One of the greatest points of difference between Islam and Sikhism is the Islamic doctrine of al-Khatum an-Nabiyeen, or The Finality of Prophethood, which establishes that direct divine guidance from God came to a permanent end with the cessation of Muhammad’s (Allah’s peace and blessings be upon him) prophetic tenure.
This doctrine also distinguishes Prophet Muhammad (Allah’s peace and blessings be upon him) from his prophetic predecessors in that, while their respective mission was restricted to their designated community, his was universally meant for the whole of mankind. For this reason, his message was, as mentioned in the following verse of the Qur’an, finalised and perfected by God:
In spite of this difference, however, Muslims believe that the fundamental tenets of Islam, revealed to and taught by all of God’s chosen emissaries, has consistently been one and the same, i.e. the oneness and true worship of Allah (Tawheed in Arabic).
But what differentiates a true prophet of God from a false one, i.e. one said to have actually spoken on God’s behalf via divine inspiration or revelation? One way in which we intend to hazard an answer, is by comparing the pre-prophetic life of Sikhism’s founder Guru Nanak to that of Muhammad’s, and exploring any influence that might have contributed towards their eventual prophetic declaration.
One of the great scholars of Islam, Ibn Tamiyyah (d. 728 AH), mentioned the following distinction between a true Prophet and a false one:
Of course, all prophetic claims are predicated on some type of supernatural experience. In the case of the founders of Islam and Sikhism, respectively, these experiences are said to have been manifested as verbalisations of a personal communion with God, before being preserved as scripture of divine origin.
Unlike any other scripture we know of, the Qur’an contains the following unique falsification test, which seeks to prove its divine origin: The Challenge of Inimitability, where sceptics are simply asked to produce a chapter, in Arabic of course, exceeding the perfect structure of any of its 114 chapters (al-Kawthar, chapter 108, being the shortest with 3 verses and 10 words!). Historically speaking, even the most accomplished poets, who at the time of revelation were considered the apex of Arabic eloquence, failed to meet said challenge – a challenge which, we might add, remains unmet to this day!
Similar claims of inimitability have also been forwarded by some Sikhs, especially those who consider their scripture, the Guru Granth Sahib (GGS), to be ipsissima verba, or the very words of God; though nowhere near as systematically presented or as forcefully as the Muslims.
Hence, what this approach seeks to determine, is whether there exists a plausible naturalistic explanation for the prophetic ministries affirmed by both parties, and, by extension, how this might impact on the divine origin of each respective scripture.
Prophet Muhammad’s Unprivileged Educational Upbringing
When we look to the historical accounts of both men, what we find is that Nanak received a very good education during his formative years at the hands of a number of local religious teachers of some prominence, and all during a time when illiteracy was an established norm.
In contrast, it is well known that Muhammad (Allah’s peace and blessings be upon him) had no formal education to speak of, and was, thus, in the strictest definition of the word, an illiterate.
Literacy though was not the only significant difference of note; it was also the company they kept and were exposed to that requires exploring. In Muhammad’s (Allah’s peace and blessings be upon him) case, his interaction with those who might have had a perceived influence in this respect seems to amount to only two incidents in recorded history:
- The first involved his wife Khadeejah, who took him to see her Christian cousin, Waraqa bin Nawfal.
- The second occurred 27 years before Prophethood at the early age of 13 when, while on his way to Syria with his uncle Abu Talib, the party of two (Allah’s peace and blessings be upon him) unexpectedly encountered a monk by the name of George (often referred to in weak narrations as Buhaira), who is said to have recognised certain signs of Prophethood on the boy, which compelled him to successfully persuade the uncle to turn back home out of fear of a potential threat the community of Syrian Jews there might have posed his nephew’s safety.
Aside from this, we know of no other authentic reports that might serve as evidence of circumstances said to be conducive in sparking and shaping any pre-prophetic ideas. Now, if we can conclude anything at this early stage, it is that such encounters were an extreme rarity.
So Prophethood is comprised of various aspects of knowledge and action in which the Messenger must be characterized within them, for they are the most noble aspects of knowledge as well as the most noble of actions. – Ibn Taymiyyah
However, when sticking to the facts as they stand, what also becomes apparent is that these two incidents could hardly be less compelling in proving said contention.
Take the first report for instance. Not only was Waraqa a man of such advanced age that he had lost his sight, but also one who passed away a few days later.  More significantly, since this encounter occurred very soon after the Prophet’s first revelatory experience, it stands to reason that any suggestions of short-term nurturing, let alone long-term, would, of course, have been entirely out of the question.
As for the second, then there is no evidence of any further interaction between the two parties, or any credible reason to infer that such a brief encounter, 27 years before Muhammad’s prophecy (Allah’s peace and blessings be upon him), had any lasting influence.
Yet, let us just say, for argument’s sake, that this could have influenced him. In such a case, the crucial question would be: what sort of impact would this have had on any future aspirations of prophecy? The answer is that no matter how insignificant, it simply would not be able to explain how a man of Muhammad’s (Allah’s peace and blessings be upon him) education could have produced a literary masterpiece as the Qur’an.
