The Ahl-e Haqq Minority Faith Fights for Its Homeland in Northern Iraq
Earlier this week, Kurdish Peshmerga forces launched an offensive against ISIS in the Daquq district of Iraq, some 40 kilometers south of Kirkuk. Aided by airstrikes from US-led coalition warplanes, Kurdish forces took over a number of villages. As reported in the news service Rudaw:
Hismadin said Kurdish reinforcements streamed in once the Peshmerga’s heavy fighting began. He added that members of the Kurdistan regional parliament and many volunteers were also on hand. “We will not stop until we push out ISIS,” Jaafar Mustafa, commander of the 70th Peshmerga Forces, told Rudaw.
Also participating in the offensive was the 630-strong First Kakai Battalion of the Peshmerga, whose members have been fighting “to protect their ancestral lands along the Daquq frontline” despite being woefully underequipped, as noted in another Rudaw article. The Kakai (or Kaka’i) belong to a little know-known but significant religious minority, roughly one million strong, that is concentrated in the Kurdish region of western Iran. This faith is more commonly called Ahl-e Haqq, although the term Yarsan is often encountered as well. It is sometimes more loosely grouped with the Yezidi faith and other local religions under a “Gnosticism” label. Michael Izady’s map of religion in Iraq shows a sizable area of this faith just to the south and east of Kirkuk. It does not, however, include the city of Daquq in the Kakai/Yarsan/Ahl-e Haqq area. The Wikipedia article on the town, however, claims that, “The majority of the 50,000 inhabitants are Kurds from the Kakai faith.”
The exact nature of the Kaka’i/Ahl-e Haqq/Yarsan sect is hotly debated. Some scholars view it as an offshoot of Shia Islam, whereas others consider it a fundamentally non-Muslim faith with a mere Islamic veneer. The latter view is found in the Wikipedia article on the group:
Among other important pillars of their belief system are that the Divine Essence has successive manifestations in human form (mazhariyyat) and the belief in transmigration of the soul (dunaduni in Kurdish). For these reasons, the members of Ahl-e Haqq faith cannot be considered as part of the religion of Islam. The Yarsani faith has no common belief with Islam other than the ghulat Shia Islamic assertion of the divinity or godhead/godhood of Ali, although it can be identified as Kurdish esoterism which emerged under the intense influence of Bātinī-Sufism during the last two centuries. ….
The Yarsani faith’s unique features include millenarism, nativism, egalitarianism, metempsychosis, angelology, divine manifestation and dualism. Many of these features are found in Yazidism, another Kurdish faith, in the faith of Zoroastrians and in Shī‘ah extremist groups; certainly, the names and religious terminology of the Yarsani are often explicitly of Muslim origin. Unlike other indigenous Persianate faiths, the Yarsani explicitly reject class, caste and rank, which sets them apart from the Yezidis and Zoroastrians.
Yet according to the scholar Jean During, “Ahl-e Haqqism” is firmly rooted in mystical Islam, and is best seen as “an offshoot of a kind of Sufism which adapted itself to Kurdish customs.”* But During’s article also makes it clear that the faith deviates strongly from all orthodox interpretations of Islam. In its theology, the “divine manifestations” encountered in world history include not only Jesus, Abraham, and a number of Muslim figures, but also Zoroaster, the Buddha, and Plato. Equally intriguing, as During explains, is the fact that:
Elitism is part of the Ahl-e Haqq culture: they have a conviction that they stand above standard Islam, and belong to a kind of avant-garde. They possess the key of understanding of historical events, which permits them to interpret all contemporary events in a sometimes paradoxical way. …. This leads them to subversion. They never fear the law nor the blame… . They often like to show themselves as provocative, professing shocking beliefs or non-conformist practices” (During p. 124).
According to most sources, most adherents of Ahl-e Haqq speak Gorani, which is also the main language of their religious writings. Although Gorani is often considered to be a Kurdish dialect, it is not interintelligible with the main Kurdish tongues, Kurmanji and Sorani. But then again, Kurmanji and Sorani are not interintelligible with each other, meaning that Kurdish is best viewed as a language group rather than a distinct language in its own right. But this expanded definition of “Kurdish” does not necessarily include Gorani, even though its speakers are counted as ethnic Kurds. As noted in the Wikipedia, “A separate group of languages, Zaza-Gorani, is also spoken by several million Kurds, but is linguistically not Kurdish.” As this quotation makes clear, Gorani is most closely related to Zaza (or Zazaki) of central-eastern Turkey, another “Kurdish” language that is closely associated with a highly heterodox Muslim sect (Alevism, in this case). As can be seen in Izady’s map of Kurdish dialects, Gorani is spoken in the Ahl-e Haqq area of Iraq just to the south of Kirkuk.
A relative new (posted 2014) Wikipedia map of the Kurdish languages, however greatly restricts the extent of Gorani. Instead, it maps most of the area usually depicted as Gorani-speaking under the category of “Pehlewani,” or “southern Kurdish.” The Wikipedia article on Southern Kurdish also claims, contrary to most sources, that it, rather than Gorani, is the main language of the Ahl-e Haqq: “It [Pehlewani] is also the language of the populous Kurdish Kakayî-Kakavand tribe near Kerkuk [Kirkuk] and most Yarsani Kurds in Kermanshah province [in Iran].”
This situation is confusing, and I can only conclude that more research is needed. Minority faiths and languages in this part of the word deserve much more attention than they have received. The Yezidis, owing to the atrocities that they have suffered, have at long last been noticed by the global media. Other groups deserve the same consideration. For those interested in the topic, I cannot recommend Gerard Russell’s Heirs to Forgotten Kingdoms highly enough. I only wish that Russell could have included a chapter on the Ahl-e Haqq.
*. The quotation is from page 114 of: Jean During, 1998, “A Critical Survey on Ahl-e Haqq Studies in Europe and Iran.” In Tord Olsson, Elisabeth Ozdalga, and Catharina Raudvere, eds. Alevi Identity: Cultural, Religious, and Social Perspectives. Swedish Research Institute in Istanbul Transactions, Vol. 8.