Who, What, Why: Who are the Yazidis?
7 August 2014 Last updated at 23:52
BBC News Magazine Monitor
Among the many victims of the advance of The Islamic State (IS) in the Middle East are a group of up to 50,000 Yazidis, who are trapped in the mountains in northwest Iraq without food or water. Author Diana Darke explains who these mysterious religious adherents are.
Suddenly thrust into the limelight by their plight, the Yazidis will not welcome the glare of international attention. On account of their unusual beliefs, they are often unjustly referred to as “devil worshippers“, and have traditionally held themselves apart in small communities mainly scattered across northwest Iraq, northwest Syria and southeast Turkey.
Estimating their current numbers is difficult, with figures ranging from 70,000 to 500,000. Feared, vilified and persecuted, there is no doubt the population has dwindled considerably over the course of the past century. Like other minority religions of the region, such as the Druze and the Alawis, it is not possible to convert to Yazidism, only to be born into it.
The ongoing persecution in their heartland of the Mt Sinjar region west of Mosul is based on a misunderstanding of their name. Sunni extremists, such as IS, believe it derives from Yazid ibn Muawiya (647-683), the deeply unpopular second caliph of the Umayyad dynasty. Modern research, however, has clarified that the name is nothing to do with the loose-living Yazid, or the Persian city of Yazd, but is taken from the modern Persian “ized”, which means angel or deity. The name Izidis simply means “worshippers of god“, which is how Yazidis describe themselves.
Their own name for themselves is Daasin (plural Dawaaseen), which is taken from the name of an old Nestorian – the Ancient Church of the East – diocese, for many of their beliefs are derived from Christianity. They revere both the Bible and the Koran, but much of their own tradition is oral. Due in part to its secrecy, there have been misunderstandings that the complex Yazidi faith is linked to Zoroastrianism with a light/dark duality and even sun worship. Recent scholarship, however, has shown that although their shrines are often decorated with the sun and that graves point east towards the sunrise, they share many elements with Christianity and Islam.
Children are baptised with consecrated water by a pir (priest). At weddings he breaks bread and gives one half to the bride and the other to the groom. The bride, dressed in red, visits Christian churches. In December, Yazidis fast for three days, before drinking wine with the pir. On 15-20 September there is an annual pilgrimage to the tomb of Sheikh Adi at Lalesh north of Mosul, where they carry out ritual ablutions in the river. They also practise sacrifice of animals and circumcision.
Their supreme being is known as Yasdan. He is considered to be on such an elevated level that he cannot be worshipped directly. He is considered a passive force, the Creator of the world, not the preserver. Seven great spirits emanate from him of which the greatest is the Peacock Angelknown as Malak Taus – active executor of the divine will. The peacock in early Christianity was a symbol of immortality, because its flesh does not appear to decay. Malak Taus is considered God’s alter ego, inseparable from Him, and to that extent Yazidism is monotheistic.
Yazidis pray to Malak Taus five times a day. His other name is Shaytan, which is Arabic for devil,and this has led to the Yazidis being mislabelled as “devil-worshippers”. The Yazidis believe that souls pass into successive bodily forms (transmigration) and that gradual purification is possible through continual rebirth, making Hell redundant. The worst possible fate for a Yazidi is to be expelled from his community, as this means their soul can never progress. Conversion to another religion is, therefore, out of the question.
In remote areas of southeast Turkey towards the Syrian and Iraqi borders, their once-abandoned villages are starting to come back to life, with new houses being built by the communities themselves. Many Yazidis are returning from exile now that the Turkish government leaves them undisturbed. Despite centuries of persecution the Yazidis have never abandoned their faith, testimony to their remarkable sense of identity and strength of character. If they are driven from Iraq and Syria by IS extremists, the likelihood is that more will settle in southeast Turkey where they are left to live out their beliefs in peace.
By Amir Taheri August 17, 2014 | 12:01am
To hear President Obama tell it, one might think that recent bombing raids by the US against jihadist positions between Mosul and Erbil in northern Iraq have already removed the threat of extermination posed against the Yazidis, a religious minority driven out of its ancestral home by the Islamic State of self-styled Caliph Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.
However, several Yazidi spokesmen reached over the past few days insist that tens of thousands of people are still facing extermination — and on Friday, 80 Yazidis were massacred by IS fighters.
