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By the first decade of the twenty-first century, the Kurds were largely a Muslim people comprising an estimated thirty to thirty-two million and residing predominately in four countries—Turkey, Iraq, Iran, and Syria. It is reasonably estimated that there are 15–18 million Kurds in Turkey, 6–7 million in Iran, 4.5 million in Iraq, and 1.8 million in Syria. There are some one million Kurds living in the Caucasus region, Central Asia, and the Russian Federation, as well as 500,000 in European countries. While some 15–17 million Kurds still live in adjoining areas in southeast Turkey, northern Iraq, eastern Syria, and northwest Iran, Kurds were dispersed throughout their countries of residence by the beginning of the twenty-first century. In Turkey, some 2 million Kurds live in Istanbul, 500,000 reside in Izmir, and another 500,000 can be found in Ankara. Kermānshāh, a city in western Iran, is a Kurdish-populated city of over one million. As a result of forced migration, ethnic cleansing, and civil war between the Turkish government and Kurds in the 1980s and 1990s, Kurds also spread along the entire Mediterranean coast. During the same period in Iran and Syria, Kurds seeking work migrated to Tehran and Damascus, where they are estimated to comprise populations of over 500,000 and 350,000, respectively.

Geography, Demography, and Religion.

The vast majority of Kurds are Sunnī and espouse the Shāfiʿī interpretation of Islamic law. Approximately two million Kurds are Twelver Shīʿah (Ithnā ʿAsharīyah), living mostly in Iran, with pockets also found in Turkey and Iraq. There are an estimated 50,000 Kurdish Christians (Chaldeans) residing in Iraq. Another 50,000 to 70,000 inhabitants of Iraq are Yezidis, who believe in a synthesis of Zoroastrianism, Islam, and primordial beliefs. Kurds belong to a number of other smaller sects, as well.

In Turkey, about fifteen percent of Kurds adhere to Alevism, a mixture of pre-Islamic, Twelver Shīʿī, Zoroastrian, and shamanist practices and belief systems that became established with the invasion of the Turkomans in the eleventh century. Large numbers of Kurds also belong to mystical sūfī orders. The two prevailing orders in the Kurdish regions are Naqshbandī and Qādirī. The Naqshbandī adhere more closely to Sunnī-Sharīʿah concepts, while the Qādirī emphasize that their leaders (shaykhs) should be descendents (sayyids) of the Prophet Muhammad. The Naqsbandī, Qādirī, and their shaykhs became major leaders in Kurdish societies in Turkey, Iraq, and Syria after the Ottoman government destroyed the traditional non-religious leadership in the 1830s to 1860s. Shaykhs played a strong political role throughout the twentieth century. One such shaykh from southeast Turkey, Ubaydallah of Nehri, is sometimes credited with possessing a strong political expression of Kurdayeti, meaning a profound sense of identifying with things claimed to be Kurdish. In 1880, Ubaydallah wrote to a British official, saying: “The Kurdish nation…is a people apart…We are also a nation apart. We want our affairs to be in our own hands.” While not a nationalist, Shaykh Ubaydallah contributed to laying the groundwork for the Kurdish nationalism that developed in the aftermath of World War I.


Kurdish is divided into two main dialects: Kurmanji and Sorani. Kurmanji is dominant in Turkey, Syria, and parts of northern Iraq, while Sorani prevails in Iraq and Iran. Two other dialects are also widely spoken: Zaza (Dimili) in Central Turkey and Gurani in southwest Iran. Although the dialects share many similarities, they are not mutually intelligible without study.

Arab-Muslim interactions with Kurds have long been recorded in Arabic literature and chronicles, beginning with the Arab-Muslim conquests. But there is sufficient evidence in Greek, Armenian, Syriac, and Aramean sources that Kurds played significant roles in the region prior to the coming of Islam. In Anabasis, the Greek historian Xenophon (427 to 362 B.C.E.) chronicles the Greeks’ retreat after war with the Persians; Greek soldiers fought their way through a region in southeast Turkey near present-day Mt. Judi that was dominated by a people Xenophon called Karduchoi, who are considered Kurdish ancestors in some scholarly circles. This region is still populated by Kurds.

