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Yazidi pilgrims in Lalish, Iraq

The Yazidis (also known as Yezidis) are a Kurdish-speaking religious group that lives in northwest Iraq and parts of Syria, Armenia and Turkey. Sometimes erroneously referred to as devil worshipers by Muslims and Christians, they practice a religion that has its roots in Sufism and Zoroastrianism and contains elements of Christianity, nature worship and Islam.

Yazidis physically resemble Muslim Kurds and Armenians although they consider themselves to be a separate people. However, some do refer themselves as Kurds. There are a few scholars that believe that they may be the remnant of an ancient Mesopotamian population.

There are about 1 million Yazidis worldwide, with about 300,000 of them in Iraq. Yazidis have traditionally been found in five major areas: 1) Sheihan, the most important, in northern Iraq, northeast of Mosul; 2) Saba Sinjar, in Iraq near the Syrian border, about 100 kilometers west of Mosul; 3) Halitiyek in Diyabakir Province in southeastern Turkey; 4) Malliyaj, to the west of the Euphrates in Syria, including Aleppo; and 5) Sarahdat in the Caucasus region.

The majority of Yazidis that live in the former Soviet Union live in Armenia and to a lesser extent Georgia. The census in 1989 counted 51,900 Yazidis in Armenia. Yazidis are found in significant numbers in the urban centers of Ejmiatsin and Gumri in Armenia and Tbilisi in Georgia as well as Aparan and Talin Armenia and Lachin and Kelbajar in western Azerbaijan. There a few small communities in Turkmenistan.

Websites and Resources: Islam Islam.com islam.com ; Islamic City islamicity.com ; Islam 101 islam101.net ; Wikipedia article Wikipedia ; Religious Tolerance religioustolerance.org/islam ; BBC article bbc.co.uk/religion/religions/islam ; Patheos Library – Islam patheos.com/Library/Islam ; University of Southern California Compendium of Muslim Texts web.archive.org ; Encyclopædia Britannica article on Islam britannica.com ; Islam at Project Gutenberg gutenberg.org ; Islam from UCB Libraries GovPubs web.archive.org ; Muslims: PBS Frontline documentary pbs.org frontline ; Discover Islam dislam.org ;

Islamic History: Islamic History Resources uga.edu/islam/history ; Internet Islamic History Sourcebook fordham.edu/halsall/islam/islamsbook ; Islamic History friesian.com/islam ; Islamic Civilization cyberistan.org ; Muslim Heritage muslimheritage.com ; Brief history of Islam barkati.net ; Chronological history of Islam barkati.net

Shias, Sufis and Muslim Sects and Schools Divisions in Islam archive.org ; Four Sunni Schools of Thought masud.co.uk ; Wikipedia article on Shia Islam Wikipedia Shafaqna: International Shia News Agency shafaqna.com ; Roshd.org, a Shia Website roshd.org/eng ; The Shiapedia, an online Shia encyclopedia web.archive.org ; shiasource.com ; Imam Al-Khoei Foundation (Twelver) al-khoei.org ; Official Website of Nizari Ismaili (Ismaili) the.ismaili ; Official Website of Alavi Bohra (Ismaili) alavibohra.org ; The Institute of Ismaili Studies (Ismaili) web.archive.org ; Wikipedia article on Sufism Wikipedia ; Sufism in the Oxford Encyclopedia of the Islamic World oxfordislamicstudies.com ; Sufism, Sufis, and Sufi Orders – Sufism's Many Paths islam.uga.edu/Sufism ; Afterhours Sufism Stories inspirationalstories.com/sufism ; Risala Roohi Sharif, translations (English and Urdu) of "The Book of Soul", by Hazrat Sultan Bahu, a 17th century Sufi risala-roohi.tripod.com ; The Spiritual Life in Islam:Sufism thewaytotruth.org/sufism ; Sufism - an Inquiry sufismjournal.org

Early History of the Yazidis

Yazidis assert their religion is older than Judaism, Christianity and Islam. They claim they are descendants of Abraham. But all this doesn’t correspond with the fact that Sheik Adi ibn Musafir, the author of the religion’s sacred text, lived in the 11th or 12th century. The origin of the Yazidis is unclear because there are no written documents that provide any clues to address this issue. There are different ideas from different scholars as well as different Yazidi communities in Iraqi and elsewhere in the Middle East.

places the Yazidi live

According to tradition, the Yazidis originated in Syria, near Basra, and later migrated to the Sindjat region of Iraqi Kurdistan, where they adopted the Kurdish language. It is said their religion was founded by Shaahid ibn Djarraah, the true son of Adam, and later restored by the caliph Yazid ibn Muawaiya. Some Kurdish scholars assert that Yazidism was the national religion of the Kurds in the Middle Ages. There is no evidence to back up any of these claims.

Yazidism is believed to have been founded by Sheik Adi ibn Musafir, a semi-legendary Sufi mystic who died in 1162. According to legend he was sent by the Peacock Angel (See Below) to educate and guide the Yazidis. Sheik Adi’s tomb, near Mosul, is an important pilgrimage site for the Yazidi faithful.

