Yazidis on the mountain of Sinjar, Iraq/Syrian border, 1920s.
|Regions with significant populations|
|Iraq||300,000 - 650,000|
|Kitêba Cilwe (Book of Illumination), Mishefa Reş (Black Book)|
The Yazidi (also Yezidi, Kurdish: ئێزیدی or Êzidî), is a Kurdish religion with ancient Indo-European roots. They are primarily Kurdish speaking, and most live in the Mosul region of northern Iraq. There are traditional communities in Transcaucasia, Armenia, Turkey, and Syria, but these have declined since the 1990s, their members emigrating to Europe, especially to Germany.
The term Dasni or Dasny is often misunderstood. A large Yezidi-clan/tribe is called Dasni. There are many Yazidis who belong to the tribe, and the two terms are sometimes seen as interchangeable. The Yazidis do not use it for self-designation.
Yazidis make up an important Iraqi minority community. Estimates of the size of the Iraqi communities vary significantly, between 70,000 and 500,000. The Georgian community has declined significantly (decreasing from 30,000 during the 1990s to an estimated 14,000 in 2008), while communities in Armenia have been more stable (some 40,000 according to 2001 census). In Russia, the Yazidi population totals 31,273 (2002 census). In Syria, there are two main groupings, in the Jazira and the Kurd Daege, accounting for about 15,000 people. In Turkey, there are now just a very small remnant in some villages south-east of Diyarbakir, remnants of a community of some 80,000 in 1970 (declined to 23,000 in 1985 and to 377 people in 2007).
The Yazidi number around 200,000 to 300,000 individuals in total, but estimates vary on their population size, partially due to the Yazidi tradition of secrecy when asked about one's religious beliefs. Lower estimates are around 100,000, and high estimates around 700,000. Expatriate Yazidi are concentrated in Germany, numbering between 20,000 and 40,000, mainly in Lower Saxony and North Rhine-Westphalia, most of them from Turkey. A much smaller diaspora community is found in the Netherlands. Very small groups are also found in Belgium, Denmark, Sweden, France, Switzerland, the United Kingdom, the US, Canada and Australia, probably totalling to below 5,000 people.
The origins of Yazidism are ultimately shrouded in Near Eastern prehistory. Although the Yazidis speak Kurdish, their religion—a branch of Yazdanism--shows strong influence from archaic Mithraism, Mesopotamian religious traditions, Christianity and ultimately, Islam. Their principal holy site is in Lalish, northeast of Mosul. The Yazidis' own name for themselves is Êzidî or Êzîdî or, in some areas, Dasinî (the latter, strictly speaking, is a tribal name). Some scholars have derived the name Yazidi from Old Iranic yazata (divine being), while others say it is a derivation from Umayyad Caliph Yazid I (Yazid bin Muawiyah), revered by the Yazidis as an incarnation of the divine figure Sultan Ezi (this is no longer widely accepted). Yazidis, themselves, believe that their name is derived from the word Yezdan or Êzid "God". The Yazidis' cultural practices are observably Kurdish, and almost all speak Kurmanjî (Northern Kurdish), with the exception of the villages of Bashiqa and Bahazane in Northern Iraq, where Arabic is spoken. Kurmanjî is the language of almost all the orally transmitted religious traditions of the Yazidis. Thus, religious origins are somewhat complex.
The religion of the Yazidis is a highly syncretic one: Sufi influence and imagery can be seen in their religious vocabulary, especially in the terminology of their esoteric literature, but much of the mythology is non-Islamic. Their cosmogonies apparently have many points in common with those of ancient Persian religions. Early writers attempted to describe Yazidi origins, broadly speaking, in terms of Islam, or Persian, or sometimes even pagan religions; however, publications since the 1990s have shown such an approach to be overly simplistic.
The origin of the Yazidi religion is now usually seen by scholars as a complex process of syncretism, whereby the belief system and practices of a local faith had a profound influence on the religiosity of adherents of the ˤAdawiyya Sufi order living in the Kurdish mountains, and caused it to deviate from Islamic norms relatively soon after the death of its founder, Shaykh ˤAdī ibn Musafir (Kurdish Şêx Adî), who is said to be of Umayyad descent. He settled in the valley of Laliş (some thirty-six miles north-east of Mosul) in the early 12th century. Şêx Adî himself, a figure of undoubted orthodoxy, enjoyed widespread influence. He died in 1162, and his tomb at Laliş is a focal point of Yazidi pilgrimage.
