Many Kurds live in Turkey as Turkish citizens, but are Kurds a different ethnic group from Turks? What makes Kurdish culture or language distinct from their Turkish counterpart? What kind of Islam do Kurds practice compared to Turkish Muslims?
How are Kurds different from Turks?
The main difference between Turks and Kurds is that they are two separate ethnic groups who are close to each other geographically.
In the Republic of Turkey, the Turks compose the majority of the population, with the Kurds being the second-largest ethnicity. Kurds currently do not have their own “Kurdish” country. Outside of Turkey, most reside within Kurdistan, a Middle Eastern region that encompasses parts of Turkey, Syria, Iraq and Iran, with a significant diaspora in Western Europe.
Who are the Turks?
Legally, a Turk is anyone who possesses citizenship in Turkey, so Kurds who have taken up residence in the country may technically be called Turks.
At its broadest definition, the term “Turks” covers all Turkish peoples with Anatolian ancestry who speak some form of the Turkish language or its many dialects.
Ethnic Turks have historically settled in Asiatic Turkey, Cyprus, the Balkans, the Caucasus, and the Levant. Modern Turks claim their ancestry from Göktürk, Seljuk, Beylik and Ottoman Turks, whose eras saw the rise of prominent empires in the Middle East.
Most ethnic Turks declare themselves to be Sunni Muslims belonging to the Hanafi fiqh, the oldest of the major Sunni schools of thought for Islamic law.
Their most commonly spoken language is Turkish, which is an official tongue in Turkey, Cyprus, Kosovo, and Iraq, with marked linguistic differences according to each region.
Who are the Kurds?
As an ethnicity, Kurds are distinct from ethnic Turks. They claim their heritage from an ancient Iranian people called the Medes.
The historical home of the Kurds is the geographical area of Kurdistan; as a result, there is a sizable Kurdish minority in most Western Asian countries. They comprise the largest minority in Turkey.
Outside of Turkey or the Arabian world, where Kurdish residents are unable to speak Kurdish, most Kurds speak their country’s language as well as one or multiple Kurdish dialects. The most popular dialect is Kurmanji.
Kurds have historically been subsumed under the name of “mountain Turks” by Turkish government policy beginning from the late 20th century.
The identity and sovereignty of the Kurdish people has become a contentious issue; fuelled by pro-independence sentiment, Kurd rebels started the Kurdish-Turkish conflict in 1978, which continues as of 2023.
Differences between Turks and Kurds
Turks are a branch of the Turkish people, while the Kurds—and the Kurdish in general—are descended from ancient Iranians.
The Turkish people traces its lineage to Indo-European nomadic settlers of the Anatolian peninsula.
Kurd ancestry is still unclear; most Kurd scholars claim a link to the ancient Mede peoples of present-day Iran. It is likely that Kurds are themselves ethnically diverse in origin. Like the Turks, Kurds in antiquity were nomadic.
The identity of the Kurdish people would start to be defined by Arabs in the Medieval Age. Kurds themselves converted to Islam during the same time period, becoming vassals of the Seljuk Turks.
Saladin, the general who attempted to capture Jerusalem in the Third Crusade, was Kurdish. His Ayyubid dynasty propelled the Kurds to the peak of their power in the Middle East as a bastion against the Seljuks.
Other Kurdish empires included the Safavid and Zand dynasties, where Kurdistan flourished. In 1514, Selim I brought Kurdistan under Ottoman rule. After said empire dissolved in the 20th century, notions of Kurdish nationalism grew once more.
Horse-riding Turks formed loose confederacies such as the Göktürks as early as the 5th century.
As Islam spread across the Middle East and Western Asia, the Turks converted to the new religion. They eventually became powerful enough to overthrow the Abbasid Caliphate in the 11th century, forming the Seljuk Empire.
The height of Turkish power came in the era of the Ottoman Empire, whose feats include the conquests of Constantinople and Hungary, and the stewardship over the holy cities of Mecca and Medina.
The region in Southwest Asia known as Kurdistan marks the Kurdish “homeland.”
Consequently, Kurdistan extends to several Southwest Asian countries, listed below.
The portion of these countries where Kurds form the largest ethnic minority are therefore known as Turkish, Iraqi, Iranian or Syrian Kurdistan.
There is also a sizable minority of Kurds in Germany, many of which are Syrian Kurd refugees from the Syrian Civil War.
Turks are primarily concentrated in Turkey. The following countries have the next largest Turkic populations.
