Sikhs must never be confused with sheiks, although they have been lately. Indeed, soon after the Sept. 11 attack, a man shot and killed a Sikh gas-station owner in Mesa, Ariz., believing, apparently, that he was an Arab Muslim from the Mideast.
Though both may sport turbans and beards, they are poles apart in their beliefs and taboos. Muslims are followers of the Prophet Muhammad and turn toward their holy city, Mecca, when they pray. Their sacred book is the Quran. They are cow-eaters and abominate pig meat.
Sikhs revere their 10 gurus, and their sacred book is the Granth Sahib, compiled by their fifth 'guru, Arjun, in 1605 in their holy city, Amritsar, now in northern India. Like Hindus, Sikhs resent the killing of cows but don't object to eating pork. Sikhism is a branch of reformist Hinduism. The two groups have close ties; conversion from one to the other is common.
The founder of Sikhism, Guru Nanak, was born in 1469 to Hindu parents in a village northwest of Lahore, now in Pakistan. He was a wayward child who spent a lot of time talking to itinerant holy men. In his mid-20s he left home with a Muslim family retainer and minstrel. They visited Hindu places of pilgrimage along the Ganges, went south to Sri Lanka and then went to Mecca and Medina. Nanak carried a notebook in which he wrote hymns in praise of God and set down his dialogues with men of religious learning.
There are not many references to historical events 'in Nanak's writings, but he does mention the invasion of northern India by the Mughal conqueror Babar in 1526 and the havoc he caused. Nanak was imprisoned for some time. He acquired a sizable following among both Hindus and Muslims. When he died in 1539 there was a dispute among his followers: Muslims wanted to bury him because they thought he was one of them; Hindus wanted to cremate him in the belief that he remained a Hindu to the end.
Nanak's teachings were a blend of Hinduism and Islam. He rejected Hindu polytheism and idol worship and accepted Islamic monotheism. He rejected the Hindu caste system and asceticism. "Be in the world but not worldly," he said. He emphasized the duty to work and earn & living.
It is clear that Nanak wished to set up a community apart from Hindus and Muslims. He appointed his closest disciple as the second guru, and the second guru appointed his closest disciple to be the third. Thereafter succession remained restricted to one family. The fourth guru founded the city of Amritsar in 1574. His son, Guru Arjun, raised the Harimandir (temple of God) in the city. Later rebuilt in marble and covered with gold leaf, it became the Sikhs' most important place of pilgrimage.
Guru Arjun compiled the Granth Sahib, the sacred scripture of the Sikhs. It comprises more than 6,000 hymns, all meant to be sung in different ragas of Indian classical music. Besides presenting the writings of the gurus, it includes the compositions of Hindus and Muslim saints.
By Guru Arjun's time, Sikhs had become a sizable community, which alarmed Muslim rulers. Arjun was summoned to Lahore where, after days of torture, he died. The same fate befell the ninth guru, who was arrested, brought to Delhi and executed in 1675.
His only son, Gobind Rai, took up arms in defense of the community. "Where all other means have failed, it is righteous to draw the sword out of its scabbard," he wrote to the Mughal emperor. He called Sikhs to gather at Anandpur and baptized five into a new fraternity called the Khalsa, or the pure. They vowed never to cut their hair or beards and always to carry a sword. He gave them a common surname-Singh, or Lion and changed his own name to Gobind Singh.
Gobind Singh fought Hindu rajas and Muslim Mughal armies. He lost all four of his sons and was assassinated by two of his Muslim retainers. The Punjabi peasantry eventually rose and ousted Muslim rule in northern India. This paved the way for a Sikh kingdom under Ranjit Singh,who ruled over Punjab until 1839.
Sikh history is a long saga of bloody conflicts with the Muslims. When the British partitioned the region, almost half the Sikh population found itself in Pakistan. Muslims drove them into India, killing hundreds of thousands. In their turn, Sikhs drove Muslims out of towns and villages in northern India with as much slaughter.
How ironic that, of all people, Sikhs should be eyed with suspicion simply because they resemble Osama, bin Laden and his progeny.
Mr. Singh is the author of the two-volume "History and Religion of the Sikhs," polished by Oxford University Press.
(Courtesy Wall Street Journal October 12, 2001