During the fourteenth century, important Kurdish tribes whose sphere of influence stretched well into what is now Turkey (including, for a period, the rulers of the principality of Jazira) are cited in historical sources as Yazidi.
In the Yazidi belief system, God created the world and it is now in the care of a Heptad of seven Holy Beings, often known as Angels or heft sirr (the Seven Mysteries). Preeminent among these is Tawûsê Melek (frequently known as "Melek Tawus" in English publications), the Peacock Angel. According to the Encyclopedia of the Orient,
Furthermore, the Yazidi story regarding Tawûsê Melek's rise to favor with God is almost identical to the story of the jinn Iblis in Islam, except that Yazidis revere Tawûsê Melek for refusing to submit to Adam, while Muslims believe that Iblis' refusal to submit caused him to fall out of Grace with God, and to later become Satan himself.
Tawûsê Melek is often identified by Muslims and Christians with Shaitan (Satan). Yazidis, however, believe Tawûsê Melek is not a source of evil or wickedness. They consider him to be the leader of the archangels, not a fallen angel. They also hold that the source of evil is in the heart and spirit of humans themselves, not in Tawûsê Melek. The active forces in their religion are Tawûsê Melek and Sheik Adî.
The Kitêba Cilwe "Book of Illumination", which claims to be the words of Tawûsê Melek, and which presumably represents Yazidi belief, states that he allocates responsibilities, blessings and misfortunes as he sees fit and that it is not for the race of Adam to question him. Sheikh Adî believed that the spirit of Tawûsê Melek is the same as his own, perhaps as a reincarnation. He is believed to have said:
Yazidi accounts of creation differ from that of Judaism, Christianity and Islam. They believe that God first created Tawûsê Melek from his own illumination (Ronahî ) and the other six archangels were created later. God ordered Tawûsê Melek not to bow to other beings. Then God created the other archangels and ordered them to bring him dust (Ax) from the Earth (Erd) and build the body of Adam. Then God gave life to Adam from his own breath and instructed all archangels to bow to Adam. The archangels obeyed except for Tawûsê Melek. In answer to God, Tawûsê Melek replied, "How can I submit to another being! I am from your illumination while Adam is made of dust." Then God praised him and made him the leader of all angels and his deputy on the Earth. (This likely furthers what some see as a connection to the Islamic Shaytan, as according to the Quran he too refused to bow to Adam at God's command, though in this case it is seen as being a sign of Shaytan's sinful pride.) Hence the Yazidis believe that Tawûsê Melek is the representative of God on the face of the Earth, and comes down to the Earth on the first Wednesday of Nisan (April). Yazidis hold that God created Tawûsê Melek on this day, and celebrate it as New Year's Day. Yazidis argue that the order to bow to Adam was only a test for Tawûsê Melek, since if God commands anything then it must happen. (Bibe, dibe). In other words, God could have made him submit to Adam, but gave Tawûsê Melek the choice as a test. They believe that their respect and praise for Tawûsê Melek is a way to acknowledge his majestic and sublime nature. This idea is called "Knowledge of the Sublime" (Zanista Ciwaniyê). Şêx Adî has observed the story of Tawûsê Melek and believed in him.
One of the key creation beliefs of Yazidism is that all Yazidis are descendants of Adam rather than Eve. Yazidis believe that good and evil both exist in the mind and spirit of human beings. It depends on the humans, themselves, as to which they choose. In this process, their devotion to Tawûsê Melek is essential, since it was he who was given the same choice between good and evil by God, and chose the good.
Yazidis, who have much in common with the followers of Ahl-e Haqq (in western Iran), state that the world created by God was at first a pearl. It remained in this very small and enclosed state for some time (often a magic number such as forty or forty thousand years) before being remade in its current state. During this period the Heptad were called into existence, God made a covenant with them and entrusted the world to them. Besides Tawûsê Melek, members of the Heptad (the Seven), who were called into existence by God at the beginning of all things, include Şêx Adî, his companion Şêx Hasan and a group known as the Four Mysteries: Shamsadin, Fakhradin, Sajadin and Naserdin.
Two key and interrelated features of Yazidism are: a) a preoccupation with religious purity and b) a belief in metempsychosis. The first of these is expressed in the system of caste, the food laws, the traditional preferences for living in Yazidi communities, and the variety of taboos governing many aspects of life. The second is crucial; Yazidis traditionally believe that the Seven Holy Beings are periodically reincarnated in human form, called a koasasa.
