The Kakai People: Hidden Religious Practices and Struggle for Recognition

This story delves into the captivating narrative of the Kakayi Kurds, also known as Kakais or Ahl-e Haqq. As a religious minority residing predominantly in the Kurdistan regions of Iraq and Iran, they uphold a unique and ancient belief system that intricately weaves together components of Islam, Zoroastrianism, and ancient Mesopotamian traditions. Renowned for their syncretic faith, the Kakayis embrace mystical practices and engage in spiritual rituals that are shrouded in secrecy, offering a glimpse into their enigmatic and deeply rooted cultural heritage.

Rangin Marf, 45, looks more stylish in her Kurdish outfit and a cap. With a soft smile, she talks about the pot of yogurt in front of her, which she had brought to the Masti Qalati (the Castle of Yogurt) ceremony in Hawar village.

The Masti Qalati ceremony, also known as the Giving Day ceremony, is a significant occasion for the Kakai religious community. Held annually in May, it has religious and social significance for the Kakais who live in the Hawraman Lhon region, specifically in the villages of Hawar, Hawarakon, and Daratwe in Halabja province.

“Masti Qalati (Giving Day) is a special and important occasion for us Kakais, so we prepare ourselves in the most beautiful way,” says Rangin.

As members of the syncretic religion, Kakais are also known as Ahl-e Haqq or People of the Truth, found in Kirkuk, Halabja, Nineveh, and Iranian Kurdistan. The Qalate ritual, so named because it takes place in the Qalate area overlooking the shrine of Mir Askandar, a respected Kakai religious figure from the past, entails a meeting of Kakai people who bring milk and other crops for contribution. As a result, it’s known as the Castle of Yogurt.

During the ceremony, the Kakais visit sacred sites and shrines in addition to exchanging dairy products and livestock. Families also practice reconciliation and exchange visits, as well as provide grain, wheat, and food for birds and animals.

Rangin notes that the ceremony used to be held exclusively in Qalate due to the small number of Kakai households in the three villages. However, with the increase in the Kakai population, the ceremony now is held in Hawar village as it attracts Kakais from Halabja and other cities, as well as some Muslims.


Concealed practices

Apart from Masti Qalate, the Kakais have other religious ceremonies, although they are not openly celebrated.

Ako Shaweis, a 53-year-old Kakai, reveals that religious events are held in hidden locations known as Jam Khana among the Kakai community. The reasoning behind this concealment is that they believe religion is a private matter between individuals and their God that does not require public disclosure.

According to Ako, the Kakais believe that the more hidden and concealed the religious ceremonies are, the more acceptable they become, strengthening the relationship between individuals and their God.

The historical oppression faced by minorities justifies the Kakais’ choice to keep their ceremonies secret. Ako highlights the importance of concealment in avoiding rivalry and probable persecution from the majority religion. As he puts it, “These rituals have always been kept secret, and Kakais have the right to do so because minorities have always been oppressed. To avoid such persecution, these rituals should be performed in secret, as they are intended for God, not for humans.”

Ako goes on to say that the Kakais are a marginalized group in their own country. “In this country, the Kakais are an oppressed class. This, I believe, is in part due to the Kakais’ inability to communicate their demands to the government. At the same time, I believe the Shiites and Islamic groups have sought to avoid portraying the Kakais as a distinct branch of Islam.”

Although there are no accurate statistics on the Kakai population, the head of the Mithra Organization for the Development and Culture of Yarsani Kakais estimates that there are 120,000 Kakais living in Iraq and the Kurdistan region. Even though the Kakais are Kurdish, it is noteworthy that 70% of them reside outside the administration of the Kurdistan Regional Government.

Rajab Asi, also known as Rajab Kakai, the president of the Mithra Organization for Yarsani Development and Culture, states that Kakais have no barriers in practicing their beliefs in the disputed areas between Baghdad and the Kurdistan Region. These locations include the Bainan villages in Nineveh province, the villages of Daquq in the south of Kirkuk province, and Khanaqin in the north of  Diyala province.


Ongoing threats

Kakais are free to practice their faith within the confines of their homes. However, Rajab stated that extremist groups in the region continue to pose a threat to Kakais.

Rajab categorizes these radical organizations into two sorts. The first comprises of radical Salafi factions that despise the Kakais and reject anyone with opposing ideas. The second category comprises the Iraqi Shiite political parties, which Rajab considers to be more dangerous. They aggressively encourage Kakais to convert to Shiism and engage in confrontations with Kurds and Sunnis, even if they do not resort to physical violence. Rajab emphasizes that these Shiite political groupings endanger not just the Kakais but also Kurdish national security.

The threats towards Kakais escalated significantly after the Kurdish independence referendum in 2017. As a result, Kakais were forced to evacuate a village in Khanaqin and eleven villages in the western Daquq district of southern Kirkuk province. Rajab attributes these threats to political and security motives, citing the expansion of Shiite influence in these areas as a concern.

Rangin, a participant in the Masti Qalate ritual, emphasizes her strong desire for Kakais to be recognized as an independent religion in the Kurdistan Region and Iraqi constitutions.

“As Kakais, we wish that Kakais be recognized as an independent faith in the constitutions of the Kurdistan Region and Iraq; this is not only my wish but that of every Kakai,” said Rangin.

Omar Aziz is a journalist and videographer from Halabja, specializing in Kurdish media since 2012. With a media degree and a passion for storytelling, he captures impactful moments and sheds light on important issues through his work.