In This Article The Kurds

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Reference Resources
  • Literature
  • Refugees
  • Culture
  • Women

Islamic Studies The Kurds
Michael M. Gunter
  • LAST REVIEWED: 19 May 2017
  • LAST MODIFIED: 24 April 2012
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195390155-0161


The twenty-five to thirty million Kurds straddling the mountainous borders where Turkey, Iran, Iraq, and Syria converge in the Middle East constitute the largest nation in the world without its own independent state. The Kurds are a largely Sunni Muslim, Indo-European-speaking people. Thus they are quite distinct ethnically from the Turks and Arabs but are related to the Iranians, with whom they share the Newroz (New Year) holiday at the beginning of spring. No precise figures for the Kurdish population exist, because most Kurds tend to exaggerate their numbers, while the states they live in undercount them for political reasons. In addition, a significant number of Kurds have partially or fully assimilated into the larger Arab, Turkish, or Iranian populations surrounding them. Although a large majority within this geographical area, often called Kurdistan, the Kurds have been gerrymandered into being mere minorities within the existing states where they live. The desire of many Kurds for statehood, or at least cultural autonomy, has led to an almost continuous series of Kurdish revolts since the creation of the modern Middle East state system following World War I and constitutes the Kurdish problem or question. On the other hand, the states the Kurds live in still greatly fear Kurdish autonomy as a threat to their territorial integrity. In the late 20th and early 21st centuries the Kurdish problem has become increasingly important in Middle Eastern and even international politics for two fundamental reasons. First, the wars against Saddam Hussein in 1991 and 2003 resulted in the creation of a virtually independent Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) in a federal Iraq. This KRG has inspired the Kurds elsewhere to seek cultural, social, and even political autonomy if not independence. Second, Turkey’s application for admission into the European Union (EU) also has brought the Kurdish issue to the attention of Europe. Since the Kurds sit on a great deal of the Middle East’s oil and possibly even more important water resources, the Kurdish issue probably will become increasingly more salient in the coming years.

General Overviews

There are several excellent overviews of the Kurds. Van Bruinessen 1992 and McDowall 1996 are the best analyses in English. Meiselas 2008 compiles a most useful collection of often-rare photographs, and useful commentaries are in van Bruinessen 1992. Izady 1992 and Jwaideh 2006 are helpful overviews. Thomas Bois and Vladimir Minorsky have published a definitive overview in the new edition of The Encyclopedia of Islam (Bois and Minorsky 1986). Randal 1997 is an excellent and more popular study. Abbas Vali has edited seven most useful chapters on the origins of Kurdish nationalism (see Vali 2003, cited under Historical Background). Michael Gunter has published two editions of his Historical Dictionary of the Kurds (Gunter 2011).

  • Bois, Thomas, and Vladimir Minorsky. “Kurds, Kurdistan.” In The Encyclopedia of Islam. Vol. 5. Edited by Clifford Edmund Bosworth, 438–486. Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill, 1986.

    E-mail Citation »

    This is a sophisticated encyclopedic analysis of the Kurds by two famous leading experts: a Catholic priest and a Russian intelligence agent. Discusses the territorial extent of Kurdistan, population, geography, history, society, religion, language, folklore, and literature.

  • Gunter, Michael. Historical Dictionary of the Kurds. 2d ed. Lanham, MD: Scarecrow, 2011.

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    Consists of a dictionary or modest encyclopedia of three hundred entries dealing with the Kurds, a large bibliography, and an opening essay on the Kurds. The first edition was published in 2004.

  • Izady, Mehrdad. The Kurds: A Concise Handbook. Washington, DC: Crane Russak, 1992.

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    A learned survey of many different aspects of the Kurds, but Izady exaggerates how much the Kurds have done.

  • Jwaideh, Wadie. The Kurdish National Movement: Its Origins and Development. Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press, 2006.

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    A seminal study of the earlier phases of modern Kurdish nationalism up to 1959. Contains seldom seen illustrations. Subsequent accounts owe a great deal to this work.

  • McDowall, David. A Modern History of the Kurds. London: Tauris, 1996.

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    Along with the van Bruinessen 1992 sociological/anthropological study, the definitive historical/political analysis of the Kurdish experience in the 19th and 20th centuries.

  • Meiselas, Susan. Kurdistan: In the Shadow of History. 2d ed. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2008.

    E-mail Citation »

    In a certain modest sense, Meiselas’s compilation serves in lieu of a Kurdish national archival collection of photographic resources along with primary source material from oral histories, diaries, letters, newspapers, memoirs, and British and American government documents. She published her first edition of this volume in 1997.

  • Randal, Jonathan C. After Such Knowledge, What Forgiveness? My Encounters with Kurdistan. New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 1997.

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    Arguably the best popular study of the Kurds up to the end of the 20th century.

  • van Bruinessen, Martin. Agha, Shaikh, and State: The Social and Political Structure of Kurdistan. London: Zed, 1992.

    E-mail Citation »

    Arguably the definitive study in English on the Kurds. Largely a sociological/anthropological treatise but also with excellent historical and political analysis.

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