The Kurds and Their Historical Contributions to Islam

The Kurds and Their Historical Contributions to Islam​

Turkiye (Turkey) recently announced yet another major operation against what it considers to be armed Kurdish separatists threatening its national interests. This time they are targeting them in northern Iraq.

DW reported:

Turkey launched a new cross-border offensive against Kurdish militants in northern Iraq early Monday.
Turkish jets and artillery struck targets belonging to Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK. The group maintains bases in northern Iraq and has used the territory for attacks on Turkey.

Turkey’s crackdown on PKK militants has gone hand in hand with a crackdown on the broader Kurdish movement, including the imprisonment of political leaders and the attempted ban of the People’s Democratic Party (HDP).

The targets are two groups ethnically dominated by Kurds:

  1. The PKK, mainly active in Turkey; and
  2. The YPG, mainly active in Syria.
Both militant outfits say they represent Kurdish interests and seek independence.

Both groups also gravitate towards the political Left.

The PKK has been waging an insurgency against the Turkish State for almost five decades now, with some high-intensity conflicts occurring during the ’90s. The PKK was actually formerly Marxist-Leninist. However, when this ideology more or less lost its vigor, it began to embrace “libertarian socialism” – a more innocent tag, to attract world sympathy.

The PKK’s leader, Abdullah Öcalan, has been in jail since 1999. He also proudly proclaims other idols of modernity, such as democratism and feminism.

The Kurds are a stateless Iranic population numbering approximately 40 million in Turkey, Iran, Iraq and Syria (listed in order of descending population numbers). It’s extremely unfortunate that they have had their aspirations taken hostage by such radical Leftists.

Many would say that they have been pushed to such extremes. That their way of life has more or less been criminalized by all sorts of secular-nationalist ideologies (the Kemalist type in Turkiye and the Ba’athist type in both Iraq and Syria), or sectarian ideologies (Shi’a revolutionaries in Iran).

In this article, we’ll not be looking at Kurds as the political pawns of different ideological players and geopolitical interests. But rather as our brothers and sisters in Islam, highlighting their eminent role in the history of our beautiful religion.

A “Transnational” Scholarly Group​

We could provide names of individuals to showcase the contributions of Kurds. The most obvious one would probably be Salah ud-Din al-Ayyubi, the heroic liberator of al-Quds, who was admired even by his Crusader enemies, an archetypal hero for the Muslim Ummah. We could also mention Said Nursî, the most important figure in the Islamic revival of Kemalist Turkiye. And we could list many other names too.

But names of individuals are of no real interest when assessing the contributions of an entire ethnic group. We need to take a broader look at the collective picture.

Martin van Bruinessen is a Dutch anthropologist who specializes in the world of Islam. He shows how Islam shaped Kurdish culture (even “nationalism”), and how them being at the intersection of all these nations transformed them into a sort of scholarly Islamic bridge between different cultures.

He writes in Mullas, Sufis and Heretics: The Role of Religion in Kurdish Society, p. 37:

“Numerous Kurds have played important roles in the history of Islam but this has often remained unnoticed because they did not explicitly identify themselves by their ethnic origins; when they expressed themselves in writing they usually did so in one (or more) of the three neighbour languages. Kurdistan, the mountainous region where most of the Kurds lived, has long been a buffer zone between the Turkish-, Arabic- and Persian-speaking regions of the Muslim world. Politically, Kurdistan constituted a periphery to each of these cultural-political regions, but it has also had the important cultural role of mediation between them. Learned Kurds have frequently acted as a bridge between different intellectual traditions in the Muslim world, and Kurdish ‘ulama have made major contributions to Islamic scholarship and Muslim literature in Arabic and Turkish as well as Persian.