Persecution of the Yazidi

The Yazidis have a long history of being persecuted. They were oppressed by their Ottoman overlords and Kurdish neighbors in the Ottoman era. Muslims accused them of being members of a heretical sect. They were disliked by formal governments for their refusal to abide by their military service obligations. They have been misunderstood, laughed at, subjected to forced conversions and massacred. Under Saddam Hussein, they were protected and treated fairly well.

Yazidi temple in Aknalitch, Armenia

Many of the Yazidis that live in the Caucasus region were driven there during waves of religious persecution in the 19th and early 20th centuries. They settled in largely Christian Armenia and Georgia in part because throughout their history they have been persecuted less by Christians than by Muslims. A close bond developed between the Yazidis and the Armenians because both had been subjected of viscous persecution and forced migrations by the Turks under Ottoman rule.

Yazidi Religion

Yazidi theology contains Zoroastrian, Jewish, Manichean, Gnostic Christian (especially Nestorian) and Muslim elements but there is no evidence that the Yazidi religion is an offshoot of any particular one of them. Yazidis believe the world was created by God, but was sustained by a hierarchy of subordinate beings (angels).

Yazidis believe there is no eternal damnation. Rather human beings are gradually perfected through a reincarnation-like series of lives. The souls of sinners may be passed on to animals but eventually they will reemerge as humans. They also believe that the souls of the righteous people can provide assistance to people living on earth.

Unlike other people of the world who descended from Adam and Eve, the Yazidi believe they descended from Adam only. In one version of their origin legend, there were 72 Adams, one after another, each more perfected than the one before him, with the 72nd one marrying Eve and begetting two children without Eve that produced the Yazidi race.

There are two sacred books said to have been written in the 12th through 14th century. The “Kitab al-Jilwa” (“Book of Enlightenment”) is written in archaic Kurdish and thought to have been dictated by Sheik Adi. Most of the text is about the Peacock Angel, who speaks in the first person, often boasting of his powers and promising rewards for his followers. The second book, the “Masxafe resh” (“Black Book”) discusses the creation of humanity and the temptations of evil and provides information on taboos.

Yazidi "Devil"

Malek, the Peacock Angel

Yazidis believe in a creator god (Khude) that is associated with a “good force” but is not involved in daily worldly affairs. A counteractive “evil force” is also recognized. Yazidis pray and make offerings to it because it is involved in daily worldly affairs. The prayers and offerings are intended to assuage the evil force so it doesn’t bring harm to the world.

The creator god created seven angles to run the universe. The First Angel, or Peacock Angel, known to the Yazidis as Melek (Malek), was the most beautiful because he was created directly from God’s light. Malek however rebelled against divine authority as the Christian and Muslim devil had done and was punished by God.

Yazidis don’t believed in the devil (Malek) as Christians and Muslims do. They believe that Malek is a fallen angel, who once brought evil to world but has been reformed and forgiven and is now a force of good like the other six angels. They also believe that God is so good he requires no worship but that Malek needs constant attention to prevent him from going bad and bringing evil to world.

Yazidi Rituals

Yazidis have temples and graveyards overseen by special “servants.” They practice their rituals and customs with great seriousness. Traditions are passed through rigorous religious studying. At the heart of their ritual life are seven bronze and iron peacock statues (“sanjaq”) that represent Malek and other six angels. Yazidis insist the statues are not idols but symbols of their faith. Every few months they carried in a procession to the house of prominent families and prayers and offerings are made to them.

Entrance to a Yazidi Temple in 1865

Yazidi Temples consist of a courtyard with a portico which leads to an inner sanctum, that is empty except for reliefs of the sun, moon and stars. Visitors take off their shoes before they enter the temple. The inner sanctum is made of marble and has a pointy roof and a tiny door, with elaborate decorations and images of two peacocks. The door is small so worshipers have to bow, an expression of humility, to pass through it.

Faithful Yazidis are expected to: 1) pray three times a day to Malak and the seven angels, facing the sun; 2) gather for special prayers on Wednesday, the equivalent of their Sabbath, and abstain from sexual intercourse and observe other abstentions on that day; 3) celebrate the New’ Year’s festival on the first Wednesday of April at the tomb of Sheik Adi; and 4) make an annual pilgrimage to the shrine of Sheik Adi in mid-September and undergo ritual baths and light oil lamps at the graves of Yazidi saints. The most important holidays are feasts called “eids”. They often feature music and dancing.

Yazidis also conduct baptisms, circumcisions (optional), and a communion-like breaking of bread and drinking of wine with a sheik and daily rituals at their temples. In a ceremony often held at dusk a servant enters the sanctum with burning sticks and uses them to set on fire wicks in pans of cooking oil set in the sanctuary’s four corners. The oil represents the land and sea. The fire signifies the light of God. Afterwards prayers are said and the sticks are blown out. Their smoking coils are gathered and carried into the courtyard where people put their hands in the smoke for a blessing. Oil and water collected from the tomb of Sheik Adi are sometimes used in healing rituals.

