Religion among the Kurds: Internal Tolerance, External Conflict

By Acker, Vanessa G. | Kennedy School Review, Annual 2004 | Go to article overview

Religion among the Kurds: Internal Tolerance, External Conflict


Acker, Vanessa G., Kennedy School Review


This essay examines the impact of the unique religious composition of Kurdistan on Kurdish political identity. Unity within Kurdistan's diverse population arises from its culture of tolerance, which in turn comes from its long history of diverse religious traditions. The Kurdish propensity for tolerance is a key element in their desire for an independent political system and is a primary reason for their conflict with the various intolerant states among which the Kurds find themselves. This essay outlines measures that should be taken to resolve these conflicts and discusses the potentially positive role the Kurds could play in bringing lasting peace and stability to the region.

The Kurdish nation, estimated to be the world's largest ethnic group without its own state, is currently spread among four countries that have variously attempted to undermine or completely eliminate their Kurdish populations. While the vast majority of literature about the Kurds is limited to discussion of the nation as a victim of history or as an obstacle to regional stability, this essay examines the Kurds' potential contributions to a solution for lasting stability in the Middle East. It examines the Kurds in the context of the unique religious composition of Kurdistan, which straddles the modern borders of Turkey, Syria, Iran, Iraq, and the southern Caucasus. It is argued that the culture of tolerance, influenced by a historical myriad of religious convictions. is a key element in the Kurds' conflict with various intolerant states. In conclusion, this essay outlines measures that states should take to resolve this conflict and suggests how the Kurds could contribute to lasting peace and stability in the Middle East. (1)

Religion among the Kurds

This section briefly surveys the unique religious composition of Kurdistan, providing a context for an analysis of Kurdistan's conflicts with its neighbors and its desire for independence. The religious context is crucial to understanding Kurdish ethnicity and culture, the nature of Kurdish nationalism, and the potentially positive influence the relatively tolerant Kurds could have on Islam in general.

The Influence of Older Religions

Kurdish culture has been affected by a number of older religions. Lack of recorded history makes it impossible to trace the concrete origins of many modern Kurdish religious and social practices. There are parallels, however, between contemporary religious practices and those of older religions known to have existed on Kurdistan's territory.

Mesopotamian and Anatolian cults played a significant role in the area before recorded history. Judaism appeared in Kurdistan in the eighth century b.c., when the Jews were exiled from Palestine by the Assyrian kings of Israel and Judah. (2) Contact with Judaism likely introduced the Kurds to the concept of monotheism. (3)

Zoroastrianism, with its parallels to both Christian and Islamic teachings (e.g., the concrete definition of good and evil, and the idea of a savior), likely reinforced the notion held by some Kurdish communities that all religious systems teach one essential truth. (4) The celebration of a spring New Year (still observed by Kurds and Muslim Iranians) is also rooted in Zoroastrian tradition. (5) The modern Kurdish religions of Ahl-e Haqq and Yezidism likely take their teachings of four elements from a branch of Zoroastrianism known as Zurvanism, in which the number four is a holy number. (6) Confusion between ancient Iranian faiths and Zoroastrianism about the nature of the spirit that brought light into the world also perhaps contributed to the belief held by Yezidis that good equals evil. (7)

Hellenistic cults, which swept through Kurdistan with the conquest of Alexander the Great in 331 b.c., likely fostered the concept of gods with human qualities (and humans with divine qualities)--a concept still taught by the modern cults of the Ahl-e Haqq and the Yezidis.

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