. Extreme poverty, weak governance systems, lack of connectivity, lack of energy, and security threats continue to cause large-scale human suffering throughout the region, an otherwise naturally endowed and civilisationally rich region. To address the root causes of these problems and to exploit this region’s vast potential of natural and human resources for the collective security and prosperity of all their nations, Afghan President Ashraf Ghani called on his fellow SAARC leaders to “change the rules of the game and the playing field among the nations from confrontation to cooperation”.

In effect, President Ghani maintained that so long as the South Asian nations remained locked up in a zero-sum mindset, undermining one another, they would hardly develop and advance together on a sustainable basis. He noted that to change the status quo was “the test of leadership”. For inclusive, transformational leadership, which South Asia lacks, we need to draw inspiration from the kind of leadership that Guru Nanak exhibited. He led his Hindu and Muslim followers by example, so much so that he erased from his followers’ minds the differences of ethnicity, faith and caste. He unified them around an ethos that promoted the well-being of all humans.

Afghanistan, where many of this region’s Sufis, Gurus, poets, and scholars were once born and made remarkable contributions to the region’s shared, rich civilisation, has been a target of the so-called Muslims who daily terrorise innocent Afghans, burn down their schools and madaares, and carry out suicide terrorist attacks inside their mosques where the innocent and the poor worship God. They kill civilians in the name of a religion of peace, tolerance, harmony, and co-existence, whose true message the great Sufis of Afghanistan — like Khwaja Moinuddin Chishti — spread throughout South Asia.

Indeed, the Sufis’ was the real jihad, whose message of universal brotherhood naturally resonated with and attracted believers of different faiths and social castes. Theirs was the straight path, the path of Prophet Mohammed. Today’s killers of innocent Muslims and non-Muslims have deviated from that path, serving the political, short-sighted interests of realist states.

Because of this deviation from the noble teachings and traditions of Islam the terrorists that often kill and destroy, in the guise of jihad, would hardly succeed in their designs. Afghanistan didn’t succumb to their brutal, inhumane atrocities against its people in the 1990s, which eventually spelt their own downfall. Nor would the country’s courageous people ever cease their Greater Jihad to secure and rebuild their country, in partnership with the international community.

(Ashraf Haidari is deputy chief of mission of the Afghan Embassy in India)

0 / 0
Sign in to unlock member-only benefits!
  • Access 10 free stories every month
  • Save stories to read later
  • Access to comment on every story
  • Sign-up/manage your newsletter subscriptions with a single click
  • Get notified by email for early access to discounts & offers on our products
Sign in


Comments have to be in English, and in full sentences. They cannot be abusive or personal. Please abide by our community guidelines for posting your comments.

We have migrated to a new commenting platform. If you are already a registered user of The Hindu and logged in, you may continue to engage with our articles. If you do not have an account please register and login to post comments. Users can access their older comments by logging into their accounts on Vuukle.