“Our people are dying of hunger, thirst and disease,” says Magdi al-Yazidi. “Those who have not left their homes are prisoners in their besieged villages around el-Qush and Shaikhan. They are simply coming to realize and old dream of fanatical Islamic rulers: wiping our community off the face of the earth.”
It is not only in Iraq that the army of the Caliph Abu Bakr is positioning itself for the “final solution” to the Yazidis. The community is also facing extermination in parts of Syria, notably in Ras al-Ayn and Hessak.
“It has always been a dream of Islamic rulers to wipe us out,” Emir Muawwyyah bin Ismail, the leader of the Yazidis, told me back in the 1980s when he was forced into exile by Saddam Hussein.
The Emir had ended up in Paris after a long trek out of Iraq through Syria. Hussein had given him a choice between death and exile after the Emir issued a statement banning Yazidis from joining the despot’s army for a war against Iran.
After an initial meeting with the Emir, I managed to persuade him to speak about his community, its history and the Yazidi faith. He did, thus ending almost 15 centuries of esoteric tradition under which Yazidis pretended to be some sort of Muslims.
“The pretension was necessary to avoid genocide,” he told me.
Our conversations lasted over some six months and resulted in a book published under the title “To Us Spoke Zarathustra.”
As far as fanatical Muslims are concerned, Yazidis must be classified among the heathen because they do not belong to any of the three Abrahamic religions: Judaism, Christianity and Islam.
Under Islamic rules, Jews and Christians are regarded as “people of the book” and thus could live among Muslims provided they pay a protection fee known as “dhimma.” Even if they wanted to, Yazidis cannot make use of that provision because they regard themselves as followers of Zoroaster, a prophet of ancient Iranian peoples who preached around 700 BC.
The belief system starts with the assertion that there is but one God, variously known as Izad, Yazdan or Xweda (Khoda in Persian).
Their one God shares the basic traits of Ahura-Mazda, the Wise God of Zoroaster. It is Ahura-Mazda who decided that a world should be created. But he subcontracts the task to a demiurge figure known as Tavous Malek (“The Peacock Angel”) who, assisted by six other angels each representing an aspect of natural life, shape the world as man knows it. As might have been expected, the sub-contractors, not having God’s divine infallibility, make some mistakes which leads to the emergence of evil in the world.
In that context, the Good God needs the help of human beings to fight evil in a series of three battles, at the end of which the fate of the universe is decided forever. Thus, the Yazidis faith is the only religion in which God needs help from human beings, a concept that scandalizes fanatical Muslims who regard Allah as omnipotent and infallible. The Yazidi god can enter into a conversation with man; Allah cannot.
Man could help god by becoming “truly human,” Yazidis assert. According to one of their proverbs: “Just as the best sword is the sharpest, the best man is the most human.”
A peaceful people opposed to violence and bloodshed, Yazidis believe that no cause is worth killing people for, something that scandalizes fanatical Muslims who regard the spread of “The Only True Faith” by sword as a duty and the man who does it as the “Ghazi” (Holy Warrior) who is assured a place in paradise.
The Yazidis tradition of equality between men and women, including the rejection of polygamy, also scandalizes their fanatical Muslim neighbors.
Arab Sunnis also hate Yazidis because of their language, a variety of Kurdish, itself one of the 18 Iranic languages still alive in Western Asia.
The Yazidis claim to be the oldest religious community with a continuous existence in its own land. That may well be the case, at least as far as he estimated 600,000 Yazidis who live in Iraq are concerned. There are a further 1.8 million Yazidis in Syria, Turkey, Iran and Transcaucasia not to mention almost a million others in exile in more than 50 countries across the globe.
Iraq has always been a mosaic of peoples and faith. Six decades ago, 20% of Baghdad’s population consisted of Jews. Today there are only six Jews in the whole of Iraq. The Armenia community has shrunk by almost 90% while other Christian communities are also shrinking. Caliph Abu Bakr ’s dream is to have an Iraq empty of all non-Muslims so that he could embark on his second phase of his “purification” by organizing genocide against Shiites regarded as deviant Muslims.
The Caliph dreams of a hecatomb in Iraq. He must be stopped.
Yazidi families struggle to find and free enslaved daughters