With its Sumerian roots as Ancient Mesopotamia, Iraq is one of the world’s oldest civilizations, and so is its Iraq religion. It also one of the world’s most sacred Islamic countries, boasting many sacred religious sites and cities that Muslims revere throughout the world.
In this article, we will explore the religious composition of Iraq and how these religious groups live in Iraqi society.
What Is the Main Religion in Iraq
The population of Iraq is 99 percent Muslim, with most belonging to the Shia and Sunni schools of Islam. The country is the location for many religious sites that sacred to both schools of Islam.
About 98 percent of Iraq’s Kurds are Sunni Muslims, while 2 percent are Shia Feyli, though there has been an increase in Zoroastrianism throughout Kurdish areas. The Kurds are concentrated mainly in the north of the country and mostly follow the Shafi school of Islam.
The Shia population of Iraq is predominantly located in the south of the country, and a small Shia Shaykhist population is located in the cities of Basra and Karbala.
Around 75 percent of the Turkmen of Iraq are Sunni, while about 25 percent are Shia.
However, in recent years the country’s Turkmen have increasingly become non-religious, reflecting the secular nature of the Republic of Turkey.
The country’s capital city of Baghdad has historically been a central hub for Muslim theology in the Middle East. Baghdad was founded as the capital city for the Abbasid Dynasty in 762 and quickly became a center for Arabic cultural diffusion.
Muslim poets, theologians, writers, and artists from across the Arab world traveled to the city, and the city quickly became the capital of Islamic art in the Medieval Middle East.
The city of Najaf is famous for being the burial site for Ali, who the Shias believe to be the rightful first caliph. Many Shia Muslims from throughout the Middle East make a pilgrimage to Najaf to honor the tomb of Ali. Behind Mecca and Medina, Najaf is the most traveled pilgrimage site for Muslims. The city also has numerous Islamic seminaries and libraries, making it one of the most prominent cities for Shia theologians.
The city of Karbala has great historical importance for Iraq’s Shia Muslims as the site of the Battle of Karbala. After the Prophet Mohammed’s death in the late 7th century, the Muslim community was split into two. The Sunni Muslims recognized the legitimacy of the Umayyad Caliphate, while the Shia Muslims believed that the son-in-law of Mohammed, Ali, should lead the religion.
The Shias rebelled against the Umayyads and invited Ali’s son, Hussein, to lead them. On his way to lead the rebels, Hussein was intercepted by an Umayyad army of thousands. Hussein and his 72 men fought ferociously against the opposing army but were eventually overrun and killed.
Today, Hussein is remembered as a martyr to Shia Muslims, and a day of fasting is reserved for his sacrifice. All Shia Muslims are expected to make a pilgrimage to the burial site of Hussein to honor his death, fighting against Umayyad rule.
Judaism was first introduced into the region during the reign of King Nebuchadnezzar II of the Babylonian Empire. By 1932 the Jewish population of Iraq numbered around 90,000, largely residing in Baghdad, Basra, and Mosul.
Throughout the early 20th century, the Jewish population was deeply engrained in Iraqi society and live peacefully in the predominately Muslim population. However, throughout the 1930s, antisemitism gradually increased throughout Iraq’s population as fascist ideals from Europe led to a Nazi-allied coup in 1941.
During the coup, mobs targeted Jewish communities with the help of both the Iraqi government and the army. British forces quickly took back the country and reinstated a pro-British government. Britain would occupy Iraq throughout World War II until the country gained its full independence in 1947.
The creation of Israel in 1948 further escalated anti-Jewish sentiments, as government publications and police forces began to target Jewish leaders specifically. Thousands of Jews from throughout the Arab world migrated to Israel in 1948, as anti-Jewish sentiments increased amongst Arab populations.
Following the Arab defeat against Israel in the 1967 Six-Day War, most of Iraq’s remaining Jewish population fled to Israel following riots and escalating tensions. It is believed that today Iraq’s Jewish population is in the single digits.
Christianity in Iraq
Thomas the Apostle and Thaddaeus of Edessa, who belonged to the twelve apostles, first brought Christianity to the region during the first century A.D. Historically, Christian Iraqis belonged to four groups: Chaldean Catholics, Assyrians, West Syriac, and Eastern Orthodox.
It estimated that in 1950 five million Christians may have lived in the country, and by 2003 the country’s Christian population ranged from one to two million.
The violence and unrest throughout the country during the 21st century have made it impossible to calculate the total Christians in the country. Still, most experts believe that since 2003, 250,000 Christians have remained in the country.
An estimated 650,000 Yazidis are living in the country, mostly living in the region of Mt Sinjar west of the city of Mosul. The Yazidi religion has many beliefs in common with the Abrahamic faiths and ancient Iranian religious beliefs.
The Yazidi believe that their people are directly descended from the Biblical Adam and are a closed religion. Marriage to outsiders is strictly prohibited, and they largely remain secretive away from Iraqi society.
By the 15th century, many local rulers viewed the Yazidi as political threats, and massacres and forced conversions caused Iraq’s Yazidi to flee into the Caucasus Mountains to escape persecution.
The religion’s principal holy site is located in Lalish, where the Yazidi make a yearly pilgrimage to the tomb of Sheikh ‘Adi, the religion’s founder.
The Zoroastrian religion was the central belief system in Iran and northern Iraq before the Islamic conquests of the 7th century. Religion is today considered an official religion in both Iran and Kurdistan.
Zoroastrianism has greatly increased its presence in the Kurdish population of Northern Iraq throughout the 21st century, with many Kurds converting to the religion from Islam.
