Am I a Sikh or Sikh?

Bhai Harbans Lal was the subject of an interview in an article recently published at Asia Samachar. In response to the article, some readers had raised the question if Harbans Lal is a Sikh at all? One comments had this to say: WH Mcleod was one of the leading westerner who wrote on Sikh faith. He wasn’t a practising Sikh, adding that the community lacked practising Sikhs who are a scholars. So, Asia Samachar went back to Harbans Lal. He graciously responded to our email, saying: "Thank you for writing. I am glad that your readers are asking serious questions." A few days later, he shared an article entitled 'Am I a Sikh or Sikh?' with the following note: "Thank you for the opportunity you give me to express myself toward charadi Kala of the Panth. I saw that your readers asked you so many questions about me. In response, I wrote this article." We hope this article broadens our outlook on who and what is a Sikh.


By Harbans Lal | OPINION |

I can not recall anyone asking this question, was I a Sikh, either during my childhood in Pakistan or after the partition of 1947 in India? I remember being asked this only at the time of census or at the time of school registration.

It never worried me either, as more than once, I was elected to serve as a leader of Sikh organizations like All India Sikh Students Federation (AISSF)” or Sikh institutions.

But if someone asked me if I was a Sikh, I found no hesitation in answering “yes” in a persuasive tone and then doing my business. I always responded in the affirmative. The question was undemanding, the answer was easy, and I concluded the matter swiftly.

When I moved to the USA, the situation changed. The frequency of grilling on the identification question increased in the last few years. It should be of no surprise. I am a stranger to many and not visibly recognizable as a Sikh with a beard and a turban. But it is still not a big deal. I politely answer that I am a Sikh. If someone persists with additional questions, I further qualify myself as a Sehajdhari Sikh, as one is defined in the Sikh Rehat Maryada by Shiromani Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee (SGPC). The matter usually ends, except sometimes I may have to explain politely what a Sehajdhari Sikh is.

The situation changes completely when I ask myself this question and when the term Sikh is not a noun but an adjective.

Then I find it a searching question somewhat disquieting that undermines my self-righteousness. Indeed, to ponder the question is to be set all a-tremble and stomach churning. The question is not so easy, nor is the answer that straightforward.

To continue to be pleasant clever linguists use the plural for adjectives and nouns so that the distinction that I wish to make here is left to the subtlety and appreciation of the listener. This way, the translator is free to choose from the imagination.

But really, there is a difference. The noun is still the adjective dynamic. The noun is comforting, and the adjective is demanding. The noun asserts, and the adjective pleads. The noun is worldly, and the adjective is spiritual. To continue the argument, I fuss between “Sikh” and “a Sikh.”

Indeed, it is not a yes-or-no matter; the question should be, “How much Sikh are you?”

I cannot be confident in laying claim to any large or small share of Sikh-ness and say, Oh, I am very Sikh indeed. That answer will be both arrogant and false. However, can I absolve myself by admitting that, alas, I am hardly Sikh at all? Thus I may become aware of how tiny Sikh I am. Although discouraging, it will give me a powerful sense to haunt me that I ought to be more Sikh than I am.

Whereas an assertive answer is pretentious, a down-to-earth answer is not good enough—something between both faults. Therefore, I cannot answer the question without significant compromises with my consciousness. Yet, neither can I dismiss it. Once the question is put to me, it probes my conscience in a dynamic restlessness. It propels me to life, not of much or little but the pilgrimage towards my sacred space. 

The answer to the question has a very dynamic quality because the response varies daily. The first of my two questions, “am I a Sikh” need to be usually answered once; a tick in the appropriate column of the Census report or the membership application of a local Gurdwara will carry over from one year to the next. Most of my friends do not change their formal “religion,” and neither do I. If someone asked me, “Are you a Sikh?” in 1999, I should not expect them to repeat the question this year unless they had forgotten my response.

“Am I Sikh?” however, it is far from being so unvarying an issue when the term Sikh is an adjective. Perhaps yesterday morning, for a brief spell, I was indeed fairly Sikh at the start of the day with meditation and thoughtful readings from Sri Guru Granth Sahib. Later, I treated my fellow drivers humanely as I zoomed into my work. But I was perhaps poorly Sikh in the evening when I yelled at the cleaning lady at the office and forgot any courtesy to other drivers during rush hour.

How Sikh was I yesterday when I saw a hungry, homeless person standing in the Arizona sun’s heat and driving away in my air-conditioned car? How Sikh was I last year when I voted in the American elections on the issue of food stamps for the poor, rights of women, or banning the human field mines?

