The Shabak: another minority at risk from IS

A lot of attention has rightly been focused on the danger that the Yazidi community has been under since IS swept through northern Iraq (many of those who were trapped in the mountains around Sinjar have gotten to freedom, but many others have been killed or forced to convert to Islam), but this discouraging story in Al-Monitor today points out that the Yazidis aren’t the only ones at risk. Iraq’s Shabak minority is also in serious danger; they’ve been driven out of their homes around Mosul and in places like Qaraqosh and Taklif, and many of those who couldn’t flee have likely been killed. There are only a few hundred thousand Shabak  to begin with, and all of them live in Iraq, so this is a community that is very much in danger as a result of the current crisis.

The Shabak aren’t very well known. They have some relation to the Yazidis (they apparently worship at Yazidi shrines, for example), but where the Yazidis practice their own faith, the Shabak seem to be a Muslim sect, albeit an extremist one (the Arabic word for such groups is ghulat, and it usually refers to radical Shiʿa groups that worship Ali as divine, either as God, or as God’s avatar, or something along those lines (or, more often, they are perceived as doing so by mainstream Muslims). They speak their own language, Shabaki, that seems to be Iranic (most closely related to a couple of Kurdish languages) but borrows heavily from Turkish and Arabic in addition to Persian and Kurdish. They’re probably most closely related to the Kurds, but they could also be of Turkmen origins. They migrated out of Iranian territory into their present location in Ninevah sometime in the 16th century, and have spent the last several centuries dodging persecution. Most recently, our old pal Saddam Hussein forcibly dislocated and moved thousands of Shabak in an effort to get rid of the community, which has in modern times been agitating for recognition from Baghdad (and from the Kurds, for that matter) as a distinct ethnic and religious community.

As I said, the Shabak practice an extremist form of Shiʿism, but little about their religion is known for sure because they don’t seem to talk about it (historical experience has probably taught them that the more they talk about their religious practices, the more persecution they invite). From what we do know, they seem to incorporate a lot of Sufi influences, especially from groups like the Bektashis and the Safavis, which will be familiar to anybody who knows anything about Gnosticism. The community is led by elders (the Persian word is pir), who learn esoteric knowledge (this is called batin in Arabic) that isn’t available to mainstream Muslims and then pass it on to younger members of the community. Their religious practice is thus performed in a khanqah, or Sufi meeting place, rather than in a mosque. They may worship a trinity of Allah/God, Muhammad, and Ali, but that kind of thing is often said about extreme Sufi/Shiʿa groups and it may just be a standard slur. They reportedly have a holy text, the Buyruk or “Commandment,” that is written in Turkmen. They believe in the primacy of the 12 Imams of Imami Shiʿism (the Shiʿa variant that is dominant in Iraq and Iran), but have a special affinity for Ali Zayn al-Abidin (d. 712), the grandson of the original Ali and the fourth of the 12 Imams.

If you’re interested in learning more, for this description I used Extremist Shiites: The Ghulat Sects, by Matti Moosa (the chapter on the Shabak is available on Google Books in its entirety) and the Encyclopaedia of Islam, if you’re fortunate enough to have access to it. I’m not sure what knowing about the Shabak does in terms of alleviating their present condition, but on the other hand it’s good to be aware of these groups, because they face serious pressures even in the best of circumstances (i.e., when there’s no metastasizing oppressor spreading over their homeland).

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.