About ten months ago, the name of an unknown Kurdish sect in northern Iraq made headlines due to their almost certain annihilation by the barbaric forces of Daesh, commonly known in English as the Islamic State. In August I had written a short piece on them, a sort of introduction to the Yezidis and why Daesh was after them. Since then some of their lands have been taken back and a coalition led by the United States has formed to combat Daesh. However despite this, many Yezidis have been forced from their homes and now live as refugees, have loved ones who have either been kidnapped, forced to convert to Islam or killed, and live in constant fear and uncertainty of what the future holds in store for them. Since August though I have also been able to learn more about the Yezidis and wanted to extrapolate on what I had written previously.
Who are the Yezidis?
The Yezidis are a small religious sect numbering somewhere around 600,000 – 700,000 followers. They generally speak the Kurmanji dialect of Kurdish and are dispersed geographically throughout the regions of Kurdistan in northern Iraq, Syria, Turkey and also in the Caucasus region.
Their history is one of great hardship and persecution. One one hand, they are Kurds. This has put them at a disadvantage politically in the Middle East because Kurds are large minorities without a state of their own. Their homeland is a region broadly described as Kurdistan, meaning “land of the Kurds.” Most of Kurdistan is engulfed by Turkey, Iraq, Syria and Iran, countries that are all hostile to an independent Kurdish state. While most Yezidis live in these countries (500,000 alone in northern Iraq), many left these regions and fled to the Caucasus areas of Armenia, Georgia, Azerbaijan, and what is now Russia to escape from persecution by the Ottoman Turks. A sizable group, some estimate between 35,000 – 100,000, now also live in Germany.
The second reason that Yezidis are persecuted is because of their religious beliefs. Yezidis have often been denounced by orthodox Muslims as “devil-worshippers.” This of course is not true as they are a monotheistic religion, worshipping one God like Muslims, Jews, Christians and Zoroastrians. More on this below.
The Origins of Yezidism
The Yezidis as a community have probably lived for thousands of years in the mountains of Iraq, Turkey, Syria and Iran. Many believe that the name Yezidi is derived from the word Yazdan, meaning God in the old pre-Islamic Iranian languages. Though having the same origins and related to ancient Persian religions such as Zoroastrianism, Yezidism as we known it today developed out of the ‘Adawiyya Sufi religious order. Sufism is the mystical branch of Islam and is generally more accepting of other ways of thought, unlike Salafism or Wahhabism, which take more literalist interpretations of Muslim religious scriptures.
Yezidi religion and thought was influenced tremendously by the Sufi Shaykh Adi ibn Musafi, who was born in 1073 in Lebanon. After studying in Baghdad, Shaykh Adi came to the town of Lalish in what is today northern Iraq. In time, he developed a following amongst some Kurdish tribes including those who now refer to themselves as Yezidis. Though many of their religious beliefs changed after the arrival of Shaykh Adi, the Yezidis overall kept and incorporated many of their pre-Islamic traditions and rites into their worship of God. It is partially because of this that many orthodox Muslims refer to them as “devil-worshippers” and have heavily persecuted them over the centuries.
In a sense, the Yezidis do not have a very rigid form of religion and historically, their traditions have been passed down over generations orally. It is relatively recently, possibly only in the 19th century, that Yezidi texts were written down (most Yezids until recently were illiterate). Their body of religious literature mainly consists of the qewls which are sacred hymns in the Kurmanji language and are chanted during religious occasions and festivals, and two holy books, the Kitab al-Djilwa, or the “Book of Revelation” and the Mashaf-rash, or the “Black Book.” When Yezidis pray, they face the sun.
As mentioned earlier, the Yezidis believe in one God whom they call Khode (similar to Khuda in Persian). In addition, there are seven Holy Angels known as khas to whom God has entrusted the order the world. The head of these Angels is called Malek Tawus, the “Peacock Angel.”
Unlike the followers of Abrahamic faiths and similar to the religions of the east, Yezidis believe in
reincarnation. Similar to Zoroastrians, Yezidis do not proselytize, meaning that they do not accept converts. One has to be born into the Yezidi faith. They also only marry those already in their community.
Traditional Yezidis adhere to a sort of caste system in which there are two main groups, laymen and priests. These priests are further divided into several subgroups in which the shaykh and the pir are considered to be the most important. Each Yezidi follows a pir who acts as a spiritual guide for the devotee. Even pirs and shaykhs have their own pir who they look to for spiritual guidance. Shaykhs are responsible for performing the specific religious rites that go along with birth, marriage and death. The two most important clergymen in Yezidi life are the mir of sheykhan, who is regarded as the successor or representative of Shaykh Adi (and by extension also of Melek Tawus), and Baba Shaykh, the head of all the priests and considered to be the top spiritual leader of the community.
Purity, both spiritual and physical, are extremely important for Yezidis. Yezidis keep this purity by not shaving their facial hair, not spitting and also not marrying outside of the community, which is considered spiritually impure. Other prohibitions including wearing the color blue and eating lettuce, cabbage, fish, pumpkins and certain types of beans.
The Future for the Yezidis
Like many ancient communities, the Yezidis face challenges in preserving their cultural and religious heritage. Once just an isolated community living in remote mountain strongholds, today Yezidis are spread throughout many parts of the globe. It seems that this trend will only increase as life becomes even more dangerous in many of their original homelands, especially in northern Iraq where the rise of radical Islamic fundamentalism poses a grave threat to the community. This is why the global community must work to ensure that the rights of not only Yezidis, but all minorities including Christians, Jews and other Muslim sects are protected and allowed to worship as is their unalienable human right.
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