Islamic Studies The Kurds
Michael M. Gunter
  • LAST REVIEWED: 19 May 2017
  • LAST MODIFIED: 28 August 2018
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195390155-0161


The more than 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 Tamils being a possible exception. 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 three fundamental reasons. First, the wars against Saddam Hussein in 1991 and 2003, followed by the war against the Islamic Republic of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), resulted in the creation of a virtually independent Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) in a federal Iraq that was supported by the United States. This KRG has inspired the Kurds elsewhere to seek cultural, social, and even political autonomy if not independence. However, the KRG’s advisory referendum on independence held on 25 September 2017 backfired and the neighboring states forced it to greatly reduce its ambitions for the time being at least. Second, the Syrian civil war, which began in March 2011, helped lead to Rojava and then the Federation of Northern Syria, in effect an autonomist Kurdish state in northeastern Syria. Third, Turkey’s application for admission into the European Union (EU), although now virtually dead, also has brought the Kurdish issue to the attention of Europe. Since the Kurds sit on a significant amount of 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 2004 are still the best analyses in English, but now partially dated. Gunter 2019a is more current. Stansfield and Shareef 2017 is a compilation and huge edited handbook of Kurdish studies with thirty-five chapters, while Gunter 2019b is another such handbook of thirty-three chapters. Meiselas 2008 compiled a 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 an overview in The Encyclopedia of Islam (Bois and Minorsky 1986). 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 three editions of his Historical Dictionary of the Kurds (Gunter 2018).

  • 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.

    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 M. Historical Dictionary of the Kurds. 3d ed. Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield, 2018.

    Consists of a dictionary or modest encyclopedia of over three hundred entries dealing with the Kurds, a large bibliography, and an opening essay on the Kurds. The first edition was published in 2004 and the second in 2011.

  • Gunter, Michael M. The Kurds: A Modern History. 3d ed. Princeton: Markus Wiener, 2019a.

    This third edition opens with a chapter on early Kurdish history, and moves on to chapters on the Kurdish situation in Turkey, Iraq, Syria, and Iran. The book concludes with three new chapters on ISIS and the Kurds, Kurdistan aborning in Iraq, and the fallout from the failed referendum in the KRG in September 2017, and the US-Turkish confrontation over the SDF/PYD/YPG in Syria into 2018.

  • Gunter, Michael M., ed. The Routledge Handbook on the Kurds. London: Routledge, 2019b.

    An up-to-date handbook of thirty-three chapters on the Kurds including cinema, corruption, travel, reviews of Kurdish studies in the United States and Europe, Russian viewpoints, and country specific studies, among others.

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

    A 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.

    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. 3d ed. London: I. B. Tauris, 2004.

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

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

    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.

    One of the best popular studies of the Kurds up to the end of the 20th century.

  • Stansfield, Gareth, and Mohammed Shareef, eds. The Kurdish Question Revisited. London: Hurst and Company, 2017.

    An up-to-date handbook of thirty-five chapters covering most aspects of the Kurdish experience including writing Kurdish history, religion, literature, music, gender studies, and country specific analyses, among others.

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

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

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