To put things as accurately as possible, this is a man who pointed all sceptics and adversaries directly to the Qur’an as both a divine miracle and the primary evidence of his prophetic claims. With the Qur’an’s self-referential perfection and its prophesying abject failure in meeting its challenge of inimitability, the implication would be: what is a plausible naturalistic explanation for this being a product of an illiterate?
Nanak’s Privileged Educational Upbringing
Comparing this to Nanak’s life, then here we have a man who, from an early age, attended school, while apparently being formally taught by experts (at least by the standards of his social class and milieu) of both Hinduism and Islam. Regarding the latter, then the accounts seem to suggest a coordinated and progressive form of learning. Hence, according to Harjinder Singh Dilgeer:
Though Kirpal Singh says “Nanak was of 7 years”  when the pandha (teacher) he was sent to “wrote for him landa alphabets,  which were then called sidhojnaia… [h]e completed his studies before long and acquired CONSIDERABLE knowledge of Hindu religion about which we learn from various allusions made in his hymns”.  (bold, capitalisation ours) Moreover, Harban Singh says that it was under this same “Pandit, Brijnath Shastri, the village scholar of classical lore”, that Nanak not only learned Sanskrit, but also “read with him the religious texts”. 
Now, believe it or not, Nanak was placed, thereafter, under the wing of a Muslim imam! Harban reveals:
While Kirpal adds:
It can be seen then, that Nanak, with all his suggested natural ability, was receiving a comprehensive education in a disciplined and well-organised schooling environment to the extent, says Dilgeer, that:
But, another factor, which would arguably be one of the most important in this context, given the major impact it would invariably have on Nanak’s perception of the world during those early formative years, is the strange company he chose to keep at such an age. In this regard, Kirpal reveals:
Harbans makes a similar observation:
This proclivity did not diminish either, even after his marriage, for so enamoured was he by these so-called holy men that, according to Kirpal, when not in their precious company, he became melancholy to the point of negligence in his role as breadwinner:
If these historical records are reliable, then not only was Nanak a naturally gifted boy and an exceptionally bright student who took full advantage of his privileged education to excel and surpass all others, but also appears to have been obsessed with the extracurricular activity of frequenting the gatherings of the “holy men” to obsessively engage in dialogue and learning.
For all intents and purposes, therefore, there is very good grounds in arguing for an entirely naturalistic explanation when it comes to Nanak, given that his formative years appear to have been tailor-made for anyone with Prophetic ambitions, in a way which cannot be attributed to Prophet Muhammad (Allah’s peace and blessings be upon him).
Divinely Inspired or Humanly Inspired Scripture?
There, then, exists the question of scriptural inimitability as mentioned above, which seems to further widen what already appears to be a gaping chasm between these two men’s claim of prophecy.
We have already stated how, despite zero formal education, Muhammad (Allah’s peace and blessings be upon him) produced a literary masterpiece of unsurpassed excellence. This is not to say that attempts were not made in meeting the Qur’an’s challenge of inimitability; but, in light of the historical evidence before us, these attempts were dismissed out of hand. 
The same, however, is not true of Nanak and, for that matter, the subsequent Gurus who, in spite of all their prodigious collective learning, had their scripture replicated sufficiently well enough by rivals contemporaneous to them, and with similar such extensive education, to mount a serious challenge to their status as leaders (read out article: Gurus’ Family Feuds, for more information).
What good reasons, then, are there for believing in Nanak’s alleged supernatural experience, when everything from his early life points towards an entirely plausible naturalistic explanation? After all, for all his natural gifts, Nanak received, from a very early age, the best education his social status could afford him which, in conjunction with the exclusive life lessons he acquired interacting with “holy men” from across the religious spectrum of Punjab, would have provided him with all the necessary tools for fulfilling his prophetic objectives. Under such circumstances, should it come as any surprise to learn that after having gone missing for three days, Nanak eventually reappears claiming to have been in communion with God?
Before answering, let us briefly recall and contrast his pre-prophetic life against that of Muhammad’s (Allah’s peace and blessings be upon him) – a man who, contrary to Nanak, had not only received absolutely no formal education whatsoever, but, despite being nurtured in an environment where pre-Islamic poets were recognised and celebrated for their literary brilliance and achievements, was not known for having any interest in such things, let alone displaying any such literary aptitude.
In fact, while his reputation as an honest and truthful man was universally acknowledged by his people, academically it was entirely the opposite. On these grounds alone, a naturalistic explanation simply fails to adequately explain how such an individual could have produced a verbal source articulated piecemeal over 23 years, whose sum total undermined the entire institution of Arabic poetry and anything the poets had managed until then, before setting a benchmark of absolute eloquence that would remain unmatched and unchallenged.
