THOUGHTS INSPIRED BY INTERFAITH INTERACTIONS IN PAKISTAN

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I visited Pakistan in Jan 2004 as one of a group of scholars invited by certain Institutions in Pakistan through the efforts of Dr Ibrahim Abu Rabi, Co Director, McDonald Center for Christian Muslim Understanding, Hartford Seminary, Hartford, CT. Others comprising the group were: Dr Ian Markham, Dean, Hartford Seminary; Dr Worth Loomis, Professor, Hartford Seminary & Dr [Mrs.] Louis Loomis; Dr Ralph E Ahlsberg & Mrs Beverly Ahlsberg; Colleen M Keyes, Academic Dean, Tunxis Community College; Dr Norton Mezvinsky, Professor of History, CCSU; Dr Roger van Zwaenberg, Managing Director, Pluto Press, UK & Ms Anna Marsh and Dr Faris Kaya, Istanbul Foundation for Science & Culture, Turkey.

After a three day roundtable on ‘Islamic Revolution’ with Dr Israr Ahmed, Quran Academy, Lahore, we all took a day trip to Amritsar and visited the Golden Temple on the Maghi day, Jan 13th. During the period at Lahore we also had a session at the Iqbal Academy and a public meeting to share our thoughts and messages consequent to our exchange of ideas. We left for Islamabad on the 14th where we were the guests of Institute of Policy Studies. At Islamabad we also participated in a conference on ‘Faith Perspectives on Global Issues of Peace and Justice’ and discussions with the academics at Islamic Research Institute and International Islamic University plus an inter faith meeting at the Christian Study Center.

SOME OBSERVATIONS ON PAKISTAN

Pakistanis generally are very clear about the origin of their State in Islamist separatism and think it was the only right and practical way to create a society where they could promote Islamic way of life. They think that historically this goal was not uniformly met even though Muslims ruled India for over seven hundred years.  They consider several Muslim Kings did not act correctly in that their actions were motivated by strong urge for personal approbation, wealth and luxury – not for glory of Islam or Islamic way of life. Those like Akbar are cited as Hinduized and Mohamed Tughlaq, Khilji, bin Kassem who tried to rule by sharia are considered heroes.

In the same vein many mystic traditions are condemned for being influenced by Hindu practices. Pakistanis are conscious of their Hindu roots prior to their [more recent] conversion. They also recognize Gandhi’s [Hindu] political achievements and the efficacy in certain situations of his methods of satyagraha. Overall with distance as well as relative success of India as an economy and stable polity they have a grudging respect for the Hindus.

Pakistanis seem to be looking Westward to Arabs, Europe, US. They would like peace with India because they seem to see the futility of continued hostility and low intensity conflict that is draining both. They would like open borders and exchanges so that their economy and quality of life can improve. How that may impact their Westward slant is to be seen.

There is poverty but more hidden than seen in India. The elite are very affluent. There is hardly any purda in Pakistan towns or villages. Women drive cars and scooters; work in the fields; are bus hostesses. Young college going girls are dressed in jeans or salwars. Restaurants are packed with families eating late. The shops are open late and women are out shopping – though my guess is male members invariably accompany them. You don’t however see many women walking alone or in groups except on college campuses. The language spoken is Punjabi and Urdu mix –educated urbanites speak more Urdu. There are quite a few speaking Pahari, Kashmiri, and Afghani.

The minorities in Pakistan have certain constraints associated with an Islamic State though they have experienced a measure of physical safety over the years. This could be possibly because their numbers and activities are not threatening. The Ulema however distinguish between Mazhab [just the faith] and Deen [faith plus the political, economic and social system sanctioned by the faith] and their view is that Deen in an Islamic state is Islam. The trade off for other faiths to live as only mazhabs is protection by the State and adherents of the Deen.

IQBAL ACADEMY

During our discussions at the Academy my thrust was that Iqbal in his earlier works had talked of Nanak and Budha and sang of his love for an inclusive India. He also is a part of the long heritage including Sheikh Farid, Baba Nanak [and the Sikh Gurus], Bule Shah, Shah Hassan, Bhai Veer Singh and several others who grew up in this part of the world. My suggestion was that recognizing the inclusive themes in Iqbal’s writings the Academy should work on and bring out the continuum of rich, humane, inspiring and spiritually enhancing thought emerging from Punjab over the last millennium. There was a lot of interest in the suggestion – Attiya Syed, the only women scholar we met and several others wanted to talk more about it during the dinner that followed.

