An overwhelming majority of Muslim and non-Muslim Kurds are followers of one of many mystic Sufi orders (or tariqa). The bonds of the Muslim Kurds, for example, to different Sufi orders have traditionally been stronger than to orthodox Muslim practices. Sufi rituals in Kurdistan, led by Sufi masters, or shaykhs, contain so many clearly non-Islamic rites and practices that an objective observer would not consider them Islamic in the orthodox sense.
The Sufi shaykhs train deputies (khalifa), who represent and supervise the followers of various districts in the name of the shaykh, collecting allegiance, and dues, for the shaykh. Anyone may follow a shaykh, but to actually join the order of a specific shaykh, helshe must go through a process of initiation. These members (murids) then participate in many rituals, including the Sufi dances, chants, and prayers. When necessary they will go into combat for their shaykhs. Shaykh Ubaydulldh, Shaykh Sa’id, Shaykh Ahmad BArzAni, and Shaykh Mahmud Barzanji, among others, were Sufi masters who asked for and received armed support from their murids in their political adventures.
The close shaykh-murid relationship is also an excellent vote-gathering mechanism for modern democratic elections. As such, in Turkey at least, the shaykhs curry favor with various political parties by delivering their followers’ votes (van Bruinessen 199 1).
Three of the stormiest and most controversial early movements within Sufism were led by Husayn ibn Mansur Haflaj (crucified AD 922),’Ain al-QudAt Hamaddni (crucified AD 1131), and Shahâb al-Din Suhrawardi (crucified AD 1191). They all preached ideas antithetical to the basic tenets of established Islam, and in astonishing conformity with the Cult of Angels. Hallâj, for example, claimed himself to be an avatar of the divinity, by which he proclaimed in his famous formula, an4’1 haqq, Arabic for “I am the Haq [the Spirit],” out of the belief in the unity of creation, and that all creatures are ultimately the manifestations of the same original Universal Spirit. He thus also declared Lucifer to have been redeemed and elevated to the highest universal station, as in Yezidism. He was subjected to exquisite tortures before being crucified in Baghdad. At present there is a shrine dedicated to Hallâj in the sacred Yezidi religious center and shrine complex at Lâlish, next to the tomb of Shaykh Adi.
Hamaddni’s ideas revolved around the “unity of existence”; that is, like Hallaj, he believed that all creations are manifestations of the original, Universal Spirit. The Spirit is also aloof from events in this world, as the Cult of Angels believes the Spirit to have remained aloof after his original-and final-reincarnation into Lord God, the creator of the material world. His idea of successive reincarnation, and the redemption of Lucifer, added to his other non-Islamic preachings, qualified him for burning on a cross by the Muslim authorities when he was 33.
The same general ideas of Hallâj and Hamadfini are echoed in the work of Suhrawardi. Suhrawardi’s Gnostic teachings under the rubric of the School of Ishrclq, “illumination,” bear so much influence from the Cult of Angels that it is rather an extension of that religion (albeit with strong Hellenistic and Mesopotamian influences) than an Islamic Sufi movement. There exists a hymn by Suhrawardi, entitled A]-Hurakhsh al-Kabir, “The Great Sun [Deity],” which is to be made daily to the rising sun, asking for a personal book at the end. Echoes of the daily Cult prayer to the rising sun can unmistakably be heard in this hymn. “Thou art the strong and victorious Hurakhsh,” writes Suhrawardi, ‘,the vanquisher of the dark … the king of Angels … the proprictor of the incarnate lights of existence by the power of the obeyed God, the luminous matter … the learned scholarly philosopher, the greatest sacred son of the corporeal lights, the successor of the light of lights in the material world … I beg [him] … so that he might beg his God and God of gods … [to give me a boon]” (Mo’in 1962). His idea of the evolution of the worshipper’s soul into that of the Divinity, although not as pronounced as that in the Cult of Angels, finally cost him his life at the age of 38, at the instigation of the Muslim ulema and at the hands of another Kurd, the Ayyubid prince of Aleppo, in AD 1191. Like Hall’a)’, Hamadâni and Suhrawardi have been elevated to the station of minor avatars of the Universal Spirit in the Cult.
Hallâj was born in Baghdad from parents who had migrated from the FArs region in the southern Zagros, where tens of Kurdish tribes were present at the time (see Historical Migrations). The influence of the Cult of Angels on Hallâj’s beliefs is, however, much easier to establish than his ethnic affiliation. This is not so, however, with Hâmadâni or Suhrawardi. Hamadâni was born and lived in Hamadân in southern Kurdistan. Suhrawardi was from the town of Shahraward (often misread as Suhraward), between Shahrazur (modern Sulayni Ania) and Zanjân, 15 miles east of Bijdr. Suhraward’s population, according to the medieval Islamic geographer Ibn Hawqal, was, like today, predominantly Kurdish.
