The rise of Sheikh Ubeydullah and his disillusionment with the Ottomans by K. Soleimani

Sheikh Ubeydullah (1830- 1883), was the leader of the first modern Kurdish nationalist struggle. by Rebwar K Tahir.
Sheikh Ubeydullah (1830- 1883), was the leader of the first modern Kurdish nationalist struggle. by Rebwar K Tahir.

Sheikh Ubeydullah (d. 1883) was a Kurdish Naqshbandi2 Sheikh. He was one of the most prominent Kurdish community leaders and religious scholars of his time. Describing the place of the Sheikh among Sunni Muslims, Robert Speer (1911), the biographer of renowned missionary figure Dr. Cochran, states that “next to the Sultan and the Sheriff of Mecca the Sheikh was the holiest person among the Sunni Mohammedans. Thousands were ready to follow him as the vicar of God… He was a man of some real virtues of character, vigorous, just, and courageous” (p. 74). In British Parliamentary papers, the Sheikh was described as someone who was “entertaining daily at his gates from 500 to 1000 visitors of all classes. His character stands out in clear contrast with that seen which emerged in the 12th century.

The personal life of the Sheikh, we are told, was fairly simple and he or his son would personally see “all who come to them on business, no matter how trivial it may be…From early morning to late at night he [was] employed in the interest of…his people” (ibid).

Sheikh Ubeydullah rose to prominence on the Kurdish political scene, especially during the Russo-Ottoman war (1877-78) as he received a request from Abdulhamid II to join the “jihad” against the Russian Army. According to the Sheikh’s personal account (2000: 108), he was able to gather thousands of armed men.3 This event was to become one of the major factors in the Sheikh’s growing nationalist sentiment and his disillusionment with the Ottoman state. The Kurdish-Turkish interaction and the Ottoman army’s treatment of the Kurds during the Russo-Ottoman War seems to have had a profound impact on the Sheikh’s views with respect to non-Kurdish Islam(s). Moreover, this interaction appears to explain his subsequent political activities against both the Ottoman and Qajar states. Consequently, in 1879, just a year after the War, the Sheikh led an unsuccessful uprising against the Ottoman state. However, seeing the superiority of the state forces and an inevitable defeat at hand, he found a way out of this situation and convinced the Sultan that the uprising was not a rebellion against the Sultan himself, but rather an outbreak of the people’s frustration and against the local officials’ corruption. In the following year, perhaps in the hope that the previous year’s rebellion was the end of the Sheikh’s anti-state political activities, the Sultan bestowed his decoration4 upon him.5 Yet, only a few months later, using his Kurdish league6 which was a broad union of Ottoman and Persian Kurds, the Sheikh took control of major parts of Kurdistan that were under Qajar rule. However, at a time when the Kurdish- Qajar war increasingly became understood as a Shi‘i- Sunni conflict, the Sheikh was defeated and squeezed between the Qajar and Ottoman armies amidst rumours of the possible arrival of Russian troops to support the Persians (Vakit, No. 1860. 1880).

Later on, the Sheikh, particularly upon Qajar insistence, was removed from his own region and sent to exile in Istanbul. After his escape and return to Hakkari, this time the Ottomans sent him into exile to Hijaz, where he remained until his death in 1883.

It is important to note that in the Sheikh’s poetic work, the portrayal of the two communities, the “Romîs” (Ottoman Turks) and the Kurds, as two distinct groups of people is clear. The “us” versus “them” dichotomy is defined in both religious and ethno-nationalistic terms. The Ottomans were also generally suspicious of the nature of peripheral Islam.7 The Kurdish reaction to the centre’s religiosity as suspicious, contaminated, and inauthentic is repeatedly expressed, even by Sa‘id Nursi, the most renowned Northern Kurdish religious scholar in the first half of the twentieth century (2009: 169-71). Simultaneously, the subtexts of these claims to purity, superiority or authenticity of religious interpretation were connected to each group’s claim to some sort of ethnic or cultural superiority. Hence, the religious understanding and devotion of the “in- group” is celebrated and that of the “out-group” is condemned or its authenticity is strongly questioned. The fusion of religion and nationalism is visible in these groups’ criticism of their others, especially of the states, who are blamed for their failings or lack of desire to educate the Kurds.8