- North Macedonia
Similar to the Kurds, many Turks reside in Western Europe and the United States.
The official form of Turkish used in the Republic of Turkey, “Turkish Proper,” is standardized from the Istanbul dialect, although regional variation is very common. Some 170 million people speak native Turkish.
Turkish also shares a common ancestor with over 35 other languages, including:
- Azeri (Azerbaijani)
The Turkic family of languages itself is considered one of the world’s main language families, alongside Sino-Tibetan, Indo-European, Austronesian, and others.
Kurdish is also a family of dialects. As a whole, it is a branch of Western Iranian, and thus a product of the Indo-European language family.
Its subtypes are classified as:
- Northern Kurdish or Kurmanji
- Central Kurdish or Sorani
- Southern Kurdish or Xwarîn
Most Kurds speak Kurmanji or Sorani, with Iraq officially recognizing Sorani as “Kurdish” and one of their official languages. The dialects have a strong poetic tradition, and until the 20th century, most Kurd literature was comprised of poems.
Roughly 18 million Kurds speak Kurmanji, while 6.5 million—mostly from Iraqi Kurdistan—are Sorani speakers.
Distinct linguistically from Kurdish are the Zaza-Gorani languages, which are also spoken by many ethnic Kurds, particularly in Turkey and Iran.
Type of Islam
The clear majority of Turks and Kurds belong to the Sunni Islam sect, but what distinguishes them is that most Turks adhere to the Hanafi school of traditional Islamic Law, whereas Kurds subscribe to the Shafi’i or Alevi Shi’a interpretation.
Hanafis are the most popular Sunni dogma, comprising a third of all Muslims. Thus, their views are mainstream and not as religiously extreme as others.
Turkish Islam is seen as less conservative and fundamentalist than the kinds practiced elsewhere in the Middle East.
Shafi’i teachings do not adhere to Maliki traditions, while Hanafi ones do.
Unlike Hanafis, Alevis do not participate in Ramadan fasting, do not do prostrations during worship, and have no mosques.
Pre-Islamic indigenous ethnic faiths among Kurds are descendants of ancient Iranian pagan beliefs and include Yazidism and Yarsanism. They are most prominent in Iraqi and Iranian Kurdistan. Their numbers in Kurdistan are reported as follows:
- Yazidism: 550-600 thousand
- Yarsanism: 700 thousand to 1 million
Additionally, the most well-known Iranian-origin faith, Zoroastrianism, also reports a small but growing number of Kurds in the region.
Turks before Islam also had pagan traditions. Originally worshipping the sky god Tengri, the Turks converted to Islam starting from Muslim conquests in the 7th-8th centuries.
Next to Sunni Islam and the Shia minority of Muslims in Turkey, the next largest religion is Christianity, followed by Judaism. A thousand or so Turks declare themselves to be Tengrist pagans.
Outside of the Republic of Turkey, Turks have a considerable presence in many Western European countries, such as France. The list of states in which Turks comprise the largest ethnic minority are:
- The Netherlands
Over a million Turks reside in North America. Turkish migration to Argentina, Australia and New Zealand is also common.
Like with the Turks, the Kurdish diaspora is numbered in the millions in Europe, particularly in:
- United Kingdom
- The Netherlands
Unlike Turk migrants, however, Kurds are more prominent in Russia and former Soviet Asian countries. Many Kurds are concentrated in the area known as Red Kurdistan, which was part of the former Azerbaijani Soviet Socialist Republic. Kurds have also settled in large numbers in Lebanon, Israel, and Kazakhstan.
The Roj or Kurdish Sun is the national emblem for Kurdistan and Kurds in general. The design has twenty-one sunrays, as the number is venerated in the Kurds’ ancient Yazdani ancestral religion, which has evolved into modern Yazidism, Yarsanism and Kurdish Alevi Islam.
The Eagle of Saladin, also seen in the coats of arms of Egypt and Iraq, adorns the emblem of the Kurdistan Region, owing to Saladin’s identity as a Kurd.
Kelaneh, a filling flatbread which is part of a full meal, is among the Kurds’ signature dishes.
The grey wolf is a popular national symbol for the Turkish people, as their folklore claims that Turks are descendants of one such animal.
Red and white are the Turk ethnic colors, visible on the Turkish flag. Another popular color is turquoise. Turquoise as a mineral receives its name from the French turquois, and was first introduced by Turkish traders to Europe in the 1600s.
