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Past, Present, Future

Kurdish Heterodoxy: The Naqshbandiyaa of Kurdistan

(Darren L Logan)

It has been said of the Kurds that “compared to the unbeliever, the Kurd is a Muslim."[1] This captures the essence of this ancient and resilient people. The Kurds have a “love-hate” relationship with Islam dating all the way back to the 7th century AD. It was then that the immediate successors of Muhammad pressed the new faith east into territory inhabited primarily by Kurds. For the most part the Kurds were more than a little resistant to these invaders. By that point in their history the Kurds already bore the marks of varied religious influences including, but not limited to, Judaism and early Christianity of the Nestorian variety. It was, however, the even older Zoroastrian religion, the official creed of the fading Sassanian Persian Empire, which formed the main foundation among the majority of Kurds.[2] 

The Islamization of the Kurds “started to materialize probably from the 9th century AD onward, becoming later, in the 10th century, an overwhelming process.”[3] Gradually over the course of more than 1000 years the Kurds became a majority Islamic people. Many Kurds have in fact played a variety of roles, some significant, in the overall history and development of Islam. This progress is colored deeply by the unique position in which we find the Kurds in terms of their history, politics, geography, and of course their religion. 

The consequent result is a people group characterized by its contrasts and contradictions more than anything else. Kurds often define themselves in terms of what they are not, rather than what they are; by their hardships and struggles as the oft despised warriors from the rugged Zagros Mountains. Perpetually caught between the vice of some of the East’s greatest empires—Persian, Greek, Roman, Byzantine, Arab, Mongol, Ottoman, and Russian—the Kurds have seldom united, as time and time again the external powers exploited, divided, and conquered. Kurdish history is nothing if not a story of a tenacious people with their will to survive and define themselves somehow. Indeed the Kurds have existed like this, by some accounts, for more than 2000 years.[4] 

Kurdish culture and society is today a rich tapestry of all of these varied elements. Of the untold layers of influence, clearly the outside Muslim powers left the biggest impression in the area of religion. Today most Kurds would, in general, identify with strict Sunni orthodoxy, adhering to the Shafi’i school of law, while simultaneously possessing what may be the most pluralistic and heterodox worldview among any Muslim people of the Near East.[5] Echoing this perspective one observer considered the Kurdish religion to be “a form of Islam contaminated by pagan superstitions and strange rites, many of which are said to have points of resemblance with Zoroastrianism, Buddhism, and other heathen cults.”[6]

The following study will look at one expression of this apparent contradiction among the Kurds: the Naqshbandiyya Sufi order. The role of the key leaders (sheikhs) in the Naqshbandiyya movement is also considered, to include their teaching and influence on Kurdish culture and society. Finally their role in several late 19th and early 20th centuries’ Kurdish revolts is assessed. These developments are best understood in their proper historical and cultural context. Therefore some initial background is given concerning the Kurds, their formation as a people, where they live, and their current status.

Kurds and Kurdistan: A “Heterogeneous Mass” in an “Imagined Land”

In the arena of Near Eastern studies few topics are as politicized as the study of the Kurds. Unfortunately many misplaced ideological elements of non-academic origin have seeped into the theoretical setting thus creating some wild stereotypes and a set of clichés about the Kurds, many of which have little to do with reality. This framework makes a balanced study of the Kurds a complicated and at times dangerous affair. Reflecting the generally accepted opinion in the ambiguous field of “Kurdology,” one respected scholar considers the Kurds to be a “not homogeneous mass”[7] of people located in the border regions of several Near Eastern countries—Syria, Turkey, Armenia, Iraq, and Iran. Possessing a hotly contested history itself the term Kurd has variously applied to an ethnic conglomeration of tribal peoples residing in the rugged mountains, lush valleys, and arid plateaus of this region.[8]

