Q: What do Sikhs and Muslims have in Common?
A: Sikhism was begun 300 years ago in Punjab, now a state in northwestern India and eastern Pakistan, by Nanak, a man whose father was a Hindu. The conflict between their faiths led him to seek another, deeper reality, and his teachings became known as Sikhism. Nanak, who was called a Guru upon his enlightenment, was followed by nine further human gurus. The capstone of the guru succession was when the tenth guru, Gobind Singh, declared that the Adi Granth (the Sikh holy book, containing the hymns of all the gurus and other holy men) was now Guru Granth Sahib, the final and everlasting lord and guru. It is to the Granth Sahib that Sikhs now owe their reverence and obedience, and through which they hope to attain salvation.
As with most religions, there are important differences between the formal religion and the way it is practiced by ordinary folk. Historically speaking, the origins of Sikhism in Guru Nanak’s search for reconciliation between the faiths that divided India suggest that there should be a number of similarities between Sikhism and Islam. In truth, this is so at the formal level. Sikhism shares Islam’s espoused distaste for ritual and the trappings of ritual, though both faiths do have certain regular rites of prayer. Both religions have injunctions against idolatry. Sikhs and Muslims are also both strict monotheists, though it must be appreciated that the Sikh concept of God is far different from that which is typical of Islam, being more mystical and tending towards the impersonal.
There are also a number of differences at the formal level. For instance, Sikhism denies the reality of angels and demons, both of which figure prominently in Islamic belief. Sikhs also denounce miracles, pilgrimage, and fasting, all of which are important signs and practices in Islam. Sikhs may not eat meat from animals killed in the halal fashion, for while such meat is considered clean by Muslims, the method of slaughter is deemed unnecessarily cruel by Sikhs.
Moreover, the Sikh understanding of reality is much more like that of Buddhism or Hinduism, for whom physical reality is Maya, which entraps the soul, and insofar as salvation can only be found when someone becomes detached from the this illusory world. and indeed from himself. To quote from the book, Sikh Religion, published by the Sikh Missionary Center in Detroit:
This world is a vast and formidable ocean of Maya (materialism). A Sikh has to cross this ocean to meet his beloved God. The ocean seems endless and there are countless obstructions in the way. In order to get through this dangerous and formidable sea, one needs a strong ship and that ship is only the Guru, the Divine Light. (263)
All of the five vices--lust, anger, greed, attachment and ego--are the obstructions in the way of spiritual path, but egoism is the paramount of all. In the Guru's words one of the most recurring key terms is Haumai (I-am-ness) which is regarded as synonymous with the most insidious evil. Egoism is the moral evil which is the root cause of all ill doings. This egoism is the consequence of illusion, of looking upon the individual-self as of paramount importance. All his activities are exclusively directed towards himself. (266)
Additionally, the gurus have always affirmed the Hindu doctrine of karma, albeit potentially modified by God’s grace. (It must be understood that in Sikhism God’s grace is not guaranteed and is, in fact, mainly earned by already having sufficiently good karma.)
Practically speaking, there are various external similarities between Sikhs and Muslims. For example, there is modesty in dress and an emphasis on a strong public display of morality. Too, the Gurdwara (Sikh temple) like a mosque is organized in such a way as to very strictly divide the place and role of men and women, though they are afforded the same spiritual value.
That said, the outward signs associated with being a member of the Khalsa (loosely, baptized Sikhs) are usually sufficient to distinguish them (at least the men) from Muslims. Devout followers of the Khalsa code must observe a strict, eight-point moral code and must wear the five external symbols: kachha, or shorts (now worn as underwear); kara, or a wristband (most commonly a steel bracelet on the right wrist); kirpan, or sword (sometimes now worn as a pendant or other jewelry); kes, unshorn hair; and kanga, a special comb worn in the unshorn hair. Additionally, by tradition, male Sikhs commonly wear a turban as a sign of pride and self-sufficiency, and also an article of convenience, since their heads must be covered during religious observances. (A woman will usually cover her head with the chunni, or long and broad scarf, which is part of modest Punjabi dress.)
At the level of ordinary religious practice, the differences between Sikhs and orthodox Muslims become more pronounced. As in all religions, there can frequently be a vast difference between what adherents should believe and practice, and what they actually do. To make such an observation is not an indictment of the religion, but it is an objective look of what may actually happen when human beings practice a certain religion. No one is more disturbed by these realities than those who wish to teach the pure version of the religion. Nonetheless, they are realities. The aforementioned book laments:
“Some artists have painted imaginary pictures of all of the 10 Gurus. Have these artists ever seen the Gurus? One can find these pictures hanging in almost all of the gurdwaras and in the majority of Sikh homes. The irony of fate is that many of the Sikhs place garlands of flowers upon these pictures and also burn incense in front of them. Is it not idol (picture) worship? . . . while the guru was an idol-breaker, his so-called Sikhs have now become idol (picture) worshipers!” (287)
In other words, even though one may encounter these practices, this is not in the least to say that such practices are correct in light of the official teachings of Sikhism.
The same error with regard to the pictures of the Gurus, also can rear its head in how some people relate to the holy book, the Adi Granth. While technically opposed to all idolatry, the reverence shown to the Guru Granth Sahib (it is placed on an ornate altar, covered respectfully with a cloth when not being recited from, and given a luxurious bed to sleep on at night) is uncomfortably close to idol worship for many Muslims. At a folk level, the distinctions which were important to the Gurus, who taught that the path to salvation lies not in a book or in another man but in inward reflection, are often obscured or altogether lost. It is not uncommon for a Sikh to refer to the Granth Sahib as, “our god,” despite the fact that from the point view of the Granth Sahib itself, to do so is a serious error.
Furthermore, the inclusivity of the Granth Sahib, which contains hymns of other religions written by men who like Nanak were on spiritual journeys, together with the universality and somewhat vague definition of God in Sikhism, lead to a real openness in many Sikhs to the teachings of other faiths. “You have your god and I have mine,” they may say. “All ways to God are just as good.” For many Sikhs, this means more than just a tolerance for other religions, but an acceptance of them. It is not uncommon for Sikhs, especially adults in their twenties and thirties, to also practice Hinduism. This sort of broadly-construed monotheism is quite incompatible with the more literal understanding of God (Allah) in Islam, and is also rejected by pure Sikh doctrine.
Why should one even bring up these compromises on the level of every-day practice? It is not to embarrass the religion, because the same kinds of violations by alleged members are found in all religions that cherish their truth. One reason is to be aware, when meeting a Sikh in person, that this person may not be living according to his religion’s ideal standards, and so not to judge the entire religion by what one person or one sub-group does. A second reason is to express empathy with those who are called to teach the scriptural version of the religion; we, too, whether we are Buddhists, Christians, or Muslims, struggle with encouraging members of our religions to live according to the truth.
While Sikhism’s origins led the gurus to adopt some of the beliefs of Islam and of Hinduism, they also led them to reject many of them. The goal was to show a path to enlightenment which was available to all, regardless of caste, sex, or other externals, and in so doing they set forth a religion which has some general similarities to Islam but is really quite distinctive.