Hunted by militants from the Islamic State, thousands of people from the Yazidi community have fled to the slopes of Iraq’s Mount Sinjar, where they are caught between the prospect of death by dehydration and murder at the hands of the group formerly called ISIS. In the months since its rise, the Sunni-identified Islamic State has gone after many religious and ethnic minorities in Iraq and Syria, including Christians, Shiite Muslims, Shiite Turkmen, Shiite Shabaks, and of course the Yazidi.
Also called Yezidi, Daasin, or Ezidi, the Yazidi are a Kurdish-speaking ethnoreligious community based in Northern Iraq who practice a syncretic religion influenced by pre-Islamic Assyrian traditions, Sufi and Shiite Islam, Nestorian Christianity, and Zoroastrianism. Their rich oral tradition is their primary way of passing on their beliefs, which makes it complicated for scholars and historians to pin down the nuances of their religion.
Iraq-born Sabrin Kassem, a 23-year-old Yazidi activist based in Seattle, Washington, told The Huffington Post, “The Yezidis are commonly misunderstood by those who do not take the time to understand and research who we really are. We are looked upon by a lot of people as the devil worshippers and this is a big reason why we are hated and continue to be attacked by others who want to get rid of us.”
Kassem, the creator of the “Stop Yezidi Genocide” Facebook page, added, “That is not who we are. We are one of the oldest, most peaceful religions in Iraq and have never had any problems. We keep to ourselves and accept and appreciate every human being on Earth.”
Here’s what you should know about the Yazidi’s oft-misunderstood religious beliefs:
Beliefs and Cosmology
Yazidis believe that the world was created by God, who entrusted it to seven angels led by one known as the Peacock Angel, also called Melek Taus. Melek Taus is the primary figure in the Yazidi belief system, as he filled the earth with flora and fauna.
The religion of the Yazidis, Yazidism, is a kind of Yazdânism and has many influences: Sufi influence and imagery can be seen in the religious vocabulary, especially in the terminology of the Yazidis’ esoteric literature, but much of the theology 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, research published since the 1990s has shown such an approach to be simplistic.
Their religion is monotheistic and non-dualistic, and they do not believe in the concept of Hell. For them, all people have good and evil inside of them, and choices are made free of external temptation. They believe in internal purification through metempsychosis, a term referring to the transmigration of souls, according toEncyclopedia Britannica. They believe that the seven angels are occasionally reincarnated in human form.
Yazidis believe that they are descended directly from Adam alone, while the rest of humanity comes from the lineage of both Adam and Eve.
Though their belief system is rooted in the pre-Islamic tradition, the figure credited as the founder of the Yazidi faith is Sheikh Adi ibn Musafir, a Sufi preacher who died in 1162. Considered to be an incarnation of Melek Taus, Sheikh Musafir’s tomb near Mosul, Iraq, is the Yazidi’s most important pilgrimage site.
The Peacock Angel, Melek Taus
The concept of Melek Taus is the most misunderstood part of the Yazidi religion, and is one of the reasons why their community has suffered such historical persecution. They believe that once God created Adam and Eve, he ordered the angels to bow to his creations. While the other angels did so, Melek Taus was the only one to refuse, because he believed that he should submit to no one but the Supreme God. He was then thrown into Hell, until his tears of remorse quenched the fires and he became reconciled to God. He now serves as an intermediary between God and humanity.
This story bears similarities to the Muslim account of Satan, called Iblis or Shaytan. In the Islamic tradition, Satan is a fallen angel or jinn who refused to bow down to Adam out of pride. For this act, he was banished from heaven and now exists to tempt humanity into evil.
Melek Taus is often confused with Satan for this reason, and the Yazidi have been called devil-worshippers by Muslims and Christians who do not understand their beliefs since the late 16th and early 17th centuries. Thomas Schmidinger, a Kurdish politics expert at the University of Vienna, told National Geographic, “To this day, many Muslims consider them to be devil worshippers. So in the face of religious persecution, Yazidis have concentrated in strongholds located in remote mountain regions.”
Matthew Barber, a scholar of Islamic thought at the University of Chicago who also specializes in issues related to Yazidi society, told The Huffington Post, “In the Yazidi creation narrative, Tawsi Melek is not fallen, but because aspects of his interactions with God bear similarity to that of Satan in Islamic tradition, Muslims have associated him with the Devil, leading to the famed ‘devil-worshippers’ libel that has been impossible for the community to shake through history.”
Melek Taus is manifested in the form of a peacock. According to the Rev. Prof Patrick Comerford, a lecturer at the Church of Ireland Theological Institute, “In early Christianity, the peacock symbolized the Resurrection and immortality because it was believed its flesh does not decay.” This characteristic, as well as the peacock’s brilliant colors, may factor into this understanding of the angel.
The Yazidis are a mostly Kurdish-speaking people who adhere to the religion Yazidism (see Yazdânism), a religion rooted in Persian religions blended with elements of pre-Islamic Mesopotamian/Assyrian religious traditions,Mithraism, Christianity and Islam. In addition to the Kurdish-speaking majority, there are significant Yazidi communities that speak Arabic as their native language.The Kurdish speaking Yazidis speak Kurmanji(Northern Kurdish), which is an Indo-European language. Although they speak mostly Kurdish, their ethnicity is obscure. Commentators identify the Yazidis as predominately Kurds but according to some sources, they tend to regard themselves as distinct from Kurds. Many Yazidis say that Kurds are originally Yazidi who shifted culturally after they adopted Islam.The United Nations recognizes the Yazidis as a distinct ethnic group.
