Who are Yezidis?

By Dimitri Pir Bari

Yezidism (Ezidizm or ezdiati in Kurdish) is one of the most ancient and mysterious religions in the Near East. Those Kurds practising this religion speak Kurmanji, a Kurdish dialect. The historical territory of Kurdistan is now divided between four modern countries: Iraq, Iran, Turkey and Syria. Most Yezidis live in southern Kurdistan (Northern Iraq, the Sheikhan area near Mosul, the Sinjar mountains), southwestern Kurdistan (Northern Syria), northwestern Kurdistan (southeastern Turkey), as well as in Armenia, Georgia, Russia, the Ukraine, the USA, Germany and other countries of Western Europe. The total Yezidi population is more than one million.

There are different opinions about Yezidi origins. It seems that the most reliable evidence suggests that this religion arose on the foundation of ancient Indo-Iranian beliefs which were probably close to Indo-Aryan ones. But they were interlaced with ancient Mesopotamian religions. However, like any other religion, Yezidism developed and transformed. Yezidis historically lived in a political climate that often compelled them to hide their belief. They performed their ceremonies in secret and passed on the foundations of their religion, legends, cosmological ideas, holy texts and prayers from one generation to another orally.

Yezidism is monotheistic. Yezidis believe in a single God-Creator (Khude or Ezid), who had created the world, and in his seven angels. According to Yezidism, God is omnipresent and the whole world is subject to his will. The sacred texts say that good and evil form a single whole, like day and night. A central figure in Yezidism is Tawusi Malak (Malak Tawus, Angel-Peacock) who was created by God before the creation of the world and was set at the head of the other angels as a “ruler over the all”. Tawusi Malak embodies both light and darkness because everything in the world occurs according to the will of the God. The Yezidis believe that everything in the universe has its opposite: God created the sun and the moon, day and night, etc. To comprehend the essence of anything it is necessary to see its opposite.

In addition to God the creator and his angels, the Yezidis believe in life after death, paradise and hell, reincarnation, doomsday, resurrection, and in the advent of a saviour with the name Sharfaddin.

An interesting Yezidi myth about the origins of mankind differs from those in Judaism and Islam. According to their own cosmogony, the Yezidis are descended not from Adam and Eve but from angels that had been created before the universe itself and from Adam. Thus, according to the myth, the ancestor of Yezidis came into the world as a result of combination of sources heavenly and terrestrial.

Most researchers see the roots of Yezidism in the pre-Zoroastrian cults of northwestern provinces of the Median Empire. Despite some common features that bring together Yezidism and Zoroastrianism (the cult of fire and the sun), they are not only different but even opposite. A very typical example is their different conceptions about good and evil. In Zoroastrianism good and evil are divided and there are two deities: Akhura Mazda (good) and Ankhro Manyu (evil). Evil in Yezidism is not personified, thus epithets given in other religions to an “evil spirit” are incomprehensible to Yezidis. They regard it as a great sin to name any of the angels using words “damned”, “fallen”, etc. According to the sacred texts nobody can oppose God because nothing can happen against its will. Therefore the Yezidis say about evil: “He who thinks often about evil may encounter it and prevent its disappearance”.

We suppose that Zoroastrianism and Yezidism do not follow one another. It is most likely that both originated separately from the pristine intimate religions of autochthonous people.
The cult of the sun prevails in Yezidism. The Yezidis see in the sun the light coming from the Most High. According to Yezidism a source of all truth is the all-penetrating light (ronai, nur), that is contained in a heart of each man and woman. This light is the source and basis of the human soul. Therefore, when a Yezidi rises in the morning he turns his eyes to the East to greet the brightness coming from the primary source of light and love that is God (Xweda). The lighting of oil lamps during religious holidays is a testimony to the veneration of the light.
In ancient sources the Yezidis are mentioned as “Dasni” (daeva vasna – devasna – dasna – dasni, i.e. worshippers of God): people of God. In approximately the 12th century the term Dasni was replaced by a semantically close term Yezidi, Yezdi. One supposes that the term Yezdi has an Aryan or rather Iranian origin, although there are other interpretations. For example, some suppose that this name originated from the name of a caliph of the Omeiyadian dynasty, Yazid ibn Muawia (7th century), during whose short reign at the complicated and militant time of introducing Islam into Kurdistan the Yezidis were not persecuted.

It is difficult to determine which was the most innovative period in the Yezidi religion, although it is unarguable that important changes in Yezidism took place in the 12th century AD after the appearance of a prominent teacher-reformer and scholar-mystic, Sheikh Adi ibn Musafir (1073 [or 1078] – 1162). The Yezidis regard him equally with Tawusi Malak and Ezid, all forming a saintly trinity.

Sheikh Adi was born between 1073 and 1078 at Bait al-far in the Baalbek area situated in the Bekaa valley of modern Lebanon. When he came to Lalish he brought back together the separate Yezidi tribes and restored to them the ancient temple that had been captured by people of other religions. Some scholars suppose that Sheikh Adi introduced to the Yezidi religion much from Sufic doctrine, for example, an idea about nafs (a false ego) and veneration of some Sufic holy men. The combination of idealistic metaphysics with special ascetic practice is very typical of Sufism. The doctrine of the gradual approach of a murid through mystic love to cognition of God and finally to confluence with God. The role of the elder – preceptor (murshid, pir) – who leads the murid along this path is very important in Sufism. The time of Sheikh Adi was one in which Yezidi literature flourished: a vast religious-poetic literature and hagiography were created. But in view of historical developments all that has survived is copies of several pages of the sacred books “Kitab Jelwa” (“The Book of Afflatus”) and “Mashaf Rash” (“The Black Book”). Both books had been written in a special cryptographic script. Sheikh Adi die at the age of 90 and his remains were buried in the Lalish temple.

The sacred hymns (kawls and beits) are the main source of the Yezidi religion; to the Yezidis their authority is unchallengeable

Source: Holy lalish – Ekaterinburg: Baso, 2008 – Dimitri Pir Bari

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[Read the article about the Yezidis by Timothy W. Hollifield]