Guru Nanak Pir Sahab (May his memory and teachings live forever)

In his tribute to the pious soul in his 550th birth year, Dr. Mohammad Manzoor Alam looks respectfully at the Muslim understanding of his legacy.

The 550th year of Nanak Pir Sahab comes when the land of his birth (Punjab, astride the Indo-Pak border) when the relations between India and Pakistan have not been cordial for quite a while. In fact, the most enduring symbol of unity between the two sides is the unifying legacy of the Pir Sahab.

It seemed like a thaw in the frigid relationship of India and Pakistan when their government opened a corridor to the Gurdwara Kartarpur Sahab across the Punjab border, refurbished the shrine and put festive lights and welcoming ambience for Sikh brethren and sisters from our side of the land.

Over the last half millennium Nanak Pir has been loved and respected by Muslims of Pakistan and of much of India as a pir (pious and enlightened soul) in the Islamic sufi tradition. Muslims of North India and of Pakistan have always been cognizant of the resonance the Pir Sahab’s utterances found in Islamic vocabulary.

Muslims of Punjab on both sides of Punjab border, because of their shared language, can more quickly empathise with the sensitivities of Baba Nanak than other north Indian Muslims. Because of the linguistic barrier Muslims from the South or deep East may not instantaneously grasp the beauty of the pir, much of which is rooted in sufi Islam’s Arabic and Persian terminology, or the esoteric concepts of this particular kind of spiritualism.

An interesting example: the Pir Sahab, who had great love and regard for the Muslim sufi tradition ( as opposed to the Islamic orthodoxy, its state, kings and qazis) had speech replete with sufi ideas, a prominent  one of them being that a pious soul meets God and merges with Him after bodily death, like a bride meets her groom. He used to say, “I am God’s bride.” This was the usual way Muslim sufis talked about their relationship with God.

The Arabic word for bride is urus. We see urs (the time of the pir’s soul leaving the earth and going out to meet God, the bridegroom) being celebrated all over India and Pakistan to mark the death anniversary of sufi saints. The legacy of Baba Nanak has prevailed among Muslims whatever the politics of the time: whether it was early Mughal rule (when he was born), the late Mughal rule (when the Mughal emperor got in conflict with later Gurus) or the end of British rule (when Sikhs, along with Hindus and Muslims suffered greatly in the Partition of India), the great guru’s teachings and his example knit us together again and helped us heal each other’s wounds with love and forgiveness.

The greatest affinity that Muslims have with Sikhism is Baba Nanak’s uncompromising insistence on unicity of God (Ek Onkar) and unity of entire mankind. These two themes are part of a larger theme, Tawhid (unity of God), and unity of all mankind as the children of the same parents, Adam and Eve, are reflected in all the three Abrahamic faiths (Judaism, Christianity and Islam).

The Bible says God blew His own breath into the body of Adam, the father of all humans, and thus there is something of the divine in all humans, whatever his or her faith. Muslim sufis, who were quite close to Baba Nanak’s affection, held the belief that God created Adam, the father of all of us, from his light, which clearly shows the equality of all humans and a close kinship between them. Nanak Pir Sahab held this view (which is also the faith of Muslim orthodoxy). This and a lot of similar reasons made Muslims of his day and Muslims of today love and respect him. That, in any case, is demanded by Islam from every Muslim, to love and respect rejal-Allah (men of God) whatever their faith. Baba Nanak is in the category of such rare men.

Mohammad Iqbal, who is regarded as a major interpreter of Islam, wrote in his famous Hindustani Bachchon ka Qaumi Geet (national song of Indian children):

Chishti ne jis zameen par paigham-e-haq sunaya
Nanak ne jis chaman mein wahdat ka geet gaya
Mera watan wahi hai, mera watan wahi hai

(The land in which Chisti brought monotheism’s Truth, the garden in which Nanak sang monotheism’s song, that is my motherland, that is my mother land.)

Iqbal, in his classic anthology, Baang-e-Dara, returns to Baba Nanak in an eponymous poem. He says the land, which had failed to pay heed to the Great Gautam Buddha was in the need of a great soul to come there for millennia, finally had its need fulfilled. It was a time when the great lamp of Buddha was burning in foreign lands:

Shama-e-Gautam jal rahi thi mehfil-e-aghyar mein
Butkada phir baad muddat ke magar roshan hua
Noor-e-Ibrahim se Azar ka ghar roshan hua
Phir uthi tawhid ki aakhir sada Punjab se
Hind ko ek mard-e-kamil ne jagaya khwab se

(Gautam’s lamp was burning in other people’s assemblies. The temple [of India] was flooded with light again. Azar’s (the polytheist father of Abraham) home was lit with Abraham’s light. Again the call to the Only God rose from Punjab. India was awakened from its sleep by a perfect man.)

Our generation of Indian Muslims, who grew up on a steady doze of Iqbal’s poetry, got convinced about the relevance of Nanak Pir Sahab’s enduring legacy to be cherished by all Indians (and Pakistanis). We were convinced in our hope when the top news magazine of India published a picture of a group of men singing Baba Nanak Sahab’s hymn. The caption below said it was a group of Bhai Mardana’s descendents in Pakistan.

For people who are not familiar with this name, I would like to inform that he was a close Muslim follower of Pir Sahab. A few years ago, when Pakistani writer Akbar S. Ahmad was visiting Ajmer, he said the road to peace between India and Pakistan passed through Ajmer. I would like to add that it also passes through Kartarpur Sahab and Nanakana Sahab.

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