The Yezidi in Iraq
Woe to Those Who Don't Believe in Hellfire

Claiming over 400 lives, the coordinated terror attacks on the Yezidi in Northern Iraq were the worst bloodbath since the occupation of the country began. What is so special about this small religious community, and why do the Sunni extremists hate it so much? Reinhard Schulze reports

photo: AP
A man walks through a damaged neighborhood after a coordinated suicide attack in the town of Qahataniya, 15 August 2007. The victims of the attack were Yazidis

​​The Yezidi are one of the smallest religious communities in Iraq. Today around 50 percent of the world population of perhaps 250,000 Yezidi live there, mainly in the northeastern region of Shekhan and Jabal Sinjar in the west of the city of Mosul. The historical background of the Yezidi religion is difficult to pin down. It is usually described as a syncretism combining ancient Iranian and Zoroastrian elements with Christian, Jewish and Islamic traditions.

As far as it can be reconstructed today, the religion is based on the Islamization of ancient local cults associated with the symbolization of God in the form of a peacock. According to Yezidi tradition, the peacock (Ta'us) depicted on a candelabra in Ba'adhra in the Lalish Valley was separated from the nameless God ("Lord") and equated with the highest of the seven angels (or mysteries), the Malak Ta'us, whom God entrusted with the creation or stewardship of the world.

The religious tradition of the Yezidi is not passed on by means of canonical texts of revelation, but rather through myths told in the form of almost exclusively Kurdish hymns. Yezidi myths do not reflect a unified dogma, instead telling the story of the community's origin from a constantly changing perspective.

An autonomous religion

Today Yezidi tradition is defined as an autonomous religion. The Yezidi themselves make a point of tracing the origin of their faith back to pre-Islamic times. Their tradition is referred to as the "religion of the Yezidi" or as "Dasin". Both words supposedly derive from ancient Iranian terms for "highest being" or "worshippers of God". This interpretation also serves to distinguish the religious history of the Yezidi from that of the Muslims.

In fact, however, the history of the Yezidi community can be traced only as far as the 15th century, and is closely tied with Islamic traditions.

The most important Yezidi holy man was Sufi 'Adi Ibn Musafir from Lebanon, who died in 1161/62 and established a strictly-run Sufi monastery in the Lalish Valley. Arabic sources refer to him as an orthodox mystic who was revered by the local Kurdish population.

After the Mongol conquests in the 13th century, the Sufi brotherhood 'Adawiya which he had founded lost its connection to the surrounding Islamic world and become the center of a new tradition which cumulatively absorbed a plethora of local myths, cults and practices. In 1414 the first conflict arose from this alienation from the Islamic environment, culminating in the Sunni Kurds' destruction of the grave of Sheik 'Adi, later rebuilt.

The Yezidi concept of the absence of evil

The unique path of the Yezidi religious community was also interpreted in a mythical sense. The demiurge Malak Ta'us was said to have helped God create Adam, from whose semen the Yezidi first emerged. According to a myth, all other human beings stemmed from the union of Adam and Eve. The Yezidi concept of the absence of evil is also embedded in this myth.

It is said that Malak Ta'us fell into disfavor for refusing to worship Adam. In penance he wept for seven thousand years, and his tears ultimately put out the fires of hell. Only his repentance enabled him to regain his status.

For orthodox Muslims, the Yezidi tradition of depicting Malak Ta'us as a peacock and worshiping him in the form of a statue amounts to the sin of "association" – a departure from the strictly monotheistic image of God – and thus to the greatest transgression against God.

Moreover, mainly due to its views on the transmigration of souls, the religious community is identified with extremist Shiite schools of thought which make up a "closed society of unbelief", according to fundamentalist Sunnis. However, it is incorrect to trace the Yezidi back to the Shia; this is one of the major Sunni myths in Iraq.

Taboos and family trees

Today the Yezidi religion is characterized primarily by its myths and cult, while the social structure is shaped by complex relationships of loyalty. Along with private prayer, it is mainly a plethora of taboos that integrate individuals into the community, mainly pertaining to the cleanliness of people and their surroundings.

Worthy of mention are the baptism with Lalish water, the (optional) circumcision, the calendar of holidays based both on the Islamic lunar year and on the Julian solar year, and the pilgrimages to the graves of holy men, above all to the grave of Sheik 'Adi in October. Socially, the community is strictly divided into three classes: the sheiks with three lineages leading back to Sheik 'Adi, the Pirs, with 40 lineages leading back to pupils of Sheik 'Adi, and the Murids as laypeople.

Laypeople were almost completely barred from religious knowledge and the cult, bound only by obedience to the clans of the religious elites and by the maintaining of strict taboos (regarding beans, lettuce, squash, fish, gazelles, chicken and the color blue).

Despite the Ottoman policy of confessionalization whereby the Sunni tradition was more or less made the imperial religion, Yezidi culture prevailed due to its strong tribal loyalty. Only in the 1850s, when the Ottoman Empire attempted to established a centralized bureaucracy in Northern Iraq and gain control over the regions of the Jabal Sinjar and the Lalish Valley, did persecution of the Yezidi occur, in part on a massive scale.

Nonetheless, the community managed to maintain its social structure and protect its religious institution. By contrast, the Iraqi policy of resettlement and expulsion between 1969 and 1979 profoundly disrupted the social basis of the Yezidi communities, leading to sweeping social change.

Reinhard Schulze

© NZZ/ 2007

Reinhard Schulze is the Director of the Institute for Islamic Studies and Modern Oriental Philology at the University of Bern.

This article was previously published by the Swiss daily Neue Zürcher Zeitung.

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