Islam has, conversely, deeply affected Kurdish society; even ostensibly non-religious aspects of social and political life are moulded by it.
As in other tribal societies, networks of madrasas and sufi orders have functioned as mechanisms of social integration, overcoming segmentary division. Not surprisingly it was in the madrasa environment, where students from various parts of Kurdistan met and where besides Arabic and Persian the Kurdish language was cultivated, that the idea of a Kurdish “national” identity first emerged. The first poets whose works expressed pride in the Kurdish heritage were closely associated with the madrasa and it was through the madrasa networks that their works were spread and became known.”

So in the premodern Islamic world, prior to the blight of nationalism, Kurds enjoyed worldwide renown for the very same reason that they’re being persecuted today: for being a transnational group, a population present among many different cultures.

Nationalism… yet another gift of modernity!

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Another proof for these transnational scholarly activities of the Kurds is found in Khaled El-Rouayheb’s 2015-book Islamic Intellectual History in the Seventeenth Century: Scholarly Currents in the Ottoman Empire and the Maghreb.

El-Rouayheb, who is a Professor at Harvard University, basically wrote this book to disprove the mistaken idea that Muslims stopped producing intellectual works in philosophical theology after the end of the so-called “Golden Age.”

What strikes the reader immediately is the presence of Kurdish scholars in these intellectual dynamics, to the extent the first part of the book is titled: The Path of the Kurdish and Persian Verifying Scholars.

What does the title mean? As he explains in the first chapter of the first part of the book – named Kurdish Scholars and the Reinvigoration of the Rational Sciences – it’s about Kurdish scholars’ mastery in teaching complex books authored by Persian scholars, mainly in the rational sciences.

We read on p. 13:

The “rational sciences” were cultivated vigorously in the Ottoman Empire throughout the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. An important transformation in Ottoman scholarly life did indeed occur in the first half of the seventeenth century, but this had nothing to do with a suppression of the rational sciences by fanatical Kadizadelis. It was rather that works on philosophy, logic, dialectics, rational theology, semantics, rhetoric, and grammar by Persian scholars of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries began to be studied intensively in Ottoman scholarly circles during this period. At first, such works were taught by Azeri and Kurdish scholars who made an impression on local scholars with their mastery of the “books of the Persians” and their manner of lecturing that heeded the discipline of dialectic. Ottoman scholarly culture was profoundly influenced by this development.

In the conclusion of the first part, we read on p. 58:

“Kurdish scholars who settled in Istanbul and Damascus in the seventeenth century were esteemed as teachers of the rational sciences and the “books of the Persians.” Several Turkish scholars are also known to have traveled to the Kurdish areas to complete their education in the rational sciences.”

Such “transnational” Kurdish scholars include Ibrahim al-Kurani, active in 17th-century Mecca and author of more than a hundred books; and Abu Bakr Effendi, active in 19th-century South Africa, who penned a book on fiqh (jurisprudence) – in fact this was the very first Islamic book in the Afrikaans language. Again, here too we could easily list numerous names as examples. In a recent study about Ibrahim al-Kurani, the author Naser Dumairieh, demonstrates that the popularity of these Kurdish scholars extended as far as Indonesia.

Surely being identified and associated with the spread of both the Islamic and rational sciences all over the Muslim world, is a better collective identity for Kurds than groups fighting for ideologies such as radical feminism in their name?

Of course, these militant groups are not representative of the average Kurd, and in Iraqi Kurdistan for instance, there’s an Islamic revival taking place.

DW reported few months ago:

The dream of a Kurdish homeland, a unifying idea that previously took precedence over other divisions, has also dimmed.

All of this has resulted in a youthful population that has lost hope of ever achieving political change or personal economic security. Around a quarter of the Iraqi Kurdish population, which is thought to be over 5 million, is aged between 18 and 34, and by 2018, the United Nations mission in Iraq reported, more than a fifth thought they would never get a job.

Now, some have expressed concerns that those frustrated young people may be turning elsewhere — to fundamentalist religion.