Despite his opponents being left flummoxed over the origin of his hitherto unfathomable new abilities, it did not stop them from speculating. Following the initial stage of crude ad hominem attacks employed by some of his more vitriolic foes, which included name calling, such as “mad-man” and “sorcerer”, more refined, though no less desperate, accusations began to materialise, including one allegation that Muhammad (Allah’s peace and blessings be upon him) was receiving instructions and being coached by a complete outsider. The Qur’an defends against this allegation by arguing that “the tongue of the man they” – these antagonists – “refer to is foreign, while this (Qur’an) is clear, eloquent Arabic speech” (Qur’an 16:103). In other words, the very argument itself, which to our mind is the strongest argument they levelled against the Prophet re the sources of the Qur’an, was self-defeating, since it fully undermined the eloquence of the very poetry they were so proud of, by contending that a non-Arab had bested it, while all the while tacitly recognising the eloquence of their rival.
As for Nanak, then there appears to be very little mystery surrounding the high literary language used by him in formulating the hymns now found in the GGS. As eloquent as he evidently was, there appears to be nothing otherworldly about his rhetorical, oratorical and literary skills. Instead, we have very good grounds for believing that he was a highly intelligent individual who took full advantage of his exceptional educational circumstances to eventually carve out and portray a role he connected to the divine.
 A.H.M. Farooq (2015), Ibn Taymiyyah’s Discussion on the Genuine Nature of the Prophet, (The Salafi Masjid; accessed: Mar 12, 2016).
 Narrated ‘A’isha:
– Bukhari, vol. 1, 1.3.
 H.S. Dilgeer (2010), Sikh History – 1 Ancient Punjab & Guru Period (1000 O.E. – 1708 C.E.), (Singh Brothers, Amritsar), p. 109.
 Fn. 12: The Vilayatvali, the Miharban and the Bala janamsakhis say that Nanak was sent for schooling at the age of 7. Mani Singh janamsakhi refers to child Nanak being of 5 years then. The age of seven years to begin schooling seems more correct.
 Fn. 16: It was the general practice to learn Sharda in the hilly region of Punjab and landa script in the plains of Punjab. Some traders make use of this script even in modern rimes. Mani Singh janamsakhi says that the padha taught the Guru.
 K. Singh (2004), Janamsakhi Tradition – An Analytical Study, (Singh Brothers, Amritsar), pp. 57-8.
 H. Singh (1969), Guru Nanak and Origins of the Sikh Faith, (Asia Publishing House, Bombay), p. 74.
 H. Singh (1969), Guru Nanak and Origins of the Sikh Faith, (Asia Publishing House, Bombay), pp. 74-5.
 K. Singh (2004), Janamsakhi Tradition – An Analytical Study, (Singh Brothers, Amritsar), p. 58.
 H.S. Dilgeer (2010), Sikh History – 1 Ancient Punjab & Guru Period (1000 O.E. – 1708 C.E.), (Singh Brothers, Amritsar), p. 110.
 Fn. 23: The Vilayatvali Janamsakhi says: “he held discourses with the faqirs.” The Puratan (p. 8, App. 4) and the Mani Singh (p. 47, App. 331) versions say: “as a saint came, he would bring him home and warmly serve him.”
 K. Singh (2004), Janamsakhi Tradition – An Analytical Study, (Singh Brothers, Amritsar), p. 60.
 H. Singh (1969), Guru Nanak and Origins of the Sikh Faith, (Asia Publishing House, Bombay), p. 80.
 Fn. 33: Vilayatvali Janamsakhi records: “he felt interested in nothing, cared not for home.” “Members of the family said that he goes about with the faqirs” (Puratan Janamsakhi, p. 8 of App., J.S.P.). The Miharban account (p. 70 of App.) says: “as he got married, he maintained silence, spoke nothing.” “Then he stopped talking and developed indifference towards household life. The mind of Guru Nanak did not show concern for worldly matters.”
 K. Singh (2004), Janamsakhi Tradition – An Analytical Study, (Singh Brothers, Amritsar), p. 62.
 The exegete Ibn Kathir records:
Musaylamah said: “Woe unto you ‘Amr. What was revealed unto your friend – meaning Allah’s Messenger – during this period”
‘Amr replied: “I heard his companions reading a short but great Surah.”
He asked, “And what was that?”
He recited: (By Al-‘Asr (the time). Verily, man is in loss.) (103:1-2) until the end of the Surah.
Musaylamah thought for a while and then said: “Something similar to that was also revealed to me.”
‘Amr asked: “And what is it?” He then recited: “‘O Wabr, O Wabr! You are only two ears and a breast. The rest of you is hollow.’ What do you think ‘Amr?”
‘Amr then said: “By Allah, you know that I know that you are a liar.”
This was a statement made by an idolator in judgment of Musaylamah. He knew Muhammad and his truthfulness. He also knew Musaylamah and his tendency toward falsehood and lying. People who think and have insight know even better. (bold ours)
– S. Abdul-Rahman (2012), Tafsir Ibn Kathir, Part 11 of 30: at-Tauba 093 to Hud 005, (MSA Publication Ltd, London), p. 70.