NOSTALGIA FOR WHAT WAS

The Pakistanis do have nostalgic feelings for what was and do express them. We were asked to speak at a public meeting at the Quran Academy. The hall was packed. Women in the audience were segregated and ladies in our group also joined them. The audience was mainly of observant Muslims. Israr Ahmed insisted I address in Punjabi which I did and somehow received repeated applause. Colleen and other ladies from our group told me that they did not understand what I was saying but the women folk were very appreciative, nodding, gesticulating and applauding at most of what I was saying. “What did you say – what did you do to them?”

Nothing – I talked about my feelings of homecoming – a journey down the memory lane – and that we could give one another neighborly love and kind thoughts. Talked of Baba Nanak, his gift of love, caring and sharing to all of us – his respect for all persuasions – our shared heritage, culture, language and a call to carry this message to all for the world indeed is going through a very troubled period.

MEETING WITH INTER FAITH GROUP

We met with an interfaith group at Christian Study Center in Rawal Pindi. The various functionaries of the center, a young Muslim activist, and a Hindu made presentations. No Sikh was present. Col Tressler who has been a Minister for Minority Affairs in the Musharaf Government was present and seemed to be guiding their deliberations. Tressler is around 65 and would have been a small boy in ’47. He told me he has a brother with the same initials living in Agra and that brother continues to be Hindu. I did not ask him his story but my guess is that his family must have fragmented in ’47 and those staying back turned Christians for their safety. The Christian population in Pakistan is about 3% of the total.

Some points relevant to our discussion that emerged in the inter faith meeting were that:

  • Certain problems faced by minorities are very real e.g. Hindus cannot cremate their dead in some places because of objections to the smell of burning flesh by the local community. They also have not been allowed to install idols in some of the Mandirs vandalized post Babri Masjid incident in India.
  • Minorities are economically very weak especially Sikhs. The Christians, who were converted from untouchables mainly, have bettered their lot through conversion but still are relatively disadvantaged.
  • Sindhi Hindus tend to be in business and some are relatively economically OK.

SIKH VISIBILITY IN PAKISTAN

Wandering Pakistani bazaars, tourist spots, parks and restaurants one may see many Arabs; few Westerners; crowds of locals but no Sikhs – not one. There is no Sikh mention or image on the TV. The Hindu presence is pretty vivid, though surely unintended, because of the images relayed by Zee and Star TV channels. I believe there is a radio program in the mornings where some kirtan is transmitted followed by Sikh separatist talk. I have not listened to their programs but I don’t think mainstream Pakistanis would be their target audience.

Sikhs are portrayed negatively in Pakistan History books including by respected scholars like Dr Mahmood Ahmad Ghazi, one of our hosts, who was minister for Religious Affairs in Musharaf Government and is the Vice President of International Islamic University. Even expensive touristy publications portray Sikh rule as having been oppressive and unjust. Israr Ahmed also contented in his presentation that Sikhs had badly persecuted Muslims in the 18th century and that Ranjit Singh had razed mosques and built Gurdwaras in their place burying Quran into the doorways. During our trip to Nankana Sahib Asif Hameed and his friends told me that they were taught in School that Sikhs are tyrannical and were curious to know how Muslims were portrayed in India.

The sense that I got is that Pakistani ulema and scholars seem to display resentment for Sikhs in history possibly for the reason that Sikhs were the only Indians who were able to dislodge the Mughal rule and establish their rule instead. This is understandable for Sikh rise to power was at the expense of Muslim domination and it was only through creation of Pakistan that Muslims were able to wrest back the kingdom lost to Sikhs short of two centuries before.

The Sikh stereotype is not helpful either. Here is an incident that may explain what I mean. At Lahore we had to cross the road from Iqbal Academy to Holiday Inn to get there for dinner. There was heavy traffic and we were patiently waiting for a break in its flow to walk across. It was not going to happen – so I did what would work. I raised my hand to stop oncoming vehicles and started walking across. Traffic stopped. I waved our entire group to cross to the verge in middle of the road and then repeated the same thing across the verge. It worked and as we moved on to the hotel Suheyl Umar, Director, Iqbal Academy tugged at my sleeve and said if he could tell me a joke. Almost expecting what kind it would be I said yes, go ahead. Suheil said that in Pakistan they say that if you are driving and you see a Hindu crossing the road, just slow down. He is not going to risk injury and will hasten across the gap. If it is a Muslim stop because he will try a contest of will and you are better off stopping. But if it were a Sikh – stop, put car in reverse and scoot for you don’t what the hell he may do! Funny, yes; but it says a lot about how they see Sikhs – and my bravado may only have confirmed some other stereotypes!

