About two years after the publication of this post, I wrote an update to this article, Do the Yezidis Worship the Devil? which goes into much more detail about the religion.
Since hardly anyone has any idea about who or what the Yezidis of Northern Iraq are, an introduction is in order. The Yezidis are a minority religious group that lives in Northern Iraq, Eastern Turkey, Eastern Syria, Armenia, Northwestern Iran, Georgia, Russia and Germany.
Some estimates put the number of Yezidis at 100,000. However, Yezidi spokesmen say there are 600,000 Yezidis, mostly in Iraq. Other estimates put the number of Yezidis as high as 2 million. There are 10,000 Yezidi refugees in Germany. German Yezidis have created a home page to help introduce others to their religion, but unfortunately it is all in German.
The Yezidis are more of a religious than an ethnic grouping. All Yezidis are Kurds and they all speak Kurdish. In Iraq, most of them live north of Mosul and in the Sinjar Mountains near the Syrian border. There are also Yezidis in Tel Afar, Mosul and the city of Sinjar. Iraq’s Yezidis are seizing Iraq’s democratic moment to press for their rights for the first time.
Yezidis, who actually admit to “worshiping the devil”, have long been persecuted by Muslims as heathens and devil-worshipers. Although it’s true that the Yezidis worship a peacock angel they call Lucifer, they are basically good, upstanding, moral people. They are not in any way analogous to the actual devil-worshipers who exist in the West, like Anton Levay’s Church of Satan (COS), etc.
Yezidis do not believe in Heaven or Hell and they do not regard Satan, who they regard as the Chief of the Angels, as evil. Instead, he is sacred. The Yezidis feel the devil created the world and is de facto in charge right now. From the perspective of my life at the moment, those scenarios seem distinctly possible.
Yezidis are allowed to eat pork, unlike Muslims. But bizarrely, they cannot eat lettuce (because the Kurdish word for lettuce rhymes with their word for devil) or wear yellow.
Like the Zoroastrians, Yezidis do not accept converts – a tendency which may result in the end of Yezidism with time. Yezidism shares many things with Zoroastrianism, and some commenters regard it as either a Zoroastrian sect or a religion with roots in Zoroastrianism.
My opinion is that a synthesis between Zoroastrianism, Islam, Judaism and pre-religious paganism is more accurate. It is likely the Yezidism predates all of these – Zoroastrianism, Islam and Judaism – in fact, it may be one of the oldest extant human religions.
Somewhat similar to the caste system of Hinduism, another ancient religion, Yezidis have seven levels of initiation, or classes. The classes are princes, sheiks, senators, seers, ascetics and the community of the faithful. The large faith community class makes up 70% of the community.
This split, with a small elite sect who retain most of the (oral) knowledge of the religion and a large majority of mere followers who are kept in the dark about most of the religion, is also similar to other “secret” religions in the area, including the Sabeans, the Druze and Alawi.
The Alawi of Syrian and Lebanon are a highly divergent Shia sect, a split-off from the extremist Nusairi split early in the history of Shiism. Although the Druze call themselves Muslims, it is probable that they are not Muslims at all, since their religion is so divergent. Instead, like Bahaism, the Druze religion is more properly considered to be related to Islam, rather than part of Islam proper.
The Druze date back to the 1100′s and also seem to be the result of a Shia split, similar to the split that birthed Alawism. Both sects persisted via extreme tribalism, refusing intermarriage, accepting no converts, keeping their religion secret, pretending to be Muslims to avoid persecution while still practicing the religion in secret, and especially, seeking shelter in the difficult, mountainous terrain of the Levant.
The Sabeans or Mandeans of Iraq are probably the last remains of the ancient Gnostic religion; they may also be former Diasporic Sephardic Jews (!) who split off from Judaism in Iraq around the year 600. The Mandeans also worship the North Star, revere John the Baptist and consider Jesus Christ as the font of all evil on Earth!
In Yezidism, marriage across classes is strictly forbidden, again reminiscent of Hinduism. Although the new Iraqi regime is basically a puppet regime of US colonialism, at least the Yezidis do have three members of the new Iraqi Parliament, all elected on the Kurdish list.
Saddam’s regime persecuted the Yezidis first for being Kurds, and second for their religion, as they were viewed as heathens. Yes, Saddam’s regime was not completely secular. Under Saddam’s extremely racist, fascist-like, Sunni Arab Nationalist regime, Yezidis, Kurds, Assyrians, Shia and Turkomen were all persecuted by the Ba’ath Party.
For instance, Assyrian Christians were denied an identity by the Baath and referred to as “Kurdish Christians”. The Baath forbade the use of the Assyrian or Turkoman languages in the schools. Yezidi religious studies have been banned in Iraq since 1963, the year of the Baathist coup.
In its censuses, Baathist Arab nationalist racists called the Yezidis “an Arabic people”, clearly a falsehood. Saddam’s racist Arab regime engaged in ethnic cleansing of the Yezidis on several occasions. Usually, the Yezidis were driven off their land onto other lands, and their land was given to nearby Arabs.
