On the occasion of the 548th Nanak Gurpurab earlier this month, Siddiq-ul-Farooq, the chairman of the Evacuee Trust Property Board, the government organisation responsible for looking after non-Muslim property in Pakistan, announced the opening of the Gurdwara Kiara Singh in Nankana Sahib to Sikh pilgrims. This is one of the five gurdwaras in the city in Punjab province that is associated with Guru Nanak, the founder of Sikhism, and commemorates the spot where the guru’s buffaloes are believed to have entered someone else’s fields. That person complained to the ruler of the town but an enquiry found that the fields were miraculously undamaged. The government now plans to place the Guru Granth Sahib, the holy scripture of the Sikhs, at this gurdwara, which means that there would be prayers every day and not just on festivals, as was the case.

The opening up of this gurdwara is part of the government’s larger agenda of renovating and opening Sikh shrines to pilgrims. At the start of this year, it had reopened a historical gurdwara in Peshawar that had been shut since Partition.

There is at least one police official posted at the entrance of each of these renovated gurdwaras who monitors the flow of devotees. Sikhs, Hindus and even Christians are allowed but never Muslims, except with special permission. This policy is strictly maintained at the time of festivals such as Nanak Gurpurab and Baisakhi, when thousands of Sikh pilgrims converge. This exception is explained as a security protocol. A few times, when I didn’t have my press card, I was barred from entering a gurdwara.

Traditional gurdwaras have four entrances. I was told by my Sikh friends at Nankana Sahib that these symbolically represent the entrance points of four different religions. The concept being that a gurdwara is the abode of God and no one can be denied entry. In fact, there is a popular story connected with this dating back to Baba Bulleh Shah, the rebellious 18th-century mystic poet from Kasur. The story goes that he was once being chased by a Muslim mob he had offended when he entered a gurdwara in a village close to Kasur city. The mob demanded that the Sikh authorities turn Bulleh Shah away but they refused, saying he was protected in the house of God. Eventually, the mob went away.

However, that is not how Pakistani authorities view religion or religious shrines today. The syncretism that the traditional Sikh architecture of a gurdwara, or the story of Bulleh Shah, represents has no space in Pakistan. It goes against the very essence of its perceived identity. A product of compartmentalisation of religion, premised upon exclusive religious identity, there is no space for fluid religious boundaries in this environment. The Pakistani officials who draft such policies have been conditioned to view religion in this exclusionary manner. For them, it would be inconceivable for a Pakistani Muslim to be a devotee of Guru Nanak, Guru Arjan and Guru Tegh Bahadur.

Intertwined heritage

Such an understanding lacks historical context, as all of these Sikh gurus had Muslim as well as Hindu devotees. For example, Nanak is believed to have had a Hindu and a Muslim devotee by the names of Bhai Bala and Bhai Mardana, respectively. It is said that both of them asked Nanak what religion they should follow to become his devotees. He told them that if they were Hindu, then they should become good Hindus, and if they were Muslim, then they should become good Muslims, and that’s how they would become his devotees. Nanak is believed to have said that whoever was willing to learn (Sikh means learn in Punjabi) could become his devotee. Hence, it was possible for a Muslim or a Hindu to be a Sikh. There are thousands of Nanak-Panthi Hindus all over Sindh who have maintained a distinct Hindu identity and worship Hindu deities while also being devotees of Guru Nanak.

The Guru Granth Sahib, regarded as a living saint by Khalsa Sikhs, is another testimony to the unique syncretism that is part of Sikhism’s religious heritage. Along with containing the poetry of Guru Nanak, Angad Dev, Amar Das, Ram Das, Arjan and Tegh Bahadur, it also contains the poetry of Muslim saints, including Bhai Mardana, Baba Farid, Satta, Balwand, Bhagat Bhikhan and Bhagat Kabir.

The story of the friendship between Guru Arjan and Mian Mir, the Sufi saint from Lahore, is also well documented. According to legend, Arjan invited Mian Mir to Amritsar to lay the foundation brick for the Harmandir Sahib. At the time, Arjan was being tortured by cronies of emperor Jahangir and Mian Mir is believed to have offered to destroy the Mughal empire, an offer the guru turned down.

Inside the Gurdwara Janamasthan, the grandest of the gurdwaras at Nankana Sahib, there is a picture of Baba Farid at the entrance, followed by a picture of Guru Nanak. For several years, Sikh pilgrims have been urging the Pakistan government to give them special visas to attend the annual urs celebration of Baba Farid at Pakpattan.

At Kartarpur Sahib, the final resting place of Nanak, hundreds of Muslim devotees continue to come and pay homage to the guru, a saint they regard as their own. Similarly, if the gurdwaras of Nankana Sahib are opened to Muslim devotees, I have no doubt that many of them would visit these shrines.

The Pakistani state, however, is oblivious to these intertwined histories and traditions of Sikhism and Islam. For its officials, these nuances that have for generations shaped the relationship between the two communities no longer exist. They continue to bar Muslims from entering Sikh gurdwaras but would they ever be able to remove the influence of Baba Farid, Bhai Mardana, Mian Mir and other Muslim saints on the Sikh religion?

Haroon Khalid is the author of the books Walking with Nanak, In Search of Shiva and A White Trail.