Skip to comments.The Kurdish People: A Background and History
Posted on 04/07/2004 7:54:38 PM PDT by xzins
"No Friends but the Mountains"
The Kurdish people comprise a large ethnic group of about 25 million that have always lived in the same place, and trace their roots back to the Medes of ancient Persia more than 2,500 years ago. In fact, the Magi, or "wise men" who traveled from the east to deliver their gold, frankincense and myrrh to the newborn Jesus at Bethlehem were most likely Zoroastrian priests, forbears of the modern Kurds. The Kurds are tribal people, many of them lived, until recently, a nomadic lifestyle in the mountainous regions of Turkey, Syria, Iraq and Iran. Their refuge has always been the mountains, with their steep pastures and fertile valleys.
For nearly 3,000 years the Kurds have lived along the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, the cradle of civilization. This places their beginnings at the very source of the nations and in the immediate vicinity of history's most important events. (A few selections would include the creation of man, the Garden of Eden, Noah's Ark on Mt. Ararat in northern Kurdistan, The Tower of Babel, the calling of Abraham, the Babylonian Exile, and much more.) The Kurdish belief that they are the descendants of the biblical Medes reflects this rich background. They base this claim on geographical, linguistic and cultural factors, and they have a strong case.
The most significant biblical passage about the Medes is the prophecy of Isaiah found in chapter 13 and 14, a judgment against Babylon. This is followed up in the fifth chapter of the book of Daniel, the famous text concerning the mysterious handwriting on the wall. Daniel, in his eyewitness report, tells us that the Medes overthrew Babylon on the night of the feast: "That very night Belshazzar, the Chaldean king, was killed, and Darius the Mede received his kingdom, being about 62 years old."
Perhaps the most unique and striking feature in the historical development of the Medes and the Kurds was the advent of their religion, a very early form of Zoroastrianism. The Mede's ancestors were garden-variety pagan polytheists, worshiping a gaggle of war gods called deavas. About the fifth or sixth century BC, perhaps earlier, a prophet named Zoroaster (sometimes called Zarathustra) gained prominence in what is now Kurdistan. Zoroaster did not claim to be anything special himself. His emphasis was on the natural revelation found in creation and on the conscience. He maintained that anyone could know the truth about God through these means, an argument very similar to that put forth by Paul in Romans 1:18ff.
Zoroaster also taught that "one who embodies all truth" would be born of a virgin and would become the eternal King of Kings, bringing justice for the oppressed and finally putting an end to the Lie and all its horrible consequences. Ultimately, there would be a resurrection of the dead to judgment and an everlasting "new day," a strikingly similar concept to the Bible's teaching on the Kingdom of God.
His followers became known as the "Maz Maga" meaning "Great Benevolence," reflecting the newfound truth that the true God was good and trustworthy. The Zoroastrian priestly class were called the Magi, and it may be reasonably surmised that the birth of Jesus was revealed to them because of the teachings of their religion. Thus the New Testament opens with a visit from these "wise men:" "After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, during the time of King Herod, Magi came from the east to Jerusalem and asked, 'Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews? We saw his star in the east and have come to worship him.' " (Matt. 2: 1-2)
The Kurds and Islam
It has been said that Kurds "hold their Islam lightly," meaning that they are not so vehement about Islam and do not identify as closely with it as the Arabs do. This is perhaps due to several factors: one being, many Kurds still feel some connection with the ancient Zoroastrian faith, and feel it is an original Kurdish spirituality that far predates the seventh century AD arrival of Muhammad.
Nonetheless, most Kurds are Muslims, and about 75% today are at least nominally members of the majority Sunni branch. As many as four million Kurds are Shiites, living mostly in Iran where the Shiite faith predominates. However, the Kurds generally strive to express their Islam in a distinct fashion. For example, the Sunni Muslim Kurds of Turkey have adopted the Shafi'i legal code, ignoring the general rule among the surrounding Arabs and Turks, who adhere to the Hanafi school. Mystical practices and participation in Sufi orders are also widespread among Kurds. Many of these orders are considered heretical by rigid orthodox Muslims. Drawing heavily on shamanism, Zoroastrianism and elements of Christianity, Kurdish mysticism places emphasis on the direct experience of God through meditation, ecstatic experiences and the intercession of holy men or sheiks. Most Kurds possess a tangible sense of the supernatural, readily acknowledging demonic activity in the form of evil spirits and curses; they often worship at shrines or other holy places.
The rest of the Kurds are followers of several indigenous Kurdish faiths of great antiquity and originality. The most notable of these are the Yezidis. Although often charged with worshiping Lucifer, the Yezidis embody a distillation of the Jewish, Deavic, Zoroastrian, Christian and Islamic beliefs which have consecutively ruled their mountainous homeland for three millennia. Central to the Yezidi cosmology is the Heptad, a group of seven archangels through which God is said to delegate his authority. Although statistically small in number, the Yezidis are a source of great pride for Kurds of every tradition.
Throughout the Middle East, smaller communities of Jews, Christians and Baha'is also consider themselves Kurds. Israel's 150,000 Kurds constitute the greatest concentration of these non-Muslim groups. The Kurdish Jews emigrated to Israel in the 1950s, having lived in Mesopotamia since the Assyrian exile: "The king of Assyria carried the Israelites away to Assyria, settled them in Halah, on the Habor, the river of Gozan, and in the cities of the Medes." (2 Kings 18:11) Like the Yezidis, the Israeli Kurds are highly regarded throughout Kurdistan.
