By Kearra Hahne, Carissa Milton, Kara Hummer, Olivia Russo

Sikhism is the world’s-fifth-largest religion. There are approximately 25,000,000 individuals around the world who identify as Sikhs. Most live in India but an estimated 700,000 live in the United States. Other places with significant Sikh populations are the United Kingdom, Canada, Malaysia, East Africa, and Thailand. Throughout all the countries that Sikhs call home, they all strive to carry out the same values. These values are Nam japna, Kirt Karna, and Vand Chhakna or pray, work, and give.

Sikhs in America

Sikhs live all around America. The largest communities are in Chicago, Oklahoma City, and in Dallas. Many Sikhs in America face discrimination frequently because of their outward appearance. Sikhs are distinct because the men often wear turbans while Sikh women often wear a headscarf to cover their hair. Sikhs hold their services in gurdwaras. They are very welcoming to everyone. The typical services at gurdwaras include the singing of hymns, and a recitation from the Guru Granth Sahib, Sikhism’s book of holy scriptures.

At the end of their services, the congregation goes to the langar or the kitchen and a meal is served. Giving is one of Sikhism’s core values and this is one way they emphasize public service. Gurdwaras in America often sponsor Red Cross blood drives on their property as an act of service. There are also many other ways they serve their communities including volunteering at homeless shelters, participating in clean-up effort, and providing hot meals to those in need after natural disasters. 

One struggle that Sikhs face today, especially in America, is continuing their traditional language, Punjabi. Even though most Sikh children grow up speaking English, gurdwaras often have programs for children to learn to speak the Punjabi language and to read the Gurmukhi script. It is important for Sikhs to know the language because the Guru Granth Sahib is poetry and a primary way the Sikhs connect to God. This is similar to Islam because every Muslim must learn how to recite Arabic because the Muslim scripture is written in Arabic. Gurdwaras have classes for the youth to learn the language and religion so they are not completely immersed into the dominant culture.

Visit the Sikh Temple of Alabama

The Sikh Temple of Alabama is located at 3335 Morgan Road on the outskirts of Bessemer, Alabama. The gurdwara was previously a Protestant church. It is the first Sikh temple in Alabama and they typically have an average of seventy people attending the gurdwara on Sunday morning. The gurdwara has a prayer room, a lobby, a kitchen, and a children’s room where they learned about the Sikh religion.

When we walked into the gurdwara, we were unsure of what to do or where to go, but someone very quickly came to guide us. We were told to take off our shoes, wash our hands, and to keep our hair covered. The woman helped us make sure we had our hair was covered with a bandana-like cloth they had for visitors to use.

We then proceeded into the prayer room. We walked down the middle of the room on red carpet to the canopy covered pedestal where the Guru Granth Sahib is enthroned. After honoring the guru, we went and sat down and listened to the reading of it in Punjabi.

Platform and canopy with the Guru Granth Sahib in the Sikh Temple of Alabama. Photo: authors.

We attended langar after leaving the prayer room. The langar is a kitchen in the gurdwara. They serve a meal from the langar which is given to all the visitors and members of the community for free. The meal is always vegetarian and they served chai tea that was unsweetened to be considerate of the diabetics in the community.

Food at the langar. Photo: authors.

We attended the gurdwara on during Diwali. Diwali is a festival of light that is celebrated at the end of October by followers of several religions including Hindus, Jains, and Sikhs. For Sikhs, the purpose of Diwali is to celebrate Guru Hargobind, the sixth guru, and his return from prison. One major part of Diwali celebrations are fireworks. Diwali is also a time that people buy and exchange gifts, similar to celebrating Christmas.

History of Sikhism

Sikhism began in the Punjab region of South Asia with Guru Nanak. Guru Nanak believed that there was only one God. He began the belief in Southern Asia in a monotheistic religion of a God who is timeless, who created everything, and who is present in all religions and all walks of life. The term guru means teacher, so the word “guru” that Nanak used for God is Satguru or the True Guru for respect for the one true God. One who follows the guru’s teachings is a “sikh” meaning “learner”. Sikhs learn from the teachings of the gurus through from the Guru Granth Sahib, their religious text which was written by previous gurus. The text explains the principles of the Sikh religion, such as living a life full of truth, kindness, and the belief in one God and “without inequalities such as gender race and class” (Singh).

Members of the Sikh Khalsa follow rules on how to dress and act. The 5 Ks are markers of their identity as Sikhs: kesh, kanga, kara, kachha, and kirpan. These name how Sikhs should wear their hair, a certain bracelet, a sword, and certain shorts under their garments. The Sikh follow these rules to keep their chastity. These rules were founded by Guru Goband Singh to remind the Sikhs of the beliefs of the religion and to separate the Sikhs from other religions.

