Guru Nanak, an enlightened spiritual thinker who was born a Hindu but gained deep knowledge of Islam as India’s other major religion at the time, travelled throughout his homeland and parts of the Middle East, seeking other men of his ilk. He came to Baghdad with his Muslim associate Bhai Mardana on his return from Mecca and Medina and deliberated on the ontological and the epistemological questions with Sheikh Bahlool Dana, a renowned Sufi saint of the time, who hosted him for nearly three months, as per Sikh historical sources.
I heard about this holy site, where Guru Nanak is believed to have held a discourse with a powerful Pir of Baghdad, but could not visit earlier for security reasons. There used to be a Gurudwara. Now, a desolate courtyard surrounded by fields of mournful graves is all that remains of an ancient shrine to the Sikh faith’s founder Guru Nanak inside a sprawling Muslim cemetery in Baghdad.
Guru Nanak (1469-1539) shunned religious labels, teaching that man is judged by deeds, not the religion he proclaims. His ideas, which later formed the basis of the monotheistic Sikh religion, drew from Hinduism and Islam, but are regarded as much broader than a mere synthesis of the two.
There is a song, part of the holy Sikh scriptures, that recounts Guru Nanak’s travels with Bhai Mardana who was his constant companion, and their arrival in Baghdad and lodging outside the city.
Phir Baba Gaya Baghdad Nun Bahir Jaye Kiya AsthanaBhai Gurdas, childhood friend and lifelong companion of Bhai Mardana and Guru Nanak
Ek Baba Akal Roop Duja Rababi Mardana
Diti Baang Niwaj Kar Sun Saman Hoa Jahana
Sun Mun Nagri Bhayi Dekh Phar Bhayea Hairana
Wekhae Dhiaan Lagaye Kar Ek Faqeer Wada Mastana
Puchiya Firkaye Dastgeer Kaun Faqeer Kisna Gharana
Nanak Kal Wich Aya Rab Faqeer Eko Pahechana
Dharat Aakas Chahu Jis Jana
In English, it means: Then Baba (Guru Nanak Dev Ji) went to Baghdad and camped outside the city. In addition to Baba Nanak, who was a Divine personality, Mardana, the musician also went along. For Namaz (in his own style), Baba gave a call, listening to which the whole world went into absolute silence. The whole city became quiet and Lo! to behold it, the Pir (of the town) also got wonderstruck. Observing minutely he found (in the form of Baba Nanak) an exhilarated Faqir. Pir Dastagir asked him, which category of Faqir you belong to and what is your parentage. (Mardana told) He is Nanak, who has come into Kalyug, and, he recognizes God and His Faqirs as one. He is known in all the directions besides Earth and Sky.
Guru Nanak held discourses with people, who were greatly impressed by his views on God and religion. There are many legends on his discussions with Pir, which shows that Islam in that age was open to dialogue. Guru Nanak broke common perceptions the faith was too rigid for interfaith exchanges. Some of the legends can be read on the internet.
A memorial in the form of a platform was raised after Guru’s departure, where the Guru sat and discoursed. Later room was constructed and a stone slab with the inscription was installed on it. The Gurudwara was founded Mohammad Pasha Amoot, a follower of Pir Bahlool after Guru Nanak’s visit to Baghdad in 1520. Baba Nanak Shrine or Sikh Gurdwara in Baghdad, which was rediscovered by Sikh soldiers during World War I, and was repaired and rebuilt during World War II, by Sikh soldiers again; existed till 2003 in good shape.
There is a confusion in the narrative. As per the historical records, Sheikh Bahlool preceded Guru Nanak by a few centuries and Pir Dastagir is referred to Abdil Qadir Gilani, who lived in 1077-1166 CE. However, there is every possibility that Guru Nanak had dialogue with one of his successors or the custodian of the shrine of Pir Dastgir in Baghdad. Dastgir is the title given to saints in Persian. Maybe Dastgir was referred in the song to the Pir, whom Guru Nanak met in Baghdad as a mark of respect to him.
During the Great War, when the British and Indian armies conquered Baghdad, they discovered the place where Guru Nanak had his discourse with the then Pir of Baghdad. It was the hymn by Gurdas that probably led to the rediscovery of the shrine. Subedar Fateh Singh, one of the Sikh soldiers in Iraq during World War I, announced the discovery in 1918. The modern Gurudwara was built by the Sikh regiment in 1918 under the supervision of Dr Kirpal Singh, then a Captain in the Indian Medical Service. The shrine was repaired by Sikh soldiers in the early 1930s, and reportedly again during World War II when another regiment of Sikh soldiers was stationed in Iraq.
War, insurgents or looters have wiped any trace of a historical footnote that had preserved the memory of Guru Nanak’s 16th-century journey through Arabia and his stay in Baghdad. Historic relics such as an old plaque with the text inscribed in Arabic, existed in the Shrine till the Iraq war in 2003, were looted. In the chaos following the 2003 invasion of Iraq, looters or vandals stripped the monument of religious texts and the plaque commemorating the meeting. There is no trace of anything Sikh on the site.
Prior to the 2003 war, Sikh pilgrims used to visit the shrine. There are reports of some regular interval congregations by Indian workers in Iraq and cooking and sharing a meal by them on the place were held there.
I saw in the news that the Iraqi Government, in 2007, expressed a desire to rebuild the shrine. Once chatting with the Indian Ambassador in Baghdad, I asked him why the Indian government is not taking initiative to rebuild the Gurudwara. It was just after the defeat of ISIS by Iraqi security forces. He said that he was worried about the security of the pilgrims, who would reach the site once they come to know that the Gurudwara is rebuilt.
I hope that the Gurudwara will be rebuilt again to remind everyone the vision of Guru Nanak, which is summarized by his fifth successor, Guru Arjan Dev:
Naa Ko Bairi, Nahin Bigaana; Sagal Sang Hum Ko Bann Aayi.Guru Arjan Dev
In English, it means: I see no stranger, I see no enemy; I look upon all with goodwill.