Yazidi Customs

Yazidi pilgrim at Lalish during Yazidi New Year in 2017

Yazidis are regarded as friendly and hospitable. They generally get along well with other groups that have lived among them in urban areas. Visitors to Yazidi areas have often commented how much nicer the Yazidis are than other groups.

The Yazidi abide by a strange set of taboos. Among them are wearing the color blue, eating lettuce and pumpkins and saying words that begin with sound “sh”. Yazidis called the devil “Shaitan”.” They will never say this name or any word that sounds similar (such as “shat” the Kurdish word for river). In the old days the Yazidi were discourage from learning to read and write, and most of the clergy was functionally illiterate until early the 20th century.

Yazidis do not seek converts. Anyone who marries outside the religion is considered an outcast. Most live in villages, raise wheat and olives and live much as their ancestors have for centuries. Many live without many of the comforts of the modern world.

Yazidi women in Iraq often wear black turbans. Those in Armenia wrap scarves around their heads and used to wear white shorts and trousers and decorate their scarves with coins. Yazidi men traditionally wore shirts that closed at the neck in accordances with religious restrictions, white trousers, white cloaks and their hair tied up under a turban, the color which marked various orders of clergy.

Yazidi Society and Caste System

The Yazidi have traditionally made their living from agriculture and animal husbandry and looked down on business as a form of cheating. Yazidis if the Sinjar District of Iraq raise figs, grapes, almonds and nuts, In rural areas of the Caucasus they raise sheep and cattle. Yazidi women in urban areas have worked as street sweepers. Men have been employed in a wide range of jobs.

Yazidis of Jabal

Women are considered inferior to men. Even so they do many of the jobs and tasks that men do and in the past fought side by side with men. Yazidi women have no tradition of veiling their faces or being segregated from men.

The Yazidis are divided by a three-level caste system. Most belong to the “myur” (lay people caste). Each is a disciple of a spiritual master and was required to kiss his hand every day. A myur subgroup called the Jab-Nabba was required to wear woolen shirts and defend the sacred beliefs of Yazidis.

The clergy can be selected from the other two castes: the pyir and the sheiks. Clerics were usually men who inherited their ranks. They have traditionally been treated with great respect and enjoyed special privileges The sheiks come from only five families that trace their ancestry back to Sheik Adi. Their houses have traditionally served as places of worship. From among them the highest priest is selected. The main sheik serves as the leader of the Yazidi community.

Lower priest are selected from the pyir caste. The kawwals (musicians and singers) and fakirs (known as “black-heads” because of the customs of wearing black turbans) are subcastes of the pyir caste, The former perform at festivals and serve as attendants at the tomb of Sheik Adi. The later perform menial tasks at the tomb such drawing water and collecting contributions.

Yazidi Marriage and Family

Yazidis traditionally married young, in the past when boys were 15 and girls were 13. Marrying non-Yazidis was strictly forbidden and even marrying outside one’s caste was discouraged. Boys and girls often chose their own partners rather than entering in an arranged marriage but they needed their parent’s consent.. The bride price was traditionally 30 or 40 sheep or goats given to the bride’s father or brother.

Yazidi cemetery in Shexan, Iraq

The wedding ritual began with the bride being escorted to the groom’s house. When she entered the groom struck her with a stone to indicate her submission to him from that point forward. For three days she remained in his house in a darkened room ensconced behind a curtain. On the evening of the third day the wedding ceremony was presided over by a priest. The couple took hold of a stick and broke it to symbolize the intactness of their relationship until death breaks it.

Yazidis live mostly in nuclear families in which the father is the head of the household and maintained full authority. Divorce traditionally required the testimony of witnesses of infidelity and a marriage could be annulled if a man left his community for more than a year. Wills were made orally before three witnesses.

After death the body of the deceased is washed. Clay and water from the tomb of Sheik Adi is placed in the deceased’s mouth. The body is buried after this with the head pointing east and the face turned towards the north star. The funeral procession features singing. The dead is buried in a grave marked by a headstone in the shape of a sheep or another animal.

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons

Text Sources: Internet Islamic History Sourcebook: sourcebooks.fordham.edu “World Religions” edited by Geoffrey Parrinder (Facts on File Publications, New York); “ Arab News, Jeddah; "A History of the Arab Peoples' by Albert Hourani (Faber and Faber, 1991); "Encyclopedia of the World Cultures" edited by David Levinson (G.K. Hall & Company, New York, 1994). Encyclopedia of the World’s Religions” edited by R.C. Zaehner (Barnes & Noble Books, 1959); Metropolitan Museum of Art, National Geographic, BBC, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Smithsonian magazine, The Guardian, BBC, Al Jazeera, Times of London, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, Associated Press, AFP, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Last updated September 2018

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