I could discern a number of impressions about Sikhs – they are unpredictable; they are brave but will fight for others; they caved in during 80’s; quality of their leadership; their scholarship? I also sensed that the common man takes Sikhs to be merry go lucky, hail well met, eat drink enjoy, types with a monotheistic belief, brave though for what. One comment was that how come they know nothing about Sikhi or Sikhs given that Sikhs are the fifth largest faith in the world.

EXPERIENCE AT GURDWARAS IN PAKISTAN

 

Panja Sahib.

A young Sikh boy comes and joins us and together we go to the langar where they give very nice fresh tea and ask us to stay for langar. The bhai sahib started the evening rehras recitation when I was in the langar – and I knew because I could hear it on the PA system. I am told there are 4/5 families of Sikhs there. I did meet three men and three kids – a girl and two boys. They seem to be from NWFP and are obviously poor but are keeping the place well. I was deeply touched meeting these people who are taking care of this beautiful and very holy site for the Sikhs. They are living a life of isolation. They look poor and possibly are poorer than they look. In spite of their obvious deprivation the children have pleasing freshness and seem contented even though their future may hold no promise better than their parent’s lot.

Many thoughts race through my mind. How and why does God place us where we are? Should we not have a responsibility to those who are giving their today so that our children and their children can come here tomorrow the same way as I am doing now. I feel humble; I feel selfish; I feel a betrayer; we have done nothing; we are doing nothing for them. We have just forgotten about these places and consigned them to our daily ardasjina dharma asthana taun sanoon vichhoreya geya hai unna di seva samal da dan baksho. Surely it is not our problem anymore. We supplicate for divine intervention; for till God grants us free access and control over these holy sites we will keep making the rote supplication thousands of times a day globally. We will not look around and see how missionaries from other faiths keep on serving their Lord’s mission in deep jungles and deserts. We cannot emulate the examples of Christian youth serving for charities in remote parts of the world as part of their project work. We say we struggled to free our Gurdwaras from the clutches of hereditary priests but are willing to leave the same Gurdwaras to these few families now. Why- because it is not safe; it is isolated; the places now have no revenue because there are no devotees?

Nanakana Sahib

I return to Lahore and Asif Hameed, son of Israr Ahmed and Director, Multimedia at Quran Academy, and four of his compatriots take me to Nankana Sahib. Sitting in the front I hear snatches of their conversation – Matin, who is from Nanakana, talking about the place to his colleagues. All the town’s land belongs to the Gurdwara leased free to the citizenry. The Gurdwara has also given the farmland to farmers without any rent. There have been some recent gas finds in the area and the people believe it is the beneficence of Guru Nanak

We stop at the end of the main street at the fairly impressive Gurdwara entrance. We park on the side and walk in to a nice garden. The Gurdwara is at the far end of the garden. We are met by the same kind of security person as at Panja Sahib and he takes down the information and lets my companions go with me. In the meanwhile he must have arranged, for the Bhai sahib shows up leading us and explaining. I also notice all my companions were wearing white caps covering their heads – given by the Gurdwara as I found out later.

The place is big; the sarovar is kept dry; the walls are clean, painted; the floors swept clean; the bath rooms clean and working; the Parshad is there again. We see the sukh asan room and are taken to another wing where two concurrent akhand path are going on. I ask if this was common – oh yes through the year in response to requests received when pilgrims visit or by mail. I do wonder that once again we who don’t live there have made so many of them into pathis to perform akhand paths for us.

There are about 40/50 families here. They don’t seem as deprived. I meet another bhai sahib coming in and the bhai sahib introduces him as the retired granthie. The place has a Sikh school. In addition the local high school is named after Guru Nanak. The address is Nanakana Sahib and they have not changed as has happened for several other places.

A SECOND VISIT

I was in Pakistan again in 2006 among a group of Sikh scholars participating in International Conference on Guru Nanak Heritage of Interfaith Understanding for Harmony and Peace on February 18, 2006 held at the Ambassador Hotel of Lahore. Sikh and Muslim scholars made presentations on contribution of Guru Nanak in bringing Interfaith Understanding, possibly the first of its kind ever in Pakistan.  Dr Zafar Cheema co-chaired the Conference and a couple of his students presented papers.

