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Influence of Islam and Sufism on Sikhism

Dr Manjit Singh Ahluwalia

Islam exerted a considerable influence on Indian life, culture and religion during the middle ages in the same way just as Christianity and system of modern education is playing an important part in the religious and cultural development of modern India. During medieval period, it is a fact that Islam, if not so much as a faith, but at least as a State religion, played an important role in the development of Sikhism.

Islam and Sufism have influenced most of the religious movements of India from thirteenth century onwards. Indians, mostly religious minded and inclined towards mysticism, warmly welcomed the mystical teachings of Islam. The egalitarian and humanistic attitude of the Sufis attracted the Hindu masses who were groaning under the pressure of casteism and untouchability in their own society. All these factors led to the growth of Sufism by leaps and bounds and thus profoundly influenced the Indian society and culture.

Like Buddhism and Siddhism, Islam influenced Sikhism more on practical side than on the side of its theoretical teachings. For instance, there are two modes of worship in Islam: Individual and congregational. The Hindu worship was mostly individual. Besides the individual prayers, a Sikh has also to join the congregation in a Gurudwara twice a day, at sunrise and sunset. Again the way in which the holy book, Guru Granth Sahib is wrapped in clothes and when opened, but not read, is covered by a sheet of cloth has also been the fashion for the holy Quran. The most important resemblance between the two scriptures is in the headlines of every composition contained therein. The Mulmantra of Guru Granth Sahib and the Bismillah of Quran, are both dedicated to One Merciful God and are placed in the beginning of every chapter. They resemble both in content and form.1

Most of the founders of religious sects (including Sikhism) made the best use of their knowledge of Sufism and used the Sufi terminologies to preach their views. This undoubtedly helped in stimulating the Indian religious movements. Influence of Sufism is quite evident in the teachings of Guru Nanak, Kabir, Dadu and other saints of Bhakti movement in medieval India. The early exposition of spiritual thought in the Upanishads formed an ideological bridge between Vaishnavism and Sufism. At the same time, the Sufis were so impressed by Indian thought and practices that many of them adopted these ideas. Similarly some Kayasthas, Khatris, Kashmiri Pandits and Sindhi Amils adopted Muslim culture, cultivated Persian language and literature, and participated in the administration of Islamic states during the medieval period.2

During the rule of Sultan Zain-ul-Abidin, the Kashmiri Pandits, especially the Sapru clan took up the study of Persian. This was the only group of Brahmins who took to Muslim culture. The Amils of Sindh were a hereditary caste of government servants. After the incorporation of Sindh in Delhi Sultanate, they turned to the study of Persian. Their Sindhi literature remained fully integrated with Muslim traditions and they wrote Sindhi in Arabic script.3

Tara Chand rightly observes, ‘ Hindus offered sweets at Muslim shrines, consulted the Quran as an oracle, kept its copies to ward off the evil influence, and celebrated Muslim feasts. The Muslims responded likewise.’4

The Sufis and Bhakti saints made a departure from orthodox Islam and Hinduism.
However, while the Sufis essentially remained within the fold of Islam, the Bhakti mystics, particularly those of Nirguna Marga, challenged all religious norms, including the religious scriptures, incarnation theory, and idol worship. All fought for an egalitarian society, in which there should be respect, a sense of human dignity and fraternity for all without distinction.

There were many Sufi Sheikhs and Bhakti Gurus who were equally popular among the Hindus and Muslims and there was an effective literary and cultural interaction between the two communities. The devotional form of Bhakti literature, including the Guru Granth Sahib, the Panchvani and the Niryanpanti, which include the sayings of a large number of religious thinkers are similar to the Rushd Nama of Abdul Quddus Gangohi and other such compilations. All these contributed to the evolution of a common culture in India. This produced a new mystical terminology and their ideas contained in them took an identical course. The mutual use of large number of Hindi and Persian words, phrases, idioms and similes in the Bhakti and Sufi literature show the extent of foreign influence on Indian culture and vice-versa.5

There has been close contact, very often cordial between the Sufis and Indian Yogis. Gorakh’s cult was an attempt to reconcile Buddhism and Sufism. It adopted a way in between the two. If Sufis made their converts from among the Yogis, a number of Sufis became Yogis also.6 The Chisti Sufis held discourses with Siddhas and Yogis who made frequent visits to the Jamaat Khana at Multan and Delhi.7

