Erasures in Iraq Workshop – Kakaism Between its Mesopotamian Origins and Islamization: An Existential Conflict

Thursday 2 May 2024

This blogpost is related to the ‘Erasure in Iraq’ online workshop hosted by MECACS and the Centre for Minorities Research on 15th April, 20024. It was written by Muhtadi Al-Abyadh ([email protected]), a PhD candidate at the Centre for Policy Research in Universiti Sains Malaysia. For further details on the workshop, please contact Sarah Edgcumbe ([email protected]).

Introduction

The Kakai[1] are a Kurdish minority with their own beliefs and rituals which bear similarities to some Islamic theology and other religions.[2]  Iraqi Kakais reside in the Kurdistan Region of northern Iraq, alongside some areas in Diyala, Kirkuk, and Mosul. Their population is estimated to be between 110,000 and 200,000 (Minority Rights Group International, 2017). This community has suffered severe discrimination and marginalization throughout modern Iraqi history (Tadros et al, 2022). The primary challenge facing the Kakais in Iraq is that some studies affirm that they are an Islamic heretical group, while others argue that they are an independent religious minority tracing back to the civilization of Mesopotamia. In short, the ambiguity surrounding their worship practices and the lack of disclosure about their religious theology have made them a subject of contention, which has rendered them particularly vulnerable over the past two decades. This blog sheds light on the Kakai community and provides an overview of their religious and cultural identity, whilst positioning their historical roots between Islamization and Mesopotamian origins.  

Image: Mesopotamia 1200 BC. Date: September 2018. From Wikimedia Commons. Licensed by CC BY-SA 4.0 DEED

It should be noted that there is a lack of substantial scholarship focusing on the Kakai religious minority. Since Minorski and Khaznahdār wrote in 1968 that Kakais have ‘not been sufficiently researched’, very little new scholarship on Kakai has been produced. Reflecting this, Abas et al state, “despite the decades-long existence of this ethno-religious group, not much is known about them due to the scarcity of literature… [Meanwhile], available information about their beliefs, rituals, and religious identity are inaccurate because it was written mainly by scholars not affiliated with the group” (Abas et al, 2021). 

At the legal level, there is no mention in the 2005 Iraqi Constitution of the Kakai people as a religious group, nor is there any reference to them in the 2006 Kurdistan Region Constitution. After demands by the Kakais for their rights as a religious and ethnic minority, and out of fear of their identity being erased, in 2015 they were recognized in the Law of Protection of Components’ Rights in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq No. 5. This law is considered the first legal document that recognizes the rights of the Kakai minority. Within this law, the Kakai people are explicitly included among the religious minorities protected under Article 1, which provides: “National groups: Turkmen, Chaldean Syriacs, Assyrians, Armenians, and religious and sectarian groups: Christians, Yazidis, Sabean Mandaeans, Kakai, Shabak, Faili Kurds, Zoroastrians, and other citizens of the Kurdistan Region of Iraq.”(Tadros et al, 2022).  

Controversy about the historical origins of Kakais.

There is a lack of scholarly and societal agreement on the origin of Kakais beliefs. Some studies  trace their origins back to the fourth Islamic century or within Islamic history (Mansour, 1398; Al-Shaibi, 1966; Wahid, 1970; Ahmad, 2014; Al-azawi, 2016; Hamid, 2020; Khurshid and Qarany, 2020; Ali, 2023). Others assert that their origin dates back thousands of years to the civilization of Mesopotamia (Foltz, 2013; Kreyenbroek, 2015; Habib, 2019; Abas et al, 2021). This difference arises from the fact that the Kakais practice certain Islamic customs on one hand, while on the other hand, they have their own religious and cultural heritage stemming from their geographic history in this region. Some describe them as non-Muslims, recognizing them instead as an element of indigenous culture.

Amongst the literature which argues that Kakais are a religious sect that emerged in Islamic history, there is variation regarding the time of their emergence, ranging from the second to the 14th Islamic century. Most scholars have historically perceived this sect as a deviation from the Islamic religion, while some believe they are an Islamic Sufi sect that diverged from traditional Islamic principles (Al-azawi, 2016). However, a divergent strand within existing literature argues that the Kakais religion extends back to Mesopotamian civilization and represents remnants of religions that have previously become extinct. These scholars contend that Kakais is deeply rooted in ancient history (Abas et al, 2021). Additionally, some scholars perceive Kakais to be a Shia sect because of their deep admiration for Imam Ali[3] (Ali, 2023). There is much debate over who founded the Kakai religion. Some say that al-Bahlul[4] founded the Kakai group, while others argue that it was Sheikh Issic Al-Braznji,[5] contending that he mixed Kakai with Islamic theology in the process (Khurshid and Qarany, 2020). 

