Unknown victims: The story of the Yazidis

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The Yazidi sect is often mischaracterised, likely due to the fact that it has evolved over time, Yazidis are relatively isolated, and their story is exclusively based in oral tradition. Yet as is the case with many ancient faith systems from Central Asia and the Near East, modern doctrinal and theological methods of categorising religion are ill-equipped at tracing the extent of exchange and development of traditions lost in time. It is important to know the facts, or rather to know what is fact and what is assertion.

One major scholar on the Yazidi faith, Eszter Spat, discusses how Yazidism and other ancient traditions are easily lost as they depend on oral transmission amidst a changing world, and in a region with low literacy rates. A Yazidi online source, YezidiTruth.org, explain that the tradition possible dates back to 4,750 BCE in India. Suggestions that Yazidis are pseudo-Zoroastrian or any other single religion is a categorical misnomer, however the eclecticism of the religion is beguiling.

Yazidi men

The actual number of Yazidis present in the world today is unclear. Estimates go as high as 800,000 and as low as 100,000. The largest population of Yazidis live in northern Iraq, near the now-headlining city of Mosul, but there remain smaller communities in parts of Syria, Turkey, Georgia, and Armenia.

Yazidism is one of three Yazdani religions, each of which are different traditions of the Kurdish people. They believe in one supreme God, but also in a pantheon of seven lesser angelic deities, the head of which is Malak Ta’us, or the Peacock Angel. Their rites and rituals include forms of pilgrimage, daily prayers and a period of fasting. Intermarriage and conversion are forbidden.

A depiction of the Peacock King, the highest of the lesser deities that submit to one God.

The actual origins of Yazidism appear to be contentious, as sources from within and out offer sometimes highly differing renditions. Spat suggests that Yazidi is derived from the Kurmanji “ez Xwede dam”, meaning “I was created from God” or as some Yazidis claim, “Followers of the true path.” Some scholars link the word Yazidi to the Persian word “Yazdan”, the word for God within the Zoroastrian tradition. Yet the Persian word “īzed” means angel, and it also a possible origin for the religion. Still more, Yazidis are often linked to Shia Islam, and contend that the name’s origins are linked to the Ummayed Caliph Yazid Bin Muawiyah (d. 683 CE), though there is not substantial proof for this claim, especially given chronological consideration.

Yazidism is said to have two books of sacred scripture, the “Book of Revelation” and “Black Writing”, both written in Arabic. However a comprehensive article on the Yazidis from the Encyclopedia Iranica explains that these books were published in 1911 and 1913, respectively, and are thus “forgeries” but that “the material within these manuscripts is consistent with the contents of the Yazidi oral traditions, and to that extent they may be considered authentic.” Their communities are divided into tribes wherein a sheikh leads society religiously, and a prince, or emir, is the secular leader.

Lalish Temple, Nineveh province.

Regarding the Islamic State claims that Yazidis are devil worshipers, this is also a gross misunderstanding, as they deny the existence of evil and therefore also reject sin, the Devil, and hell. They do, however, have a concept of paradise in the after life.

A significant movement is now taking place to educate the masses, Muslim and otherwise, to the realities of the Yazidi faith and to dismiss dangerous stereotypes. A Yazidi cultural centre Lalish, named after a major pilgrimage site and burial place of 11th century Lebanese Sufi Sheikh Adi, was recently established to help combat misinformation about the Yazidis.

The story of the Yazidi ethno-religious community is steeped in struggle and oppression, as was often the case during the Abbasid and Ottoman empires that were swift to squash any outside force, menacing or not. We see this happening again under the fierce Islamic State’s blatant threat of genocide. It is therefore imperative that the modern principles of human rights and international protection measures become an active force,and not mere lofty ideals that help us sleep at night.