Geographically straddling the fault lines between the various empires and powers occupying the region, the Kurds have more often than not found their place as a restive “buffer people” serving the interests of their distant masters. The term Kurdistan “has always been a pure ethnographical attribute of various territories inhabited by the Kurds without a political connotation and clearly defined geographical coordinates.”[9] Aside from the recent development of Iraqi Kurdistan—the Kurdish dominated and now officially autonomous region of Iraq’s north—and the Province of Kordestan, in the western mountains of the Islamic Republic of Iran, in the era of modern nation-states the Kurds have never had their own country.[10] 

Population figures for the Kurds are almost always skewed one way or another to advance competing political objectives. The more nationalistic Kurdish publications, for example, support inflated population figures with estimates well in excess of 30 million[11]; while in official state sources, the data are underreported, with some even denying the existence of the Kurds altogether.[12] Clearly the better answer is probably somewhere in the middle. For example an “objective evaluation of the ethno-linguistic and historico-cultural realities of the region” places the number variously between 20-24 million in one case,[13] and between 24-27 million in another.[14] A significant number in and of itself, this number is sub-divided again between several countries making the Kurds a significant minority people in each.


This seemingly fractured composition notwithstanding, historically the Kurds have managed a few brief seasons of fleeting power. Most notable was that of the 12th century Kurdish Islamic general, Salah al Din Yusuf ibn Ayyub ibn Shadi, founder of the Ayyubid Dynasty spanning what is now Egypt, Syria, and Iraq. Ironically, Kurds today are at the same time both proud of their great Kurdish hero as well as scornful. They note that “Saladin never proclaimed himself a Kurd,” but rather “fought for Islam,” and worst of all, “did no special favors to the Kurds in his kingdom.”[15] This bitter view of history is typical among Kurds and is powerfully conveyed in the familiar Kurdish proverb “The Kurds have no friends but the mountains.”   


The Kurdish languages belong to the North-Western Iranian group. Like their ethnic makeup these are really a large mass of related dialects considered to be as mutually unintelligible as English is from German. These dialects are broken down into Northern, Central, and Southern Kurdish, each matching its location on an arc ranging from south-central Turkey on one end to Iran’s western mountainous reaches at the other. These categories may also be sub-divided revealing smaller dialects corresponding to a certain mountain range or valley here, a particular village or city there, and even tribal affiliation and religious sect. Not only have these mostly internal factors created such linguistic diversity, but as one would expect, the external pressures from powerful neighboring peoples also left an indelible imprint on the Kurdish language, be it Arabic, Turkish, or Persian. This linguistic amalgam has often rendered Kurdish unity a distant vision and has clearly informed their pluralistic and tolerant worldview.[16]                    


Orthodoxy and Heterodoxy among the Kurds


The foregoing review of the often opposing internal and external factors is essential to a more clear understanding of what the Kurds believe and why. The Kurdish religious worldview, like their history, language, and land, is equally complex and fractured. Islam did indeed come to the Kurds in the early phases of its expansion; yet its growth proceeded slowly due to both the mountainous nature of the region and the recalcitrant nature of the Kurds themselves. Accordingly, even as Islam became their dominant belief system most Kurds remained on the periphery of the great centers of Sunni orthodoxy, be it Damascus, Baghdad, or Istanbul. Regional centers of Islamic influence were established in a few key Kurdish cities like Cizre, Arbil, and Diyarbekir.[17] Even so, considering the strong pre-Islamic religious milieu, the harsh physical environment, the complex linguistic mosaic, and the staunch Kurdish tribal structure, there is little wonder why heterodox religious communities proliferated among the Kurds.


Although tension exists between orthodoxy and heterodoxy in all Islamic settings, this contrast is particularly evident among the Kurds. As noted above Kurdistan can be characterized by its adherence to Sunnism. Yet, mong the majority one notes a wide spectrum of devotion and commitment to ritual practices. Traditional Sunni religious education did take place in the local madrasas throughout Kurdistan, and besides the standard religious texts in Arabic, Persian, and sometimes Turkish, students would also learn works by Kurdish authors.[18] This contributed to the later rise of the Sufi orders among the Sunni Kurdish majority, especially the Naqshbandiyya and Qadiriyya strains. Often irrational regard was given to the leaders of these orders, the sheikhs, particularly by the Kurdish peasantry and urban lower classes. This led to conflict within Kurdish tribal culture between the land-owning Kurdish aghas and the sheikhs.[19] 