A belief in the reincarnation of lesser Yazidi souls also exists. Like the Ahl-e Haqq, the Yazidis use the metaphor of a change of garment to describe the process, which they call kiras guhorîn in Kurdish (changing the garment). Alongside this, Yazidi mythology also includes descriptions of heaven and hell, with hell extinguished, and other traditions incorporating these ideas into a belief system that includes reincarnation.
Yazidi society is hierarchical. The secular leader is a hereditary emir or prince, whereas a chief sheikh heads the religious hierarchy. The Yazidi are strictly endogamous; members of the three Yazidi castes, the murids, sheikhs and pirs, marry only within their group.
Yazidis have five daily prayers:
Nivêja berîspêdê (the Dawn Prayer), Nivêja rojhilatinê (the Sunrise Prayer), Nivêja nîvro (the Noon Prayer), Nivêja êvarî (the Afternoon Prayer), Nivêja rojavabûnê (the Sunset Prayer). However, most Yezidis observe only two of these, the sunrise and sunset prayers.
Worshipers should turn their face toward the sun, and for the noon prayer, they should face toward Laliş. Such prayer should be accompanied by certain gestures, including kissing the rounded neck (gerîvan) of the sacred shirt (kiras). The daily prayer services must not be performed in the presence of outsiders, and are always performed in the direction of the sun. Wednesday is the holy day but Saturday is the day of rest. There is also a three-day fast in December.
The Yazidi New Year falls in Spring (somewhat later than the Equinox). There is some lamentation by women in the cemeteries, to the accompaniment of the music of the Qewals, but the festival is generally characterized by joyous events: the music of dehol (drum) and zorna (shawm), communal dancing and meals, the decorating of eggs.
Similarly, the village Tawaf, a festival held in the spring in honor of the patron of the local shrine, has secular music, dance and meals in addition to the performance of sacred music.
Another important festival is the Tawûsgeran (circulation of the peacock) where Qewals and other religious dignitaries visit Yazidi villages, bringing the senjaq, sacred images of a peacock made from brass symbolising Tawûsê Melek. These are venerated, taxes are collected from the pious, sermons are preached and holy water distributed.
The greatest festival of the year for ordinary Yazidis is the Cejna Cemaiya "Feast of the Assembly" at Lalish, a seven-day occasion. A focus of widespread pilgrimage, this is an important time for social contact and affirmation of identity. The religious center of the event is the belief in an annual gathering of the Heptad in the holy place at this time. Rituals practiced include the sacrifice of a bull at the shrine of Şêx Shams and the practice of sema.
The most important ritual is the annual seven-day pilgrimage to the tomb of Sheikh Adi ibn Musafir (Şêx Adî) in Lalish, north of Mosul, Iraq. A sacred microcosm of the world, as it were, it contains not only many shrines dedicated to the koasasa, but a number of other landmarks corresponding to other sites or symbols of significance in other faiths, including Pirra selat "Serat Bridge" and a mountain called Mt. Arafat. The two sacred springs are called Zamzam and Kaniya Sipî "The White Spring".
If possible, Yazidis make at least one pilgrimage to Laliş during their lifetime, and those living in the region try to attend at least once a year for the autumn Feast of the Assembly which is celebrated from 23 Aylūl (September) to 1 Tashrīn (October). During the celebration, Yazidi bathe in the river, wash figures of Tawûsê Melek and light hundreds of lamps in the tombs of Şêx Adî and other saints. They also sacrifice an ox, which is one reason they have been connected to Mithraism, in addition to the presence of the dog and serpent in their iconography. The sacrifice of the ox is meant to declare the arrival of fall and to ask for precipitation during winter in order to bring back life to the Earth in the next Spring. Moreover, in astrology, the ox is the symbol of Tashrīn.
The Yazidis' concern religious purity, and their reluctance to mix elements perceived to be incompatible, is shown not only in their caste system, but also in various taboos affecting everyday life. Some of these, such as those on exogamy or on insulting or offending men of religion, are widely respected. Others are often ignored when men of religion are not present. Others still are less widely known and may be localized.
