Islam (submission to God) is the most recently established of the three main monotheistic religions in the world. The Prophet Muhammad (570-632), an Arab, began having visions when he was approximately 40 years old. The first pillar, or duty, of the new religion was to bear witness that there is no god but God (in Arabic, Allah) and that Muhammad is God's messenger. This simple but profound principle probably helps explain Islam's quick success in supplanting Christianity (rent by esoteric theological debates)—as well as other older faiths — and becoming the main religion in the Middle East. In addition, the Byzantine and Persian empires were both exhausted from a long-lasting war at the very time the Islamic religion began its great expansion. Thus they became relatively easy victims.
   Most Kurds were Islamicized during the early periods of Islamic expansion after 640. Thus, Islam has deeply affected Kurdish culture and society in all aspects, including national identity. Sunni Kurds, for example, adhere to the Shafii school of jurisprudence and, therefore, are distinguished from the Sunni Turks and Sunni Iraqi Arabs, who adhere to the Hanefi school. Sufi religious orders such as the Naqhshbandi and Qadiri also have played important religious and political roles among the Kurds. Indeed, almost all the major political leaders of the 20th century (Sheikh Mahmud Barzinji, Sheikh Said, Mulla Mustafa Barzani and his son Massoud Barzani, and Jalal Talabani, among many others) owe much of their early support to sufi connections. Sheikh Ubeydullah of Nehri in the early 1880s also represented this pattern. Abdullah (Apo) Ocalan, the leader of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), was one of the very few exceptions. Even the distinctly secular PKK began to employ Islamic themes by the late 1980s, however, and established two Islamic affiliates, the Union of Religious Persons and the Union of Patriotic Imams.
   Despite the importance of Islam to the Kurdish identity, earlier pre-Islamic faiths probably long continued (and still do), given the difficult geographic terrain of much of Kurdistan. Paradoxically, therefore, while most Kurds became strict adherents of Sunni orthodoxy, others became adherents of some of the most heterodox religious beliefs in the Middle East, such as the Alevis (Qizilbash), Ahl-i Haqq (Kakais), Yezidis, and others. Thus, although most Kurds tend to be rather moderate in their religious beliefs, some are wildly ecstatic. The well-known saying that "compared to the unbeliever, the Kurd is a good Muslim" partially reflects this situation. Today, such major Kurdish parties as the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), and the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) are distinctly secular. After their own rivalries, however, their main opposition within Kurdistan has often been the Islamists. Some of these Islamist groups, such as the (Kurdish) Hizbullah in Turkey and the Ansar al-Islam in Iraqi Kurdistan, have been extremely violent.
   Although it is impossible to give precise figures, probably some 75 percent of the Kurds are Sunnis, while as many as 15 percent may be Shiites living in the Kurdish areas of Iran. The remainder largely belong to the various heterodox sects listed above. These figures are only approximations, and some authorities believe that the heterodox figures are actually appreciably larger. In the past, these heterodox sects certainly constituted larger portions of the Kurdish society. Some Shiite elements that are more heterodox also overlap.
   Given their location as a buffer zone between the Arab, Turkish, and Iranian heartlands of Islam, over the centuries educated Kurds have frequently acted as a bridge connecting the various intellectual schools of the Islamic world. Kurdish ulama (Muslim scholars and jurists) have made important contributions to Islamic scholarship. Examples are legion. For instance, the famous Molla Gurani (died 1488) was a Kurdish scholar born in what is now Iraqi Kurdistan. He studied in Baghdad, Damascus, Jerusalem, and Cairo. Eventually he became the first mufti of Istanbul, the highest religious position in the Ottoman Empire. Sheikh Maulana Khalid brought the highly influential Naqshbandi sufi order to Iraqi Kurdistan early in the 19th century, while Said Nursi was the founder of the inspired Nurculuk movement in modern Turkey.
   Finally, it should be noted how the madrasahs (Muslim schools) offered Kurdish students a place to meet and cultivate the idea of a Kurdish identity. The first Kurdish poets, whose work extolled the Kurdish heritage, were largely products of these Islamic schools, which also helped to spread their literature. In addition to the state madrasahs and those supported by the Kurdish emirates, there were also independent madrasahs attached to village mosques. These more modest religious schools produced mullas to serve the village and surrounding population. In so doing, they helped serve as a catalyst for the emergence of Kurdish nationalism.

Historical Dictionary of the Kurds. .


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