Pakistan also announced in 2007 a project for setting up a university named after Guru Nanak at Nanakana Sahib. This could in course of time potentially effect several facets of Sikh-Muslim understanding. On both sides the historical memory has been at odds with the communities coming together. It is possible that the new setting may encourage collaborative research that helps connecting several dots in Sikh history on how Sikhs interfaced with Islam and resolve layers of cobwebs surrounding it.

It may also possibly provide the opportunity for Sikhs to engage with a Semitic faith at a serious academic level. Pakistani scholars can read the original text of Guru Granth Sahib in shahmukhi transliteration, understand and interpret it without intermediaries in the form of translators. Their cultural affinity also will help the process. My sense is that Pakistani scholarship will be in a different genre than the Christian scholars where we have had difficulties with the likes of Trumpp and McLeod and writings of those like Macauliffe have not attracted serious academic attention.

Pakistani scholars like Dr Zafar Cheema are already encouraging research on Sikhism and are said to have close to a dozen graduate students working towards their doctoral degrees. I have shared the podium with one [and Zafar] and she showed a refreshing clarity in her understanding. This should spawn a different kind of literature on Sikhi that should help our standing among the world religions.

Then there is so much that relates to Punjab and Punjabis that could get a different kind of re-look at a center of this kind. Punjabi identity cannot be explained or defined by Sikhs alone; nor can so much that the soil of that part of the world has given birth to be left unexplored because of the divide that has plagued the three religious communities. It certainly is no coincidence that several of the Hindu scriptures were written in Madra desha; Sufi silsilas blossomed in these parts with Farid, Bulle Shah, Shah Hussain and the like straddling the landscape and The Sikh Gurus gifted a totally new universal theology to help lift a society sinking under the weight of its own contradictions. The extent of spiritual reservoir in that part of the world and its contribution to humanity has to be unraveled and brought out for all to know.

I thus see tremendous opportunities. I also think that Pakistanis may not have much difficulty in finding interested scholars – at least not as much as we may. And that is where we must focus!

WHAT SHOULD WE DO

Sikhs have a shared history, a shared language, and shared traits with Pakistanis. The land that gave birth to Guru Nanak was also the laboratory where he perfected the Sikh thought. Thus Pakistan will always be important for Sikhs and given this linkage Sikhs must develop a unique approach to handle their relationship with that country and its people so that they can look to a future where they can celebrate the shared heritage in spite of boundaries separating them. This way they can assure some amity in the region and more importantly take care of their holy sites and the small Sikh population in Pakistan

It is also important to realize that even across the boundary line that Radcliffe devised the Sikhs will always have to deal with Pakistani Muslims with their worldview and their perception of the Sikhs. In their long-term interest as neighbors Sikhs must make an attempt to understand the Pakistani common man’s view of the Sikhs. For this the view of the Ulema and Maulvis will also have to be understood. The historians and social scientists are also important – politicians less so.

We also need to think about Pakistani Sikhs who may end up as potential mahants who depend on the service of Gurdwaras for their economic needs. It is therefore of the utmost importance that Pakistani Sikhs should be helped to get education, go into professions or businesses and be good competitive citizens of their country.

Tourism, especially the Sikh tourism can soon become a fairly significant business in Pakistan. With some improvement in security situation the NRI tourist inflow to the Sikh holy sites and historical places in Pakistan can see an upsurge. It also can grow as addendum to their visits to the home country. Making small beginnings, tour and travel related service agencies with local Sikhs as partners can be set up – this may be easier to accomplish for NRI entrepreneurs.

Our focus should include improving the state of Sikh heritage in Pakistan. The effects of strained relations with Pakistan and turmoil in Muslim world have most tellingly impacted Sikhs. Punjab is the only Indian state neighboring Pakistan that has suffered the most when tensions led to or brought the two sides close to war; has been denied economic development for fear of proximity.

The Sikh decision to stay with India and not accept Jinnah’s offer was probably the better course given the Sikh situation. But the Pakistani Muslim neighborly presence and its influence cannot be wished away. In the Sikh future the Muslim world will mainly be Pakistan and the Muslim opinion that may impact them the most could be the Pakistani orientation.

Islam has been portrayed as a violent religion by other Semitic faiths as Sikhs have been labeled militant by other Indic faiths. Sikhs do need to recognize that sacrifices and martyrdoms play havoc with the psyche of any group and should not be lightly offered nor may these be commended as evidence of high minded righteous disposition.

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