The purity of the four elements Earth, Air, Fire and Water is protected by a number of taboos, e.g. against spitting on earth, water or fire. Some discourage spitting or pouring hot water on the ground because they believe that spirits or souls that may be present would be harmed or offended by such actions if they happen to be hit by the discarded liquid. These may also reflect ancient Iranian preoccupations, as apparently do taboos concerning bodily refuse, hair, and menstrual blood.
Too much contact with non-Yazidis is also considered polluting. In the past, Yazidis avoided military service which would have led them to live among Muslims, and were forbidden to share such items as cups or razors with outsiders. A resemblance to the external ear may lie behind the taboo against eating lettuce, whose name koas resembles Kurdish pronunciations of koasasa. Additionally, lettuce grown near Mosul is thought by some Yazidi to be fertilized with human waste, which may contribute to the idea that it is unsuitable for consumption.
Yazidis refrain from wearing the color blue. (Or possibly green as stated in "Soldier Poet and Rebel" by Miles Hudson) The origins of this prohibition are unknown, but may either be because blue represents Noah's flood, or it was possibly the color worn by a conquering king sometime in the past. Alternatively, the prohibition may arise from their veneration of the Peacock Angel and an unwillingness to usurp His colour.
Yazidi are dominantly monogamous but chiefs may be polygamous, having more than one wife. Yazidi are exclusively endogamous; clans do not intermarry even with other Kurds and accept no converts. They claim they are descended only from Adam and not from Eve.
A severe punishment is expulsion, which is also effectively excommunication because the soul of the exiled is forfeit.
The tale of the Yazidis' origin found in the Black Book gives them a distinctive ancestry and expresses their feeling of difference from other races. Before the roles of the sexes were determined, Adam and Eve quarreled about which of them provided the creative element in the begetting of children. Each stored their seed in a jar which was then sealed. When Eve's was opened it was full of insects and other unpleasant creatures, but inside Adam's jar was a beautiful boychild. This lovely child, known as son of Jar grew up to marry a houri and became the ancestor of the Yazidis. Therefore, the Yazidi are regarded as descending from Adam alone, while other humans are descendants of both Adam and Eve.
As a demiurge figure, Tawûsê Melek is often identified by orthodox Muslims as a Shaitan (Satan), a Muslim term denoting a devil or demon who deceives true believers. The Islamic tradition regarding the fall of "Shaitan" from Grace is in fact very similar to the Yazidi story of Malek Taus - that is, the Jinn who refused to submit to Adam is celebrated as Tawûsê Melek by Yazidis, but the Islamic version of the same story curses the same Jinn who refused to submit as becoming Satan. Thus, the Yazidi have been accused of devil worship. Because of this and due to their pre-Islamic beliefs, they have been oppressed by their Muslim neighbors. Treatment of Yazidis was exceptionally harsh during the rule of the Ottoman Empire during the 18th and the first half of 19th century and their numbers dwindled under Ottoman rule both in Syria and Iraq. Massacres at the hand of Ottoman Turks and Muslim Kurdish princes almost wiped out their community in the 19th century. Several punitive expeditions were organized against the Yazidis by the Turkish governors (Wāli) of Diyarbakir, Mosul and Baghdad. These operations were legitimized by fatāwa from Islamic clerics. The objective of these persecutions was the forced conversion of Yazidis to the Sunni Hanafi Islam of the Turkish Ottoman Empire.
In 2007, a group of around 200 Yazidis beat and stoned a 17-year-old Yazidi girl named Du’a Khalil Aswad for falling in love with a Muslim boy. On April 23, 2007 masked gunmen abducted and shot 23 Yazidis near Mosul; this was speculated to be a reprisal attack for Aswad's death.
On August 13, 2009, at least 20 people were killed and 30 wounded in a double suicide bombing in northern Iraq, an Iraqi Interior Ministry official said. Two suicide bombers with explosive vests carried out the attack at a cafe in Sinjar, a town west of Mosul. In Sinjar, many townspeople are members of the Yazidi minority.
Feleknas Uca, a Kurdish Member of the European Parliament for Germany's Party of Democratic Socialism, was the world's only Yazidi parliamentarian until the Iraqi legislature was elected in 2005. European Yazidis have contributed to the academic community, such as Khalil Rashow in Germany and Jalile Jalil in Austria.
As the Yazidi hold religious beliefs that are mostly unfamiliar to outsiders, many non-Yazidi people have written about them and ascribed facts to their beliefs that have dubious historical validity. For example, horror writer H. P. Lovecraft made a reference to "the Yezidi clan of devil-worshippers" in his short story The Horror at Red Hook.