The Kurdish authorities are working hard to impose Kurdish identity on two of the most vulnerable minorities in Iraq, the Yazidis and the Shabaks”. Their principal holy site is inLalish, 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 Iranian yazata(divine being), and Yazidis themselves believe that their name is derived from the word Yezdan or Êzid “God”, denying the widespread idea that it is a derivation from Umayyad Caliph Yazid I (Yazid bin Muawiyah), revered as Sultan Ezi. The Yazidis’ cultural practices are observed in Kurdish, and almost all speak Kurmanjî with the exception of the villages of Bashiqa and Bahazane, where Arabic is spoken. Kurmanjî is the language of almost all the orally transmitted religious traditions of the Yazidis.
Historically, the Yazidis lived primarily in communities in locales that are in present-day Iraq, Syria, and Turkey, and also had significant numbers in Armenia and Georgia. However, events since the 20th century have resulted in considerable demographic shift in these areas as well as mass emigration. As a result, population estimates are unclear in many regions, and estimates of the size of the total population vary.
The Yazidi community is based in Iraq, near their primary shrine, Sheikh Adi ibn Musafir’s tomb in Lalish, near Mosul. Yazidis can calso be found in Iran, Syria, and Turkey, though many have migrated to Europe and America since the first Gulf War.
Their population is estimated to number as many as 600,000 people, though the recent violence in Iraq has most likely decreased their ranks.
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.
The Yazidi New Year falls in Spring, on the first Wednesday of April (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.
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 Laliş, 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.
Wednesday is the holy day , but Saturday is the day of rest. There is also a three-day fast in December.
The community is highly insular, practicing endogamous marriage. They have a caste system of murids, sheikhs, and pirs, who each marry within their own group, according to The Guardian.
Children are baptized at birth, and though circumcision is common, it is not required. Their dead are buried in conical tombs soon after death, with crossed hands.
Yazidis are dominantly monogamous but chiefs may be polygamous, having more than one wife. Yazidis 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.
In 2007, an incidence of honour killing—the stoning of Du’a Khalil Aswad—made world headlines.
Holidays and Holy Places
The holiest Yazidi shrine is the tomb of founder Sheikh Adi ibn Musafir in Lalish, near Mosul, Iraq. The faithful make an annual pilgrimage there to observe the holiday of Jema’iyye, the Feast of the Seven Days.
Yazidi society is hierarchical. Their world leader is currently Prince Tahseen Said, who appealed to world leaders last week to come to the aid of the Yazidis.
Purity and taboos
The Yazidis’ concern with religious purity, and their reluctance to mix elements perceived to be incompatible, is shown in not only their caste system, but also various taboos affecting everyday life. Some of these, such as those on exogamy or on insulting or offending men of religion, are widely respected.
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 waste, 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 head lettuce, whose namekoas resembles Yazidi pronunciations of koasasa. Additionally, lettuce grown near Mosul is thought by some Yazidis to be fertilized with human waste, which may contribute to the idea that it is unsuitable for consumption. However, in a BBC interview in April 2010, a senior Yazidi authority stated that ordinary Yazidis may eat what they want, but holy men refrain from certain vegetables (including cabbage) because “they cause gases”.
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 quarrelled 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 Yazidis are regarded as descending from Adam alone, while other humans are descendants of both Adam and Eve.
Under the Ottoman Empire
A large Yazidi community existed in Syria, but they declined due to persecution by the Ottoman Empire. Several punitive expeditions were organized against the Yazidis by the Ottoman governors (Wāli) of Diyarbakir,Mosul and Baghdad. The objective of these persecutions was the forced conversion of Yazidis to the Sunni Hanafi Islam of the Ottoman Empire.
The history of the Yazidis is inextricably intertwined with persecution at the hands of members of other religions, most notably Islam.
Yazidi parliament member Haji Ghandour told The Washington Post, “In our history, we have suffered 72 massacres. We are worried Sinjar could be a 73rd.”
Barber told The Huffington Post, “Islam’s political framework includes provisions of protection for a limited number of religious minorities, specifically those with a written scripture viewed as part of the monotheistic trajectory that preceded Islam, such as Zoroastrianism, Judaism, and Christianity—religions instituted by God, but later corrupted.”
Barber, who is is currently in Dohuk conducting research and is involved with refugees from Mosul and Sinjar, added, “That Yazidi religion is based on oral traditions rather than written scripture, that their conception of divinity contains polytheistic elements, and that they have long been maligned as ‘devil worshippers,’ disqualifies them from being one of Islam’s protected ‘People of the Book‘ minorities.” However, in the case of the extremist Islamic State, it is clear that Islamic conceptions of protected minorities are completely insignificant.
For the Yazidi, the price of global ignorance about their religion is death. The international Yazidi community is now desperately trying to raise awareness about their beliefs and the unthinkable persecution that they face. “We cannot sit back and allow a genocide to happen to our people because of what they choose to believe,” said Kassem. “Innocent families do not deserve this. No one in this world deserves to be hated on and killed like this.”