The Ascendancy of the Sufi Orders


It is safe to say that Islam and the world of Muslims are not monolithic. From the beginning Islam has been typified by tension between opposing elements trying to define the faith. At least three main branches have described Islam since its inception: Sunnism, Shiism, and Sufism. Of these Sufism has often times been the most difficult to explain and understand. Generally described by its mystical manifestations Sufism holds that firsthand knowledge of God and realization of unity in or with Him are chief objectives. This belief in and of itself has led to no small amount of persecution directed against Sufis from others within the community of Islam. Sufism can be traced back to the earliest centuries of Islam itself; however, most Sufis did not get organized into groups or orders, known as “paths” (singular tariqa), for several centuries. Each one of these paths has its own distinct genealogy (silsila), is led by a spiritual leader usually known as a sheikh, pir, or murshid (guide) who attracts followers (murids – seekers) and initiates them into the unique mystical teachings and rituals of the group.[20] 

Sufis base their beliefs on the Qur’an and Sunnah, linking their doctrines and practices to Muhammad and the first generation of Muslims. Most Sufis would claim that the Sharia (Islamic Law) is foundational to their spiritual outlook. What is more Sufis usually argue they represent Islamic orthodoxy, and that Muslims of all types—Sunni, Shi’a, rich, poor, young, old, scholars, and common laborers—are adherents of the Sufi tradition. Throughout Islamic history dissimilar Sufi orders could be found throughout the world of Islam. These orders, together with their many offshoots, may have played a role in the rapid spread of Islam. It became standard practice for Sufis to meet in mosques, homes, and madrasas; however, their chief centers were often rest homes and retreat centers known variously as khanqahs, ribats, tekiyes, and zawiyas. These Sufi centers often contained the tombs of former sheikhs and other prominent members of the order. In time these centers often became popular shrines attracting Sufi disciples from near and far each pursuing a blessing from the deceased saint (wali – friend of God).[21]


Sufism’s growth and popularity throughout the centuries is not easy to characterize. Some suggest that it developed as a reaction against the perceived worldly orientation of the dominant Arab Muslim community. It would seem that Sufism appropriated various mystical ideas found in the older traditions of Judaism, Christianity, Hinduism, and Buddhism, using this to “indigenize” Islam in lands conquered by Muslim rulers. Sufism followed the popular trade routes into sub-Saharan Africa, India, Central Asia, southeastern Europe and the Caucasus, and Southeast Asia.[22] Among the leading Sufi orders that arose and spread across the world of Islam, two of the most prominent were the Qadiris (Qadiriyya) and the Naqshbandis (Naqshbandiyya). Each of these orders was named after its founding Sufi master and often enjoyed the patronage of rulers and wealthy merchants. The Qadiris likely originated in Baghdad in the 11th and 12th centuries, and its founder may have been Sheikh Abd al-Qadir al Jilani. According to one scholar, the history of the order’s beginning is unsure at best and that “what is known for sure about his [Qadir al Jilani] life contradicts virtually every legend current within the order and in popular lore.”[23] Most sources seem to indicate that during his early life Qadir was actually opposed to Sufism; however, later in life he received Sufi training, and lived the remainder of his days as an ascetic in the desert. It was not until 1300 AD that any source considers Qadir a saint, about the same time that a few Qadiri centers are noted in Iraq and Syria.[24] 

The spread of the Qadiriyya order throughout Kurdistan probably did not take place until perhaps the early 15th century. Nonetheless it may have taken root as early as 1360 AD when two brothers, Sayyid Musa and Sayyid Isa, established themselves in Barzinj, located in the southern territory of historic Kurdistan. Since that time the Barzinji family has been among the most prominent family of sheikhs in the region, with only one other Qadiri family of note being that of the Sedate Nehri. These two Kurdish families remained the most dominant Qadiri families for hundreds of years among the Kurds. At any rate by the early 1800s the Qadiri order was the only Sufi order of note in Kurdistan.[25] All of this was about to change with the sudden rise and rapid expansion of the other Sufi order, the Naqshbandiyya, among the Kurds.[26]       


