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The religion of the Yazidis and why it is persecuted by ISIS

The Yazidis (or Yezidis) constitute an ethno-religious group, native in northern Mesopotamia, and speak mostly Kurdish (Kurmanji Kurdish), while few of them speak Arabic. Their origin is unclear, their population reaches 200,000-300,000 people around the world (some say up to 700,000) and their way of life is agrarian. The United Nations recognize them as a separate ethnicity. The Yazidis call themselves Ezidi or Dasini and consider that the Kurds were originally Yazidis who evolved culturally when they were Islamized.

Painting of the Yazidi Ammar Salim
Painting of the Yazidi Ammar Salim

The religion of the Yazidis is one of the three branches of Yazdanism (or “Angels Worship”) and originates from the Iranian and Mesopotamian religions that, historically, precede Islam and Zoroastrianism (which can be traced back to 600 BC). Some say the religion was founded in the 11th century by Umayyad sheikh. Its name comes from the Persian word “ized”, which translates to “angel” or “god”, meaning that “Yazidi” translates to “god worshipper”, which is how the Yazidis describe themselves. In the passing of time, their religion is considered to have been embellished by Zoroastrianism, Mithraism, Hebraism, Christianity and Islam, but remained non-abrahamic.

They believe in one true god that created the world and ascribed its care to 7 Angles (or 7 Mysteries), the most important of which is the archangel Melek Taus, the “Peacock Angel”. The day the archangel comes down to Earth is celebrated as the New Year (the first Wednesday of April), the day they think god created the archangel. The archangel is the cause of the good or bad fate of men, and renders responsibilities and obligations on them. He himself has been a fallen angel, until his remorseful tears of 7,000 years burnt out the fires of hell where god sent him as punishment; hence god forgave him and took him back.

The reason he befell the grace of god was his negation of the divine command to bow to Adam, as he thought he was made to worship only the Creator and because Adam was only made out of clay while he himself was created out of the ‘illumination’ of god (the identification of god with light connects Yazidism with Zoroastrianism). This myth of the archangel echoes a similar myth of Sufism (a branch of Islam), where the angel Shaitan (or ‘Iblis’, a word perhaps derived of the ancient Greek ‘diavolos’=’devil’ – while ‘Shaitan’ is derived of the Hebrew ‘Sātān’) also refused god’s command to worship Adam and Eve. It is also reminiscent of the myth of Lucifer (Satan) of Christianity, who, as Shaitan, did not show remorse.  While Muslims and Christians consider the angel’s negation as a sign of arrogance and blasphemy, the Yazidis see it as an indication of independence and free choice. The Yazidis think that the love for the neighbor is not a command, but has to result from a free choice of the individual. And evil is not enforced or derived from someone else, but from man himself.

But, because of the correlation between the Peacock Angel and Shaitan or Lucifer, Muslims and Christians regard the Yazidis to be “Satanists” or “devil worshippers” and persecute them for centuries. Saddam Hussein persecuted them as well in the late ‘70s and the jihadists continue till today. The persecutions isolated the Yazidis on mountain regions of north-west Iraq, in Nineveh.

Archangel Melek Taus, the Peacock Angel
Archangel Melek Taus, the Peacock Angel

The Yazidis respect the Quran as much as the Bible, but they have their own sacred texts they deem superior, like the Book of Illumination and the Book of Revelation, and they also have many oral traditions which are carried on in Kurdish, as also in Kurdish they perform their rituals. Some differences with Islam are their not using mosques and their not accepting the Five Pillars of Islam.

They think it is taboo for a Yazidi to marry a non-Yazidi, and no one can become a Yazidi that has not been born in the community. Long-term contact with non-Yazidis is considered a taint. Nevertheless, they do baptize; a ceremony that plays a cathartic role and is not obligatory, like circumcision isn’t. It is also taboo to spit on the ground or to spill hot water on the earth or in the fire, as such actions might annoy spirits or even harm them.

The Yazidis think humans come from Adam, but not Eve. This peculiar idea comes from their origin myth where the two protoplasts argued on who possessed the creative element of birth. So, each of them put their seed in a vase and sealed it. When Eve opened hers, it was full of insects. When Adam opened his, he found a small beautiful boy grown out of his seed. When the boy grew up he married a houri, and out of their union all men and women were eventually created. “Houris”, in Islamic tradition, are pure creatures that live in Paradise (Jannah) and keep men company when they are recreated in Paradise anew after their death. The well-known 72 virgins are such houris.

The rituals of the Yazidis are mystical and their religion is covered in secrecy. During the autumn festival they slay a bull, a custom that alludes to Mithraism. The cross is a symbol for the sun and is a usual tattoo among the members of the religion. Many of them believe in reincarnation.

The tomb of the saint Sheikh Adi ibn Musafir in Lalish, north of Mosul in Iraq, a pilgrimage destination
The tomb of the saint Sheikh Adi ibn Musafir in Lalish, north of Mosul in Iraq, a pilgrimage destination

 

They had been proclaimed as infidels by Al Qaeda and today they are persecuted by ISIS with characteristic savagery. There have been reports of Yazidi mothers asking to see their sons, imprisoned by ISIS, only to later be informed that the meal they had been offered was made of their child’s body. ISIS kills the men, takes the children to raise them as jihadists and enslaves the women, which it sells as slaves, even to distant places in the digital slave market, or burns them alive; while mass graves have been found in their territories. The UN calls what is happening to the Yazidis a possible genocide, and a girl has been reported to set herself on fire to appear less attractive to her captors and avoid repeated rapes. The only ways for them to escape the atrocities are to be proselytized to Islam, to move out of the region or to fight.

Historically, the Yazidis are used to persecution and to defending their culture. In the last years, the Sun Girls Brigade (SGB) was created, a regiment of Yazidi women fighters. The jihadists think that if they are killed by a woman they will not be allowed in paradise, and it has been noted that, once they realize there are women on the other side of the battle, they run away from the fight. The sun girls have the total support of the Kurdish government. Last year, some of their villages started to revitalize with the return of Yazidis, as the Turkish government has stopped suppressing them. The danger they face is still an existential one as, if they are sent out of northern Iraq, Yazidism might become extinct.

Members of the Sun Girls Brigade (source)
Members of the Sun Girls Brigade (source)

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