The Sheikh’s Mesnewi and his views on Ottoman Turks are significant as they reveal the shortcomings of some aspects of the existing scholarship on Sheikh Ubeydullah’s revolts against the Ottoman and Qajar states in 1879 and 1880. As noted earlier, students of Kurdish nationalism have generally overlooked the Sheikh’s distinct religious self-referentiality and his unequivocal questioning of the authenticity of non-Kurds’ Islam and therefore they dismiss his nationalism. For instance, scholars such as David McDowell who, without sharing any credible evidence,9 calls the Sheikh’s enterprise “a scheme cooked up in Istanbul which offered Sheikh Ubayd Allah undisclosed official sponsorship to form a movement that could act as a counterbalance to the Armenian threat” (2004: 58). Similarly, Hakan Özoğlu attempts to portray the Sheikh’s revolt as a mere religious reaction that is only connected to Istanbul (2011: 203-15).

The existing Ottoman state records present a contrasting picture to what has been portrayed by the aforementioned scholars. The Ottoman records explicitly report that there was state anxiety over the possible consequences of the Sheikh’s revolt on the Ottoman side of the border. For instance, the Ministry of Defence reported that the Sheikh, with 70,000 armed men under his command, had secured the control of entire West Azerbaijan and declared Kurdish independence. The report also predicted that the Persian State was unable to defeat the Kurds. Hence, “considering this event’s enormous impact on our side of the border,”10 as per the report, “necessary measures must be taken instantly. The local officials must immediately gather and dispatch a reinforcement that is solely composed of [ethnically] Turks and Laz.”11 The Ottoman documents also indicate further complications that the Sheikh created for the state. In order to spur groups who were only half-hearted in their support for the revolt, the Sheikh spread rumors that the Ottoman government was supportive of anti-Qajar agitation. Therefore, the Ottomans found those rumours dangerous and believed they had to repudiate the Sheikh’s claim in every possible way.12 Some British officials in the region also believed that the Sheikh’s “movements ought to be narrowly watched, as being likely to cause embarrassment for both the Persian and Turkish Governments.”13 Also, in one of his reports Captain Clayton writes that the Sheikh “has a comprehensive plan of uniting all the Kurds in an independent state. [The current] circumstances have turned his attention first to the Persian side. [He will later] turn to this side and try to obtain the same from the Turks.”14 Perhaps the situation was best described by Major Trotter when he stated “that the Sheikh’s…move into Persia [was probably made] under the impression that the Persian Government was more rotten than that of Turkey, and it would be easier to obtain independent authority there than in Turkey.

Sheikh Ubeydullah of Nehri Sayyid Ubeydullah of Nehri

Kurds vs. Romîs
The Sheikh thought that Abdulhamid concured with him and that the calamities that had befallen the Ottoman state were the result of the abandonment of Islamic laws and traditions and the spread of a great moral laxity (bar Kabā’er moṡerr).22 However, he was of the opinion that the Ottoman state was too corrupt for Abdulhamid to reform it. It was beyond his ability to make the required and necessary structural changes (tabdil in hay’at) (Nehri: 110). Nehri claims that the spread of this non-Islamic culture had reached a point where Abdulhamid could no longer exert his power or rule affectively.

Such assertions not only illustrate the Sheikh’s great disappointment with the entire Ottoman state apparatus, but also shed light on the incompatible appropriation of Islam by the centre and by the periphery, which in turn signifies ethnic and communal differences as well. Such incompatibilities become clear in the Sheikh’s encounter with the Ottoman army, which to him manifestly represented the state apparatus’ lack of real ties with Islam. Even though the Ottoman elite usually viewed Islam of the “Oriental peoples” in a negative light, they tolerated some aspects that could be put into the service of more effective governance.24 Necib Ali, an Ottoman official in 1873, in remarking on Sheikh Ubeydullah’s Kurdish religiosity showcases this dual approach to religion in the periphery on the part of the elites:

[the Sheikh] works to bring the Kurds, who are inclined toward idolatry, onto the straight path of Islam. The township [naḥiye] of Shamdinan where the Sheikh lives is on the path of tribal migration routes and on the border [i.e., on the periphery of the Ottoman domains]. The order and security of this locality would have required three or four battalions. However, because of the Sheikh’s presence and help … only a local supervisor [mudir] and eight police forces [żabṭiye] are enough to govern and collect all … [the] taxes on time (rendered in Ateş, 2006: 332. Emphasis added).