The Kurds during the Islamic period: 637 to 1808 CE

The push of the Arab-Muslim armies to the north of Iraq after 630 CE brought them into contact with Kurds. At this point, some Kurds began to join Arab-Muslim armies and participated in the Umayyad Empire (661 to 750 CE). Their cooperation with the Umayyads allowed the Kurds to retain a good deal of autonomy. As a result of their cooperation, and their resistance, the Umayyad armies were not able to sustain conquests north of the Anti-Taurus Mountains that separated major Kurdish regions from the plains of Syria and Iraq. The Arab Caliph Marwān I (684 to 685 CE) and the son of Caliph al-Mansūr (754 to 75 CE) had Kurdish mothers, however, indicating some cooperative Kurdish and Arab interactions. During the ʿAbbāsid Empire (759 to 1258 CE), much of the fighting between Arab armies and the Kurds took place in the vicinity of Mosul (Mawsil), demarcating a frontier between the two ethnic groups that still exists. The Kurds managed to maintain governmental sovereignty over the majority of the lands they resided in until the establishment of the Seljuk Empire in 1055 CE

The fragmentation of the ʿAbbāsid Empire in the tenth century allowed Kurds to assert themselves more forcefully. Kurds began to establish a series of feudal principalities stretching from Azerbaijan to southern Iran. The most enduring of these principalities were the Shaddadids (951 to 1175 CE), Hasanwayids (954 to 1015 CE), and Marwānids (983 to 1085 CE). Kurds were able to maintain these principalities by controlling the major nomadic routes through the Anti-Taurus Mountain passes. They also relied on their own fighting abilities. The principalities’ leaders were able to establish a reciprocal relationship with the leaders of the towns and fortresses, as well as with the sedentary population. The relative stability offered by these relationships inaugurated what some historians refer to as “The Kurdish Interlude”—a time of stability between the disintegration of the ʿAbbāsid Empire and the coming invasions of the Seljuk Turks.

The Kurds and the Turks.

The degree of stability achieved during the Kurdish Interlude did not last long. The invasion of the Turkomans, which led to the creation of the Seljuk Empire (1055 to 1258 CE), diminished the role of Kurdish principalities. Ironically, it was during this period that the word “Kurdistan”—land of the Kurds—first appeared, though this seems to have been an administrative term with no political significance. Kurds, however, continued to play important roles during the Seljuk period, especially as warriors against the Latin Crusaders, who invaded the eastern Mediterranean littoral from 1091 to 1204 CE One of the most celebrated events in Muslim history was the reconquest of Jerusalem in 1189 by Salāh al-Dīn al-Ayyūbī, known in the West as “Saladin,” a Kurd from Tikrit in northern Iraq and the founder of the famous Ayyūbid Dynasty that ruled Egypt and Syria from 1169 to 1260 CE

Kurds between the Ottomans and the S.afavids.

Another celebrated event in Kurdish history, the Battle of Chaldiran (northeast of Lake Van), occurred in 1514 when the Ottoman Empire's armies defeated the challenge of Shah Ismāʿīl, founder of the Safavid dynasty. While Shah Ismāʿīl was a Turk, the founder of the Sūfī order that produced the Safavid Empire was a Kurd named Shaykh Safī al-Dīn. The Chaldiran battle was momentous in that it was not just between two empires, but between empires that used different theological discourses to justify their legitimacy; the Ottomans adopted Sunnism while the Safavids adhered to Shiism. The Kurds had to choose between the two empires, and this decision was made by Idris-i Bitlisi, a Kurdish adviser to Ottoman Sultan (Yavuz) Selim (1512 to 1520 CE), who sided with the Sunnī Ottomans. This meant that for the next four hundred years, the majority of Kurds would remain Sunnī, affiliating with the Ottoman Empire. The Kurds obviously remembered the dispossession of their lands and power by the zealous Shīʿī Karakoyunlular and wanted little to do with another extremist Shīʿī Turkoman dynasty.

