Sheikh Ubeydullah

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Sheikh Ubeydullah
Religion Islam
Other names Sheikh Ubeydullah of Nehri
Sayyid Ubeydullah of Nehri
Born Nehri, Kaza of Şemdinan, Van Eyalet, Ottoman Empire
Died 1883
Mecca, Hejaz, Ottoman Empire
Senior posting
Based in Ottoman Empire
Religious career
Previous post Leader of Sunni-Kurdish nationalist revolt

Sheikh Ubeydullah (died 1883) (Kurdish: Şêx Ubeydullayê Nehrî, شێخ وبه‌يدوڵاي نهری), also known as Sayyid Ubeydullah, was the leader of the first modern Kurdish nationalist struggle. Ubeydullah demanded recognition from Ottoman Empire and Qajar dynasty authorities for an independent Kurdish state, or Kurdistan, which he would govern without interference from Ottoman or Qajar authorities.[1] He was a Sayyid, a descendant from Muhammad. He claimed descent from Abdul-Qadir Gilani.

Sheikh Ubeydullah was an influential landowner in the 19th century and a member of the powerful Kurdish Şemdinan family from Nehri. After his rebellion was suppressed, he was exiled first to Istanbul, then to Hijaz where he died.[1]

Rise to power[edit]

The emergence of Islamic scholars and leaders, or Sheikhs, as national leaders among the Kurds was the result of the elimination of hereditary semi-autonomous Kurdish principalities in the Ottoman Empire, especially following the Ottoman centralization policies of the early 19th century.[2] Sheikh Ubeydullah was one of several religious leaders who were there to fill the void and reestablish a sense of lawfulness in the former principalities that had been since left to feuding chieftains. Despite previous revolts by Kurdish leaders to reassert control over territories, mainly their own former principalities, Sheikh Ubeydullah is regarded as the first Kurdish leader whose cause was nationalist and who wished to establish an ethnic Kurdish state.[citation needed]

Sheikh Ubeydullah was from an already powerful family, the Şemdinan from the region of the same name - Şemdinan - who owned considerable amounts of land in the Kurdish areas of the Ottoman Empire. Following the outbreak of the Russo-Turkish War (1877–1878), Ubeydullah filled the political vacuum left by the devastation in the region and assumed the Kurdish leadership role.[2]

Personality and Kurdish nationalism[edit]

In a clear indication of Kurdish nationalist intentions, Ubeydullah wrote in a letter to a Christian missionary in the region: "The Kurdish nation, consisting of more than 500,000 families is a people apart. Their religion is different, and their laws and customs distinct... We are also a nation apart. We want our affairs to be in our hands, so that in the punishment of our own offenders we may be strong and independent, and have privileges like other nations... This is our objective... Otherwise, the whole of Kurdistan will take matter into their own hands, as they are unable to put up with these continual evil deeds and the oppression, which they suffer at the hands of the Persian and Ottoman governments."

Ubeydullah was able to gain the military support of Kurdish tribesmen as well as local Nestorian Christians who along with missionaries noted Ubeydullah's character with great admiration. A letter written by a Christian missionary who was in constant contact with Ubeydullah noted, "The Shaykh wrote in his paper a great deal about the Nestorian Christians there, praising them as the best subjects of the Sultan. The Sultan objected to such language, and three times returned the letter for correction. Finally, the Shaykh said, "I don't know much about politics, but I do know something about truth telling, and this is the truth."[2]

Expeditions and subsequent fall[edit]

Kurdish tribesmen, 1873.

Sheikh Ubeydullah was able to successfully assert his control over the area by gaining the support of Kurdish tribesmen who were hopeful of his objective to restore order in the war-ravaged region. British correspondence during the height of Ubeydullah's power indicates that he was able to successful assert control over a vast region that stretched the former Bohtan, Badinan, Hakkari, and Ardalan confederacies.[1] A late nineteenth century writer, George Curzon, wrote, "A chieftain named Shaykh Obeidallah acquired a great reputation for personal sanctity...and gradually came to be looked upon as the head of Kurdish nationality."[2]

In 1880, Ubeydullah's militia invaded the northwestern Kurdish territories of Qajar dynasty in attempt to expand his control. Ubeydullah demanded recognition of a Kurdistan state and his rule over the region. His militia was defeated by the Qajar army and he withdrew his forces to Ottoman territories. Facing attacks from both sides of his territory, Ubeydullah eventually surrendered to Ottoman authorities in 1881.[1] He was exiled to Istanbul, and then later to Hijaz, where he died in 1883.


  1. ^ a b c d Ozoglu, Hakan. Kurdish Notables and the Ottoman State: Evolving Identities, Competing Loyalties, and Shifting Boundaries. Feb 2004. ISBN 978-0-7914-5993-5. pp. 74-75.
  2. ^ a b c d Jwaideh, Wadie. The Kurdish national movement: its origins and development. Syracuse University Press, 2006. pp. 75-79.