August 20, 2014

Who are the Iraqi Kurds?

A Kurdish peshmerga fighter flashes the sign for victory after re-capturing the village of Tel Asquf from Islamic State (IS) militants. Credit: Ahmad Al-Rubaye/AFP/Getty Images)
A Kurdish peshmerga fighter flashes the sign for victory after re-capturing the village of Tel Asquf from Islamic State (IS) militants. Credit: Ahmad Al-Rubaye/AFP/Getty Images

In the continuing conflict in Iraq, Kurds frequently are mentioned alongside Iraq’s Sunni and Shia Muslim populations as one of the key groups involved in power struggles for which sharp religious divides have played a major part. But while the Kurds are a crucial part of Iraq’s political makeup, they are an ethnic group, not a distinct religious sect within Islam. Kurds are more appropriately compared to Arabs, the largest ethnic group in Iraq, or other regional ethnic groups such as Assyrians or Turkmen.

Much has been reported about the desire of many Kurds for greater autonomy or even independence from Baghdad. However, when it comes to religion, Kurds share a good deal in common with the Arab majority, especially Sunni Muslims.

FT_14.06.26_kurdsIraqOverall, Arabs represent 78% of Iraq’s population, while Kurds are 16% and other, smaller ethnic groups constitute the remainder, according to a 2011 Pew Research survey. In terms of religious sect, Iraqi Arabs are somewhat split: Our survey found that most said they were Shia Muslims (62%), but about three-in-ten identified themselves as Sunnis (30%) and 6% said they were “just Muslim.”

Nearly all Iraqi Kurds consider themselves Sunni Muslims. In our survey, 98% of Kurds in Iraq identified themselves as Sunnis and only 2% identified as Shias. (A small minority of Iraqi Kurds, including Yazidis, are not Muslims.) But being a Kurd does not necessarily mean alignment with a particular religious sect. In neighboring Iran, according to our data, Kurds were split about evenly between Sunnis and Shias.

Although recent conflicts in the region may have resulted in population shifts, our survey found that overall, Shia Arabs made up about half of Iraq’s population (49%), Sunni Arabs comprised about a quarter (24%) and Sunni Kurds were a somewhat smaller share (15%).  Other Muslims account for about 8% of Iraq’s population. Five percent of Iraq’s population does not identify as Muslim.

These three major religious and ethnic groupings in Iraq – Shia Arabs, Sunni Arabs and Sunni Kurds – share certain core religious beliefs. For example, each group professes near universal belief in God (Allah) and the Prophet Muhammad, and more than nine-in-ten members of each group say they fast during the Islamic holy month of Ramadan. Though there are some important distinctions in belief and practice between Sunni and Shia Muslims, the religious differences between Sunni Arabs and Sunni Kurds are comparatively small. For example, while Shia Arabs are united in their belief that visiting the shrines of Muslim saints is acceptable (98%). Fewer Sunni Arabs (71%) and Sunni Kurds (59%) support this practice.

Topics: Middle East and North Africa, Muslims and Islam

  1. Photo of Besheer Mohamed

    is a senior researcher focusing on religion at Pew Research Center.


  1. Mindy2 years ago

    To learn more about the Kurds, read: THE KURDISH SPRING, by David Phillips:…

  2. ann3 years ago

    Interesting, I thought Kurds were another religious group different from Islam

  3. ibrahim musa3 years ago

    It is an ideal scenario of separating religion & politic and this is where most european countries & US have done right to be in the current developed state now. People have jobs, freedom & courage to do what they want without being judge or persecuted. However, it will only remain a dream for Muslim states worldwide. Why? As a muslim, I can tell you that this is impossible. First of all, read through the Quran & hadiths (stories on Muhammad’s life & action). There isn’t one bit where Muhammad stayed out of controlling his people, waging war, deciding social welfare & inheritance, establishing hierachy – basically just telling all Muslims what to do based on his divine verses. Second, ask any Muslims and they will acknowledge that they truly believe Quran is the words of god & must be followed word by word – even if it says “kill infidels” and “wage jihad at kafir”. The irony is that, even educated & rational Muslims (like myself) who do not believe in killing others, will not stand up to reject these ‘sword verses’. This is because Muhammad has already did his calculation & had set up Muslims community center as a way to control all these ‘loose-thinking’ Muslims. That is also why all Muslims will group together, establish mosque & have tight control over their community. Any sort of signs of apostasy or negative comments about Islam will be intimidated, threathen & possibly murdered. We have seen many of these happening in Muslim community. So, a rational thinking Muslim will keep quiet in fear of his own life. In reality, Islam rules & establishment is not much different from a cult. They will do morally right things to attract followers initially. This is what Muhammad did when he started Islam & thus there are verses such as “there is no compulsion in religion” & him lowering himself to feed a blind man etc. In time, Muslims will grow & they will be cut-off from their own community, much like how Muhammad commanded all Muslims to ‘migrate’ to Medina. Such isolation will cut off any potential route for them to return to their normal society. This is also when Muhammad said “any apostasy must be killed” They will burn in hell-fire etc. At these circumstances, how can anyone has any chance to escape Islam? And last but not least, Muhammad commanded all Muslims to wage war on infidels. To convert the whole world into Islam by establishing Darul-e-salam (Islam house of peace with 100% Muslims). God saves us all. *ref : Ali Sina,,

  4. A. Teo.3 years ago

    1) The Sunnis, the Kurks, the Shia, the ISIS and other groups are fighting. But, i understand they belong to same religion call Islam. So, are muslims now fighting with muslims.???

    2) The current fighting among these various groups is very confusing and difficult to
    understand. Why can’t they focus on peace.? Let the young ones go to school, the
    grown ups go to work and make everyone happy and safe. So simple.!!

