image caption: Gurmukh Singh

Sikh Approach to Living in Islamic Countries

  • Share the Similarities between Sikh Religion and Islam while interpreting universal values into those similarities as did Baba Nanak.

  • It was that approach of Guru Nanak Sahib which won over the Muslim saints and clerics at the Muslim centres. (Thus, ਗੜ੍ ਬਗਦਾਦੁ  ਨਿਵਾਇਕੇ  ਮਕਾ ਮਦੀਨਾ ਸਭੇ  ਨਿਵਾਇਆ।)

With world focus on Afghanistan, we are also concerned about Sikhs living in Islamic countries. What sort of approach should the Sikhs adopt to live in these countries with dignity as good citizens? It is possible to learn from the approach adopted by Guru Nanak Sahib, reverentially called Baba Nanak by Islamic religious leaders. There are sakhis about the discourses Baba Nanak had with the Muslim clerics, the kajis and the mullahs. It seems they accepted his interpretational authority of Islam. It was in that sense that Bhai Gurdas wrote that the Muslims of Baghdad, Mecca and Medina bowed before his knowledge of the essence of Islam.

As mentioned last week, when Dr Zaki Badwi, Principal of an Islamic College in Ealing, invited me to make a presentation about Sikhi, he had been impressed by the similarities between Sikhi and Islam. These similarities had been listed in Sikh Religion and Islam (2001), my joint study with late S. Gurbachan Singh Sidhu, lead founder of the Sikh Missionary Society UK. When I edited the book (my remit) I had identified 20 similarities.

However, I was also aware at the time that when studied in depth, these similarities were only apparent. It is true with world religions that there is a gap between theory and practice. More so when there is disagreement even about the basic precepts. It is an uphill struggle even for Islamic scholars. It was the same during the time of the Gurus. The strict interpretation of Islam by Sheikh Ahmad Sirhindi undid the moderating influence of Emperor Akbar and eventually brought about the downfall of the Mughal empire. He was the antithesis of Sufi saints like Saint Mia Mir of Lahore. The latter was a devotee of Guru Arjan Sahib.

We are told that the Sharia law is derived from the words of Prophet Muhammed and that while it cannot be altered, some flexibility is allowed in its interpretation. One difficulty is that, if interpreted harshly, Sharia law seems to give priority to corporal and capital punishment over rehabilitation. There are also allegations that it is generally biased against women. We have many reasons given in recent debates why Afghanistan Muslim women do not trust the Taliban regime. Western leaders, including PM Johnson, have expressed grave concern about the rights of women and girls in Afghanistan.

Examples of harsh interpretation of Sharia are that theft is punishable by amputation of the hands (Quran 5:38) punishment of death is prescribed for denying Allah any part of the Quran Muhammad Sahib or his prophethood and, conversion to another faith. There is concern expressed that Sharia law as a parallel legal system to secular law in Western countries is a process of Islamization of Western countries. Some feel that charges of Islamophobia can stifle healthy discussion.

Nevertheless, Sikhs living in Islamic countries can build bridges with Islamic scholars through Gurbani teachings and reference back to Baba Nanak, towards moderate interpretation of Sharia Law and a just society.

Gurmukh Singh