Chronicle of the Middle East and North Africa

Kakaism in Iraq: Long History and Ongoing Persecution

The Kakaism minority lives as a non-missionary religious group in Iraq, a country known for its rich ethnicities and multiple religions.

Kakaism in Iraq
The Kakais are one of the religious minorities scattered throughout northern Iraq. Maciej Moskwa / NurPhoto via AFP.

Youssef Sharqawi

The Kakaism minority lives as a non-missionary religious group in Iraq, a country known for its rich ethnicities and multiple religions. Kakaism is trying to preserve its identity amid the transformations and changes that the world and the region are witnessing. At a time when Iraq’s religious and ethnic diversity faces multiple threats, Kakaism has had its share of these pressures. Kakaists suffer from significant stresses that threaten their faith and existence.

Kakaism dates back to 3000 BC. While this sect is called “Kakaist” in Iraq, its followers in Iran refer to it as “Yarsanist,” meaning “lovers of the Creator.” The followers of this sect are not limited to Iraq and Iran, but their presence extends to Pakistan, India, Turkey and other countries.


Researcher Abdulrahman Karim Darwesh traces the origin of “Kakaism” to the Kurdish word “Kaka.” This word means “elder brother who is compassionate, helpful, chivalrous, honest, supporting, responsible for the affairs of others, a caretaker and defender of the weak.” According to Darwesh, in some cases, this name is given to the father and grandparents in large families. The name “Kaka” is also given to public figures.

Researcher Jamal Rashid links the term “Kakaism” to the development of the historical roots of the Kurdish honorifics. According to Rashid, the common roots of the term have evolved to be interpreted by both Kurds and Kakaists.

Some believe the Kurds designated the term to Kakaists out of respect. Others believe that the name reflected their religious beliefs, which preach brotherhood among human beings and oblige them to call any human being by the word Kaka.

Based on the name, Iraqi historian Abbas al-Azzawi believes that Kakaism has become a spiritual bond around which Kakaists are united.

Some in Iran call Kakaists Ahl al-Haq or People of Truth. Other names include Men of Magnanimity, People of the Chain, and Yarsanism: Yar San, meaning friend of the sultan. Yarsanism in Persian and Kurdish also means “the beloved.”

Geographical Presence

In Iraq, Kakaism is concentrated in Kurdistan, while some Kakaists live in Nineveh, Kirkuk and Diyala.

According to unofficial estimates, the number of Iraqi Kakaists ranges from 200,000 to 500,000. In Iran, there are between 2,000,000 and 4,000,000 Kakaists.

Dersim and Sivas in Turkey also host a Kakaist population. The number of followers of this minority in Turkey is estimated at 100,000. There are Kakaist groups in Armenia and Georgia, and they, too, are found in Pakistan, India and Afghanistan.


Kurdish historian Dr Mahdi Kakai says that Kakaism is one of the branches of Yazdanism. This religion is based on “cleanliness, honesty, selflessness and self-love.” It also “calls for a triumph over worldly desires, and not to harm fire, air, water, soil, nature, man or animals.”

Kakai considers that death does not exist in Kakaism. Kakaism adherents believe in reincarnation. “When a person dies, his soul is transferred to the body of another human or animal,” Kakai says. Kakaism does not subscribe to the existence of prophets or messengers sent by the Creator.

According to writer Woroud Saleh, secrecy is a fundamental doctrine in Kakaism: “Kakaists believe that God manifests Himself in a series of appearances called roles through which He directs the affairs of the world and is completed by the number seven.”

Rajab Assi, president of the Methra Organization for Yarsani Culture and Development, states that Kakaism’s holy book is called Saranjam. It is a book written in Kurdish whose Arabic name means The Discourse of Conclusion.

Assi asserts that the Kakaists regarded Gabriel as their prophet. “Kakaism had reformers and renovators, the last of whom was Sultan Sahak. He is regarded as the prophet or the most central authority of Kakaism.” Assi adds, “Kakaism emerged as an independent religion at the hands of the founder and renovator, Ishaq Barzanji, born in 1273.”