About 300 years later another follower of the Cult of Angels popularized another controversial and stormy Sufi movement. Muhammad Nurbakhsh (the “bestower of light”) began his preaching in the middle of the 15th century. He was from Lahsa (modern AhsA in oil-bearing eastern Saudi Arabia). Lahsh had been a hotbed of extremist movements, like those of the Qarmatites in early Islamic times, whose socioeconomic ideologies, as well as their belief in the transmigration of the soul, connected them with the earlier Khurramiyya and Mazdakite movements of the Zagros region (see Cult of Angels). His connection with the Cult of Angels was revealed when he was given the mantle of Hamadâni. Like Hallâj and Suhrawardi, Nurbakhsh also claimed to be a minor avatar of the Universal Spirit, of the line that included the Prophet Muhammad in the Second Epoch of the universal life (see Table 6). He proclaimed himself a Mahdi, “deliverer, messiah,” and further claimed his father’s name to have been Abdulldh (like that of the Prophet Muhammad). He named his son Qasim, so his own title would be Abul-Qasim (again, like that of the Prophet). He also claimed supernatural powers consistent with those expected of an avatar in the Cult of Angels, and blasphemy in Islam. For this and other unorthodox utterances, he was attacked by the mainstream Sunni and Shi’ite ulema, among them, his contemporary Abdul Rahmân Jami. He did not, however, meet the dire end of his three predecessors, Hallâj, Hamadân, and Suhrawardi.
Arriving in Kurdistan, Nurbakhsh announced himself also to be the new caliph of all Muslims. The Kurds minted coins in his name (AD 1443). He was arrested by the Timurid king Shâhrukh and imprisoned in Herât, but was released in AD 1444. Nurbakhsh died of natural causes, perhaps only because his movement occurred at the height of the Cult of Angels’ offensive on Shi’ite Islam in the 15th century, and existence of powerful Alevi dynasties in the area.
Nurbakhsh’s son and successor, Qasim, was favored by the founder of the Safavid dynasty, Isma’il I, and he and the Nurbakhshi movement increasingly came to reflect the religious evolution through which the Safavids were going in the course of the 16th and 17th centuries (see Early Modern History). The Nurbakhshi Sufi order has evolved from there into a bona fide Shi’ite order, with its membership from among the Kurds being primarily Shi’ite, but with most members being non-Kurds. There are also many Yarsân followers in this order.
The oldest Sunni Sufi order still followed by the Kurds is the Qâdiri, named after its founder, Abdul-Qâdir Cilâni (also Gaylâni, Kaylâni, or Khaylani) (AD 1077-1166). Many important Kurdish religious families are presently, or are known in the past to have been, members of this order. The Qâdiri order has been in steady retreat since the start of the 19th century, under pressure from another Sufi order, the Naqshbandis.
The Tâlabâni tribe, the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan party, its leadership, and most people in the southern sectors of Iraqi Kurdistan and in eastern Kurdistan (in Iran) are Qâdiris. The order’s headquarters are in the sacred ancient town of Barzanja near Sulaymania. Shaykh Mahmud, leader of many Kurdish uprisings against the British Mandate of Iraq, was also the leader of the Qâdiri Sufi house of Barzanji.
A more recent arrival into Kurdistan is the Sunni Naqshbandi order, founded by Baha al-Din Naqshband of Bukhârâ (AD 1317-1389) and introduced from central Asia, perhaps by the Turkic tribes and/or Turkic Bakshis, whence they were arriving in these parts of the Middle East since the 12th century.
Today, the people in northern, and to some extent western, Kurdistan follow the Naqshbandi order, while central and eastern Kurdistan are still Qâdiri. The Barzani tribe is led by Naqshbandi Sufi masters, who exercise temporal, as much as spiritual, influence in their area. Until late in the last century, however, the Barzftnis and all other tribes and clans in these areas of Kurdistan were followers of the Qâdiri order. This and many other conversions to the Naqshbandi order were the direct result of the energy and fervor of one Mawlanâ Khâlid.
In 1811 Mawlana KhAlid (b. 1779), a Kurdish Naqshbandi shaykh (of the Jaf tribe) from Shahrazur (modern SulaymAnia) set out on a furious bout of proselytization by appointing a myriad of deputies across Kurdistan and beyond. These deputies then proceeded, after Khalid’s death in 1827, to appoint their own deputies. In a short span of time, north central Kurdistan, along with its influential religious center of Nahri/Nehri, near RawAnduz, was lost by the Qâdiri order for good. The change has been so recent and abrupt that the most important Sufi religious family there still bears the name of Gaylani or Khaylani (after Abudl-Qâdir Gilâni). The Iraqi Kurdish Democratic Party and its Bârzâni leadership are thus of Naqshbandi Sufi affiliation.
Under President Ozal’s government (himself of a Naqshbandi family), the Naqshbandis have staged a comeback in Turkey after many decades of official banning and persecution, following Shaykh Sa’id’s uprising of 1925.
