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Published in the 16-31 Aug 2004 print edition of MG; send me the print edition

A Non-Muslim scholar of Islam

By Jagjit Singh Jabewal

Kesar Singh (1869-1935) was the youngest of three sons of Thuman Singh of Dangri village in Punjab’s erstwhile Patiala State. In those days every male child was needed as a helper in cultivation. Therefore, farmers did not send their children to schools. Kesar Singh tended his father’s cattle till 12 years of age. He had strong desire to go to school. He realised that it was not possible for him to fulfil his dreams while living with his parents. 

One day he ran away from home and reached his maternal uncle and explained to him his problem. His maternal uncle got him admitted in a government middle school at Dehera, a village situated five miles away from Kesar’s own village. He used to go to school on foot like other students of the village. 

In those days even middle school examination was conducted by the university. Once Mr. Trump, chief inspector of schools, came to the Dehera school to hold examinations. He was surprised to find that the real name of Kesar Singh was Akbar Singh, a very unusual name of a Sikh boy. Mr. Trump ordered his name to be changed to Kesar Singh. His certificate issued by the University of Lahore dated 11the June 1885 certified Kesar Singh as having passed the vernacular Middle School Examination held in April 1885. At the left hand top of the certificate, his original name i.e. Akbar Singh is written in Persian. Kesar Singh passed matriculation examination from Govt. Model School Patiala and then joined Mahendra College, Patiala. He topped the university in BA and won the Viceroy’s Gold Medal and also a university scholarship for further studies. He joined Lahore Oriented College and chose Arabic which normally only Muslim students used to adopt. Here too Kesar Singh stood first in the final examination. After academic achievements he started the study of Holy Qur’an and other Islamic literature. He was among few Indians who had gained remarkable proficiency in cross culture expressions. 

How verses from Holy Qur’an sat upon Sikh lips is a fascinating question to ask. Even Muslims were surprised by his perfect recitation. He had established unquestioned authority in Islamic literature. It is said that he could recite the whole Qur’an by his memory. There was a common remark about him that Kesar Singh must have been a Muslim in his previous life and also an Arabic scholar. He used to quote from Holy Qur’an and couplets from Persian poets like Shaikh Saadi and Hafiz in his public lectures addressed to the Sikh masses. In his letters to his son he used to quote Holy Qur’an. In one of his letters to his son he said, "Always keep in mind the moral values which come from the Holy Qur’an". 

Director of Delhi-based Inter Faith Foundation, JS Jabewal is a keen student of Islam and promoter of Sikh-Muslim relations

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