The Yezidis – A Mysterious Kurdish Religious Sect

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 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. This dietary code is not often followed these days. The restriction on eating lettuce may have been due to outbreaks of E. Coli.

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. However, people do marry across caste nonetheless. 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 today in 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.

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12 Comments

Filed under Alawi, Arab Nationalism, Arab Racism, Arabs, Assyrians, Baha'i, Christianity, Comparitive Religion, Druze, Ethnic Nationalism, Europe, Germany, History, Iraq, Iraqis, Islam, Judaism, Kakaism, Kurds, Middle East, Middle Eastern, Nationalism, Orthodox, Political Science, Race/Ethnicity, Racism, Regional, Religion, Reposts From The Old Site, Sabeans, Satanism, Shiism, Sunnism, Ultranationalism, Yezidism, Zoroastrianism

12 responses to “The Yezidis – A Mysterious Kurdish Religious Sect

  1. Pingback: Robert Lindsay

  2. Pingback: Do the Yezidis Worship the Devil? « Robert Lindsay

    • Taha M.

      Dear Robert,
      The word Yazidi in Kurdish language is Ezidi which means in Kurdish the worshipers of God. Ezdan in Kurdish means God.
      The Yezidi kurds who are outside of the non-fly zoon didn’t participate in the ellections of 2005 and of 2009 because they are still outside of the Kurdsh federal region. Those who are inside the region have participated in both ellections of 2005 and 2009. They have members in both the Kurdistan parlament and alos the governement as ministers. The Kurdish Governement took the Yazidi as their priority to helpe to reactive the culture and religious ceromonies . The president of Kurdistan region of Iraq Massod Barzani have emphasised in many occasions that they are the original Kurds who stood against (70) many crusial attacks on them Just for two reasons. One othen is that they are Kurds and the second is bacause of their religion.
      As I said the name Yazidi means the worshipers of God which means that they are totally not the worshipers of devil. For them Devil is evil that is why they avoid even mentiong the name of devil and any thing have connection with evil. For this reason many racist writers tried to give them such a name.
      Shekch Adi is not born in Damascus. His name is Shekch Adi Hakari. Hakar is the province in the north of Kurdistan. namely now is Batman and Diarbakir in south east of Turkey. In Batman is still full of Yazidi Kurds. Though many of them fled from the persecution of the Turkish government to Arminia and Germany.
      The Yazidi Kurds are looking up to the implimenting of the article 140 of the Iraqi constitution where the disputed areas can be turened to the Kurdistan region, they can join the Kurdish fedral region to get their full rights in culture, religion and election.

  3. Pingback: Kurdish Teenager Stoned To Death Near Mosul « Robert Lindsay

  4. Asuan

    Some more info on the Ezidi, although i am not one of them….

    The Ezidi religion is the oldest monotheistic religion alive, and to an extend, mother of our today’s religions. The Ezidi genesis includes the formation of the world from pure light via a white pearl. The peakock angel (Tawsi Melek) is not called Lucifer, that is what Christs and Muslims did later. It’s name, translated to Jew Old Testament would be Azrael. In Ezidi religion Tawsi Melek became the first angel among the seven archangles because he did not bow to the first man made by God, Adam (indeed, Adam and Hewa/ Eve are kurdish names). He cried out hell fire with his tears so that there is no hell and no devil in the Ezidi world. Ezidi believe to be children of Adam only, and not of Hewa, as the story of Adam of Eve tells the settlement of Adam after becoming husband to Eve. Obviously there have been children of Adam, maybe in a first marriage, but not of Eve before. Jews, Christs, and Muslims took over these parts from the Kurdish history in their own holy books. This is also correlating to the fact, that the place of Eden is stated to be besides the springs of the Euphrate and Tigris rivers in the Bible, which is in fact in Kurdistan. Eden there is now called Lalish, an ancient temple of first Ezidi, worshipping the sun additionally to the archangles. Later, Lalish was occupied by Christian monks, seized by Islamic warriors and given back to the Ezidi by a converted ex-Muslim Sheikh Adi, who is holy to the Ezidi due to wise and vital changes to their religion and social community. The fundament of Ezidi religion is the freedom of the will of every single person, mentioned in Ezidi songs centuries or even milennia before Kant and the European journey towards modern times. Hence, there is a lot to learn for all non-Ezidi from this religion as parts of it live in at least three world religions, and we all should have in mind, that Ezidi religion often is not a copy of many Biblic (or Quran’s) stories dealing with the time before the respective phrophets arrive, but their origin.

