Who are the Yazidi people, and what are their beliefs?
Opinion: The Yazidis, isolated in a remote Iraq region, are misunderstood and persecuted by their neighbours
A follower of the ancient Yazidi religion prays at the holy Lalish temple in the Mountains of Shikhan near Dahuk, northwest of Baghdad. Photograph: AP Photo/ Khalid Mohammed
Iraqi Yazidi women cook bread at Bajid Kandal refugee camp in Dohuk Province, northern Iraq, this week. Thousands of Yazidi fled their homes after Isis militants took control of Sinjar. Photograph: Adam Ferguson/The New York Times
A large number of Iraq’s tiny Yazidi minority remains isolated on a remote mountain top, fearing the self-styled “Islamic State” and hoping to be rescued by their Kurdish neighbours. Their plight brings attention to one of the most misunderstood religious minorities in the Middle East.
Although Yazidis are often regarded as Kurds, they form a religious and ethnic minority with unique beliefs and practices misunderstood by their neighbours, leading to their persecution and demonisation as “devil-worshippers”.
There are about 600,000 Yazidis worldwide, but the vast majority – perhaps 400,000 to 500,000 – live mainly in northern Iraq, their home for almost 1,000 years.
For centuries, their neighbours have treated the Yazidis as delinquent Arabs or schismatic Muslims. Some say they are descended from Yazid bin Muawiyah (647-683), the second of the Umayyad dynasty of Islamic caliphs, and others say the name Yazidi comes from the Old Iranian yazata (“divine being”). But Yazidis believe their name comes from the word Yezdan or Ezid, meaning “God,” and simply means “worshippers of God”.
Others say Daasin, the name Yazidis use for themselves, is derived from the name of a diocese in the Nestorian Church, the ancient Church of the Assyrians in the Mesopotamian region.
The complex, secret beliefs of Yazidis, their legends and their social structures, including their caste system, set them apart from other religions in the region.
The Yazidi holy books were said to be the Kitêba Cilwe (Book of Revelation) and the Mishefa Res (“Black Book”). But many scholars now believe the manuscripts published a century ago were forgeries by non-Yazidis. The core religious texts today are hymns or qawls, transmitted orally and laden with cryptic allusions difficult for outsiders to interpret.
The Yazidis’ syncretic religion has a rich oral tradition mixing Islamic mysticism with the dualism of Zoroastrianism, the ancient Persian religion, elements of early, pre-Islamic religions, including Mithraism, a mystery religion originating in the eastern Mediterranean, and some Christian practices.
In the Yazidi calendar, this is the year 6764. But the origins of the religion are found in the complex, syncretic teachings of their founder, Sheikh Adi ibn Musafir, a Sufi mystic who claimed descent from the Umayyad dynasty and who was proclaimed an incarnation of Malak Tawous, the principal figure in Yazidi cosmology. Sheikh Adi settled in the valley of Lalis, northeast of Mosul, and after his death in 1162 his tomb became the focus of pilgrimage.
Good and evilThe persistent prejudice that Yazidis worship Satan is founded on a misunderstanding of Yazidi beliefs. They are monotheists who believe God created the universe and rules the world through seven holy beings or angels formed from God’s divine light. The leader of these angels, Malak Tawous (the “Peacock Angel”) embodies humanity’s potential for both good and evil, light and dark.
They say Malak Tawous is the only angel who refused to bow down to Adam at his creation. He fell from God’s favour, but when he saw the suffering and pain of the world, his tears of remorse put out the fires of hell. Recognising his obstinacy as a sign of devotion, God then elevated Malak Tawous as the Peacock Angel to head the angels and to serve as the intermediary between God and humanity.