The Kurdish alignment with the Ottomans allowed them to maintain semi-sovereignty over the lands they controlled. Kurds had the advantage of being located a good distance from the capitals (Istanbul and Isfahan) on the periphery of the Ottoman and Safavid armies’ reach. This allowed them to establish a buffer zone between the two empires. The autonomy the Kurds gained at Chaldiran was emphasized by the appearance of the Sharafnâme, written in 1597 by Sharaf al-Dîn al-Bitlîsî. His account chronicles the political and administrative entities in Kurdistan and is still the best source for contemporary historians trying to sort out the labyrinthian political and geographical makeup of Kurdish regions from the twelfth to the twentieth century. The Sharafnâme also allows modern Kurdish nationalist historians to assert that from the twelfth to the sixteenth century, Kurds exercised political control over the lands they ruled. Another comprehensive history of the Kurds was not written until 1799, but it lacks the detail of the Sharafnâme.

Other literary works emphasized a sense of community among the Kurds and strong feelings of Kurdayeti. “Mem o Zin,” an epic ballad love poem penned by Ahmed-e Khani (1650 to 1706), evinced strong emotions of Kurdayeti:

If we had unity amongst ourselves,If we all, together, obeyed one another,The Turks, the Arabs and the PersiansWould one and all be in our servitude

Khani advocated a sovereign state to protect the Kurdish language so that it could be used for scientific and intellectual purposes. He disdained Ottoman and Persian rulers, and is considered the first Kurdish intellectual to espouse Kurdayeti. Another strong advocate was Haji Qadir Koyi (1817 to 1897), a Kurd from Iraq. Koyî wrote at a time when Kurdish principalities (derebeglik; hukumdarlik) had lost their sovereignty. In his poetry, Khani made his dislike of Turks, Persians, and Armenians clear, and, as a result, he is sometimes regarded as a proto-nationalist.

Most contemporary scholars argue that Kurdish nationalism was a post-World War I development in the sense that the Kurds themselves had developed a grassroots feeling of cooperation for political independence. But Khani, like the shaykhs of the Naqshbandī and Qādirī orders, had played an important role in developing Kurdayeti in the latter half of the nineteenth century. Kurdish power also grew under the rule of Sultan Abdu..lhamid II (1876 to 1909 CE), who supported a Pan-Islamist policy opposed to Turkish, Arab, and Armenian nationalism. During his rule, he even created a 52,000- strong Kurdish Cavalry (Hamidye Hafif Süvari Alaylar) to utilize against the Armenians and Russians.

The destruction of Kurdish principalities and traditional leadership through the centralization polices of the Ottoman government from 1830 until the coming of Abdülhamid II caused a significant change among Kurds of the Ottoman Empire. The leadership of Kurdish communities was taken over by shaykhs belonging mostly to Sūfī orders; it was the end of leadership by traditional princes (mirs; derebeys; hukmdars). Henceforward, the main leadership cadres would come from the shaykhs, lay intellectuals, and military officers. In contrast, traditional leaders in Iran remained in power until the mid-1930s.

Post-World War I Developments: Turkey.

The 1908 overthrow of Abdülhamid II by the Young Turks resulted in much more freedom for minority groups in the Ottoman Empire to organize, publish, and be politically active. Like the Arabs and other minorities, especially in the Balkans, Kurds created a plethora of newspapers, magazines, and political pamphlets. For the most part, though, the Kurds participated in Muslim solidarity by remaining loyal to the Ottoman Empire allied with Germany in World War I. Kurds suffered over 500,000 deaths during the course of the war. The deportation, removal, and genocide of Armenians from 1915 to 1916 under Mustafa Kemal Atatürk increased the Kurdish leader's support for the Young Turk government, as well as for the Republic of Turkey after 1923. Kurdish leaders seized the opportunity to confiscate abandoned Armenian lands and property. They guaranteed loyalty to the new Republic of Turkey with the explicit understanding that the Kurds would suppress or destroy any Kurdish nationalist groups or movements that might rise. Neither the government nor the cooperative Kurdish leadership was entirely successful. In 1925 and 1930 and from 1937 to 1938, Kurds staged large-scale rebellions against the government, but they were all brutally suppressed. The Kurdish nationalist challenge to the Turkish state is illustrated by the fact that of nineteen armed actions carried out by the government between 1920 and 1940, seventeen were against Kurds.

