Who are the Yezidis?

by Timothy W. Hollifield

The Yezidi are perhaps one of the world’s most misunderstood and vulnerable ethno-religious minorities. While they have always endured the hardship, discrimination, and oppression shared by most minority groups in the Middle East, they were last year confronted with the very real possibility of genocide at the hands of ISIS terrorists.

The infamous brutality of ISIS terrorists has been well documented. While the United States, the EU, and the international community now acknowledge the threat posed by these terrorists, their violence against largely isolated religious and ethnic minorities in Northern Iraq since the summer of 2014 has been devastating.

These terrorists killed, kidnapped, raped, extorted, and intimidated the small and scattered communities of Assyrian Christians, Turkmen, Shabaks, and Yezidis who had been living – mostly in peaceful coexistence – in Northern Iraq and Syria for thousands of years. Religious and ethnic minorities have long been subjected to oppression and discrimination in this part of the world. However, the ethno-religious Yezidi minority is particularly vulnerable largely because of religious beliefs and practices long misrepresented and misunderstood by even their closest neighbors.

The Yezidi community of Northern Iraq speaks Kurmanji, one of two principal dialects spoken by Kurds. Kurmanji is spoken by approximately 80% of all Kurds living in Iraq, Turkey, Syria, Iran, and Armenia, and serves as both the primary day-to-day and liturgical or ceremonial language of the Yezidi community.

Roots

The Yezidi religious tradition shares common roots with pre-Zoroastrianism and includes elements also found in a variety of other religious traditions, including Judaism, Christianity, and Islamic Sufism.

One of the most influential and venerated figures in the Yezidi tradition is the Lebanese-born Sheikh ‘Adi ibn Musafir. Historical records indicate he may have died in the year 1162. The word Sheikh is often employed as an honorific title indicative of great piety or spiritual wisdom for Yezidis and also in the Islamic Sufi tradition. Sheikh ‘Adi is believed to have moved from Baghdad to the Hakkari Mountains in Northern Iraq sometime during the early 1100s. Eventually he settled in the valley of Laliş or Lalish (60 km or 37 miles northeast of Mosul) and acquired a devoted following amongst the local population. In fact, his shrine in Lalish is one of the holy sites in the Yezidi tradition.

The very name of the Yezidi minority and its people is complex and often contested. Some scholars argue that it is derived from a Kurdish pronunciation of the Arabic Adawiyya or even the older Persian words izadi or yazata which loosely translate as ‘a being worthy of worship’ or perhaps even yazdan, an ancient Persian name for God. Some mistakenly confuse the word Yezidi with those once loyal to the caliph Yazid, from the early days of Islam. Because most of known Yezidi history is derived from oral tradition, it may be impossible to determine the exact origin of the word Yezidi with certainty.

Religion

Yezidis are monotheists, believing in one God, who created the world and the universe in which we live. Like other monotheistic traditions, Yezidis believe that this God is all-knowing, all-forgiving, and merciful. In addition, the influence of ancient traditions is apparent in the Yezidi belief that God has entrusted care of mankind and their world to a Heptad of seven holy beings, called the heft sirr (Seven Mysteries). Four of these holy beings are associated with archangels also shared by the Abrahamic traditions, namely Jibra’il (Gabriel), Mika’il (Michael), Israfil (Uriel), and Azra’il (Azrael). The last three comprise the holy trinity of the Peacock Angel, called Tawuse Melek.

Some scholars have noted that Yezidi cosmology clearly parallels the Zoroastrian paradigm in which Ahura Mazda is seen as a benign creator deity who has delegated his authority and power to avatars known as the Amesa Spenta. In the Zoroastrian tradition, the Amesa Spenta are envisioned as semi-divine beings who embody divine virtues or elemental powers. In similar fashion, the Yezidi believe that God has delegated responsibility for human and worldly affairs to the holy trinity comprised of the Peacock Angel, Sheikh ‘Adi, and Sultan Ezi or Sheikh Hasan and the four angels mentioned above. As such, they are merely manifestations of the creator but not the creator himself. They are worthy of veneration and emulation but not worship, which is reserved for God alone.

Persecution

Despite this, Yezidis have long been mischaracterized and persecuted as devil worshippers by Muslim and Christian neighbors in the Middle East. Clearly, this identification is misguided and unsupported by any real evidence or empirical data. Over time, the Peacock Angel inaccurately became conflated with Iblis (roughly analogous to Lucifer), and the practices of the Yezidi became confused with devil worship or disbelief. Because of this unfortunate stereotype, most common among uneducated and ignorant segments of the population, the Yezidi have long been a target of Muslim persecution. Yet somehow they managed to survive.

Today, the Yezidi people are struggling to recover from unspeakable atrocities committed by ISIS terrorists. This includes the rape of young children, mass execution of entire villages, and a blatant and articulated plan of genocide. The terrorists have publicly and clearly enunciated their plans for genocide and mass rape. Thankfully, the advance of the terrorists in parts of Iraq has been halted and, in many places, reversed. For the Yezidi people, the damage has been done. Although the population has survived, there are still thousands of women and young girls – as young as six years old – being held as sex slaves and enduring the most unspeakable torture imaginable. Several hundreds of girls have escaped, and thousands of children – now orphans – are in dire need of assistance and care as they struggle to survive in the refugee camps in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq. Please act now and do what you can to ease the torment and suffering of these proud and noble people and to preserve and defend their rich heritage.

About the author: Timothy Hollifield is an expert in the culture, customs, religion, and politics of South Asia and the Middle East. Mr. Hollifield served as a Defense Intelligence Officer in the U.S. Army for over twenty-two years, reaching the rank of Lieutenant Colonel. Since retiring from active duty, Mr. Hollifield has worked to educate USG personnel on the intricacies of the region through highly specialized trainings and seminars. He spent seven years living and working in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and throughout the Middle East in support of the U.S. National Security and Reconstruction mission. He speaks Dari and Farsi, as well as some Urdu, Hindi, and Arabic. The views expressed in this writing are the author’s and do not necessarily reflect official U.S. policy.

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[Read the article about the Yezidis by Dimitri Pir Bari]