The passage above, as emphasised in the text, denotes how certain views and perceptions regarding the Kurds become even more negative when expressed by Persian Shi‘i elites. For instance, an Iranian bureaucrat, Askandar Qurians, describes the Sheikh as “the religious leader of the nomadic tribes that are ignorant of any tradition and religion” (Ateş, 2006: 332). The Kurds were seen as a group of people which lived on the borders of the sublime Qajar and Ottoman states. In his memoir Alikhan Afshar, who personally fought against the Sheikh, writes that this “imprudent, ignoramus-like, vile, and ungodly people are nomadic Sunnis, residing in high and unreachable mountains, most of whom blindly follow the misguided Sheikh Ubeydullah” (2007: 30, 221).

As far as Nehri was concerned, “all the calamities that had befallen the Ottoman Empire,” were the direct result of what he viewed as the cultural and moral degeneration of the state and its subjects (Nehri: 110). Thus, he contends that “the faith (iman) fades away when the religion (din) is gone and how can there be a victory (nusrat) when there are no faithful (mu’min)” (ibid). According to him, the Ottoman Turks had lost their moral compass and this was why they had sustained such a humiliating defeat at the hands of the Russians (ibid). Nehri argues that there is a direct correlation between the degree of people’s religious devotion and their worldly failings and triumphs. It should be remembered that such an attitude was not uncommon among the nineteenth and twentieth century revivalists.25 However, that being said, the Sheikh did not believe that the whole community had become “degenerate” in the same way or had strayed to the same extent from “the straight path.” He believed there were different attitudes toward Islam and morality between different ethnic groups. The Sheikh was of the opinion that the Ottoman Turks’ defeat, notwithstanding their greater numbers, more than anything else was a sign of their moral failure and “the Muslims are now controlled by thugs” (ibid: 111). He was especially harsh on the army and the bureaucrats and had no problems with defining them as “imprudently hostile to the religious people [i.e.; the Kurds]” (ibid: 120).26

During the War, from the Sheikh’s perspective, the Ottoman side was composed of two opposing groups: The Romîs (Ottoman Turks), “a morally lax group” and “the poised Kurds, who had strong religious devotion” (ibid: 117- 23). The Kurds were portrayed as a devoted religious people, from among whom he had assembled tens of thousands of fighters as he called on them to join the jihad against the Russians’ invasion (ibid: 108). With the Kurds’ arrival (the only force that actually fought, according to the Sheikh), the Russian army sustained many humiliating defeats, one after another:

When in Abgha our fighters faced the Russians Russians sustained a mortifying defeat The Kurds, just like roaring lions in the fight; The Russians, like deer seeking a way out of sight The Kurds’ thunderous roars turned them into a [formless] cloud Down the plains streamed Russian blood, Russian heads, like hail began to fall (ibid: 116).

The details and the horror of the fights are explained meticulously and the fighters’ motivation is linked to their ethnicity and religious devotion. Hence, the Sheikh describes the Kurds’ role in the war as follows:

For our lions, even mountains were too small The bright glint of Kurdish swords Flashing like lighting, indescribable in words The enemy forces falling as they sought safe haven Kurdish roars echoed up to highest heaven The [Kurdish] Gazis’30 roars and shouts With the Russians’ fears and self-doubts And the Russians’ bodiless souls filled the air For their soulless bodies turned red everywhere As the Russians’ cries reached the sky Angels praising the Gazis from on high (ibid).

The Sheikh claims that the “Romîs” would have been unwilling to fight, even if a soldier of theirs had dared to join the Kurds to fight against the Russians, he would have been severely punished by his superior upon sight. For instance:
One of [the Ottoman] soldiers, brave and upright Having joined us during the Kurdo-Russian fight, Was beaten with a stick, gravely punished Lost his food ration, his honour tarnished His sin unforgivable and so grave Having joined the Kurds, so brave was he (ibid: 117).