It is significant that many of the khanqahs of early Muslim Sufis in India were established outside the old cities, in the midst of the settlements of the poor. The liberal and secular ideas of the Sufis, and their humanitarian attitude towards all, attracted particularly the depressed classes to the khanqahs. Besides the two basic socio-religious ideals, the unity of God and the unity of human being taught by the Sufis determined the extent of the discontent of the lower classes of people towards the established thought and practice in Hinduism. It was but natural that they were bound towards this new social order, so different from their own.8

The Sufi attitude towards the Hindus and Hinduism was based on understanding and adjustment, because it was believed that all religions were different roads leading to the same destination. Believing in ahimsa, living as vegetarian, and giving equal status to all, naturally increased the scope of their contact with the Hindus. Again the mutual use of a large number of Hindi and Persian words, phrases and idioms and similes in Sufi and Bhakti literatures shows the extent of social contact. Indian musical forms like Khayal and Thumri and the recitation of Hindi verses have been very much in use in the samas and khanqahs. Being a powerful means of spiritual satisfaction, the sama or qawwali became a popular institution of medieval mysticism and attracted higher intellects as well as common people of both the communities.

Sikhism and Islam
In the five hundred years of Sikhism, there has been many a debate on the Vedantic roots of Sikhism and also on its Semitic antecedents which came via Islam. There is also a second powerful argument which holds that, to look at Sikhism as a synthesis is to diminish it, for it is an entirely new revealed system. In fact both have seen something admirable in Sikhism with which they can identify.9

History tells us that the founder of Sikhism, Guru Nanak, was revered by both Muslims and Hindus of the time. He traveled widely to both Hindu and Muslim places of pilgrimage and his two constant companions throughout were Mardana, a Muslim and Bala, a Hindu. Mardana also composed some hymns which are included in the Sikh scriptures.

Many scholars have stressed the Islamic and Sufi influence on different religious movements of India but the impact of Islam and Sufism on Sikh religion and thought is yet to be properly assessed. The Islamic and Sufi concepts of the unity and sovereignty of God, unity of revelation and variety of Divine Scriptures have permeated to a great extent in the Sikh teachings. We find that Sikhism has made the best use of its acquaintance with Islam and Sufism to preach the religious views. The verses contained in the Sikh Holy scripture Guru Granth Sahib bear ample evidence that the Sikh Gurus were well versed in Islamic and Sufi learnings.

There is enough evidence that Guru Nanak, the founder of Sikh religion, had not only studied Islam but had close contacts with the contemporary Mullahs and Pirs when be engaged in religious debates on several occasions. It is well known that he had close contacts with the Muslims. There is every likelihood that he had imbibed some of the Islamic and Sufi doctrines particularly pertaining to devotion and love of God. Guru Nanak’s own religious ideals and representations could not but be somewhat influenced by Sufi thought and imagery as suggested by many of his verses. S A A Rizvi thinks that, as he belonged to a literate family, neatly placed in the service of Afghan governors of the Punjab, he must have listened to the verses of Rumi, Sa’di, Hafiz and Jami in his own environment and the thought of the great mystic poets would have aroused interest in divine love, grace and mercy.10

However, as far as his contemporary Kabir is concerned, there is no uncertainty. He was brought up in a Muslim family and was well acquainted with Islamic and Sufi teachings due to family tradition as well as his personal contacts with contemporary Sheikhs and Pirs.11

It is pertinent to mention here that Guru Nanak was well acquainted with Islamic teachings and Sufi doctrines. He had travelled extensively and visited many holy places. Moreover he had met and conversed with many Sufis of his time particularly Sheikh Sharaf of Panipat and Sheikh Ibrahim, the spiritual successor of Baba Fariduddin Ganj-i-Shakar. Therefore, his teachings are very close to the mystical doctrines preached by the Muslim Sufis. To quote Tara Chand, “How deep Guru Nanak’s debt is to Islam, it is hardly necessary to state, for it is so evident in his words and thoughts. Manifestly he was steeped in Sufi lore and the fact of the matter is that it is much harder to find how much exactly he drew from the Hindu scriptures.”12

Four hymns and 130 shloks of Baba Sheikh Farid have been included in the Guru Granth Sahib, compiled by 5th Guru, Arjan Dev.13 Although there is a dispute concerning the authorship of these shloks, it is beyond dispute that these shloks are the compositions of a Sufi and reflect the impact of Sufism on the Sikh religion.14

On the theoretical side, although Muslim concept of the unity of God resembles Guru Nanak’s monotheistic belief and his concept of solity of God, yet instead of replacing the Hindu immanental God by the transcendental God of the Muslims, he combined the two aspects in the same deity.15 One thing which is particularly Muslims or more correctly Semitic is the male character of God. The Guru never in serious thought represents God as female, as it is sometimes done in the Hindu sacred literature.