Sufi lodges (khtinaqds) pepper Kurdistan, and are much moire common in fact than mosques or any other places of religious ritual (except, perhaps, for the sacred trees and ponds dedicated to Khidir) (see Popular Culture).
Non-Muslim Kurds also follow Sufi orders of their own, or any one of the Cult orders, which are at least nominally known to be Shi’ite Sufi orders (as, for example, are the Nurbakhshi and Ni’matulâhi orders). The Alevis in western and northern Kurdistan are predominantly of the Bektâshi/Baktâshi order. The order traditionally claimed to be a Sunni Muslim order, since none else was permitted under the Ottomans. But the followers of this order remained almost exclusively Alevi, with adherents among Kurds and non-Kurds all the way to Bulgaria, Albania, and Bosnia. The influence of this order on the life of the Alevi Kurds is profound. One of the most important festivals observed by the Alevi Kurds is that of H5ji Bektâsh, the founder of the Bektâshi Sufi order and one of the most important of the primary avatars of the Spirit in Alevism. While long suppressed, the Turkish government, within whose domain the bulk of the Bekthshis live, now allows, and sometimes officially sponsors, these Alevi feasts. A reason may be the influence of Turkish President Ozal. Even though Ozal’s own family is of Naqshbandi background, they are natives of the largely Kurdish city of MalAtya, where both Naqshbandi and Bektâshi orders are present.
The Bektâshis are more commonly, and indirectly, known in the West through their “Whirling Dervishes,” whose white costumes and conical white hats are familiar to most Westerners interested in the Asian religions and practices. The most important center of the Bektâshis is the site of the shrine of the great Sufi master and poet, Mevlana (more accurately, Mawlând Jâlâl al-Din Balkhi, also known as AI-Rumi), in the city of Konya, near the southern fringes of the central Anatolian Kurdish enclave.
The Qâdiri order also practices elaborate dances and plays musical instruments alongside chants, not dissimilarly from the Bektdshi Whirling Dervishes. The Naqshbandis, on the other hand, have traditionally been far more given to meditations and chants to reach the state of ecstasy that is the hallmark of all Sufi orders. The Bektâshis are famous for their dance and music, and use the chants as the supplements to these.
A rather peculiar order, the Rafd’is, should also be mentioned, as they are in a sense a mystic order. Their strong belief in the ability of the soul to transcend the physical body at the will of any well-trained mind provides for ceremonies that include walking barefoot on hot coal, swallowing swords, and driving sharp objects through one’s own flesh, and in all cases, seemingly coming out unharmed.
Further Readings and Bibliography: N. Yalman, “Islamic Reform and the Mystic Tradition in Eastern Turkey,” European Journal of Sociology 10 (1969); S.H. Nasr, Shihdbaddin Yahytl Sohrawardi (Paris: Institut Francais d’lranologie, Bibliothaque Iranienne, 1970); John Kingsley Birge, The Bektashi Order of Dervishes (London: Luzac, 1937); Martin van Bruinessen, “Religious Life in Diyarbekir: Religious Learning and the Role of the Tariqats,” in Martin van Bruinessen and H. E. Boeschoten, eds., Evliya Çelebi in Diyarbekir (Leiden: Brill, 1988); Hamid Algar, “The Naqshbandi Order: A Preliminary Survey of Its History and Significance,” Studia Islamica 44 (1976); Hamid Algar, “Said Nursi and the Risala-i Nur,” Islamic Per5pectives: Studies in Honour of Sayyid Abul Ala Mawdudi. (London, 1978); Halkawt Hakim, “Mawlana Khalid et les pouvoirs,” in Marc Gaboricau, A. Popovic, and T. Zarcone, eds., Naqshbandis: Historical Development and Pre5etzt Situation of a Muslim Mystical Order (Istanbul-Paris: Isis, 1990); Albert Hourani, “Shaikh Khalid and the Naqshbandi Order,” in S. M. Stern, A. Hourani, and V. Brown, eds., Islamic Philosophy and the Cla5sical Tradition (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1972); Sherif Mardin, Religion and Social Change in Modern Turkey: The Case of Bediuzzaman Said Nursi (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1989); Wheeler Thackston, The Mystical & Visionary Treatises of Suhrawardi (London: Octagon, 1982); J.S. Triidngham, 7he Sufi Orders in Islam (New York and London: Oxford University Press, 1971); Martin van Bruinessen, “Religion in Kurdistan,” Kurdish Times IV:1-2 (1991); ‘Ain al-QudAt al HamadAni, The Apologia, A. J. Arberry, cd. and trans., as A Sufi Marty (London: George Allen and Unwin, 1969); Muhammad Mo’in, ” Huraxs”l in W.B. Henning and E. Yarshater, eds., A Locust5 Leg. Studie5 in the Honour of S.H. Taqizadeh (London: Percy Lund, 1962).
Sources: The Kurds, A Concise Handbook, By Dr. Mehrdad R. Izady, Dep. of Near Easter Languages and Civilazation Harvard University, USA, 1992