With the Sikh festival of Vaisakhi approaching in a few weeks, coupled with ongoing issues involving both Islamist extremists and far-Right groups such as the BNP and EDL, perhaps this would be a good time to highlight some inspirational historical and modern-day figures from a range of backgrounds.
Bhai Dya Singh
Dya Singh is a Sikh religious singer, originally from Malaysia but now based in Australia. He is the gentleman in the white turban shown meeting the Dalai Lama in the photograph at the top of this article, which was taken at the Parliament of the World’s Religions in Melbourne in December 2009. Dya Singh’s World Music Group consists of non-Sikh (indeed, non-Asian) musicians as well as Sikhs, and regularly embarks on global tours where they promote Sikhism’s universal non-sectarian humanitarian message via a combination of hymns sung in both traditional and fusion styles. Dya Singh, who has performed at numerous prestigious venues including the Royal Albert Hall in London, makes it a point to translate the lyrics into English for the benefit of the wider audience. This is the same approach that the Sikh Gurus took, as they were fluent in multiple languages and preached their message in the local languages of the various peoples they met.
A brief compilation of one of Dya Singh’s live concerts :
An example of a Sikh hymn sung in full by Dya Singh, including an English translation.
The Guru Granth Sahib itself, the “Sikh holy book“ is entirely set to music, and contains hymns in a number of different languages; the final version of the Guru Granth Sahib was compiled by Guru Gobind Singh approximately 300 years ago, and includes hymns by Muslims, Hindus, and people of no formal religious affiliation, as well as numerous contributions by the Sikh Gurus themselves. (I’ve previously written about Guru Gobind Singh here, focusing on his stance towards Muslims and contrasting it with the bigotry of the BNP’s Rajinder Singh).
”Bhai Sahib” Mohinder Singh
Mohinder Singh, popularly known as “Bhai Sahib”, is a well-known and extremely respected figure from Britain’s Sikh population. He is the chairman of the British Sikh Consultative Forum (BSCF; the organisation’s General Secretary is Dr Jasdev Rai, who recently publicly condemned Amit Singh of the EDL) and the chairman of the Guru Nanak Sevak Jatha (associated with the Soho Road gurdwara/Sikh temple in Birmingham), along with being a member of the European Council of Religious Leaders (ECRL). Bhai Sahib has been heavily involved in numerous charitable activities and interfaith bridge-building efforts, both nationally and internationally (including visiting Jewish leaders in Israel), and he has organised interfaith meetings geared to address the disturbing rise of anti-Muslim bigotry in Britain during the past few years. The demonisation of ordinary innocent Muslims has been a particular cause for concern. Bhai Sahib was also present at the World Parliament of Religions alongside Dya Singh and the Dalai Lama, and was one of the people responsible for escorting the Queen around the Golden Temple complex in Amritsar during her visit there during the late 1990s.
The religious think-tank Ekklesia (mainly focused on Christian issues) consistently does outstanding work, including being ruthlessly honest about the history and modern-day interpretation of Christianity along with forcefully condemning the racism of the far-Right (particularly the BNP) and the ongoing scapegoating & caricaturing of ordinary Muslims. Ekklesia’s co-director Jonathan Bartley is of course also a regular (and invaluable) panellist on the BBC’s “The Big Questions” debate programme. I referenced a number of Ekklesia’s superb articles in my own recent PP article “The BNP and the Hijacking of Christianity”.
Dr Tahir ul-Qadri
Dr ul-Qadri, founder of the international Minhaj ul-Quran organisation (dedicated to anti-extremism and the promotion of interfaith understanding), has unequivocally condemned Osama bin Laden and has also repeatedly criticised Wahhabi extremism. As has recently been widely publicised, Dr ul-Qadri has published a 600-page fatwa unequivocally condemning Islamist terrorists and detailing the fallacy of their claims of religious justifications for their actions. He is also a member of the Qadiri Sufi order, the same group that the Mughal-era Indian Sufi Mian Mir belonged to; Mian Mir was invited by one of the Sikh Gurus to lay the foundation stone of what would later be known as the Golden Temple, and he was also the spiritual instructor of the liberal and pluralistic Prince Dara Shukoh, the chosen heir of the Mughal emperor Shah Jahan (of “Taj Mahal” fame) and someone who was himself heavily involved in promoting mutual understanding and tolerance between Muslims and Hindus.