According to Nehri, the Ottoman army’s unwillingness to fight the Russians along with the Kurds exemplified their lack of religiosity, as well as their lack of regard and sympathy for the Kurds (ibid: 117-24). The reasons behind the army’s displeasure with the followers of the Sheikh are unknown. What is known, however, is that the Sheikh and his followers perceived the Ottoman military as an irreligious, spineless, and corrupt army that represented the true nature of the Ottoman state (ibid). The Ottoman role is mostly seen as a destructive one. The impression they left on the Kurds was that they were full of hate for the Kurdish people. The Sheikh sees the “Romîs” as a group of people that did nothing but squander the Kurds’ support and enthusiasm in the fight against the Russian incursion. He further states that the Ottoman army and its commanders awarded the Kurds’ bravery and sacrifice with hatred, mockery, jealousy and by cutting their food rations. In this regard, Nehri notes that: Despite that spectacular fight by the Gazis There was no support to come from the Romîs … The Kurdish reinforcements alone defeated the enemy [Turkish] commanders awarded them with hatred and envy They tried to get rid of the Kurds and cut their food rations Days passed without bread, the fighters lost their patience … The Romîs hatred scarcely knew any limit Their hatred and jealousy, who can relate? (ibid: 117-20).

The Sheikh explains how the Romîs represented all that was wrong with the Muslim world. He sees them as the classic example of “Muslim degeneration”, “vile (sofleh), lacking a heartfelt religion, and wolves disguised as shepherds (az gorgan, ra‘i pustin)” (ibid: 111). The Turkish army’s mockery and ridicule of the Kurds, whom are described by the Sheikh as the qowm-e pak din (the people of the true religion), made them consequently leave the battlefield. The Sheikh saw the above as signs of Ottoman hostility towards the Kurds, whom in his view had shown a great deal of bravery and displayed their moral superiority.

Furthermore, there is a sense of bitterness found in the Sheikh’s narrations of Kurdish-Ottoman interactions during the Russo-Ottoman War. Accordingly, the Sheikh sees the Ottomans as nominal Muslims; in their hearts they lacked strong religious feelings. He contends that the Ottomans or Romîs, as he refers to them, were münafıq, lacking any faith, while pretending to be Muslims. He recounts a ḥadith, attributed to the Prophet of Islam, of whose content the Sheikh believes the Ottomans’ religiosity to be an embodiment (ibid: 109, 127). According to this ḥadith, the Prophet declared that there were three criteria by which one can tell if a person is a münafıq: a) if s/he is untruthful when speaking b) if s/he breaks a promise made c) if s/he deceives another person that trusted her/him.31 In this regard, the Sheikh explains how he feels about the Ottomans:

No matter how much I say about their injustices, it would not be more than a tiny bit of what actually took place. The Romîs dishonored every single promise they made to us at the beginning of the War. They squandered all that we had done for them. They promised to take care of the Kurdish fighters’ food rations, and they broke their promise… The Romîs’ actions rendered all the Kurdish sacrifice to be in vain (ibid: 127).

While the Ottomans’ religiosity is painted by the Sheikh as almost non- existent, pretentious, and insincere; the Kurdish religiosity is said to be otherwise. Only the Arabs’ bravery and piety was equivalent to that of Kurds since, according to the Sheikh, they have a common origin.32 In this vein, he notes that:

They are born with natural sagacity They are lions, symbols of bravery Epitomes of heroism in warfare They are Hatims,33 icons of generosity d’ in Kurd stands for din (religiosity) ‘k’ stands for kamal and perfection ‘r’ for rushd, spiritual maturation Only in Kurds can you find34 All these virtues combined (ibid:120-21).

The rise of Sheikh Ubeydullah signified a new era in Kurdish politics and presented a modality of its development in which the fusion of nationalism and religiosity were clearly visible. This fusion in Kurdish political movements, which in some cases lasted until 1960s, endowed them with a unique characteristic.35 This is explained due to the fact that the Kurds simultaneously represented the religious and ethnic peripheral “Other”.

By Kamal Soleimani Assistant Professor Columbia University, Middle Eastern, South Asian, and African Studies (MESAAS), Department Member.
You can find the whole study, paper here: Islamic revivalism and Kurdish nationalism in Sheikh Ubeydullah’s poetic oeuvre

About the Author
Michael Arizanti is a debater born in the Netherlands, raised in Norway but now living in Sweden. In Sweden he has been an important part of the debate on how to deal with violence-promoting extremism, and how to fight honor-related violence and oppression. Nowadays he has more focus on human rights and the Kurdish issue.
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