There is a popularly-held notion in some Australian media sectors that the people in areas now ruled by the Taliban are somehow less cultured and more intolerant than people in other parts of the country. It's as if anyone who comes from the same ethnic background as the Afghan and Pakistani Taliban leadership - anyone from a Pushtu-speaking tribe - must share the Taliban's intolerance.
Yoginder Sikand is an Indian writer and commentator who has written extensively on South Asian Islam. He notes that North Indians, including those from Punjab and the from the Pushtun regions, share much of their religious heritage with non-Muslims. Sikand provides numerous instances of this shared heritage during his travels across Pakistan.
'Numerous Punjabi Sufi saints, whose works are still immensely popular, are known for their breath of vision, seeing God's light in every particle of the universe, in the mosque as well as the temple', says Saeeda Diep, my host in Lahore. She takes me to the shrine of Madho Lal Husain in downtown Lahore, a unique Sufi dargah that houses the graves of two male lovers, Madho, a Hindu, and Husain, a Muslim, who were so close that they are today remembered by a single name. She waxes eloquent about the unconventional love relationship between the two that angered the pundits and mullahs but won the hearts of the masses.
This is the folk religious culture of Pakistan, which borrows from various Indian faiths including Islam, Hinduism and Sikhism. The special role Sikhism plays to this day among Punjabi Muslims is well known, as Sikand discovers when he meets of Sufi Muslim.
In Lahore I also meet Pir Syed Chan Shah Qadri, the custodian of the shrine of the sixteenth century Sufi Hazrat Miyan Mir. The saint was the spiritual preceptor of Dara Shikoh, son of the Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan, a renowned mystic in his own right. Dara was the first to translate the Upanishads [ed: Hindu scriptures] into Persian and sought to draw parallels between Hindu and Islamic mysticism and thereby bring Hindus and Muslims closer together. Hazrat Miyan Mir was no less of an ecumenist, the Pir tells me. In recognition of his spiritual stature, he was invited by Guru Arjan Dev, the fifth Sikh guru, to lay the foundation stone of the Harminder Sahib or Golden Temple in Amritsar, the most holy shrine of the Sikhs. The Pir informs me that many Punjabi Muslims still look upon Guru Nanak, the first Sikh guru, as a great mystic in the Sufi tradition.
Pushtun (also known as Pathan) Muslims also have a special relationship with Sikhs which has strong historical roots in the Sikh faith and extends to times when Sikhs were persecuted by Indian Muslim kings.
In Syed Chan Shah's home I am introduced to Zahoor Ahmad Khan, seventh generation descendant of two Pathan brothers Ghani Khan and Nabi Khan. When Gobind Singh, the last guru of the Sikhs, was pursued by Aurangzeb's forces, he was sheltered by the brothers. They disguised him as a Muslim saint, the Pir of Ucch Sharif, and, carrying him in a palanquin, they slipped through the Mughal lines. In gratitude, Khan tells me, the Guru presented them with a letter written in his own hand, announcing that, as Khan says, 'Whoever among my followers loves and protects these two brothers loves me, too'. In recognition of the service rendered to the Guru by the brothers, Ranjit Singh, the founder of the Sikh kingdom in Punjab, granted their descendants a large estate in Mandara, a village in present-day Indian Punjab. The family resided in the estate till 1947, when, during the Partition riots, they fled to Pakistan. 'When the whole of Punjab was burning, when Hindus and Sikhs in western Punjab and Muslims in eastern Punjab were being massacred and driven out of their homes, the Sikhs of Mandara pleaded with my father and other relatives not to leave. But we had to, so terrible was the situation then', says Zahoor Khan, who was a young lad of fifteen when he came to Pakistan. Last year he went back to his village for the first time since he and his family had left it, at the invitation of a Sikh organization that seeks to revive and preserve the memory of the two Pathan friends of Guru Gobind Singh. 'I was given an enthusiastic welcome when I arrived in Mandara. The whole village came out to greet me', says Khan, his eyes brimming with tears.In fact, many Muslims revere the Sikh gurus, amongst them the founder of Sikhism Guru Nanak.
Also present during our conversation is Naim Tahir, a middle-aged, soft-spoken man, who introduces himself as a descendant of Bhai Mardana, Guru Nanak's closest companion, a Muslim of the Mirasi caste. Tahir tells me about the relationship between his ancestor and Guru Nanak. Both Guru Nanak and Bhai Mardana were born in the village of Talwandi, and grew up together as friends. 'Bhai Mardana had a melodious voice and used to play the rabab', and 'when Guru Nanak began his spiritual mission of bringing Hindus and Muslims together in common worship of the one God and denouncing caste and social inequalities, Bhai Mardana joined him. Together they traveled together to various Hindu and Muslim holy places, including even Mecca and Medina. Guru Nanak would compose his mystical verses or shabad and Bhai Mardana would sing them while playing the rabab'.This is the reality of religious coexistence on the ground in Pakistan and has been the case in this region of the sub-Continent for centuries. The Taliban represent an historical and theological aberration.
Tahir tells me that his family tradition of singing the verses of Guru Nanak and other Sikh gurus has been carried down through the generations. 'Yes, we are Muslims,' he says, 'but there is nothing in the teachings of Guru Nanak that is incompatible with Islam. In fact there are many verses in the Guru Granth Sahib written by Muslim Sufis, including the well-known Chishti saint Baba Farid'. Tahir confesses to know little else about Bhai Mardana, other than the fact that after Guru Nanak died he traveled to Afghanistan and is buried somewhere there. 'You should speak to my father Ashiq Ali Bhai Lal about this', he advises. 'He has even sung shabads in the Golden Temple and is regularly invited to sing in gurudwaras and gurumandirs, Sindhi Hindu shrines dedicated to the Sikh gurus, in different places in Pakistan'.