Imam Irfan Chishti
Muhammad Irfan Faizi Chishti , the imam of a mosque in Rochdale, has been extensively involved in numerous grassroots anti-Islamist-extremism activities in Britain. The Financial Times recently published an excellent article about him. As his name indicates, Irfan Chishti is a member of the Chishti Sufi order, which has traditionally been the most popular and influential Sufi group in the subcontinent. It was also the order which some of the more liberal, tolerant and pluralistic Mughal emperors such as Akbar and Bahadur Shah “Zafar” were associated with, and its historical members included Sufis such as Baba Farid (full name: Fariduddin Ganjshakar) and Nizamuddin Auliya. Along with Lal Shahbaz Qalandar (who cited his dominant influences as Ali and the famous Persian Sufi Rumi) and, much later, Bulleh Shah, they were all non-sectarian Indian Muslims who emphasised the unity of mankind and promoted mutual tolerance, friendship, understanding and peaceful coexistence between people from different religious backgrounds, and are today venerated by Sikhs and Hindus as well as South Asian Muslims. Four of Baba Farid’s hymns along with 130 verses from his poems were included in the Guru Granth Sahib.
Another influential historical Indian figure who preached against sectarianism and religious fanaticism was Kabir, an orphan who was raised in a Muslim community during the 15th century. Kabir shunned blind religious ritualism and believed in the inherent equality of human beings irrespective of background, and referred to God by both Hindu and Islamic names. It is difficult to classify Kabir as either exclusively a “Hindu bhagat” or a “Muslim Sufi”, but he is still an extremely respected figure in India. 292 of Kabir’s hymns were included in the Guru Granth Sahib; one example of his hymns, as sensitively sung by the Indian singer Kailash Kher, can be heard on Youtube here. (English translation & explanation of lyrics here)
Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan
No discussion of South Asian Sufism would be complete without including the late great Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan. As a member of a family which has traditionally been comprised of Sufi singers for the last 600 years, he was an outstanding example of someone who actively promoted the message of universal friendship, pluralism and liberal tolerance. Given his family’s historical role models (some of whom I have mentioned above), Nusrat himself embodied the spirit of broadminded inclusiveness and compassion, frequently reflected in his poignant songs and his extraordinary voice. Along with Sufi songs, he also occasionally sung both Hindu and Sikh hymns; in fact, you can hear an example of the latter during a live performance of Sikh hymns by Nusrat in a British gurdwara in 1989: Youtube video here. This hymn was originally written as a prayer by Guru Gobind Singh, during one of the worst periods of his life when his remaining two young sons had been captured by the Governor of Sirhind and subsequently executed for refusing to convert to Islam, and the Guru himself was completely cut off from his remaining followers and was being hunted by the Mughal armies. Eventually a couple of Muslims helped him to evade the soldiers chasing him, thereby saving his life.
You can also hear the Indian singer Jagjit Singh singing a very different version of the same hymn. The accompanying video beautifully depicts various scenes from the Golden Temple in Amritsar, along with paintings depicting Guru Gobind Singh’s life. Youtube video here.
During the 1990s, Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan was also involved in numerous musical collaborations with Western artists. In my view, one of the very best examples was Nusrat’s involvement on the soundtrack for the Oscar-winning film “Dead Man Walking”, especially the following duet with Eddie Vedder of the American rock group Pearl Jam.
Nusrat’s nephew Rahat Fateh Ali Khan (whom I’ve also mentioned on PP numerous times, most recently here) sang the same song with Vedder in 1998 during a tribute concert for the film’s soundtrack. They received a standing ovation from the huge audience. About halfway through, Vedder himself joined in singing the Urdu/Hindi lyrics. Youtube video of the live performance here.
For readers unfamiliar with Urdu/Hindi, the simple lyrics repeatedly sung by Nusrat (and subsequently Rahat) can be translated as follows:
”What is living without love ?
Since you have come into this world, love each other.”
This was, of course, exactly the same basic message taught by Jesus. Something the BNP may wish to think about in relation to their attitudes towards members of other religions and “races”, considering that they have recently been claiming to follow the great man’s teachings.
The universal language
Music has often been termed the “universal language” of humanity, something that touches all of us and which we can all connect with irrespective of our backgrounds, in many cases even if we don’t understand the actual words. The music itself often conveys the message by the sheer power of the emotion. However, there is another essential point, embodied by the historical & contemporary individuals discussed above and also perfectly symbolised by the musical performances that the singers amongst them have been involved in :
There are far-Right groups such as the BNP, EDL and SIOE in Britain, their fringe Hindutva counterparts the Shiv Sena, RSS and Bajrang Dal in India, and Islamist extremists such as Al-Muhajiroun and Hizb ut-Tahrir in Britain, the Taliban in both Afghanistan and Pakistan, and Al-Qaeda globally; all of whom promote hatred, bigotry and persecution, in many cases taking their fanaticism to the extent of not only viewing their targets as literally subhuman but actually dehumanising them completely.
Conversely, there are also people who refuse to limit their perceptions by such divisive attitudes, for whom the words “we” and “us” mean the whole of mankind, who have the strength and mental clarity to be able to perceive our common humanity beyond artificial notions of “race” or religion, who understand that such differences are superficial, whose empathy and decency towards others is not limited or defined by such notions, and whose priority is to unite people, not tear them apart.
Ultimately, this is the only division in mankind that truly matters.
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Filed in: Hindu,History,Muslim,Religion,Sikh