Do you find specific issues when you usually feel less Sikh in your dealings with fellow humans? The problems are not only ethical: but in the deep, they are questions about how Sikh I am doctrine-wise. Was I genuinely Sikh as I spoke to the congregation last Sunday? Was the community truly Sikh when it formulated the election bye-laws to exclude others? How Sikh are we as we hammer out a liturgy on comparative religion or a religion of our neighbors?


 Let me illustrate the matter in another way. A few years ago, I read an article on a Sikh gurdwara. I came across a sentence saying that the gurdwara was a house of worship for the Sikhs. We read such assertions every day. Does that mean that others ought not to worship there? Should we not recite the following Gurbani verse addressed to a Muslim?

ਉਠੁ ਫਰੀਦਾ ਉਜੂ ਸਾਜਿ ਸੁਬਹ ਨਿਵਾਜ ਗੁਜਾਰਿ ॥ – Farid, Sri Guru Granth Sahib, P. 1381.

Rise, Fareed, and cleanse yourself; chant your morning Muslim prayer.

Are we shocked first at the arrogance of our co-religionists and more profoundly at the self-righteousness of our excuse? That sin of labeling a place of worship meant for Sikh-only is threatening to the faith itself. Although at the level of being a Sikh, one may not think of it as unsettling, the illustration sets forth the present point under discussion.

Theologically, no sensitive or decent Sikh could patronize that proposal, but it is done routinely by those counting themselves as Sikhs.

A gurdwara that excludes those who are not Sikhs, by the same act, excludes those who are Sikh. Nouns and adjectives are here torn and shredding apart.


Who was the first to be called Sikhs, and when did these terms come into literature? I have not searched much when the noun and adjective terms used today came into existence. Someone could make a thesis research project to investigate this particular point more thoroughly. However, one may cite the following.

Bhai Gurdas wrote extensively in his sixteenth-century compositions on who is Sikh; let me quote only one verse:

ਗੁਰਸਿਖੀ ਬਾਰੀਕ ਹੈ ਖੰਡੇ ਧਾਰ ਗਲੀ ਅਤਿ ਭੀੜੀ। – Bhai Gurdas, Vaar 11, Pauri 5.

To be Sikh is to walk on a path that very delicate path. It is like walking on a sharp sword’s blade and through a tightly narrow path.

In modern times, sensitivity arose only slightly over half a century ago. The question surfaced at the Sikhs’ holy place in Amritsar. The premier Sikh organization, Shiromani Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee, wished to define a Sikh for census and a manual prepared for those taking initiation of khande di pahul. The terms as we use them today, one recalls, developed there. The organization invited representatives of all shades and opinions for almost a week-long deliberations. The first draft was then debated for around fifteen years.

There was a genuine effort to preserve both the noun “Sikh” and the adjective “Sikh.” As with other names designating members of a new or newly encountered religious community – “Quaker,” “Pietist,” “Methodist,” “Jains,” “Muhammadan,” “Jew,” “Hindu,” “Buddhist,” “Confucian,” “Shintoist” – so “Sikh” term, too, was introduced by clerics and politicians. I was included through my colleagues in AISSF in the deliberations that followed to solidify the consensus into a published document; not without a touch of the selfishness and missionary zeal. But they succeeded in providing the best definition, a part of which defined “a Sikh” and the remaining defined “Sikh.” A Sikh committed to being a Sikh and did not claim affiliation to any other religion. Then Sikh was defined in terms of faith to live by such sacred beliefs incorporated in the Guru Granth Sahib.

But soon, we forgot the two-tier definition of “Sikh.” We have gotten so used to the term over a few decades that we are becoming accustomed to employing it so carelessly and irreverently that we have lost any clear grasp of why I should be hesitant in responding to the question.

Bhai Mani Singh, who accepted martyrdom to keep us reminded.

Bhai Mani Singh was the high cleric of Sri Harmandir Sahib and Akal Takhat and was martyred in protecting our sacred institutions. In those days, those who remember the term Sikh designated not those who had privileged entry to the exclusive organizations or clubs but those whom the rulers of land had marked out for scalping their skulls. Yet “we are not worthy of it,” said those to whom the term applied. Every Sikh replied to the executor. I must accept the name; not as something of which I am worthy, but as something to which I aspire in the presence of my Guru. You will put me to death because I say I am Sikh. I hope you will find me worthy – not that much in a name, but in my ability to stand by my beliefs and cheerfully face the Will of God.