Religious experts believe this was caused by the growing violence in the region caused by the Islamic State and other Islamic extremism.
This conversion was also caused by the Kurds’ cultural ties to the religion, as it was their native religion before being converted to Islam. Since 2016 many Zoroastrian temples have been constructed throughout Kurdistan.
Mandaeism is the last surviving gnostic religion and is believed to be the first religious group to practice baptism. Mandeans believe that an inferior divine being created the material world, and after their death, they will ascend to heaven to the world God truly envisioned and created.
Followers of Mandaeism largely live near waterways, as baptism is a central part of their faith. Unlike other Christians who believe that baptism should be a one-time occurrence, Mandeans believe baptism is a continual process that cleanses sin throughout one’s lifetime.
While Mandeans do not consider themselves Christians, their religion revolves around John the Baptist, a prominent figure in the Christian Bible. They are concentrated in the cities of Amarah, Nasiriyah, Basra, and Baghdad. The Mandeans are a closed religion, meaning that they must be born into the religion and are forbidden from marrying non-Mandeans.
Before 2003 the number of Mandaeans living in the country was an estimated 30,000. But, most of these communities fled to neighboring countries following the collapse of Saddam Hussein’s regime and the rise of Islamic extremism.
Return to Faith Campaign
From 1993 to 2003, the Ba’ath Party began the “Return to Faith Campaign” with the goal of winning the support of conservative Sunni Muslims throughout the country. While Saddam Hussein’s rule had previously been very secular for a Muslim country, Shia and Kurdish uprisings following the 1990 Persian Gulf War caused him to increasingly rally the country’s Sunni population to strengthen his power.
Hussein was worried that the deteriorating Iraqi economy and recent military defeats could display his regime as weak and potentially lead to an Islamic revolution against the Ba’ath party.
Hussein led a city-wide crackdown on Baghdad’s nightlife by banning the public sale and consumption of alcohol. The campaign also targeted prostitution throughout Iraq’s cities. By the end of the campaign, more than 200 women had been beheaded after being accused of prostitution.
The study of the Qur’an became more engrained in the country’s education system, and the government also invested heavily in the construction and renovation of mosques throughout the country.
Much of the Ba’ath party was initially not supportive of the campaign. They believed the shift towards Sunni Salafism could alienate neighboring Arab states and other Shia Muslims living in the country. Izzat Ibrahim al-Douri, who would later become Hussein’s successor, converted many Ba’ath leaders to Sufism.
The growth of Islamism that was created by this campaign directly led to an increased Salafist insurgency throughout Iraq, especially after the fall of Hussein’s regime in 2003.
While Hussein hoped that the campaign would strengthen loyal factions of Islamists that would help the Ba’ath party secure its power, it also strengthened Islamist groups that had aspirations of ousting Hussein and putting a conservative Salafist government in power.
Ba’ath party officials increasingly became won over to conservative Salafist Islam throughout the campaign. Many of these officials, especially from Iraq’s security agencies, would later become leaders of Salafist extremist groups after the fall of the Ba’ath party in 2003.
Sectarian Religious Violence
From Iraq’s independence in 1947 to 2003, Shia and Sunni communities largely coexisted peacefully. While many cities and towns could be somewhat segregated between the two sects, there was little sectarian violence in the Iraqi population. One-third of Iraq’s Muslim marriages were between Shia and Sunni Muslims. Many religious minorities, namely Christians, lived peacefully amongst Muslim populations in Iraq’s cities.
However, the increased Islamic extremism, sectarianism, and political instability of the 21st century would bring this peaceful coexistence to an end. After Saddam Hussein was removed from power in 2003, Iraq descended into civil war, as Sunni and Shia factions battled for control of the country.
The U.S. purge of the Ba’ath party and Iraqi military caused mass unemployment, and former officials and soldiers increasingly joined Sunni Muslim organizations and military groups.
As Iraq descended into chaos immediately following the invasion, both Shia and Sunni civilians joined sectarian groups to protect themselves from the country’s growing crime rate and insurgency.
Under Saddam Hussein, the Sunni minority had dominated the government for decades. However, the U.S. put a majority Shia government in power, and many Sunni politicians objected to their sudden underrepresentation in the government. Sunni extremists also objected to the new Shia majority, and the growing insurgency began to show a sectarian nature as Shia communities were increasingly targeted.
In 2005, many Shia Muslims who were put in control of the country’s security forces began to conduct retaliatory attacks on Iraq’s Sunni communities. This attack led to cyclical retaliatory violence between Sunnis and Shias, ultimately becoming a civil war lasting from 2006 to 2008. The civil war was characterized by horrific human rights violations on both sides, as death squads carried out executions and kidnappings of civilians throughout Iraq.
We have covered many aspects of the religious composition of Iraq.
Let’s review the main ideas:
- Around 99 percent of Iraq’s population is Muslim, with 70 percent being Shia and 30 percent being Sunni.
- There are also communities of Christians, Yazidis, Zoroastrians, Mandaeans, and Jews.
- Iraq is home to many of Islam’s most sacred cities, including Karbala, Najaf, and Baghdad.
- The country has been ravaged by sectarian religious violence between Shi and Sunni military organizations since the fall of Saddam Hussein in 2003.
While Iraq has historically been a place for great peaceful coexistence between religions, the chaos of the 20th and 21st centuries have led many religious groups to flee the country or engage in sectarian violence. Hopefully, a prolonged peace in Iraq will bring back the peaceful coexistence that characterized the region for centuries.