Sikh Farmers From Punjab Serve Langar to Shaheen Bagh Protesters / Photo: Facebook/@surekhapillai
When Sikh Raagi Jatha (musicians) and “langar” sevadars showed up at the Shaheen Bagh protest, it was no surprise. Uninformed voices on social media argue every day that Sikhs are Hindus (and thus are part of the Hindutva umbrella) and have fought the Mughals in the past (and thus were against Muslims). Both these notions are categorically untrue.
Historically, Sikhs have had close friendships with people from other religions- be it Hindus or Muslims. Even though the dominating narrative from Hindutva supporters would have you believe that since Sikhs combatted the Mughals (and by reduction, they mean Muslims) for centuries, this is a flawed and in many ways an outright false concept.
Sikhs did not fight Islam. Sikhs fought against the communally charged policies of a regime that was persecuting a portion of the population on the basis of religion. Sikhs fought for every person who wanted the freedom to worship as they wished and to not be persecuted for it. Sound familiar?
As for the friendship between Sikhs and Muslims, it started even before Sikhism in its present form came into being. The first Sikh Guru- Guru Nanak Dev Ji- had two faithful companions who stayed by his side as he travelled on his spiritual journeys (known as chaar udasiyan), which ranged from the Middle East to Tibet. These companions were Bhai Bala and Bhai Mardana. Bhai Mardana was a Muslim who had grown up with Guru Nanak Dev Ji and would carry a musical instrument called ‘rabab’ singing hymns. He would lend music to Guru Nanak Dev Ji’s words about God starting the first tradition of Kirtan among Sikhs. Bhai Mardana also wrote poetry. One of his compositions appears in the in ‘along with two others of Guru Nanak’s which were addressed to Mardana.
Their friendship was controversial enough because of religious differences but there also existed an ingrained caste system in the society irrespective of religion. Bhai Mardana belonged to the ‘Mirasi’ caste, which sadly, is looked down upon even today by Punjabis. At the time, it was revolutionary that Bhai Mardana’s poetry not only was included in the Guru Granth Saheb, but also that he was the only person besides the Sikh Gurus who referred to himself as ‘Nanak’ in his poetry, for he and Nanak were one. It is profoundly sad that their attempts to reject caste have not been heeded to even hundreds of years later, as ‘Mirasi’ and ‘Kanjar’ are still used as casteist slurs by people.
After Bhai Mardana passed away, Guru Nanak Dev Ji appointed Rabbabi Satta Ji and Rabbabi Balwand Ji from the Mirasi community to carry on his legacy and they are said to have accompanied future Gurus with their music as they gave their sermons.
Perhaps the most famous Muslim Sufi poets who contributed to the Guru Granth Saheb are Baba Farid and Bhagat Kabir. Baba Farid was born as a Sunni Muslim and was one of the founding fathers of the Chishti Sufi order. One of his most important contributions to Punjabi Literature was his development of the language for literary purposes. Whereas Sanskrit, Arabic, Turkish and Persian had historically been considered the languages of the learned and the elite, Punjabi was generally considered a less refined folk language. By using Punjabi as the language of poetry, he laid the basis for a vernacular Punjabi literature that would become an expression of art.
During their travels, Guru Nanak Dev Ji and Bhai Mardana met Sheikh Ibrahim who occupied the spiritual seat of Baba Farid at Pakpattan (in present day Pakistan) and he sang Farid’s verses to the Guru. The Guru related strongly to the themes of Farid’s poetry which centered on ‘vairag’ i.e. dispassion towards the world and its false attractions. Eventually when the Guru Granth Saheb was compiled by the fifth Guru- Guru Arjan Dev Ji- 4 shabads (spiritual poems) along with 112 shloks from Baba Farid were included in the manuscript, a testament to how great an influence Baba Farid had on the Gurus and disciples.
On the other hand, the Gurus are said to have never met Bhagat Kabir in person and accounts vary about the timeline of his life, but most agree that he passed away (in 1448 approx.) before Guru Nanak Dev Ji was born (1469). Also known as Sant Kabir, he was an important Sufi poet in the Bhakti Movement and his famous ‘dohas’ are still recited today in households of all religions. It is said that when Guru Arjan Dev Ji, the fifth Sikh Guru, set about compiling the ‘Goindval Pothis’, which were anthologies of hymns by the preceding Gurus, he also entered in the works of enlightened saints and mystics, both Hindu and Muslim, and Bhagat Kabir was one of them.
When the holy scripture of Guru Granth Saheb was thus compiled and to be enshrined in present day Harmandir Saheb (Golden Temple) in Amritsar, it was another Muslim Sufi saint- Mian Mir who laid the foundation stone at the behest of Guru Arjan Dev Ji in 1589.
The stories and examples abound and what you read above is just scratching the surface. The truth is that Sikhism is a religion of humanity and empathy, it is and has always been a religion of people who will stand up against cruelty, people who will ask for justice, people who will fight for not just their own – but everyone’s rights. These stories of love and friendship are important and necessary today. In the words of author Haroon Khalid, “It is these tales that reflect the true interaction between Muslims and Sikhs in Punjab instead of the antagonism of the Mughal imperial authorities and Sikh Gurus. It is the stories of common people that need to be remembered and celebrated, instead of stories of kings and their whims.”
The next time you look at pictures from Shaheen Bagh, with Sikhs serving Langar or playing Kirtan, or lending music to chants of Azaadi, remember this friendship spans centuries. Regimes will come and go, but brotherhood, will last.