Bhai Mani Singh and thousands of others who gave their lives for their belief were following the footsteps of their mentors like Guru Arjan and Guru Teg Bahadur. They endured extreme suffering to protect their belief in religious freedom and human rights. The Sikh scripture supports this allegiance:

ਜਉ ਤਨੁ ਚੀਰਹਿ ਅੰਗੁ ਨ ਮੋਰਉ ॥ ਪਿੰਡੁ ਪਰੈ ਤਉ ਪ੍ਰੀਤਿ ਨ ਤੋਰਉ ॥੨॥ – Kabir, SGGS, P. 484.

Even if you cut my body apart, I shall not pull my limbs away from you. Even if my body falls, I shall not break my bonds of love with you.

It would add quite a new quality to our thinking of our beliefs and boasts and perhaps to our mode of living if today we recaptured the martyr’s belief. That being martyred may justify a little more than the otherwise underserved application to us of the term “Sikh,” which to the martyrs meant “his guru-like.”

Sikh theologian Bhai Gurdas elaborated on this theology in his Vaar  3, Pauri 11, by verse,  ਗੁਰ ਸਿਖੁ ਸਿਖੁ ਗੁਰ ਸੋਇ ਅਲਖੁ ਲਖਾਇਆ. Further, Guru Gobind Singh is believed to tell his Khalsa. If you die for your faith, perhaps you will deserve the name Sikh, but hardly otherwise.

And yet dare we reject this standard?


I have investigated certain facets of the evolving history to understand the use of the adjective “Sikh” and have discovered some quite startling instances. To cite one is an instance from the life of Guru Arjun. 

The fifth Guru once wished to award a coin to a performing bard in his court on behalf of each Sikh. He produced four and a half coins and announced that the half coin was on his behalf. He further elaborated that he was counting himself as half Sikh because he had not reached the level of spiritual practices required of full Sikhs.

Keep in mind that Guru Arjun was the one who compiled most of the scripture that we adore today as our eternal Guru. Thus he set in stone the theology that we love. His labeling himself as half Sikh, although an instance of total humility, was nevertheless an example of deep meaning. He was constructing a scale with which to measure one’s Sikhee.

Then we can go to our scripture to seek guidance in this matter. Guru Gobind Singh asked us in no uncertain terms on October 20, 1708, in his last sermon, that we ought to surrender to verses in  Sri Guru Granth Sahib for an answer when in doubt.

But I am petrified and perhaps frightened of what my eternal mentor might tell me about being Sikh if I asked the scripture to define Sikh. As a way around my weak spot, let me ask instead what my Guru would say in another but similar situation.

Many Muslims regularly came to the Guru’s presence to seek advice. If anyone wanted to claim himself as Muslim, the Guru would humble him by saying the following.

ਮੁਸਲਮਾਣੁ ਕਹਾਵਣੁ ਮੁਸਕਲੁ ਜਾ ਹੋਇ ਤਾ ਮੁਸਲਮਾਣੁ ਕਹਾਵੈ ॥ ਅਵਲਿ ਅਉਲਿ ਦੀਨੁ ਕਰਿ ਮਿਠਾ ਮਸਕਲ ਮਾਨਾ ਮਾਲੁ ਮੁਸਾਵੈ ॥ ਹੋਇ ਮੁਸਲਿਮੁ ਦੀਨ ਮੁਹਾਣੈ ਮਰਣ ਜੀਵਣ ਕਾ ਭਰਮੁ ਚੁਕਾਵੈ ॥ ਰਬ ਕੀ ਰਜਾਇ ਮੰਨੇ ਸਿਰ ਉਪਰਿ ਕਰਤਾ ਮੰਨੇ ਆਪੁ ਗਵਾਵੈ ॥ ਤਉ ਨਾਨਕ ਸਰਬ ਜੀਆ ਮਿਹਰੰਮਤਿ ਹੋਇ ਤ ਮੁਸਲਮਾਣੁ ਕਹਾਵੈ ॥੧॥ – Guru Nanak, SGGS, p. 141.

It is not easy to be called Muslim; if one is genuinely Muslim, they may be called one. First, let them savor the religion of the Prophet as sweet; then, let the pride of his possessions be scraped away. Becoming a true Muslim, a disciple of the faith of Mohammed, let them put aside the delusion of death and life. As one submits to God’s Will and surrenders to the Creator, one gets rid of selfishness and conceit. And when says Nanak, they are merciful to all beings, only then shall they be called a Muslim.

Our founder, Guru Nanak, went into a great deal of theology to counsel his Muslim followers. 