The majority of Kurdish Muslims are Sunni, and ultraconservative Sunni clerics, known as Salafists, have been active in the region since the 1950s; “salaf” means ancestors, and Salafists advocate adherence to what they see as the original rules of Islam.
Muslih Irwani, a sociologist and head of the Public Policy Institute, a think tank in Irbil, said he saw it as a “new wave of return to Islam” among the younger generation. There were two forms of this. One was more traditional and politically neutral, Irwani explained. “The second approach is more radical … and is popular among those who are devastated by the political situation in Iraqi Kurdistan,” he said.

The Case of Turkiye: Islam as the Solution?​

As we mentioned at the start, Kurds have sadly suffered in every country where they form a substantial minority.

But the country where they were the most oppressed was Turkiye – the obvious reason being Kemalism: a highly-centralized State following the French Jacobin république model. Imposing Turkish culture and language by force was bound to enact reactions from the minorities. And with the Kurds being the largest minority in the country (between 15-20% of the population), they were pioneers in this field. Sheikh Said of Palu launched the famed rebellion against the Kemalist State in 1925 which was ultimately unsuccessful.

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Perhaps the best and most promising way to make peace between Turks and Kurds would be to tone down Kemalism. In essence, this is yet another reason why Islam needs to have greater scope and presence in such politics.

In her recent book – Under the Banner of Islam: Turks, Kurds, and the Limits of Religious Unity – Gülay Türkmen highlights how such an attempt has in fact been made.

She writes in the introduction, on p. 6:

Coming from Erdoğan, the leader of the pro Islamist AKP, this emphasis on “Muslim fraternity” was not surprising. After all, several politicians in Turkey, including the leader of the 1980 military coup, Kenan Evren, and the leader of the Islamist Welfare Party (Refah Partisi/RP), Necmettin Erbakan, had underlined Sunni Islam as the tie that binds Kurds and Turks. In line with this thinking, Erdoğan’s AKP embraced a supranational religious approach in dealing with the Kurdish conflict. The AKP cadres envisioned Sunni Islam as an overarching identity that could bridge ethno-nationalist divisions between the predominantly Sunni Muslim Kurds and Turks and hoped that an increasing emphasis on “Muslim fraternity” would help solve the conflict.

So strong is Islam as a unifying force, that even secularists such as Abdullah Öcalan have adopted such rhetoric. Gülay Türkmen writes on pp. 7-8:

Under the AKP rule, with religion regaining importance in the political sphere, Islam started occupying a much more prominent place in the discourse of the Kurdish movement. For example, in March 2013, during the Newroz ceremony in Diyarbakır, in a letter he sent from prison, Öcalan underlined the importance of Muslim identity and reminded the Turkish people, “their thousand-year co-existence with Kurds under the banner of Islam rests on the principles of fraternity and solidarity”.
As such, it seemed as if the “Muslim fraternity” plan was working successfully, to the extent that Öcalan and Erdoğan had quoted the same hadith—“no Arab has superiority over an Ajami, and no Ajami has superiorityover an Arab”— to foreground Islam’s capacity to carry different ethnicities side by side.

Sadly though, it hasn’t been very fruitful as of yet. Not only due to Kurdish groups, but also to individuals such as Erdoğan, who are somehow still unable to completely abandon their nationalism. Gülay Türkmen writes on pp. 130-131:

At first glance, in this speech, Erdoğan seems to be promoting an all-inclusive Sunni Muslim Turkish citizenship. However, upon a closer look, one realizes that, adorned with all the necessary symbols of Turkish nationalism— Turkish flag, Turkish homeland, Turkish nation, Turkish state— this speech promotes Turkish ethno-nationalism over others.

She provides other examples from Erdoğan’s speeches and acts, more or less promoting a “subtle” Turkish ethnonationalism, which obviously alienates Kurds. But all of this still doesn’t change the fundamental equation:

Islam is the only solution for reconciliation between Kurds and Turks; and also other neighbors too.

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