The Kurds converted to Islam in the seventh century A . D . Most Kurds are orthodox Sunni Muslims of the Shaft school; however, in southeastern and southern Kurdistan, some tribes are Shiite. Also found in southeastern Kurdistan is the Ahl-e Haqq sect, which, although based on Ismaili Shiism, is considered heretical by other Muslims. The Alawites (Alevis) of northwestern Kurdistan also practice an unorthodox form of Shiism. The majority of Alawites are Turks, but many are Kurds, some of whom speak the Zaza dialect. A syncretistic form of religion found only among the Kurds is the Yezidi sect. It is believed to be derived from Zorastrianism but influenced by Ismaili Shiism. Its practitioners have been referred to as devil worshipers and are subject to severe persecution. In addition to Muslims, groups of Jews and Christians (Armenians, Assyrians, and Syriacs) have lived among the Kurds.
Sharia (Islamic law) was enforced in religious courts throughout the Ottoman Empire. With its fall and the secularization of the Turkish state, the only clerics left are the mullahs. They continue to provide religious instruction and lead religious ceremonies at the village level. Their prestige and influence are no longer guaranteed, however, but is based upon their personal integrity and wisdom.
In addition to the clerics and the shuyukh, there are those who maintain that they are descendants of the Prophet Mohammed. Many of them are poor, living on a claim to financial support on the basis of their descent; some serve as itinerate peddlers of religious amulets and as soothsayers. They are accorded little respect unless they are also wealthy or powerful; in this case, their descent increases the prestige they have obtained through other channels.
The shuyukh obtain prestige and power as holy men and leaders of religious brotherhoods (Sufi or Dervish orders). After receiving instruction in the religious order, a man may be declared a shaykh by an already established shaykh. A shaykh's ability to perform miracles serves as proof that he is indeed a "favorite of God." This ability is believed to continue after death, giving rise to pilgrimages to the tombs of powerful shuyukh. Before the emergence of modern political parties, Dervish orders in Kurdistan—the Qadiri and the Nagshibandi brotherhoods—provided a basis for a level of organization wider than the tribe but independent of the state (van Bruinessen 1992, 210). For this reason, shuyukh performed an important function as mediators after the destruction of the emirates. They have thus been able to gain substantial power as leaders, especially in areas where tribal organization dominated and blood feuds prevailed.
In addition to the observances of the Islamic calendar, Kurds celebrate events of the pastoral seasons, which provide occasions for the strengthening of social bonds and negotiation of marriages. The Kurdish new-year celebration, Newroz, takes place on 21 March and commemorates the people's rebellion against a cruel and unjust king, and the return of light. Fires are lit on mountaintops and in villages, and a feast is held, followed by a ceremony mourning the dead. The Kurds consider Newroz their "national holiday," which they claim to have celebrated for over 2,500 years.
The Kurds are renowned for the rich colors and intricate designs of their wool rugs. These continue to fetch high prices on the international market but are sold by traders in urban centers far from Kurdistan.
The Kurds also have a rich oral tradition. Professional troubadours traveled from place to place recounting legends and singing ballads and epic tales. The art of storytelling was much appreciated until the radio and increased literacy began to compete. Kurds have therefore begun to write down their oral legends and songs in an effort to preserve them. Kurdish written literature consists predominately of classical poetry dating from as far back as A . D . 1200. After the division of the Ottoman Empire, the new nation-states restricted or forbade the publication of Kurdish literature. Only in Iraq could it continue to develop freely. Kurdish exiles in Europe are now attempting to further the analysis and development of their literature.
The Kurds maintain that to be a Kurd is "to look Death in the eye" because expressing and passing on their culture has often entailed breaking laws and engaging in armed resistance. As agonizing as was the plight of Iraqi Kurds in the aftermath of the Gulf War, it was merely another chapter in the ongoing Kurdish struggle for self-rule in the face of the repression and violence employed by the various national governments to assimilate and/or control them. Men speak of having many children to ensure that some Kurds survive the violence to carry on the culture.
Kurdish funerals occur immediately after death. The corpse is washed by a member of the same sex, wrapped in white cotton, and covered with a prayer rug. It is carried to the mosque, where a blessing is given, according to the Shafi rite. It is then buried, facing Mecca, stones marking the head and feet. Following a death, friends and relatives visit the family of the deceased, to pay their respects. While in mourning, a person will not make visits outside the home unless there is a death in the family.