About three-fifths of the Kurds, nearly all of them Kurmânji speakers, are today at least nominally Sunni Muslims of the Shafi’ite rite. There are also followers of mainstream lmâmi (Twelver) Shi’ite Islam among the Kurds, particularly in and around the cities of Kirmânshâh, Kangawar, Hamadân, Qurva, and Bijâr in southern and eastern Kurdistan in Iran, and in much smaller numbers in and around Malâtya, Adiyâman, and Maras in far western Kurdistan in Turkey. There are a large number of Shi’ite Kurds in the Khurâsâni enclave as well, but they are not a majority there, as some sources have erroneously reported. The Shi’ite Kurds number no more than 1 to 1.5 million, i.e., between 5 and 7% of the total Kurdish population.
The Shafi’ite Sunni rites emerged among the Kurmânj in medieval times when Iran was also Primarily Shafi’ite Sunni Muslim. Arriving from the east toward the end of the medieval period, the Turkic tribes that proceeded to populate the better part of Anatolia brought with them the Hanafite rite prevalent in central Asia. The Hanafite rite became quite influential in the formerly Christian Byzantine lands to the west of Kurdistan, but did not change the Shafi’ism of the Kurds. It did, however, succeed in introducing the Naqshbandi Sufi order, an order indigenous to central Asia, into Kurdistan (see Sufi Mystic Orders). Kurdish Shafi’ite Muslims now constitute the single largest community of adherents to this once pervasive Sunni rite in the northern Middle East. They are now sandwiched between the Shi’ite Persians and Azeris on the east, Hanafite Sunni Turks on the west and north, and Hanafite Arabs of Syria and northern Iraq (the birthplace of Hanafism per se) on the south.
Kurdistan straddles the very heartland of Islam, coming within 50 miles of Baghdad and 200 miles of Damascus, the two medieval cultural and spiritual capitals of the Islamic caliphates. The land was among the first to be breached by the Muslim forces, as early as the 7th century AD. Despite this centrality, there are very few mosques to be seen in Kurdistan, including in the cities. Why so?
Until at least the 12th century the Kurds were mostly, and rightly, reckoned as non Muslims by influential medieval Muslim writers like Nizâm al-Mulk ‘ Abu Mansur alBaghdâdi, and lbn Athir, who referred to the Kurds as mushrikir4 i.e., polytheists. It appears that Islam touched Kurdistan rather superficially and primarily on its peripheries. While there existed a notable minority of Kurdish Muslims the majority adhered to the old religion (Cult of Angels, Judaism, and Christianity) resisting Conversion until a gradual change in the socioeconomic life of the predominantly agriculturalist Kurdistan began to take shape from the 12th to the 15th centuries, and the destructive migration of the Turkic nomads through Kurdistan.
The fact that most early Kurdish Muslim thinkers and men of fame come from cities like Dinawa.r, Suhraward, and Hamadâii, or tribes like the Khalkâns and Fadhlâns, all bordering on the neighboring Muslim ethnic groups, further strengthens the contention that the majority of the Kurdish Muslims were relatively late converts to Islam, perhaps as late as the 16th century. This time coincides with the onset of an extended socioeconomic decline in Kurdistan, which may indicate a fact of the necessary stability and finances to construct durable and/or monumental mosques, accounting for their dearth today.
By the end of the 15th century, the old religion had been undercut steadily by the socioeconomic stress caused by the influx of nomads. From the besieging of the 16th century, the expansion of these nomads came at the expense of settled agriculturalists. The deterioration of their strength enabled the native Kurmânji-speaking Kurdish nomads to expand their dominance of the Hakkâri region (southwest of Lake Urmiâ) to cover most of Kurdistan. The Kurmânj were Shâfi’ite Sunnis, and as they expanded their power and numbers they expanded their religion, Islam. They gained the decisive momentum in the beginning of the 16th century, with the collapse of the trade routes through Kurdistan and its disruption of the Kurdish economy. The Kurmânj nomads soon overwhelmed and converted the sedentary, Pahlawâni-speaking, non-Muslim Kurds in most of Kurdistan. This pattern of intertwined linguistic and religious change had also occurred earlier, when Kurds of the southern Zagros mountains assumed new identities when they converted to Shi’ite Islam. These southern Kurds gave up their Kurdish language for Persian, and became the ancestors of the modern Lurs and other ethnic groups in the southern Zagros. Kurdish society is now approaching a period of homogenization under the Kurmânji language, through Konversion to Sunni Islam of the Shâfi’ite rite.