Kurdish Areas: Today and Tomorrow
Like most of the Middle East, the areas where the Kurds live is in turmoil. Among the four countries where most of the Kurds reside, the situation is as follows:
The Church Among the Kurds
The Kurds have been called one of the world's largest groups of unreached peoples. However, the Book of Acts indicates that this was not always the case, recording the presence of "Parthians, Medes, Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia" at Pentecost. Precisely how many Kurds followed in the footsteps of the Magi is unknown. Most early Zoroastrian converts to Christianity gradually lost their ethnic identity and merged with the Aramaic-speaking milieu of the early Eastern church or with the Armenians, another Zoroastrian nation turned Christian. However, as late as the 10th century, the Arab geographer al-Masudi wrote about tribes of "Christian Kurds."
Whatever the extent of early Christianity in the Kurdish areas, the dust cloud of Islamic conquest has forever obscured it from our view. Faced with fierce resistance from the Kurds, Muhammed's successor, Omar, embarked on a ruthless campaign of what can only be described as spiritual genocide. Omar destroyed some 4,000 churches, synagogues and Zoroastrian temples in and around the Kurdish areas, slaughtering religious leaders as he went. He also ordered the destruction of all non-Muslim literature. "If these documents are contrary to the Qur'an they are bogus," he declared to his generals, "and if they agree with the Qur'an, they are irrelevant; in either case, they should be destroyed." Thus, the spiritual famine of the Kurds was ensured for more than a millennium.
It was only in the late 1800s that Christianity finally awoke to the Kurd's need for the gospel. This concern found expression at the historic Edinburgh missions conference of 1910. This conference, the first to examine the cause of completing the Great Commission, assigned the Kurdish field to the Lutheran Church. Consequently, the Lutheran Orient Mission Society was formed, and the first missionary team to the Kurds was dispatched to Mahabad, in the Kurdish area of Iran. The New Testament was translated into Kurdish for the first time, and several small Kurdish fellowships were established before political circumstances and war conspired to uproot the Christian missionaries. LOMS continued to operate in Iraq through the 1950s and also in Gorve, Iran, until the Ayatollah Khomeini forced them out in the late 1970s. This effectively closed all Christian work among the Kurds.
In spite of these setbacks history seemed to be preparing the Kurds for a strategic convergence with the Kingdom of God. In the 1980s, thousands of Kurds began to express a strong disaffection for Islam. The youth especially gravitated to communism and agnostic ideologies, while Islam was increasingly seen as a tool of Arab and Turkish oppression. That this widespread alienation could be translated into an opportunity for the gospel was demonstrated in the aftermath of the Gulf War, when Kurdish areas suddenly opened to Christian relief agencies. The next five years witnessed the birth of a modern church, indigenous leadership and a restoration of the Bible to Kurdish areas. At the same time, the majority of Kurds, who live outside of Iraq, also began to respond to the gospel in unprecedented numbers. Today, thousands of New Testaments are in use by Kurdish seekers and converts.
However, the church is still small and vulnerable throughout the Kurdish. The number of baptized church members is only in the low hundreds, yet thousands have responded to literature campaigns and personal evangelism. Therefore the challenge of discipleship and forming an appropriate church structure is especially critical at this stage of development. The thousands of active seekers, many of whom already consider themselves Christians, have to be brought along to the point of baptism and fellowship. If this can be achieved, the potential of the Kurds to impact the Middle East is tremendous.
Mission strategists long ago recognized that the Kurds are a regional catalyst. Their native Mesopotamia has driven the events of the Middle East since the dawn of recorded history. Straddling political and cultural borders and equally comfortable in Arabic, Persian, Turkish and Hebrew, the Kurds could well become the evangelists of the Near East. "The air is pregnant with change," said a leading Kurdish politician, who is now a Christian. He is the son of a Yezidi who converted to Islam and became a Muslim priest before his conversion to Christianity. "If you are willing to make a genuine commitment of personnel, time and money, you will see a hundred thousand Kurds come to Christ in less than five years." Let's hope that his assessment of the church among the Kurds is accurate, and that we can meet his call to action.
(Published with permission)
-Researched and written by Matthew Hand and Mark Brockman
Special thanks to the Bible Lands Association and the Lutheran Orient Mission Society. For additional information about the Kurds, their spiritual pilgrimage and how you may get involved, write to: Bible Lands Association, 900 Seminole Dr., Ft. Pierce, FL 34982. Email: email@example.com
Copyright © November 1996 The Sentinel Group
In light of the Kurdish Peshmerga assisting in Fallujah, it is good to have an understanding of the Kurdish background.
This was written by a Christian missionary agency interested in the Kurds, but it has some serious insights that are helpful for all.
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It is in the breaking news sidebar!
There used to be a lot of Zoroastrians in Iran before the Carter brought the Shah down!
Here's hoping democracy works out in Iraq, but if not, the Kurd's deserve a state in the northern third or so far more than the beneficiaries of the "road map".
King Darius (the Mede) made... "a decree that in every dominion of my kingdom men must tremble and fear before the God of Daniel. For He is the living God, And steadfast forever; His Kingdom is the one which shall not be destroyed, And His dominion shall endure to the end. He delivers and rescues, And He works signs and wonders in heaven and on earth. Who has delivered Daniel from the power of the lions" - Daniel 6:26-27
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