ਮਿਹਰ ਮਸੀਤਿ ਸਿਦਕੁ ਮੁਸਲਾ ਹਕੁ ਹਲਾਲੁ ਕੁਰਾਣੁ ॥ ਸਰਮ ਸੁੰਨਤਿ ਸੀਲੁ ਰੋਜਾ ਹੋਹੁ ਮੁਸਲਮਾਣੁ ॥ ਕਰਣੀ ਕਾਬਾ ਸਚੁ ਪੀਰੁ ਕਲਮਾ ਕਰਮ ਨਿਵਾਜ ॥ ਤਸਬੀ ਸਾ ਤਿਸੁ ਭਾਵਸੀ ਨਾਨਕ ਰਖੈ ਲਾਜ ॥੧॥

ਹਕੁ ਪਰਾਇਆ ਨਾਨਕਾ ਉਸੁ ਸੂਅਰ ਉਸੁ ਗਾਇ ॥ ਗੁਰੁ ਪੀਰੁ ਹਾਮਾ ਤਾ ਭਰੇ ਜਾ ਮੁਰਦਾਰੁ ਨ ਖਾਇ ॥ ਗਲੀ ਭਿਸਤਿ ਨ ਜਾਈਐ ਛੁਟੈ ਸਚੁ ਕਮਾਇ ॥ ਮਾਰਣ ਪਾਹਿ ਹਰਾਮ ਮਹਿ ਹੋਇ ਹਲਾਲੁ ਨ ਜਾਇ ॥ ਨਾਨਕ ਗਲੀ ਕੂੜੀਈ ਕੂੜੋ ਪਲੈ ਪਾਇ ॥੨॥

ਪੰਜਿ ਨਿਵਾਜਾ ਵਖਤ ਪੰਜਿ ਪੰਜਾ ਪੰਜੇ ਨਾਉ ॥ ਪਹਿਲਾ ਸਚੁ ਹਲਾਲ ਦੁਇ ਤੀਜਾ ਖੈਰ ਖੁਦਾਇ ॥ ਚਉਥੀ ਨੀਅਤਿ ਰਾਸਿ ਮਨੁ ਪੰਜਵੀ ਸਿਫਤਿ ਸਨਾਇ ॥ ਕਰਣੀ ਕਲਮਾ ਆਖਿ ਕੈ ਤਾ ਮੁਸਲਮਾਣੁ ਸਦਾਇ ॥ ਨਾਨਕ ਜੇਤੇ ਕੂੜਿਆਰ ਕੂੜੈ ਕੂੜੀ ਪਾਇ ॥੩॥

Let mercy be your mosque, faith your prayer mat, and honest living your holy book. Make modesty your circumcision and good conduct your fasting. In this way, you shall be a True Muslim. Let good conduct be your holy place, Kaabaa, Truth your spiritual guide, and good deeds your kalma prayer and chant. Let that be your rosary, which is pleasing to God’s Will. O Nanak, then God shall preserve your honor.

To take away what rightfully belongs to another is like a Muslim eating the forbidden pork or a Hindu eating banned beef. Our Guru, our Spiritual Guide, stands by us only if we do not commit evil deeds (eat those carcasses). By mere talking, people do not earn passage to Heaven. Salvation comes only from the practice of Truth. By adding spices to forbidden foods, they are not made the sanctioned ones. Says Nanak, from false speech, only falsehood is obtained.

There are five prayers and five prayer times of day; they have five names. Let the first be truthfulness, the second honest living, and the third charity in the Name of God. Let the fourth be good will to all, and the fifth the praise of God. Repeat the prayer of good deeds, and you may call yourself a Muslim. Says Nanak, the false ones obtain falsehood and only falsehood.

The example of Muslims in this paper brings to our attention certain parallels to our situation from another community and to cross-culturally similarities. Both elaborate and enrich our understanding of who is Sikh. Let me explain.

An ambiguity detected in the Islamic tradition is similar to ours. There, as with us, the word “Muslim” is used both as a noun and as an adjective: the noun formal, mundane, designating membership in a historical community as a simple fact, while the adjective refers to content assigning an internal attitude and orientation.

Ask a member of the Islamic community if one is “a Muslim,” and the answer will be “yes” forthrightly, sensing no problem and registering no prior or subsequent thought. 

Ask him, however, if he is Muslim, and he will show great sensitivity and responsibility if he can answer convincingly and without reverent consternation.

“Muslim” in Arabic means “submitter” or “self-committing,” so to affirm that a person is Muslim is to speak of one’s quality of heart, one’s commitment to God, and one’s readiness to obey whatever injunctions the moral law may make incumbent on that person. Two persons may both be Muslims, but one may be more Muslim than the other, maybe more Muslim in one situation than in another, more Muslim one morning than in the same afternoon.