  5. Asuan

    Sheikh Adi (Ses Adi, Sheikh Adi ibn Musafir) was born in a small village in the Beqaa Valley which is now Lebanon. He was raised in Muslim education and studied Muslim theology in Bagdad. As there-adays Badgad was a fountain of opend mind discussion and a melting pot of various wisdoms he became a Sufi, which could be most properly translated as Muslim who is open for all mysteries that God gave to the world. Hence, he was not satisfied with autocratic theology focussing on Mohammad and his family alone. He was aware that there God also has been before the Prophet and was very interested in studying ancient ways. However, as Sufism faced some pressure from what we today maybe would call “Fundamentalism”, Sheik Adi was forced to leave Bagdad. He went to the Kurdish mountains, not by good luck, but on purpose as he had heard of Ezidi and other cultures. He was well known for his wisdom and respected also from Christs, Jews, Muslims. He got Lalish back to the Ezidi and found his peace in this religion. Ezidi claim that Ses Adi always have been Ezidi, although evidence is there that he was born as Muslim. Moreover, the Ezidi of that age saw in him the Prophet who was said of in Ezidi qewls (songs) so that he was immideately was seen as Ezidi by the Ezidi.. Obviously it was his fate to be Ezidi.

  6. Asuan

    …and to consider Ezidi religion as mix from Islam and Zaratustra is not a proper analysis. Certainly, some similarities to Islam have been introduced, but not from tradition but from survival necessities. As an example, Islam tolerates “book posessing” religions. As Ezidi tradition is kept exclusively in oral ways, it has been proclaimed that there are two holy books (Misafa res and a second one). Some centuries later these books “occur” by selling them to a Christian. An overwhelming amount of evidence states that these books are false, as they are written in a wrong dialect, a wrong spelling system, containing the word “devil” although using this word is strictly forbidden for any Ezidi and therefore most unlikely to appear in an holy book. The Ezidi caste systems is not derived from Hinduism as castes are strictly spiritual for Ezidi, defining only marriage permission and guaranteeing religious education, but have no influence in secular and property affairs. However, similarities to Zaratustra religion could be seen as they arise from an far back dated common origin. But as Zaratustra lived while Ezidi religion already existed thousands of years it is more probable that Zaratustra’s wisdom and ideas originate from Ezidi precessors rather than Ezidi religion using Zaratustra doctrin to incorporate into their theology. Fundament of Ezidi religion truely is sun cult that was part in ancient Ezidi religion before Ses Adi and still part of some tradition today. The worshipping of the sun and of some animals as the peacock probably is a residue of native cult that was allowed to stand beside monotheism from the beginning. At least, I believe that there has been an original, a first religion, holding elements like being reborn after death (as in Buddism), opend mind for wonders (attributed to thousands of Gods in Hinduism), worshipping the sun which leads to monotheism (The Egyptian Ra cult). All this can be found in the Ezidi religion which is evidence for the Ezidi cult being at least quite close to the origin of religion.

  7. Raveen

    The PDK and PUK are not racist and Fascist there is yezidis, christian assyrian, shia members of the kurdistan regional goverment and they are ministers also. !

  8. lh

    Most of the information here seems to echo that of information put out by: a particular group who call themselves “Modern Templars”, a group of Southern Baptist missionaries–who badly want to save these “Satanists”, or just rumors–some based on fictional literature from the 19th century. Here’s an insider look. In fact, the Ezdî religion is officially designated as a syncretic religion. It predates all of the major religions, but has taken on some rituals of Zoroastrianism, Judaism, Christianity (esp. Armenian Catholicism), and Sufi Islam. Any ties to Hinduism are way too ancient to delineate, but most peoples of Indo-Irani origin have some element of the comings and goings of the Caucasus region. Many Ezdi consider themselves more closely aligned with Christians, incidentally. Many Yezidi do marry outside of caste–it’s 2014! I know this because I am one of said outsiders. My husband’s family are typical folks of the Shex caste. I speak kurmanci fluently and my father in law was an oral “guardian”, BTW. Who shared a great deal with me–since his children were not particularly interested. Also I know loads of old people who have married outside and have NOT been excommunicated. I know an old woman who died at over 100. She married at least 4 times–2 Ezdi and 2 Muslims. The few dietary requirements of the Yezidi are likely health codes based on an outbreak of E Coli or something (per recently deceased shex Dr. Darwish Hisso, for whom I translated scholarly texts and correspondence to and from English to German in the 90s). They’re also not really observed across the board. The color thing is blue, not yellow–also rarely observed in 2014. The Ezdi do NOT admit to being devil worshippers, and certainly do not use the words Lucifer or Satan(not even allowed to SAY that!). They only ever use the name Melekê Tauûk/taus. They do not worship this archangel. It is an icon. They worship Xwedê– the Kurdish word for God which comes from the same linguistic root as the ENGLISH. And and and.

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