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The roots of the word "Gawir"

3 replies [Last post]
Rawaz_S's picture
Joined: 1 Sep 2009

Gawir is a word used by Muslim Kurds to refer to non-Muslims. It is used as a derogatory word that unlike for example the Islamic term Kafir is also used for Jews and Christians, but also to people of the Kurdish faiths.

The etymology of the word is disputed, Jamal Nebez has argued that it means “a follower of Zoroaster” and the name of the Gúran tribe, of whom many of the Yarsan belong, is derived from this word.

Yet I find this explanation unsatisfactory for numerous reasons. One of which is that it presumes that Kurds were Zoroastrians, a presumption I and many other modern historians and archaeologist do not share (but I will not engage in this debate now).
I find it more plausible that Gawir is derived from an original term meaning rye, millet and sorghum. This is referring to the commoners who ate rye or millet bread and later became a word meaning commoner. As the commoners were non-Muslims it also came to be a designation for their religious status and not only for their social status. As more Kurdish commoners became Muslim, Gawir became a name used only for non-Muslims, regardless of wealth or social status.

zimanzan's picture
Joined: 16 Sep 2008

I disagree with the last part, Kak Rewez. The Gewrans or Gorans were not simple or low-class people in the Kurdish society. They used to comprise one of the most eminent classes amongst Kurds:

min be qisey Goran ekem

hemúy lebo Soran ekem

"I do as the Gorans say

I do (say) all these for the sake of Soran"

I think Kak Jemal Nebez was pretty close by indicating "a follower of Zoroastrian". But it deserves further explanations.

Etymologies of "Goran" and "Kirmanj" could easily explain the present linguistic ramifications in the Kurdish society. You are engaged in history so you know these much better than me. Most likely the remanent body of Kurdish Zoroastrians in the southeastern Kurdistan kept their creed and later after the rise of Judaism they became "Pagans" compared to the dominant Jews. Also this term later used to refer the Christians too. As you know, the Kurdish Jews as well as Kurdistani Christians (Kurdish, Assyrian, Aramaic, Syriac) speak Aramaic. This phenomenon caused by Achaemenid conquerors of Babylon, which in some sorts banned Akkadian and Assyrian languages and encouraged the Semitic people of today's Iraq, Syria, Jordan, etc. to speak Aramaic instead.

The Aramaic word for "pagan" (more likely akin to Arabic "kafir" and Hebrew "kofér") is "gebir". This eventually turns into "gewir" in Kurdish speeches and after the rise of Islam they refer it to non-Muslims: Christians and Jews. Also it exists in Middle Pahlavi too: "gabr" ~ "pagan".

During the Sassanid times and their pro-Zoroastrian policy, Gewrans or Gorans in the southern Kurdistan received a good back-up; however they mainly were classy individuals and their language, which was a variety of religious Parthian contaminated by local Kurdish, used to serve as the royal and literary language among southern Kurds till to the last century. But the ordinary people mostly were Jewish or Christian. Also nowadays the term "Gewir" is mostly used in the regions that the ancient Adiabene encompassed em.

It's worthy of mention that in some areas such as Sine (Sanandaj) still people merely use the term "Gewr" to refer Christians.

Blessed Are The Meek

Rawaz_S's picture
Joined: 1 Sep 2009
Late Response

Sorry for a late response, I've been quite busy.

I do not agree with you that the Guran were a high class people. Their language was no doubt classy and was used as a literary and court language, it was used rather like Latin in medieval and early modern Europe. Yet the people called Guran were low class people, it is quite well know that compared to the Kurmanj, the Guran were viewed as inferior, an inferior class or as some scholars have put it: The Kurmanj belonged to a ruling warrior caste while the Guran were settled, often non-tribal, peasants of an inferior class.
Your arguments are also based on the notion that Kurds were Zoroastrians, my and many other scholars theory is that this was not the case at all. Certainly some Kurds were probably Zoroastrians but these were probably members of a very exclusive class of people. We see the same theory regarding Norse religion where the Asar were probably worshipped by the higher classes of people. I cannot for certain rule out Zoroastrianism, as more research is needed. But the idea of the Kurdish Zoroastrians is even more questionable due to the lack of research.

However I did not know about the possible Aramaic connection, which may very well be true. Yet, in my opinion, we must also not rule out that Gawir can also be traced to the "social status" theory.

I think we can agree that more research is needed before we can conclude anything.

Admin's picture
Joined: 7 May 2008
Anonymous contribution to this topic

Gabra/Gabr/Gawr/Gaur etc. all stood for a Zoroastrian at the start of the Islamic era. No one is sure where the source is. In the Pahlavi script, "gabra" is the "Hozvaresh" for "mard" (a man). Gabra is Aramaic, meaning a "man", that is why Pahlavi uses the spelling in its "Hozvaresh" system. No one has been able to provide a conceivable case that this is the source. However, Gabr/Gawr DOES stand for a Zoroastrian, and possibly a Yazdani person in the eyes of the early Muslims. The elderly in Kirmasha used to use it in the formula "gabr o kafir" to mean "fire worshipers and the infidels", clearly distinguishing the two from each other.

Guran is not a derivative of the term Gabr/Gawr. Two thousand years ago, Strabo refers to the "Gurani" in the same area (Geog, V.335), and way before there was Islam. The two words need to be have derived from two different roots.