After the Dersim (Tunceli) rebellion was crushed in 1938, another strong Kurdish nationalist challenge did not occur until 1984 when the recently created Kurdistan Workers Party (Partiya Kakeren Kurdistan), popularly known as “PKK,” began armed conflict with the Turkish government. During a bitter civil war waged from 1984 to 1999, an estimated 35,000 people were killed: 30,000 Kurds and 5,000 Turks. A low-intensity war continued into the twenty-first century.

Post-World War II Developments in Iraq.

From 1920 to 1958, there was Kurdish opposition to the British-backed Iraqi government. Unlike the strong ethnic-nationalist governments of Turkey, Iran, and Syria, which sought to assimilate or destroy Kurdish nationalism and Kurdayeti, the Iraqi Arab government was compelled by the British government to recognize certain Kurdish linguistic, cultural, and political rights. Despite this benign policy, Kurdish nationalist movements continued to strengthen, especially under the leadership of Mullā Mustafā Barzānī (1903 to 1979), the shaykh of a Naqshbandī order. After many skirmishes with the British and the Iraqi government, Barzānī was able to establish the Kurdish Democratic Party (KDP), Iraq's first Kurdish-led political party, in 1945. However, when Mullā Mustafā fled to the Soviet Union in 1947 after the collapse of the Kurdish Republic of Mahabad in December 1946, the party languished. There were also differences among the leaders of the KDP.

In 1976, Jalal Talabani, the descendent of Qadiri shaykhs, created another political party—the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK)—in opposition to the KDP. Despite the establishment of a United States- and British-mandated “Safe Haven” for the Kurds in northern Iraq after the 1991 Gulf War, conflicts between Barzani, Talabani, and their respective constituencies continued, hindering political cooperation among Iraqi Kurds right up to the United States invasion and occupation of Iraq in March 2003. The Kurds cooperated militarily with the United States, which in turn allowed them more autonomy in the three provinces that they governed—Dohuk, Arbīl, and Suleymaniya. The subsequent war and disintegration of Arab Iraq compelled the two parties to cooperate, and in 2006, they agreed to integrate their parties into a joint KDP and PUK government. By then, the Kurds of Iraq were poised to declare an independent state.

Developments in Iran.

It was in Iran that Kurds experienced their most dramatic achievement of the twentieth century: the establishment of an independent state called the Kurdish Republic of Mahabad, which lasted for one year (December 1945 to December 1946). This achievement was all the more remarkable in that the Kurds of Iran had not developed the militant organization and resistance of the Kurds of Turkey, nor did they have the support of an indigenous occupying power. The Kurdish Republic of Mahabad is the only independent state that the Kurds have ever achieved, and it serves as an inspiration to all Kurds, contributing to the development of Kurdayeti and strengthening Kurdish nationalism among Kurds everywhere.

After the destruction of the Kurdish Republic of Mahabad, Kurdish nationalism in Iran had adopted a leftist hue, resulting in the creation of The Committee for the Revival of Kurdistan (Komala-e Jiyanawi Kurdistan, known as the KJK) in 1942. The KJK was represented strongly in the southern part of Kurdistan in Iran, characterized by large landed estates and peasant labor exploitation. It was the Kurdish Democratic Party-Iran (KDP-I), however, that came to dominate Kurdish politics in Iran. The KDP-I was an offshoot of the KDP of Iraq that separated from the KDP in 1957, and was more tribally based than the KJK. The KDP-I strengthened under the leadership of Abdul Rahman Qasimlu, who was secretary-general of the party from 1971 until his 1989 assassination in Vienna by operatives of the new Islamic Republic of Iran (IRI). His assassination indicated how threatened IRI leaders felt by Kurdish nationalism. In 1992, four more KDP-I leaders were assassinated in Berlin by IRI agents.