The Naqshbandiyya in Kurdistan


Of the two orders, the Naqshbandiyya, in their present form at any rate, have only been in existence in Kurdistan for the last two centuries. Before this the Naqshbandiyya tradition was found mostly in Central and South Asia; although there was some Naqshbandi presence in the Arabian peninsula, Turkey, and elsewhere. Its founder, or perhaps better stated, reformer, was Baha ad-Din Naqshband, who lived in 14th century Bukhara, the very heart of Central Asian Islam. That notwithstanding the Naqshbandi tradition clearly reflects other, perhaps older, Central Asian influences as well, most notably Buddhism.[27] 

In the early 19th century the Naqshbandiyya order broadened its influence among the Kurds through one man: Mawlana Khalid Naqshabandi (1779-1827). Mawlana Khalid was born in the village of Qaradagh near the key Kurdish city of Sulaymania, now located in Iraqi Kurdistan. Not unlike other Kurdish children of his day, Mawlana Khalid was educated primarily in the local mosques, and at the age of 20 he became a schoolteacher in Sulaymania. Around the time Mawlana Khalid was 28 years old he departed for India to study for a year under the great Naqshbandi sheikh, ‘Ubaidulla Dahlawi. Dahlawi initiated Mawlana Khalid into the practices of the Naqshbandiyya and challenged him to return to Kurdistan and spread the teaching in the Ottoman Empire.[28]


Upon his homecoming from India in 1811, Mawlana Khalid was embraced by many Kurdish, Arab, and Turkish followers, commoners and dignitaries alike. It did not take long for his reputation to grow as the number of his disciples expanded. This caused significant concern among the older more established Qadiryya sheikhs in the region. In turn these sheikhs pressed some local Kurdish leaders to persecute Mawlana Khalid. Consequently in 1812, ‘Abdul Rahman Pasha, the prince of the Kurdish principality of Baban—where Sulaymania was located—forced Mawlana to seek refuge in Baghdad among some former disciples there.[29]

Shortly thereafter a new Kurdish prince, one more inclined to Naqshbandiyya teaching and less beholden to the entrenched Qadirrya orders, invited Mawlana Khalid back to Sulaymania. The tensions between the old and new orders reignited quickly, however, and Mawlana Khalid returned to Baghdad. Unlike his first exile, however, Mawlana Khalid was not as warmly received in Baghdad this time. His reputation had grown to such an extent that Baghdad’s political leaders also viewed him as a potentially destabilizing force. Consequently in 1822, Mawlana Khalid was compelled to move to Damascus, where, in 1827, he died from a plague then sweeping through the city.[30]

Scholars researching the Naqshbandiyya among the Kurds are quick to note the order’s rapid expansion in the early 19th century. In just under ten years Mawlana Khalid managed to gather to himself thousands of followers. One British observer in Sulaymania, C.J. Rich, an officer of the British East Indies Company based in Baghdad, noted in 1820 that Mawlana had acquired some 12,000 Arab, Turkish, and Kurdish followers in the area.[31] This figure coupled with others from the period reveal that the Naqshbandiyya multiplied among the Kurds exponentially, quickly challenging the established dominance of the Qadiryya. One prominent European specialist on the Kurds, Martin van Bruinessen, comments that the order’s spread “was due to more than the extraordinary personality of the sheikh.”[32] Going on, van Bruinessen offers two primary reasons, one internal and one external, for the rapid rise of the Naqshbandiyya order in 19th century Kurdistan: 1. Certain characteristics of the Naqshbandiyya differentiating it, for example, from the Qadiriyya; 2. The particular social situation of Kurdistan in the early 19th century when the order was introduced. Each of these is briefly considered below.[33]


