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9 November 2017
In this image from 2015, a displaced Iraqi child from the Shabak community, who fled fighting between ISIS and Peshmerga fighters around the northern Iraqi city of Mosul, stands at the Baharka camp, a few miles west of Erbil. (photo: Mohammed Sawaf/AFP/Getty Images)
There are several minority religions in Mesopotamia which are distantly related to each other and to Islam. For the most part, these religions are considered heterodox by the dominant Sunni Muslim population. In addition, some contain elements taken from Shi’ite Islam that go beyond what its adherents would find acceptable. In parts of the region, these religions are persecuted for being heterodox or considered as simply Shi’ite — a “proof” to some that Shi’ite Islam is also heterodox.
Included in this group would be the Shabak.
The Shabak people are concentrated in northern Iraq to the east and north of Mosul. CNEWA encounters them in the clinics we support in the Iraqi province of Dohuk. It is estimated that the Shabak presently number between 500,000 and 550,000.
The Shabak faith is remotely related to the Alawi sect which is in Turkey, Lebanon and Syria. The al-Asad family, the strong man rulers of Syria, belongs to the Alawi sect in western Syria. However, the relation between the two faiths is remote.
The Shabak take the basic Muslim creed that there is no God but God (Allah), Muslim reverence for the Prophet Muhammad and the Shi’ite reverence for Aly, the cousin and son-in-law of the Prophet Muhammad, and combine them in an unusual way. For Shabak Allah, Muhammad and Aly form a type of trinity in which Aly is the primary manifestation of the divinity. While all Muslims have a deep, emotional reverence for the Prophet and while Shi’ite Muslims add to that a deep, emotional reverence for Aly (and his second son, Hussein), it is totally unacceptable for Sunni and Shi’ite alike to consider Muhammad and Aly as divine in any sense of the word. This Shabak belief alone is enough to bring on them the opprobrium of the dominant Muslim population.
The faith of the Shabak is hierarchically ordered. Each person and family comes under a pir, which is a type of priest/spiritual director. This pir is to be differentiated from the pir which is a spiritual authority/teacher in the Sufi traditions of Islam, although the two may be related. The pir is responsible for carrying out all the worship services in which he is assisted by a functionary called a rehber.
For the three great festivals of the year, 12 functionaries must take part in the ceremonies. The first festival is New Year, which is in December; the second is Ashurah, a Shi’ite memorial of the martyrdom of Imam Hussein and the Night of Pardon. During the Night of Pardon, the Shabak confess their sins — a practice common in Christianity, but unknown in Islam. In fact, public confession of sins, consumption of alcohol and pilgrimages to shrines of saints are practices (above and beyond their belief in a trinity) which sharply differentiate the Shabak from Islam.
The Shabak suffered greatly under ISIS. They are not considered a People of the Book and were hence faced with the stark choice of conversion to Islam or death. Since it is not clear to which ethnic group the Shabak belong — Turkic, Arab, Kurdish, Iranian — they are inevitably caught up on the ethnic conflicts of the region.
As a result, as is the case with many of the religious minorities of the Middle East, the survival of the Shabak is very precarious.
Religious Minorities in the Middle East — Introduction
Religious Minorities in the Middle East, Part 1: The Yazidis