Returning to Sikh traditions, we can also consider our sacred scriptural tradition. To take a scriptural figure of Sheikh Farid, one might say that he was not a Sikh as a Muslim but a Sikh because of his theology and high living. His verses were included in our holy book even though he claimed to be a Muslim and employed Muslim idiom. The same can be said of Bhagat Kabir and other non-Sikh authors of the Sikh scripture, the Guru Granth. All of them are accepted as channels of revelation that formed the Sikh scripture.

In Sikh history, we may take Bhai Mian Mir as another controversial figure for our discussion. Guru Arjun picked him out of all his contemporaries, Sikhs, and others to lay the foundation of what the Guru would construct as the Sikhs’ holiest place, Sri Harimander Sahib. Since then, Sikhs have treated Mian with the highest regard despite being Muslim. In quality, he was Sikh, given this unique honor.

We can consider many individuals of today for illustration. A part of Mother Teresa and Nelson Mandela was Sikh, even though neither one was a Sikh. I realize that such considerations will arouse cross-cultural implications that may complicate the issue. However, their discussion may enrich this whole matter.

I am not a Muslim or a Hindu, or a Christian, but I am a Sikh. Again, my answer to a question on this point can be quick, clear, and definite. Yet if my heart raises the question, am I Sikh, Muslim, or Hindu? The answer is not immediate and clear, or concrete. I usually do not speak Arabic or Sanskrit or observe Hindu rituals or ceremonies. Instead, I was named in the historic Gurdwara Panja Sahib and married according to the Sikh tradition of Anand Karaj. Here the adjective is in the form of a question; does it apply to me, or can I use it for myself?

The only possible answer that I can give to this question is that I hope to be Muslim in a sense described above in my Guru’s writings as much as I long to be Sikh as my Guru ordained. Any other answer would be sinful and arrogant. I can be a Muslim because the Guru practiced Islam on occasion himself. Guru Nanak even wore Muslim clothing and carried the Qur’an to Mecca, intending to participate in the haj. I should be obedient to God’s Will and be charitable to God’s creation; as readily as God gives me the courage. I am not, alas, as Muslim as a good Sikh could be in the practice of my life. But certainly, I could aspire to be.

One cannot be both a Sikh and a Muslim or a Hindu. The nouns keep us apart. On the other hand, it is not, I suggest, as ridiculous or fanciful as it might look, to ask whether, in the realm of adjectives, it might not be possible for a person to be both Sikh and Muslim same time. I can understand and consent to the meanings of the terms in which this is possible. I could even say that to be genuinely Sikh is ipso facto to be truly Muslim, Buddhist, Hindu, or Christian.

Those of you whose hearts God has opened to surrender and who are fortunate to be blessed by the Guru’s commandments would not think of such particularities of adjectives to characterize the quality of their orientation. Whether or not you know it, these adjectives are there in Sikhee to describe the mindset you hope to raise in your best moments.

It is an enriching exercise to inquire more discerning what our founders and the enlightened souls had meant when they understood “Sikh” as a noun or an adjective. It is equally rewarding to ask oneself what one means or proposes, by this term of our faith, not merely when one is about to use it in speech or writing but also when one is in one’s trying moments.

In conclusion, let us make life simpler and enjoyable by claiming only one faith, the noun Sikh, and the adjective Sikh. Then in the silence of your room, in the commotions of the daily scuffle, in the busy current of your routine, or your crises and predicaments, look for opportunities to value your faith. Then you may reflect on what “Sikh” might mean right then and there.

Each morning as you arise, you might well ask yourself what you intend to make the word Sikh mean for yourself this day.

(Expanded from Global Sikh Daily Online, July 8, 2002, discontinued for many years, and updated from the Sikh Review – August 2003) 

Harbans Lal, Ph.D.; D.Litt (Hons) is the Professor Emeritus & Chairman at the Dept of Pharmacology & Neurosciences, University of North Texas Health Science Center. He is also the Professor Emeritus at the Amritsar-based Guru Nanak Dev University as well as President of the Academy of Guru Granth Studies. He can be reached at Link to the original article.

* This is the opinion of the writer, organisation or publication and does not necessarily represent the views of Asia Samachar.


Eminent Nueroscientist and Renowned Scholar of Sikhism – Dr. Bhai Harbans Lal (Asia Samachar, 17 Oct 2022)

Guru Nanak’s God (Asia Samachar, 21 July 2021)

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