Internally the Naqshbandiyya organizational structure differed from the Qadiriyya in the manner in which it was propagated. This difference made the Naqshbandiyya “more efficient and more prone to autonomous growth than the Qadiri order.”[34] The key variance pertains to the sheikh-khalifa relationship, essentially that of teacher to student. The Naqshbandiyya ijaza (traditions), unlike the Qadiryya, are not passed down exclusively from one father who is a sheikh to his son who will be a future sheikh. On the contrary, Mawlana Khalid passed on the Naqshbandi ijaza to many younger unrelated khalifas, who in turn often taught their own khalifas and so on. This dynamic and rapidly reproducible model for propagating the Naqshbandiyya order contrasts with the more rigid Qadiriyya pattern of transmission of the ijaza. Consequently, the Naqshbandiyya expanded exponentially while the Qadiriyya struggled to merely maintain its presence through what might be called incremental growth alone.[35]

The second major factor in the Naqshbandiyya order’s growth was external in nature and was related to sweeping socio-political changes taking place in Kurdistan in the early to mid-19th century. This was especially so in the Ottoman Empire with the impact of European imperialism into the region. Many explorers, whether political, scientific, commercial, or missionary—and in some cases all were tied together—made their way into the region of upper Mesopotamia seeking to stake their claim. There is ample evidence indicating that perhaps the most significant impact was made by Christian missionaries. These missionaries often stayed longer and their activities—the building of schools, hospitals, and the like—were usually more visible. More importantly their efforts did more to alter the local balance of power between the majority Kurds and minority peoples, many of them historic Christian communities. As things destabilized Ottoman authorities exerted greater central administration upon their outlying border regions.[36]  

For the perennially restive and insubordinate Kurds, accustomed to being left alone on the periphery of empire, this outside attention was unwanted. The consequent result was oftentimes Kurdish violence against Christian minorities and missionaries alike, all of which gave Ottoman authorities the pretext they needed to come in and implement strong-arm tactics to bring the Kurds to heel.[37] It was in this increasingly volatile atmosphere that the Kurds looked for an outlet to express themselves. The seemingly classless Naqshbandiyya order seemed the perfect fit. The stage was being set in the mid-19th century for the Kurdish Naqshbandi Sheikh to assume unprecedented religious influence and significant political power among the Kurds.[38]        


The Naqshbandi Kurdish Sheikh in the 19th & 20th Centuries

These dramatic and sweeping social changes within Kurdistan in the early 19th century, especially within the Ottoman Empire, accelerated the rise of the Kurdish sheikh. Even a cursory glance at this recent history reveals that the most consistently successful type of leadership to arise among the Kurds has been that of the Qadiriyya and Naqshbandiyya sheikhs, but especially of the latter. An understanding of the unique characteristics of the sheikhs’ personality and nature of that role sheds considerable light on the Kurdish character.

One quickly notes that strength of will and forces of personality were abundantly evident amongst all of these Kurdish sheikhs. Their energy and charismatic temperament set them apart from most of the other Kurdish leaders and emirs. One of the unusual markers among the so-called “sheikhly” families was that they were almost all outsiders; not originally from the town, city, or region of their greatest influence. The sheikh was not a member of a local tribe where he first attained fame. In fact for many of them, their origins were often obscured. Several of them said that they had direct ties in some way, shape, or form to Islam’s founder, Muhammad, and often going to great lengths to demonstrate this. Upon entering a community these sheikhs would establish a reputation for piety and good deeds. This was demonstrated mostly through prayer, fasting, and humility, the latter being an especially uncharacteristic Kurdish trait. Some sheikhs became known for their radical asceticism, while yet others for their extreme charity. Several sheikhs also performed what many believed to be miracles, further elevating themselves in the eyes of the average uneducated and poor peasant Kurd.[39]