Turks are also associated with tulips, which early migrants first planted in Anatolia.
Lastly, the crescent and star on their flag—a popular Islamic symbol—is seen as the legacy of the Ottoman Empire.
Comparison Chart: Turks vs Kurds
|Notable Empires||Göktürk, Seljuk, Ottoman||Ayyubid, Safavid, Zand|
|Geographical Distribution||Turkey, Cyprus, the Balkans||Kurdistan (parts of Turkey, Iraq, Iran, Syria)|
|Language||Anatolian Turkish (Turkish Proper),||Kurmanji, Sorani, Xwarîn, Zaza-Gorani|
|Type of Islam||Hanafi Sunni||Shafi’i Sunni or Alevi|
|Other Religions||Tengrism, Christianity, Judaism||Yazidism, Yarsanism, Zoroastrianism|
|Diaspora||Germany, Austria, the Netherlands, Denmark, Australia||Germany, United Kingdom, Russia, Lebanon|
|Ethnic Symbols||Grey wolf, red and white, tulips, Ottoman crescent and star||Roj, Eagle of Saladin, kelaneh|
How are Turks and Kurds similar?
Kurds are often misidentified as Turks.
Turks and Kurds occupy the same rough geographical area, as a large and populous part of Kurdistan is in Turkey. Turkish Kurds also speak the country’s language.
As a consequence of their proximity, Turks and Kurds also share a connected history. The Ayyubids and Seljuks were contemporaries and fought against each other. As the Seljuk Empire rose, the Turks took Kurds as soldiers and generals, influencing the Safavid and Zand empires.
The Ottomans eventually defeated the Safavids and incorporated Kurdistan into their empire, until their collapse after World War I renewed Kurdish notions for independence.
Modern-day Turkish and Kurdish peoples are predominantly Sunn’i Muslims, differing only in their interpretation of Islamic Law. More Alevis are Kurdish.
Are Kurds still nomadic?
Kurds are a modernized and civilized people and settle in cities and villages as other peoples do, although their nomadic tradition remains a key part of their historical identity.
A small minority of Kurds remain nomadic or semi-nomadic, living in tent-villages made from reinforced hides with their extended families, and tending to sheep and goat herds.
Is Döner Turkish?
A Döner kebab is such a common sight in Germany that some people miss the fact that it is a Turkish creation, alongside the similarly popular Şiş Kebab.
The modern Döner is a pita bread sandwich heaping with slices or shavings of roasted meat, vegetables and spices.
Döners were invented as early as the 1960s in Istanbul, but its current form—with sauces, vegetables, and spiced meat shavings—was developed in 70’s-era Germany.
Why are Kurds and Turkey at war?
The very notion of Kurds being a separate ethnic group from Turks is a major controversial issue in Turkey and Kurdistan.
Armed insurrection by Kurds against Turkey is motivated by the desire to secure an autonomous Kurdistan state or greater Kurdish rights, as Kurdistan.
The Kurdish rebels see themselves as avenging Kurdish oppression by the Republic of Turkey in the 20th century, where Kurdish culture was suppressed by the state, although their cause is tarnished by brutal terrorist actions from groups such as the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). Most Kurds oppose the PKK.
The resulting Kurdish-Turkish conflict has been ongoing since 1978. Fighting between the Turkish Armed Forces and the Kurdistan Workers’ Party has renewed in the wake of the peace process breakdown in 2015.
Kurds and Turks are closely tied geographically, culturally, and historically, but they are two very distinct ethnic groups.
First of all, Kurds have Iranic ancestry. Evidence of this link can be seen in the West Iranian character of the Kurdish and Zaza-Gorani languages, as well as the Yazidi, Yarsani, and Zoroastrian Iranic ethnic faiths. Meanwhile, Turks and the Turkish language descend from the aptly named Turkic peoples.
Second, while Kurdish history is intertwined with the Turks’ due to being part of the Ottoman Empire for four centuries, Kurds had their own great empires in the Safavids, and Ayyubids.
Third, Kurds and Turks belong to different Sunni Islam sects—most Kurds are Shafi’i adherents, while most of the latter follow Hanafi. Kurds also have closer roots to their pre-Islamic pagan faiths.
Fourth, most pressingly, and most sensitively, Kurds have no country where they are the majority ethnic group—Kurdistan being a region whose parts are in Turkey, Iraq, Iran and Syria, while Turks are represented primarily by the Republic of Turkey.