Depending on whom you ask, the meaning of “Kurdish religion” varies greatly. In Iran, Kurds constitute a religious as well as an ethnic minority, making up a large part of Iran’s Sunni Muslim population. In Türkiye, Kurds are mostly part of the Sunni majority, although there is a significant Kurdish Alevi minority as well. In Syria, a Sunni majority lives alongside significant minorities of Alawites and Yazidis. In Iraq there is a Sunni majority and a Shi’a minority as well as Yazidis and a number of other indigenous religious communities. Scattered communities of Jews and Christians can be found across the region as well, although most indigenous Christians belong to ethnically distinct Assyrian, Chaldean, and Armenian rites.
The Islam of Kurdistan has historically been characterized by Sufi influence, in particular the Naqshbandi (Khalidi) tariqa and the Qadiri tariqa. Sufi shaykhs have also been community leaders and led political rebellions against oppressive governments. (The families Barzani and Talabani, however mundane their political influence in Iraqi Kurdistan may be today, derive their stature in part from the long line of shaykhs that preceded them.) At least 75% of Kurds are Sunni, most commonly following the Shafi’i madhhab, while the majority of their Turkish and (Iraqi) Arab Sunni neighbors are Hanafi. This difference is more historically than theologically significant, although nationalists do emphasize the distinction as bound up in their Kurdish identity.
In the last decade the Islamic State prompted a crisis of faith for many Iraqi and Syrian Muslims, leading some to seek out expressions of faith that felt safer than what they had witnessed. But for much longer, religion has been a key tool in Kurdish nationalist ideology, which adopted the terminology of postcolonial political movements—in this view the Arab conquests were a colonial enterprise, and the Kurds a colonized people, long before Europeans ever arrived. Islam becomes, like the Arabic language and Western forms of Christianity, a suspicious colonial import. The Islamization of Mesopotamia and Iran began in 632 CE/10 AH but the process would take centuries and remains incomplete. (Some allowances must be made here to differentiate between historical fact and the constructed national memory of the average citizen—technically, an Arab presence in Iraq long predates the rise of Islam.)
Among a different subset of the population, this nationalist impulse also propels the search for a pre-Islamic Kurdish religion. Some claim that this original Kurdish religion was Zoroastrianism, and Zoroaster, upon whose teachings the religion is based, is popularly believed to be a Kurdish prophet. (Most scholars of Iranian religion agree that Zoroastrianism sprang up in Eastern Iran, probably in Greater Khurasan, based on linguistic evidence from the Avesta. This has not stopped young Kurds from converting.) The Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) grant Original Religion status to Yazidism, though it is not clear that they fundamentally distinguish between Yazidis and Zoroastrians. Yazidis have historically been subject to severe persecution, and only in the last century or so have they been adopted by some as the symbol of ancient and pure Kurdishness. Yazidism “has retained ancient features while absorbing later influences such as those brought by” twelfth-century Sufis, writes Richard Foltz, accounting for some of the features the faiths have in common, such as the parallel tales of Malek Tawus and Iblis refusing to bow to Adam out of devotion to God.
In 1992 Mehrdad Izady proposed a proto-Kurdish (“Aryan”) religion that he imagines existed before the Islamization of the Zagros Mountains and Iranian Plateau. Yazdanism, as he calls it, combines a number of elements found across several Mesopotamian and Western Iranian religious groups such as Yazidis, Yaresan, Alevis, and some Sufi groups. However, scholars of religion tend to agree that locating a unified religious tradition by just going back far enough in time would be unlikely. Somewhat like story traditions, religions trend more diverse, rather than less, the farther back one goes. Although similarities are observable in the modern practice of these religions (consider the belief in seven angelic beings/saints/avatars of the divine and reincarnation, sun symbolism, and certain kinds of mysticism, among others), these more likely stem from a pluralistic and localized collection of Mithraic traditions found across Western Iran than to a unified religious identity.
“‘Origins,’ in the sense of an ancient and distinct past, is indispensable for both Kurdeyeti [Kurdish national identity] and its adversaries, Turkish, Persian (‘Iranian’), and Arab state nationalisms,” writes Amir Hassanpour. “Indeed, the appeal to origins seems to be true of most nationalist movements, whose raison d’être lies to a great extent in their differences from and conflicts with other nations. In the Kurdish case, however, ‘origin’ is the site of (re)producing differences under a regime of state violence.” While Hassanpour does not direct his attention here to the role religion plays in this dynamic, it is evident that for many Kurds in the modern era, both Muslim and otherwise, religion has become another arena in which to (re)produce differences, set oneself apart as much as possible from the enactors of state violence. The search for the mythic origins of Kurdish religion, quite apart from the historicity of these origins, is an exercise in identity construction for a new generation seeking new ways to be Kurdish in the 21st century.
Daniel, E. L. “ʿARAB iii. Arab settlements in Iran.” Encyclopaedia Iranica, II/2, pp. 210-214, http://www.iranicaonline.org/articles/arab-iii
Foltz, Richard. “The ‘Original’ Kurdish Religion? Kurdish Nationalism and the False Conflation of the Yezidi and Zoroastrian Traditions.” Journal of Persianate Studies, 10:2017. 87-106.
Hassanpour, Amir. “The Making of Kurdish Identity: Pre-twentieth-century Historical and Literary Sources.” Essays on Kurds: Historiography, Orality, and Nationalism. New York: 2020. 105-152.
Latif, Alaa. “Thanks to Islamic extremism, Iraqi Kurds revive ancient Kurdish Zoroastrianism religion.” Niqash, May 2015. https://ekurd.net/iraqi-kurds-revive-ancient-kurdish-zoroastrianism-religion-2015-05-29
Schwartz, M. “The Religion of Achaemenian Iran.” The Cambridge History of Iran Volume 2: The Median and Achaemenian Periods. Gershevitch, Ilya, ed. Cambridge: 1985. 664-697.
Claire Jacobson is a PhD student in Middle Eastern Languages and Cultures at Indiana University Bloomington and a middle school substitute teacher.