One of the most noteworthy things these sheikhs did was mediate the settlement of tribal disputes. The Kurds, a quarrelsome people by nature, are also intensely tribal. Accordingly, inter-tribal fights were a regular occurrence; a fact exploited by outside powers with great effectiveness to divide and conquer the Kurds. As an outsider with no tribal affiliations the sheikh could remain neutral, giving him a degree of objectivity absent among the fighting parties. The material benefits involved in this mediation work were great making many sheikhs quite wealthy.[40] This wealth, usually in the form of real estate, allowed the sheikh to attract many adherents. The sheikh expended great effort to amass ever more capital as a sign of his power. It enabled him to feed, retain, and even arm ever larger numbers of followers. The sheikh became the local dispenser of largesse, providing goods and services other leaders simply could not afford. In this way sheikhs in Kurdistan came to own multiple villages exercising great power over their inhabitants and surrounding tenant farmers. The sense of protection afforded to the residents and farmers, as well as their association with a revered “holy person,” ensured that these Kurds remained faithful to their sheikh. Among the most prominent sheikhs this strategy of land acquisition almost always preceded a major power grab through revolt.[41]               


Kurdish Nationalism, the Naqshbandiyya, and Sheikh Sa’id’s Revolt


To better understand the Kurdish people, according to at least one scholar, one must look at the “two inter-related questions” of struggle and identity. First is the age old struggle between the Kurds and the powers that have dominated them. Second, and perhaps the greater question, is whether the Kurds will ever be able “to move from being merely a people who happen to have attributes commonly described as ‘Kurdish’ to being a coherent community with the essential characteristics of nationhood.”[42] For the Kurds seldom have these two elements converged. Not until the late 19th century did the Kurds began to think in terms of being a “whole Kurdish people.” Indeed this coincided with the broader wave of self-determination then emanating from the west to many peoples and places throughout eastern Europe, Asia, and parts of Africa.

With the ascendance of the Naqshbandi sheikhs in Kurdistan these two ideas soon merged taking root among the Kurds with great intensity. At this moment in history, just as the ailing Ottoman Empire was losing its grip on its eastern reaches, several Kurdish Naqshbandi sheikhs stepped in to seize power. More than a few small to medium scale Kurdish rebellions resulted, each manifesting itself in a strange mix of heterodox Islamic beliefs and strident Kurdish nationalism. In each case, these rebellions were suppressed. Nonetheless they played a role in accelerating the collapse of the Ottoman Empire. These rebellions gave the Kurds a taste of something that would dominate their existence well into the new 20th century: a deep desire to exert themselves as a people.   

Following the defeat of the Axis powers in World War I, and the subsequent rise of the new secular Turkish Republic in the 1920s, the Kurds—along with other minority peoples—found themselves officially marginalized in the new world order. The Turkish government did not distinguish them as a unique people, declaring them to be Turks “by decree.”[43] The Kurds were forced to conform to the “Pan-Turkic” vision of Kemal Ataturk, the Turkish Republic’s founder. The Kurds’ political voice was removed and their legitimacy as a people diminished. With the dismantling of the Caliphate in 1924, many Kurds believed their religious beliefs were also being erased. Finally, their historic homelands were stripped away from them and many Kurds were forcibly relocated to Turkey’s west to be assimilated and pacified.[44] 

Into this boiling cauldron stepped a handful of Kurdish Naqshbandi sheikhs, each giving expression to the anger and frustration felt by many Kurds. Throughout the mid-1920s to 1930s these sheikhs led several rebellions against the Turkish state. Numerous Kurdish villages were destroyed, thousands of families dislocated, and many lives lost in the process. Ultimately, none of the rebellions proved successful. By crushing ruthlessly these rebellions, the Turkish leadership of the day inflicted permanent wounds upon the foundation of their nascent Turkish Republic. This is clearly evident today, more than 80 years later, as Turkey’s struggle with its massive Kurdish minority—perhaps as many as 15 million—rages on in both hot and cold ways. To illustrate the role of the Kurdish Naqshbandi sheikh upon these formative developments one rebellion, that of Sheikh Sa’id of Piran in 1925, is considered in some detail below.