Under Reza Shah Pahlavi (1925 to 1944 CE), his son, Muhammad Reza Shah Pahlavi (1944 to 1979 CE), and even under the rule of the IRI, Kurdish nationalism developed differently and was less militant and organized than that in Turkey, Iraq, and Syria. There are several reasons for this, namely that Iran emphasized a common Aryan heritage and that both peoples were descendents of the Medes. Iranian nationalists held that both Kurds and Iranians belonged to the Iranian nation, which was more inclusive than both the strident, Turkish-centered ethnic nationalism that excluded anyone who was not a Turk or the Pan-Arabism so prevalent in Iraq and Syria. Kurds were much more accepted as Iranian than Azeri Turks; both Kurds and Persian speakers had been in Iran long before the advent of Islam. The Iranians, with justification, also stressed that Kurdish language dialects were closer to those of Iranian languages and that the two peoples shared a common literary heritage. As opposed to Iraq, Kurds in Iran did not have a foreign occupying power that explicitly supported policies encouraging Kurdish nationalism. Iranian governments were also less harsh in suppressing the power of the ʿulamāʿ and Islamic institutions than Turkey or liberally governed Iraq. The suppression of Sūfī orders in Turkey was greatly resented by many Kurds and all of these developments ethnicized Kurdish nationalism in Turkey and Iraq more than in Iran. The Pahlavis’ polices were to destroy the political and military organizations of the Kurdish tribes, not their ethnic identity. Like the Turkish government, though for different reasons, the Pahlavis allowed large Kurdish landowners to retain their estates, inducing them to collaborate with the government. All of the above, in addition to greater isolation and lack of communication, made it difficult for the Kurds of Iran to perceive themselves as an ethnic community.

Developments since 2003.

Developments in Kurdish national and state formation have been—and undoubtedly will be—greatly affected by the United States war and occupation of Iraq in March 2003. The savagery of the war in the Arab part of Iraq, as well as Kurdish collaboration with the American occupying forces, allowed the Kurds of Iraq to come closer than ever to an independent state, one more long-lasting than the Kurdish Republic of Mahabad. In 2004, the Iraqi Kurds secured their political autonomy with the issuance of the Transitional Administrative Law (TAL). The TAL's political assurances were embedded in the Constitution of Iraq, which was ratified in October 2005 and accepted as legitimate by the international community. The TAL is a powerful recognition of the Kurds’ right to a “home,” much like the Balfour Declaration offered to the Jews in 1917 and culminating in the creation of Israel in 1948.

The attainment of greater political autonomy by Iraqi Kurds after 2003 has proven broadly inspirational and greatly strengthened Kurds’ sense of Kurdayeti. The “Kurdish Question”—the challenge of Kurdish nationalism to the governments of Turkey, Iran, Syria, and Arab Iraq—is likely to grow even stronger. Whether these developments will be settled through negotiations, increased conflict, or war remains to be seen.

See also IRAN; IRAQ; and TURKEY.


  • Bitlîlîs, Sharaf al-Dîn. The Sharafnâme or History of the Kurdish Nation. Book One. Translated from Persian by Mehrdad R. Izady. Costa Mesa, Calif.: Mazda Publishers, 2005. Classic Kurdish history that figures in today's nationalist imaginings.
  • Bois, Th.“Kurds, Kurdistan.” In Encyclopedia of Islam, vol. 5. 2d ed.Leiden: Brill, 1986.
  • Jwaideh, Wadi, and Martin Van Bruinessen. The Kurdish National Movement: Its Origins and Development (Contemporary Issues in the Middle East). Syracuse, N.Y.: Syracuse University Press, 2006.
  • Koohi-Kamali, Farideh. The Political Development of the Kurds in Iran: Pastoral Nationalism. London: Palgrave-Macmillan, 2004.
  • McDowall, David. A Modern History of the Kurds. Rev. ed.London: I.B. Tauris, 2000. Useful overview.
  • Natali, Denise. The Kurds and the State: Evolving National Identity in Iraq, Turkey, and Iran. Syracuse, N.Y.: Syracuse University Press, 2005.
  • Olson, Robert. The Emergence of Kurdish Nationalism and the Sheikh Said Rebellion, 1880–1925. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1989. Details the stirrings of the nationalist revolt in Kurdish areas of Turkey.
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