The Remarkable Sense of Identity of the Yazidis
For centuries the Yazidis faced persecution, yet they have never abandoned their faith. Their perseverance is a testimony to their remarkable sense of identity. Before 2014 and the widespread atrocities perpetrated by the Islamic State (IS) in northern Iraq, which tragically affected this community, very few people in the West knew about the Yazidis. In 2014, more than 3,000 Yazidis were executed in the matter of days and many of those who survived were either forced into sex slavery or religious conversions. The outrageous images of the chained Yazidi women being sold in IS slave markets shocked the world and brought this community to a center of attention.
Four years on, it is important to look back to reflect on that tragedy and revisit a community which has been subject to so much persecution and misunderstanding at the same time. Some of the historical misunderstandings and rumors which framed Yazidis as “devil worshipers” were used by fanatical perpetrators to religiously “justify” tormenting this community. Although today the worst is over, there is still much miscomprehension about the Yazidis.
The Yazidi community is part of a pre-Islamic Kurdish minority. They live primarily in northern Iraq, but they can also be found in Iran, Syria, Turkey, Georgia, Russia, and Armenia. Many Yazidis have also migrated to Europe, particularly to Germany since the war between Iran and Iraq that lasted from 1980 to 1988. Their population is estimated to be as high as 600,000 people. The community is highly insular, practicing endogamous marriage. They have a system based on three castes: murids, sheikhs, and pirs. People from each caste marry within their own group. Their current world leader is Prince Tahseen Said.
Yazidis believe that they are descended directly from Adam alone, while the rest of humanity comes from the lineage of both Adam and Eve, as the Huffington Post explains. This Yazidi belief is rooted in the pre-Islamic tradition, but it is Sheikh Adi ibn Musafir, a Sufi preacher who died in 1162, who is the figure considered as the founder of the faith.
For Yazidis, he is an incarnation of Melek Taus, or “the Peacock Angel”, who leads the other angels who created the world. Every year in September there is a pilgrimage to the tomb of Sheikh Musafir at the Lalish, north of Mosul. There, the Yazidi pilgrims carry out ritual ablutions in the river.
One of the main sources of misunderstanding of this community is their name, Yazidi, or sometimes Yezidi. This name has been subject to various interpretations and it has meant different things to different people. For example, some Sunni Muslims believe it derives from Yazid ibn Muawiya (645-683), the greatly unpopular second caliph of the Umayyad dynasty. For the Muslim Shiites, Yazid is the ultimate hate figure because he is the one who killed the third Shia Imam and son of Ali, Hussain (or Husayn), in the battle of Karbala (680 AD), which was the most important turning point in the Shia-Sunni schism.
Some people also associate the Yazidis to the Persian city of Yazd. However, according to the BBC, the latest research has clarified that the name has nothing to do with the Iranian city of Yazd, but is taken from the modern Persian “ized”, which means “angel” or “deity”. The name Izidis means “worshippers of God”, and it is also how Yazidis define themselves.
The name they call themselves is Daasin (plural Dawaaseen), which is derived from the name of an old Nestorian diocese, the Ancient Church of the East. Yazidis respect both the Bible and the Quran, but much of their own tradition is oral. There is a very common misunderstanding which links Yazidi faith to Zoroastrianism, which entails a duality between light and dark and even sun worship. Nonetheless, the recent research has demonstrated that their religion is non-dualistic: they don’t believe in the existence of evil or Hell.
For the Yazidis, all people have good and evil inside of them, and choices are made free of external temptation. Although their shrines are often decorated with the sun and that their graves point east towards the sunrise, which is similar to Zoroastrianism, they share also many elements with both Christianity and Islam. Looking at some of the Yazidi rituals can give us a frame of reference. For example, they practice the sacrifice of animals and circumcision. The Yazidi children are baptized with ‘holy water’ by a priest whom they call a pir. At wedding ceremonies, the pir breaks bread and gives one half to the bride and the other to the groom. The bride is dressed in red and visits Christian churches. The Yazidis fast for three days in December and then celebrate the end of the fast by drinking wine with the pir.
According to the Yazidi faith, the supreme being is Yasdan, who cannot be worshipped directly. Yasdan is the Creator of the world, but is not the preserver. Hence, he is considered a passive force. Seven great spirits emanate from him, of which the greatest is Malak Taus (otherwise known as the Peacock Angel), who is the active executor of the divine will on earth. It is important to note that the peacock in early Christianity was a symbol of immortality because its flesh does not appear to decay.
The notion of Melek Taus is the most misunderstood part of the Yazidi belief system. Yazidis 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 refused, because he believed that he should bow to no one but the Supreme God. For his lack of submission, he was thrown into Hell, until his tears of remorse quenched the fires and he became reconciled to God. According to the Yazidi belief, he now serves as an intermediary between God and humanity. Therefore, the Peacock Angel is considered God’s s alter ego, inseparable from Him. So, to that extent, Yazidism is monotheistic.
The story of Malak Taus has some similarities to the Muslim story of Satan, who is also called Iblis or Shaytan in Arabic. For Muslims, Satan is a fallen angel who refused to submit to Adam out of pride. For this act, he was banished from heaven. However, the main difference is that Satan never reconciled with God and when he fell from heaven, he started to tempt humanity into evil.
Similar to Muslims, Yazidis pray five times a day, but they pray facing the sun at sunrise, noon, and sunset. Their rholy day is Wednesday, and their day of rest is Saturday. Because they pray to Malak Taus, and because the other name for Malak Taus is Shaytan, which means devil in Arabic, the Yazidis have been mislabelled as “devil-worshippers”. The Yazidis believe that gradual purification is possible through continual rebirth, which makes the notion of Hell redundant. This in turn means that they believe in internal purification through metempsychosis, a term referring to the transmigration of souls. Moreover, they believe that the seven angels are occasionally reincarnated in human form. Should a Yazidi get expelled from his or her community, his or her soul can never progress and like Islam and Christianity, conversion to another religion is out of the question. Similarly, no one can convert to the Yazidi faith.
The Yazidi belief system and their insular way of life have been used as the pretext for their persecution for many centuries. The advent of the modern nation-state in the early 20th century did not necessarily make their lives easier. Although the Islamic State is removed from their main areas in northern Iraq, they continue to be a very vulnerable community in a region which has fundamental issues with minority rights. An easier exit strategy for the Yazidis has been a mass migration to Europe, which may have offered them minority rights but physically has to disconnect them from their ancient lands.