In February 1925 the predominantly Kurdish lands of southeastern Turkey plummeted into revolt. Centers of Turkish government administration, primarily towns and cities, were taken by Kurdish rebels and Turkish officials expelled or jailed. The charismatic leader of this revolt was a Naqshbandi sheikh of great local influence, Sheikh Sa’id. The establishment of a Kurdish state, governed by Islamic law, was the openly stated objective of the revolt. This insurgency, unlike the earlier ones from the late 19th century, was unambiguously political in its nature, both in terms of planning and coordination, and in the effort to carry it out. Sheikh Sa’id attempted to weave his ideas of Kurdish nationalism together with his conservative, albeit heterodox, Islamic practices. The rampant secularizing and westernizing policies of Ataturk proved odious to the mass of Kurds in Turkey. Thus strong Islamic sentiment, embodied in the person of the Sheikh Sa’id, was an important ingredient in unifying the Kurds in opposition to Turkish authorities.[45] 

Sheikh Sa’id took active leadership of military operations, and he proved to be much more than a mere figurehead. Together with other leading sheikhs, Sheikh Sa’id marshaled manpower from their large retinues and resources from their considerable financial stores. Sheikh Sa’id was very wealthy, and demanded that his followers—in keeping with sound Naqshbanidiyya tradition—obey him completely. Furthermore, because the Sheikh was a recognized religious leader among the Kurds, the rebellion by definition became religious, thus attracting even wider support from some less nationalistic yet more Islamically conservative Kurds. As the region’s leading Naqshbandi sheikh, Sa’id capitalized upon his traditional role as mediator and honest broker to bring together some Kurdish tribes and factions otherwise opposed to each other. Clearly these qualities and characteristics, unique to the sheikhs of the day, were instrumental in advancing the ill-fated rebellion under Sheikh Sa’id’s leadership.[46]   

After some two months of intense guerrilla and conventional warfare on multiple fronts throughout southeastern Turkey, the Turkish government and military machine proved too much for the slowly disintegrating Kurdish rebel units. Sheikh Sa’id was eventually captured together with many of his deputies. Turkish authorities quickly clamped down on the area, instituting martial law; a condition persisting well into the late 20th century. Brutal retribution was meted out to the Kurds. Hundreds of villages were burned, and thousands of men, women, and children were killed. Special courts were hastily established condemning many persons, several of whom had no connection with Sheikh Sa’id whatsoever, of influence to death. Thousands of less influential Kurds had no trial and were summarily executed. Finally, on September 4, 1925, Sheikh Sa’id was hanged in the Kurdish city of Diyarbakir along with forty-seven other leading Kurds. In December 1925 Turkish authorities confirmed the key role of the sheikhs in the rebellion by passing a law closing of all Sufi tekiyes, tombs, and places of pilgrimage.[47]    




Surprisingly Sheikh Sa’id’s revolt did not really end there. Sporadic guerrilla warfare continued on for a few more years, as the Sheikh’s followers pressed on with their religious and nationalistic mission. Several other revolts arose, often smaller and less significant than the 1925 revolt, with each eventually quelled by the Turkish military and police. For example, five years later in 1929-1930, the so-called Ararat revolt flared up on and around the great mountain of Biblical fame located in extreme southeastern Turkey. Again in the late 1930s in central Turkey, the bloody Dersim revolt took place, also leading to the loss of many lives.[48]


Sheikh Sa’id’s 1925 revolt established the pattern for a new era of Kurdish rebellion in the 20th century, spawning similar rebel movements throughout much of historic Kurdistan. Most notable among these is the experience in the Kurdish regions of northern Iraq. Iraqi Kurds, led by the sheikhly Kurdish families of Barzani and Talabani, fought for decades first against British occupation forces and later Ba’athist Iraqi leaders. With the fall of Saddam Hussein’s regime, for the first time in their history Iraqi Kurds now have their own semi-autonomous existence in the Kurdistan region of Iraq.[49] 

Additionally, we note a similar movement among the Kurds in the western mountains of Iran in the late 1940s. There Iranian Kurds, led by the Kurdish political and religious leader, Qazi Muhammad, established the fleeting independent republic of Mahabad in 1946.[50] Back in Turkey in the early 21st century, sadly a clear resolution between the current Turkish Islamist governing authorities and their Kurdish minority remains an elusive prospect. Many of these rebel movements were, and to a lesser degree still are, characterized by notions of Kurdish nationalism bound together with uniquely Kurdish heterodox Islamic practices, all under the leadership of an unusually dynamic Kurdish religious and political leader, the sheikh.  

