August 20, 2017

Who are the Yazidis?


Yazidi refugees who fled ISIS attacks - photo by Safin Hamed, AFP/Getty Images
Yazidi refugees who fled ISIS attacks – photo by Safin Hamed, AFP/Getty Images

Why are the Yazidis in the news?

Symbol of Melek Taus, the peacock angel
Symbol of Malek Taus, the peacock angel

If you’ve been watching the news at all this week, you’ve probably by now heard of the Yazidis (or Yezidis), the predominantly Kurdish members of little-known religious sect that predates Islam and has a mix of beliefs similar to Zoroastrianism, aspects of Christianity and other ancient traditions. This of course is a problem for the terrorist group formerly known as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) who now call themselves Islamic State, who believes that the Yazidis are the worst type of infidel. Basically, ISIS is against any way of thought remotely different from their own, and this of course includes religion. The Yazidis were recently given the option by ISIS to convert to their strict form of Islam or face death. As ISIS conquered their ancestral homeland in northeastern Iraq, they butchered, pillaged, tortured, kidnapped and raped any Yazidis that they captured. The remaining Yazidis ran with nothing but the clothes on their backs into the Sinjar mountains for shelter, not really getting any and facing extreme temperatures without food or water.  ISIS thugs surrounded the mountains and threatened to kill any Yazidis that ventured down. This is where Barack Obama and the US military stepped in to help the Yazidis by bombing ISIS targets in the area. It’s become a dire situation without an end in the foreseeable future, but the fact that the US has entered into the fray on the side of the Kurds and to protect the minority Yazidis and Iraqi Christians is a game changer.

So, this begs the question,

Who are the Yazidis?

The Yazidis are a religiously heterodox Kurdish group who have incorrectly been labeled devil worshippers by those of other religions, especially orthodox Muslims. This is not the case. They are actually a sect of the indigenous Kurdish religion of the Cult of Angels. The main figure in the Yazidi religion is an angel named Melek Taus, who was a fallen “peacock angel” eventually forgiven by God. The fact that Yazidis also refer to him as “Shaytan” doesn’t help their cause with many Muslims, since “Shaytan” in Arabic is the term used for Lucifer, i.e. the devil. Hence, this is why they are often referred to by others as devil-worshippers. This of course is not correct. Melek Taus is not an evil being but the leader of and most powerful of all the archangels, of which there are seven.

Displaced families from the minority Yazidi sect, fleeing the violence in the Iraqi town of Sinjarl west of Mosul, arrive at Dohuk province
Displaced families from the minority Yazidi sect, fleeing the violence in the Iraqi town of Sinjarl west of Mosul, arrive at Dohuk province

While today their numbers are believed to be anywhere from 70,000 to 500,000 people, the Yazidis have constantly faced persecution and death, especially from Muslim zealots. There have been reportedly 72 massacres or attempted genocides of Yazidi populations on record. Though ISIS may be the most brutal in recent history, Yazidis are no strangers to attacks from others because of their religion. In 2007, the Yezidi villages of Kahataniya and Al-Jazeera were struck by al Qaeda-affiliated terrorists, where 700 Yezidis were killed. Up until the arrival of ISIS, the Yazidis occupied the cities of Sinjar, Bahshika, and Bahzani in the Nineveh and Mosul areas of northern Iraq. Many also live in the city of Lalish, a city north of Mosul and the place of their most important shrine, the tomb of Sheikh Adi, who is one of their great reformers and who they consider to be a sort of avatar. However in the 1930s, a large number of Yazidis left northern Iraq due to persecution and settled in the Tor Abdin mountains between Mardin and Midyat and Batman in Turkey, many of whom eventually migrated to Germany. Other pockets of Yazidis live in the Russian Caucasus mountains and also in Armenia. In all of these places, they have suffered immense persecution for their belies from Arabs, Turks, and even their own Kurdish brethren.

The tomb of Shaikh Adi, one of the holiest sites in the Yazidi religion
The tomb of Shaikh Adi, one of the holiest sites in the Yazidi religion

The most important Yazidi celebration is Jam, which is a seven-day festival during the first half of October. Yazidis have many dietary restrictions and are prohibited from consuming lettuce, fish, gazelles and poultry. They are also not supposed to wear dark blue. They have two main sacred books, the Mashaf-rash, which contains the core principals of their religion, and the Kitab al-Djilwa, which was written by Sheikh Adi. Interestingly enough both books are written in Arabic. 1

More information about the Yazidis:

BBC: Who, What, Why: Who are the Yazidis? – Probably the best online site I’ve come across for basic, succinct information about the Yazidis.

National Geographic: Who Are the Yazidis, the Ancient, Persecuted Religious Minority Struggling to Survive in Iraq? – Similar to the BBC site about but also with some interesting photos

Yezidi Truth – site by Yazidis themselves explaining the basics of their religion


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