There is no designated place for worship rituals in Kakaism. More than anything else, Kakaism is concerned with the spiritual aspect, which is one of the main pillars on which Kakaist philosophy is based. Accordingly, religious ceremonies may be held in any clean place where Kakaists gather.

“Yarsanism is limited to its adherents. A person born in a non-Yarsani family cannot be a Kakaist since it’s a non-missionary religion despite respecting all religions equally,” Assi states. He adds, “Public ceremonies and rituals are a form of preaching, so photographing the ceremonies and rituals is prohibited. Additionally, clerics are not allowed to appear in the press or disclose any information.”


Kakaists chronicled the history of their faith and named it Osour or Eras. According to Darwesh, Kakaism has seven eras; the first three constitute the “Old Era,” while the latter four make up the “New Era,” which began during the Umayyad Caliphate.

In his book Kakaism in History, historian Abbas al-Azzawi asserts that Kakaism began as a social organisation based on chivalry and spiritual education. According to al-Azzawi, it only evolved into a sect during the 16th and 17th centuries.

Kakaism emerged as a spiritual Sufi doctrine under Sheikh Sultan Sahak or Ishaq Barzanji, who was born in the Islamic year 671 or 1272 AD. Among the Kakaists, Barzanji is known as the “Pride of the Devotees.”


Kakaism celebrates three festivals per year: Khoundkar, Fasting and Nowruz. Khoundkar takes place in winter and is known as the “Feast of Creation.” The fasting celebration is similar to that of Muslims but lasts only three days. These days change every year since Kakaism depends on the lunar calendar. The third holiday, Nowruz, is held on 21 March each year.

Men and Women

The Kakaist man is easily recognisable. Men grow their moustaches out as a part of their cultural heritage. They, too, used to wear an outfit consisting of a slightly short abaya-like robe which is known as a “Saya.” A distinctive feature of the Saya is the knot around the head.

Kakaist women merge with the culture of their region. Kakaism does not impose any specific robe or headscarf on women.

Women have an important religious and social status in Kakaist society. There is no discrimination in rights and duties between the sexes. Kakaism is keen to achieve equality in aspects of inheritance. “Even though Kakaism follows Islamic inheritance Sharia law, meaning the male gets twice as much as the female, in their daily practice, they are keen to achieve equality,” Assi said.

Laila Tahir Sharif says that women can hold the position of “Master,” the religious position of the person who leads the religious rituals of Kakaism. Women can also enter the “Jamkhana,” the place designated for Yarsani rites. Unless she decides to or is forced to renounce it, a woman does not lose her religious identity by marrying a non-Kakaist.

Multiple Restrictions

Kakaism in Iraq
Kakai women pose for a photograph in their village located near the town of Kalak, east of Mosul, on October 26, 2016, after Iraqi forces recaptured it from Islamic State (IS) group jihadists a few months ago. SAFIN HAMED / AFP

Kakaism is not recognised as a religious minority, according to a report by Masarat on the freedom of belief for religious minorities in Iraq. Kakaists suffer religion-based discrimination, which according to the report, puts Kakaism “under social siege.” It also makes Kakaists feel “alienated from their wider social environment, especially in the areas they share with Muslims.”

Sharif states that depriving Kakaists of their rights and the lack of recognition in Iraq subjects its followers to persecution.

Kakaists feel their religious identity is endangered and threatened with extinction in Iraq, a threat that has spread to cities in Kurdistan. The fact that their teachings are not allowed to be taught in schools is one of the issues that may lead to Kakaism’s demise.

Tensions against Kakaism have reached the point of harassment, insults of Kakaist beliefs and the seizure of Kakaist places of worship to convert them into mosques and Hussainiya.

According to Methra, the sentencing of Kakaists is not always based on legal texts. In some illegal practices, Kakaists are forced to shave their moustaches.

Saad Salloum, a researcher in minority affairs, believes that “Kakaists are clearly an inherent component of the minorities that make up the fabric of Iraqi society and have the right to be part of the governing classes in Iraq, whether in parliament or governments.”

Fanack Water Palestine