[1] Martin van Bruinessen, “The Kurds and Islam,” Les Annales de l’Autre Islam, no.5, (1998): 15.

[2] G.R. Driver, “The Religion of the Kurds,” Bulletin of the School of Oriental Studies 2, no. 2 (1922): 197.

[3] Arshak Poladian, “The Islamization of the Kurds,” Acta Kurdica 1, (1994): 25.

[4] G.R. Driver, “Studies in Kurdish History,” Bulletin of the School of Oriental Studies 2, no. 3 (1922): 493.

[5] Bruinessen, 14.

[6] Driver, “The Religion of the Kurds,” 197.

[7] Garnik Asatrian, “Prolegomena to the Study of the Kurds,” Iran and the Caucasus, no.13 (2009): 1-2.

[8] Philip G. Kreyenbroek, ed., The Kurds: A Contemporary Overview (New York: Routledge, 1992), 10-12.

[9] Asatrian, 19.

[10] See generally, Gerard Chaliand, ed., People Without a Country: The Kurds and Kurdistan (London: Zed Press, 1980).

[11] Lokman I. Meho, The Kurds and Kurdistan (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1997), 4.

[12] Carl Dahlman, "The Political Geography of Kurdistan," Eurasian Geography and Economics 43, no.4 (2002): 274.

[13] Asatrian, 4.

[14] McDowell, 3.

[15] Quil Lawrence, Invisible Nation: How the Kurds Quest for Statehood is Shaping Iraq and the Middle East (New York: Walker Publishing Company, 2008), 10.

[16] Kreyenbroek, 68-83.

[17] Bruinessen, 14.

[18] Ibid, 13.

[19] Martin van Bruinessen, Agha, Shaikh, and State: The Social and Political Structures of Kurdistan (London: Zed Books, 1992), 244.

[20] Ibid, 213-215.

[21] Juan E. Campo, Encyclopedia of Islam (New York: Infobase Publishing, 2009), xxvi.

[22] Ibid.

[23] Bruinessen, Agha, Shaikh, and State, 216.

[24] Ibid.

[25] Ibid, 220.

[26] Martin van Bruinessen, Mullahs, Sufis, and Heretics: The Role of Religion in Kurdish Society (Istanbul: Isis Press, 2000), 213-215.

[27] See generally Hamid Algar, "The Naqshbandi Order: A preliminary Survey of its History and Significance," Studia Islamica, no. 44 (1976): 123-152.

[28] Faleh Abdul-Jabar, ed., Ayatollahs, Sufis and Ideologues (London: Saqi Books, 2002), 142. 

[29] Butrus Abu-Manneh, “The Naqshbandiyya in the Ottoman Lands in the Early 19th Century," Die Welt des Islams, New Series 22, no.1/4, (1982): 3-9.

[30] Ibid, 11.

[31] Abdul-Jabar, 144.

[32] Bruinessen, Agha, Shaikh, and State, 224.

[33] Ibid.

[34] Ibid, 225.

[35] Ibid, 226.

[36] Ibid, 228-229.

[37] See generally Gordon Taylor, Fever and Thirst: An American Doctor among the Tribes of Kurdistan, 1835–1844 (Chicago: Academy Chicago Publishers, 2005).

[38] Bruinessen, Agha, Shaikh, and State, 229-234.

[39] Wadie Jwaideh, The Kurdish National Movement: Its Origins and Development (Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 2006), 48-49.

[40] Ibid.

[41] Ibid, 50-51.

[42] David McDowell, A Modern History of the Kurds (New York: I.B. Taurus & Co. Ltd., 1996), 1.

[43] Bruinessen, Agha, Shaikh, and State, 274.

[44] McDowell, 192.

[45] Bruinessen, Agha, Shaikh, and State, 298.

[46] Ibid, 296-297.

[47] Jwaideh, 205-207.

[48] Ibid, 211-216.

[49] See generally Quil Lawrence.

[50] Jwaideh, 243-266.