In 1978, 126 Yezidi villages in Sinjar were “collectivized” into 10 villages while 10 villages near Dahuk were destroyed and the villagers were forced into another village. The new villages created for the Yezidis lacked even basic health care and it was hard to earn a living. Arab invaders who colonized Yezidi lands forbade the Yezidi from herding animals, and the new villages the Yezidis were pushed into lacked decent pasture.
In 1997, two Yezidi teachers from Elqush were arrested by Saddam’s intelligence services and tortured until they agreed to stop teaching the Yezidi religion.
In the same year, in Ayn Sufna, Baathists stole 1,500 Yezidi properties and gave them to Arab and Kurdish tribes in the region. Saddam’s army surrounded a Yezidi village in 2000, but left after the Yezidis staged a defiant demonstration.
In the no-fly zones formed by the allies in the Kurdish Regional Government area of Iraq instituted after the Gulf War, the Yezidis have fared much better than they did under Saddam.
They liberated many villages that were seized by Arab colonists and now school classes in the Yezidi religion are even taught in areas where there are good numbers of Yezidi pupils. However, since the US invasion, the Yezidi situation in some ways has worsened.
The entire north of Iraq has come under the control of Kurdish racist fascist parties, the KDP and PUK. These parties are lately promoting a sort of Kurdish Sunni racism which attacks Sunni and Shia Arabs, Shia, Christian and Yezidi Kurds and Assyrian Christians – in short, everyone who is not a Sunni Kurd.
The racist Sunni Kurds succeeded in preventing large numbers of all of these groups from voting in the election in February 2005.
In the case of the Yezidis, Kurdish racists never even allowed polling stations to open in a number of Yezidi zones. Racist Sunni Kurds have been attacking and ethnically cleansing Assyrian Christian villages in the north for decades now, a process which accelerated when the Allies granted the Kurds their Kurdish Zone in 1991.
This is a continuation of long-standing Kurdish Sunni Muslim racism against Assyrian Christians extending back to the 1920′s. In that decade, Kurdish Muslims gleefully slaughtered huge numbers of Assyrians in a naked display of Islamist bigotry that reached genocidal proportions.
Formally, the Yezidi religion was founded in the 1100′s by Sheikh Uday bin Masafel al-Amawi. Uday was born in Damascus but died in Shaikan in northern Iraq. His tomb in Shaikan is now Yezidism’s holiest site. As noted above, many scholars trace Yezidism to one of the world’s oldest extant religions, Zoroastrianism, founded in ancient Persia.
Traditionally, Yezidism is variously regarded as either an offshoot of Zoroastrianism or Shia Islam. Those who say the Yezidis are Shia hold that they are an extreme Shia “Sevener” Ismaili sect similar to the Druze and the Alawi (see discussion of the Alawi and Druze above).
A better analysis is to regard Yezidism as a syncretic mix between Zoroastrianism and Shia Islam.
Others note Judaic traits in the Yezidis; some suggest that the Yezidis are former Jews who broke away from Judaism and formed a new religion. Indeed, some theorists that the Kurds in general are former Jews. See Rabbi Joe Katz’s Eretzyisroel site for more on that interesting theory, which may have some validity.
The best analysis would leaven the Zoroastrian-Shia syncretism of Yezidism with dollops of Judaism and tablespoons of ancient paganism, while noting the Yezidism is probably older than any of its parts, except for the pagan.
Oddly enough, the Yezidis have a monk and nun class, men and women who dress in white and have taken a vow of celibacy. Yezidis are also said to be sun worshipers, in another similarity with Zoroastrianism.
A famous Yezidi, Sharfadin, has a tomb in Sinjar. Sharfadin also serves as a personified sun god. Note that sun-worship is one of the most ancient of human religious tenets, dating back to the Egyptians and probably beyond.
The leader of the Yezidis is a prince called mir, or mireh shekha. The Yezidi religion is passed down orally through families and officially, there are no Yezidi religious texts. However, closer analysis seems to reveal that there are a couple of Yezidi holy books, but they are hidden by followers, and their existence is denied to outsiders.
Outsiders have somehow managed to get a hold of a couple of copies of these holy texts, or at least parts of them, and they have been published, both in print and on the Internet. Some say that these supposed Yezidi holy texts are actually fakes, and that no extant holy texts exist, as all knowledge is oral.
I glanced through the material in these texts along with an analysis of them. Shall we say that Yezidism is an immensely complex religion and that this article does not begin to tickle out an understanding of it?
Kakaism is another Kurdish sect that is very similar to Yezidism. It arose 1000 years ago in northern Iraq due to conflicts between the Umayyad rulers of Islam and the Zoroastrian priesthood. Kakais, like Yezidis, are forbidden from cursing Satan on religious grounds. Hence, many Muslims see them, like the Yezidis, as devil-worshipers. There are 300,000 Kakais in Kurdistan.