The British gained control of India in 1849 prompting Sikhs to move around the British Empire, spreading the religion around the world (Singh). The Spread of Sikhism allowed for more than 30 million people to follow the religion around the world.

What Makes Sikhism Different From Hinduism and Islam?

Sikhism’s founder, Guru Nanak, was Hindu both by birth and upbringing. If one looks at the practices and core beliefs of Sikhism, the Hindu influences are quite apparent. One of its most unique similarities is that both believe in rebirth, or samsara. Sikhism, however, is identified as a completely independent religion. One of its major differences from much of Hinduism, is its monotheism. It shares this monotheism in common with Islam, the other major religion in Nanak’s world. Nanak saw the corruption taking place from Hindu ceremonies worshiping their many gods and chose instead to worship a single god. Sikhs also rejected the caste system that Hindu strongly emphasized (Wylam 2007).

The Islamic similarities to Sikhism are only apparent on the surface. Both have turbans, or headscarves, as a part of their religion, both are monotheistic, and both have a central text. However, in Sikhism, both men and women wear turbans and headscarves, but only during worship services, where Muslim women are required all the time. In addition, although both religions only worship one god, Sikhs do not believe that they can obtain a personal connection with theirs, unlike the more personable Allah of the Islamic Faith. Lastly, the central text, the Granth, was compiled by earthly gurus, while the Qu’ran of Islam is said to be the words of Allah (Khalsa 2018).  

In contemporary American society, people often jumble these three religions together, but each is understood by its followers as unique. Sikhism seeks no converts, unlike Hinduism and Islam, because even though they claim no ties to either, they do not find them to be incorrect. 

Birmingham Sikh Temple
Address: 
3335 Morgan Rd, Bessemer, AL 35022
Web:  http://www.sikhtempleofalabama.org/
Opened: 2009

Sources for Further Information

“BBC – Religions – Sikhism: Diwali.” BBC. n.d. Accessed November 14, 2019. https://www.bbc.co.uk/religion/religions/sikhism/holydays/diwali.shtml

“BBC – Religions – Sikhism: Sikh Beliefs.” n.d. Accessed November 13, 2019. https://www.bbc.co.uk/religion/religions/sikhism/beliefs/beliefs.shtmlGrey, Jeremy.

Khalsa, Sukhmandir. 2019. “10 Ways Sikhism Differs From Islam.” Learn Religions. January 21, 2019. https://www.learnreligions.com/ways-sikhism-differs-from-islam-2992956

McLeod, W. H. 1984. Textual Sources for the Study of Sikhism. Manchester: Manchester University Press,

Nesbitt, Eleanor M. 2016. Sikhism: a Very Short Introduction. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Nesbitt, Eleanor M., and Gopinder Kaur. Guru Nanak. Calgary: Bayeux, 2000.

“Our American Dream.” We Are Sikhs. Accessed October 17, 2019. http://www.wearesikhs.org/american_dream.

“Sikhs find a home for worship in Alabama.” 2009. AL.COM, December 27, 2009. https://www.al.com/birmingham-news-stories/2009/12/sikhs_find_a_home_for_worship.html

Singh, Mohinder. 2008. Guru Granth Sahib: the Guru Eternal. New Delhi, India: Himalayan Books, in association with National Institute of Panjab Studies.

Singh, Simran Jeet. 2018. “Who Are the Sikhs and What Are Their Beliefs?” 2018. Religion News Service. August 10, 2018. https://religionnews.com/2018/08/10/who-are-the-sikhs-and-what-are-their-beliefs/.

“The Sikh Community Today | The Pluralism Project.” n.d. Accessed November 13, 2019.  http://pluralism.org/religions/sikhism/sikhism-in-america/the-sikh-community-today/

“Who Are the Sikhs and What Are Their Beliefs?” 2018. Religion News Service. August 10, 2018. https://religionnews.com/2018/08/10/who-are-the-sikhs-and-what-are-their-beliefs/

Wylam, P. M. n.d. Sikhism Guide. Accessed November 13, 2019. http://www.sikhismguide.org/sikh-belief.html

Kara Hummer ’23, Kearra Hahne ’23, Carissa Milton ’23,, and Olivia Russo ’23 were students in Introduction to World Religions in Samford University’s Department of Biblical and Religious Studies in fall 2019.

Published December 16, 2019.

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