The Yazidis, perhaps because of their secrecy, also have a place in modern occultism. G. I. Gurdjieff wrote about his encounters with the Yazidis several times in his book Meetings with Remarkable Men, mentioning that they are considered to be "devil worshippers" by other ethnicities in the region.
The Theosophical Society, in its electronic version of the Encyclopedic Theosophical Glossary states:
Yezidis (Arabic) [possibly from Persian yazdan god; or the 2nd Umayyad Caliph, Yazid (r. 680 - 683); or Persian city Yezd] A sect dwelling principally in Kurdistan, Armenia, and the Caucasus, who call themselves Dasni. Their religious beliefs take on the characteristics of their surrounding peoples, inasmuch as, openly or publicly, they regard Mohammed as a prophet, and Jesus Christ as an angel in human form. Points of resemblance are found with ancient Zoroastrian and Assyrian religion. The principal feature of their worship, however, is Satan under the name of Muluk-Taus. However, it is not the Christian Satan, nor the devil in any form; their Muluk-Taus is the hundred- or thousand-eyed cosmic wisdom, pictured as a bird (the peacock).
Idries Shah, writing under the pen-name Arkon Daraul, in the 1961 book Secret Societies Yesterday and Today, describes discovering a Yazidi-influenced secret society in the London suburbs called the "Order of the Peacock Angel." Idries Shah claimed that Tawûsê Melek could be understood, from the Sufi viewpoint, as an allegory of the higher powers in humanity. In "Wanted! God, Dead or Alive", an essay in The Book of Lucifer (the second volume in The Satanic Bible), Anton LaVey refers to the Yazidi as "a sect of Devil worshippers", and interprets their beliefs as follows:
They believe that God is all-powerful, but also all-forgiving, and so accordingly feel that it is the Devil whom they must please, as he is the one who rules their lives while here on earth.
In her memoir of her service with an intelligence unit of the U.S. Army's 101st Airborne Division in Iraq during 2003 and 2004, Kayla Williams (2005) records being stationed in northern Iraq near the Syrian border in an area inhabited by "Yezidis". The Yezidis were Kurdish-speaking, but did not consider themselves Kurds, and expressed to Williams a fondness for America and Israel. She was able to learn only a little about the nature of their religion: she thought it very ancient, and concerned with angels. She describes a mountain-top Yezidi shrine as "a small rock building with objects dangling from the ceiling", and alcoves for the placement of offerings. She reports that local Muslims considered the Yezidis to be devil worshippers.
In an October 2006 article in The New Republic, Lawrence F. Kaplan echoes Williams's sentiments about the enthusiasm of the Yazidis for the American occupation of Iraq, in part because the Americans protect them from oppression by militant Muslims and the nearby Kurds. Kaplan notes that the peace and calm of Sinjar is virtually unique in Iraq: "Parents and children line the streets when U.S. patrols pass by, while Yazidi clerics pray for the welfare of U.S. forces."
A fictional Yazidi character of note is the super-powered police officer King Peacock of the Top 10 series (and related comics). He is portrayed as a kind, peaceful character with a broad knowledge of religion and mythology. He is depicted as conservative, ethical, and highly principled in family life. An incredibly powerful martial artist, he is able to destroy matter, a power that he claims is derived from communicating with Malek Ta’us.
Tony Lagouranis comments on a Yazidi prisoner in his book Fear Up Harsh: An Army Interrogator's Dark Journey through Iraq:
There's a lot of mystery surrounding the Yazidi, and a lot of contradictory information. But I was drawn to this aspect of their beliefs: Yazidi don't have a Satan. Malak Ta'us, an archangel, God's favorite, was not thrown out of heaven the way Satan was. Instead, he descended, saw the suffering and pain of the world, and cried. His tears, thousands of years' worth, fell on the fires of hell, extinguishing them. If there is evil in the world, it does not come from a fallen angel or from the fires of hell. The evil in this world is man-made. Nevertheless, humans can, like Malak Ta'us, live in this world but still be good.
A sympathetic Yazidi character appears in Nicola Barker's Booker-nominated novel Darkmans (2007).
In the John Case novel "The Eighth Day" (2002), Yazidi beliefs and their undergound cites of refuge form an important part of the plot.