The lateness of their Conversion should not however be interpreted to discount the importance of Islam to the Kurds, particularly now and specifically in major cities and towns where the majority of inhabitants truly adhere to conventionally recognized Islamic denominations. In fact, even in medieval times Kurds produced many Muslim thinkers and authors whose works are of great value to the entire Islamic world. Kurds like al-Dinawari, lbn Athir, lbn Fadlân, Ibn Khalkân, Suhrawardi, and Ba’di ul-Zamân al-Hamadâni are well known for their contributions to Islamic civilization (see Medieval History).
Since their conversion to Islam, conflict has existed between Muslim Kurdish groups following various Islamic denominations, and particularly between the Sunnis and the Shi’ites. This is not, however, any different in nature, intensity, or frequency from similar factional conflicts in other parts of the Muslim world. In the region around the city of Kirmânshâh in southern Kurdistan, for example, where lmâmi Shi’ism is the religion of the plurality, annual feasts are held in which effigies of ‘Umar, the Muslim caliph revered by the Sunnis, is burned with fanfare (see Popular Culture). This is done despite the presence of many Sunni Kurds in the city and region, and sometimes just to provoke them. Kurdish Shi’ism, with its extremist traits, has created a large body of provocative rituals, figures of speech, and literature just for the purpose, going back to the vigorous re-introduction of extremist Shi’ism in Persia under the later Safavids, whose Kurdish connections and background are discussed below under Cult of Angels (see also Early Modern History).
The suppression of the Shi’ites by the Sunnis has been much more pervasive in Anatolia than in Iran, where for centuries the Shi’ite Persian government would have harshly punished such acts. In Anatolia, when the Ottoman sultan Selim the Grim embarked in the early 16th century on a series of widespread massacres of Shi’ite and Alevi inhabitants (Turkmen as well as Kurd), the Sunni Kurdish clergy provided a willing helping hand in the pogroms.
In the last decades of the 19th century, and particularly the early decades of the present, the fervor of the Germanic thinkers to rediscover their “Aryan” roots led them to study, elaborate, and glorify Aryan religions over the Semitic Judeo-Christian religions. The religions of India and the Zoroastrianism of Persia were prime points of departure for these “Aryan nationalists.” The Kurdish intelligentsia, which frequented European capitals and were strongly influenced by their trends, came to view Islam-the other Semitic religion- as their fellow Germanic “Aryans” viewed Judaism and Christianity. Abjuring Islam, the “Arab” religion, the Kurdish literary-cultural journal Hewâr (published 193243, see Press & Electronic Mass Media) championed Yezidism as the native Kurdish religion that had kept its native purity despite centuries of aliens’ suppressions. Their erroneous supposition was that Yezidism was a direct offshoot of Zoroastrianism, the “Aryan” religion glorified by the Germanic authors.
The degradation of Islam and the down playing of its relevance to Kurds (or rather Kurdish nationalism) was a well-developed vogue until the end of World War II and the violent death of Aryanism in the ashes of the Third Reich.
Despite this, many educated Kurds continued their fascination with the pre-lslamic religions of their people, paying misplaced attention to the primarily Persian religion of Zoroastrianism as a source of inspiration. The poet Jagarkhwin (1903-84) exalted Zoroastrianism at the expense of Islam for a good deal of his life and work. It was only towards the end of his life and a change of tides in the Middle East toward an Islamic identity, that he tilted toward Islam, albeit a vague, idealized, non-Arabian, clergy-free Islam.
Even today, there are many older Kurdish intellectuals whose fascination with Zoroastrianism, Yezidism, and other native religions is equaled only by their distaste for Islam. Now, however, they have to be more careful in openly attacking Islam at a time when the religion’s radical revival happens to be a chief preoccupation of many governments and political groups in the area.
Further Readings and Bibliography: Martin van Bruinessen, “Kurdischer Nationalismus und Sunni-Schi’I Konflikt,” in Geschiclite und Politik religiöser Bewegungen im Iran, lahrbuch zur Geschichte und Gesellshchaft des Mittleren Orients (Berlin/Frankfurt, 1981),
Sources: The Kurds, A Concise Handbook, By Dr. Mehrdad R. Izady, Dep. of Near Easter Languages and Civilazation Harvard University, USA, 1992