Guru Nanak’s God is merciful, but not so much as to say “God forgives even if there is no repentance on the part of the sinner” as mentioned in the Quran. Sometimes in the Quran, but never in Guru Granth Sahib, is God described as avenging. Similar ideas are met within Vedic hymns. God is mentioned to be Retributor and Wrathful. Guru Nanak declared, “My Lord is kind and always kind.” (mehrwan sahib mera mehrawan)

The ideas of Guru Nanak reveal his contact with two types of Muslims: The orthodox and the Sufi. The hypocrisy,16 intolerance and formalism of the former repelled Guru Nanak. His attacks against the Mullah and the importance which he attaches to externality are as severe as they are against the Brahmin.

The philosophy of Hukm is Semitic in general, but it is characteristically prominent in the Muslim thought. The very word Hukm is Quranic. Again Quranic ideas like : ‘All people are a single nation (2-213), and people are naught but a single nation’ (10-9) found expression in Guru Nanak’s words like: All men are of the same caste and that we are all equal, no high and low, all brothers, no friends or foes.

Just as in mosque, the ideal of brotherhood is triumphant, ‘the beggar, the sweeper, the prince worship side by side’; similarly in a gurdwara all social superiority or inferiority is set at naught.17 The orthodox belief that Mohammad was the prophet of God, did not appeal to Guru Nanak. He said if there was one prophet than there were millions like him. When a Qazi asked Guru Nanak to have faith in one God and His one Rasul-Prophet, he said, ‘ Why to have faith in the latter who takes birth and dies, believe only in the one who is omnipresent.18

The narrow-mindedness and the intolerance of this school, led Nanak to say the opposite: that all religions were true only if they were to be sincerely lived, and not hypocritically boasted of. Allah and Ram, mosque and temple did not differ in essence. So much so that the Sixth Guru got a mosque constructed for the Muslims. The first Guru did not object on principle to say prayers in a mosque, but he could not join the group as the leader was not sincere in his prayers.19

It is no coincidence that the Islamic scholars understood Guru Nanak much better than Hindu scholars. Because of Nanak’s crusade against false rituals, the Pandits felt danger to their khir-puri and called him a kuraiya, a corruptor. Muslims were more liberal in understanding Nanak. Many Pirs and Fakirs made very close relations and understanding with the house of Nanak. Foundation stone of Har Mandir in Amritsar, the sanctum sanctorum of the Sikhs, was laid by Mian Mir, a Muslim Pir of great repute.20

The only difficulty Guru Nanak had in his encounter with the Muslim saints, scholars and sages was that most of them would not believe that a non-Muslim and particularly a man born in a Hindu family could be an enlightened man of supreme revelation. But as soon as they came to know that he was more staunch a monotheist than any Muslim or Jew, and he did not believe in idolatry, their attitude changed and most of their differences disappeared.21

Guru Nanak took from Quran and Sufi literature a good many terms and symbolic expressions, like sidak, sabar, hukm, nadir, mehar, karam ( grace), etc. The striking resemblance between some of the utterances in the Quran and his writings shows that he had studied Islamic source books thoroughly. He tells us how one should be a true Muslim, and what is shariat and kalma for him.

Where was so much Islamic literature available to Guru Nanak? It is not difficult to answer this question. Guru Nanak worked as Modi (Granary Officer) of Daulat Khan Lodhi, Governor of Punjab at Sultanpur, for over ten years. Here was available to him the library of Daulat Khan’s son Ghazi Khan, a young man of very scholarly taste. This library was at that time the biggest library in India housing very rare manuscripts on Islamic literature, and scholars came from far and near to consult rare books. Guru Nanak had access to this library for all the years he lived in Sultanpur. That accounts for his profound knowledge of Islamic history and doctrines.22

Sikhism and Sufism
More positive in content was the exchange of ideas which took place between the Sikh Gurus and Muslim Sufis. The Sufis are the followers of the mystic and emotional side of the teachings of the great Prophet’s religion. Guru Nanak had personal relationship with some well known Sufis, the verses of one of whom are recorded in Guru Granth Sahib. Muin-ud-Din Chisti of Sistan came to Delhi in 1192 AD along with the army of Shihabuddin Ghauri. Three years later he went to Ajmer which became the first centre of Chisti order in India.