The geographic origin (and corresponding religious influence) of scholarship on Kakais presents the clearest divide in the literature. The majority of English-language scholarship originating in Europe and North America argues that research on Kakais produced in Iran and Iraq is unduly influenced by framing Kakai as being part of the Islamic community. There is certainly a pattern of English-language publications framing Kakai as an independent religion, compared to Arabic language literature, which frames it as a branch of, or deviation from, Islam. A key critique of both bodies of literature is that scholars from each are likely unable to understand the language, used in the other, therefore encountering linguistic barriers which prevent them from being able to most effectively access where the truth lies (Abas et al, 2021). Complicating these circumstances, the mystery and secrecy surrounding the beliefs of Kakais have also made it difficult for researchers to ascertain their origins (Yassin, 2007). 

In the early 20th century, British intelligence labelled the Kakai as a sect of ambiguous doctrine, (Tadros et al, 2022), who believe that concealing their beliefs is a theological duty (Khurshid and Qarany, 2020). Additionally, as many of the Iraqi population consider them infidels according to their interpretation of Islamic law, this minority is subjected to a lack of protection by the Iraqi authorities. As a result, Kakais constantly fear for their safety, being vulnerable to, and worrying about, the potential for violence and even genocide. They believe that in a country with a long history of conflict and rights violations, there is no guarantee of safety and protection, even if formally recognized as an independent religious minority (Lamani, 2009). However, a measure of protection is afforded by their categorization as Muslims on their national identity cards (Abas, et al, 2021), and for similar, protective reasons, throughout the modern history of Iraq there have been many attempts by scholars to categories Kakais as Muslims. 

Despite the divergence in literature regarding origins, scholars agree that the Kakais have their own unique religious culture, evidenced by their distinct holy book called “Sêranjâm”, and place of worship called “Jam Khaneh.” Kakais also have an ancient Kurdish religious language, which is practiced in the form of chants accompanied by playing the tambourine. In terms of physical appearance, Kakai men are distinctive due to their prominent mustaches and shaved beards – an appearance which differs from Islamic teachings.

Conclusion 

It can conceivably be argued that the ambiguity of Kakai is one of the reasons Kakais haven’t been recognized as a distinct religious identity. Rather, they have consistently been defined by Iraqi society as an Islamic sect of apostates or radicals within Shia Islam, despite the gravity associated with such labeling under Islamic law. Unlike most other minorities in Iraq, Kakais suffer from marginalization and identity erasure rooted in their exclusion from recognition under both the Iraqi Constitution of 2005, and the Kurdistan Region Constitution of 2006.    


[1] The term “Kakai” is of Kurdish origin and is derived from the word “kaka,” meaning brother. The affiliation to it is called “Kakai,” and the community is referred to as “Kakaia” signifying brotherhood. This is a well-known practice in Kurdish society in Iraq, Iran, and Turkey. In this community, each member refers to others from their group as brothers (Al-azawi, 2016).

[2] The Kakais believes in reincarnation, which is a Hindu belief. They also believe in the unity of existence and manifestation, which is a Sufi belief. Additionally, they believe in Jesus (Christian and Islamic belief) and Prophet Muhammad, and Imam Ali, (Islamic belief). The hierarchical creation according to the Kakais is that God created the angels and the spirit, then the universe, then reincarnation, then God manifested in His creatures, and then the unity of existence (Al-azawi, 2016; Khurshid and Qarany, 2020).

[3] Ali ibn Abi Talib was the cousin and son-in-law of the Islamic prophet Muhammad, and was the fourth Rashidun caliph who ruled from 656 to 661, as well as the first Shia imam.

[4] Bohlul, also known as Abu Wahb Bohlul ibn Amr al-Sayfi al-Hashimi al-Abbasid al-Kufi (d. 190 AH / 807 CE), was born in Kufa, Iraq. He was a wise poet, fully versed in the arts of wisdom, knowledge, and literature during the time of Harun al-Rashid. He pretended to be insane to escape the surveillance of the Abbasid caliphs due to his Shiite beliefs. Thus, he acted like the insane and the dervishes (Al-Dhahabi, 1985).

[5] Sultan Sahak or Sultan Is’haq (798-675 AH) is a revered figure in the Yarsanism religion (Kakais). He is mentioned as the founder of Yarsani (Kakais) families. Kakais also know him as the Sultan of Truth and the embodiment of generosity, considering him the primary manifestation of the essence of truth.

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