    1. Anonymous1 year ago

      Because peace to the Muslim can mean 2 very distinct things. First, it can mean finding an equilibrium with western civilization, which is considered an apostasy by fundamentalist Sunnis, or it can mean establishing a caliphate and overthrowing the Roman west, bringing about Islamic rule over all the earth. Somewhat disparate points of view, don’t you think? This is why Sunnis feel they must eradicate the “apostate” Shia before they can proceed any further, and is why the current conflict can only be characterized as a religious civil war.

  5. Stacy Payne3 years ago

    Dr. Mohamed: Can you recommend a really good study for people like me (born Christian, American, etc.) to learn more about the “difference” between Kurds, Sunnis and Shias? Thanks. I just learned of another group, the Yazidis, and really want to try and understand ethnic, religious and/or geographical data. I’m no longer Christian, and really don’t have much of any belief, so I would like someone with the expertise to provide this knowledge. Knowing you are probably very busy, I would just like some recommendations of scholarly material to read. Thanks very much. Stacy

    1. Shah3 years ago

      Kurds are an ethnic group (related to Persians) while Shia and Sunnis are religion sectors of Islam, there are Shia Kurds and Sunni Kurds but they are mainly Sunnis.

    2. Shah3 years ago

      Yazidis are a small religion group (mainly consists of Kurds) the Yazidi religion inherits element of the ancient Iranian Religion (Zoroastrianism) and elements of Suffi Muslims but throughout the time it becomes a distinct religion.

    3. Susan D. Harris2 years ago

      I am curious — why did you leave Christianity?

  6. moe3 years ago

    Long live saddam hussein. He warned us of what is happening in iraq today. Serving only us and israely interests. Arabs cannot be ruled through demohypocrasy. It is the illusson of democracy being implemented in the arab world. Mission accomplished by the United States of Terror!

    1. Bret3 years ago

      Saddam was a murderer. Plain and simple. Yes he kept the country together…by terror.

  7. Terrence Luh3 years ago

    This is for the American Patriot who believes in the Constitution you know justice and fair play.It is time to identify the true cancer in America Halliburton and the Carmichael group. These corporations are the main driving force of the loss of life in the middle east our national debt over 15 trillion today, and the cuts on all programs that help us grow as a people !! George W. Bush is the main crook who cause economic fall of US economy!! The Iraqis wars fought to control the production of oil in the middle east. Also the new weapons to try on innocent people ! Wars cost money and American lives ! The minority super rich control this country. Come on America vote those Republican crooks out of office !! They don’t care about you !!! Only how they can use you !! Aren’t you tired of being used to help the super rich get richer, and they don’t have to pay hardly any taxes !! Your the one who pays for there mistakes !!

  8. Drew Horn3 years ago

    Interesting! I didn’t know the Kurd s were mostly Sunni’s.

    Its interesting that ethnicity & religious sect are more important identities than personal philosophy or issues. Ones group is more important than individual thinking.

  9. Steven Donaldson3 years ago

    Haven’t the Kurds been unusual in that they have worked out self governance and actually elect their representatives since the 1990’s?

    And, if I’m not mistaken since before the Second Iraq War, they have had a protected, somewhat autonomous area that has been doing very well creating all their own institutions. They also seem very respectful of minority rights and as a result have had an enormous influx of Christian, Yazidi’s and other refugees from both Iraq and Syria. I know they have been attempting to ship their own oil and are running into issues on this. I also know Israel is very supportive of them becoming a nation.

    Are they making demonstrable moves towards petitioning for independence and will the UN and Iraq be receptive to this?

    1. Murat Kamacı3 years ago

      Iraq’s kurd government “Barzani” close the boundaries against the refugees and it is more interesting that these refugees consist of mainly surian kurds escaping from ISIS, on the contrary, turkey open it’s doors to the all kurds, yezidis, shias and sunnis. But all the media show turkey as a murderer and supporter of ISIS. İt is hypocrisy of the west.

  10. Denny3 years ago

    I have always wondered when there is a religious divide among a people and war erupts between the factions, how do the tell if the person they shoot at is one of their own or not? If the person(s) are alone and there is no flag or banner being displayed and they all generally wear the same kind of clothing! Do you shoot or not?????

  11. cgosling3 years ago

    Why does religion usually plays so significant a role in terrorism and war? Mix religion and politics, like Muslims are doing currently and like Christians have done in the past, and you have a situation where reason and moderation are totally absent. Religious radicals will do genicide, beheadings, mass slaughter, and rape just because their religious leaders order them to so. This is uterally crazy. Muslims will continue to mix their politics with religion, but Christians must learn the lesson not to meddle in a democracy established to keep the two separate. The US must strengthen the wall between church and state like its founders intended.

    1. AllergicToIgnorance3 years ago

      Classic fallacy in assuming that all religions are the same and that the west has no part in it. Please be a bit more analytical and a bit less sure footed. your perception of confidence betrays your absolute ignorance in this issue.

  12. Herminio Flores, Ph. D.3 years ago

    In spite of your trying to explain the issue clearly, I am more confused now than before. The question of who the Kurds are is more elusive now than before.

    1. Bela Welles2 years ago

      Would it be fair to say that ethnicity is trumping religion (if only by a bit) in Kurdish areas?

  13. Kiso3 years ago

    A very important is missing. The Kurds are open-minded, have respect for other people living side-by side.They share the common goal of peaceful and democratic land in the feature, no religious based state

  14. RobertMorris3 years ago

    It appears that the Ayatollah controlled Baghdad Shia have no heart and the Kurds have no ammunition – both thanks to the efforts of the US to channel all its aid to the Kurds via Baghdad to appease the ayatollah. Perhaps that’s why the Chamberlin foundation gave its highest award, five umbrellas, to Kerry and Obama.