Guru Nanak met Baba Farid II, who was the 13th spiritual successor of First Sheikh Farid Shakarganj. There is a fusion of Advaitic Bhakti and Sufism in Sikhism. Just as there are stages in the spiritual uplift of a Sufi, similarly Guru Nanak also speaks in his Japu Ji of five steps, in the spiritual progress of man. Singing of the praises of God, music and free kitchen are some of the common practices among the Sufis and the Sikhs.

Our purpose of the comparative survey of Sikhism is to show that if we say that Sikhism is the branch of this or that religion is to shut our eyes to the multifarious trends of thought originating from these sources and contributing to the general atmosphere in which the founders of Sikhism flourished. Just as the mere presence of the ideas of transmigration of souls and the law of Karma should not make us think that Sikhism in nothing but Hinduism; similarly its stern monotheistic character should not persuade some scholars to say that Guru Nanak was a Mohammadan.

Thus we find that Sikhism was not only deeply influenced but it also made the best use of its acquaintance with Islam and Sufism to preach the religious views. Guru Nanak’s quatrains bear ample evidence of his being well versed in Islamic and Sufi learning. In Sikh religion, the impact of Islam and Sufism seems to be deeper than the founders of other religious sects. The fact of the matter is the Sikh religious teachings are so much influenced by the Islamic teachings and Sufi doctrines that it can never be understood without a good knowledge of Islam and Sufism.



1 Sher Singh, Philosophy of Sikhism, rpt. (Amritsar, 1993), pp. 114-15.

2 In the time of Sultan Sikandar Lodi, a Brahmin is reported to have been so well-versed in Islamic learning that he taught Islamic precepts of the Muslims. K.A. Nizami, Some Aspects of Religion and Politics in India during the Thirteenth Century, (Delhi, 1978), p. 237.

3 Aziz Ahmad, Studies in Islamic Culture in Indian Environment, (Oxford, 1964), pp. 105-107.

4 Tara Chand, Influence of Islam on Indian Culture, (Allahabad, 1963), p. 217.

5 Shihabuddin Iraqi, Bhakti Movement in Medieval India, (Aligarh, 2009), pp. 245-46. One important convert was Jaipal or Ajaipal, Prithviraj’s preceptor, converted to Islam by Khwaja Muinuddin Chishti. M.T. Titus, Indian Islam, (Delhi, 1979), p.44; T.W. Arnold, The Preaching of Islam, ( London, 1896),p. 281; A typical Hindu-Muslim cult of pirs also developed in northern and central India. Gugga Pir, supposed to have been converted to Islam by Khwaja Moinuddin Chisti, was popular mostly in eastern Punjab as a protector against snake-bite.

6 Amir Hasan Sijzi, Fuwaid-ul-Fawad, ( Luclnow, 1894), pp.59-60, 404-05, 417-18.

7 Shihabuddin Iraqi, op. cit., pp. 249-50.

8 Ibid., pp. 252-53

9 I.J. Singh, ‘Tolerance in Religion: How Sikhs view the other Religions’, The Sikh Review, Kolkata, December, 2003,p.46

10 S.A.A. Rizvi, “Indian Sufism and Guru Nanak” in Perspectives on Guru Nanak, (ed.) Harbans Singh, pp. 200-01.

11 Ghulam Sarwar, Khazinat-al Asfiya, vol. I, p. 445, as cited by Hafiz Md. Tahir Ali, Influence of Islam and Sufism on Prannath’s Religious Movement, p. 126, fn.4.

12 Tara Chand, op. cit., p. 176.

13 Surinder Singh Kohli, A Critical Study of Adi Granth, p.2; In Guru Granth Sahib, there are four pads ( in Rag Asa and Rag Suhi) and 130 shloks bearing the name of Shiakh Farid. See Macauliffe, The Sikh Religion, rpt., vol. IV, ( Delhi, 1993), pp. 391-414.

14 K.A. Nizami, Life and Times of Shaikh Farid-u’d Din Ganj-i-Shakar, p. 122.

15 Khaja Khan, The Philosophy of Islam, (Madras, 1903) p. V.

16 Sher Singh, op. cit., pp. 115-.116

17 Ibid., p. 116.

18 Macauliffe, op. cit., Vol. I, pp 102, 121, 123.

19 Sher Singh, op. cit., p. 118.

20 Trilochan Singh, ‘Guru Nanak’s Approach to Contemporary Philosophies’, The Sikh Review, Calcutta, pp. 9-10

21 J.S. Kohli, ‘Guru Nanak’s Footprints in Islamic World’, The Sikh Review, Kolkata, May, 2006, p.30.

22 Ibid., p. 10.



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