Gerard Russell writes about the religion of the Yazidis
At the village of Khanqe, in Iraqi Kurdistan, tens of thousands of Yazidi refugees were living in rows of UN-issued tents. They had been driven out of their homes in Sinjar, sixty miles to the south-west, by an Isis attack on 3 August. It’s not the first time the Yazidis have been persecuted; it’s surprising that the sect has managed to survive at all. In the 12th century Europe’s Cathars were suppressed for their deviation from Christianity within decades of their emergence; the Yazidis, whose religion took its present form at around the same time, and which drew on still older elements of Middle Eastern ‘paganism’, still exist. How have they managed to last so long?
One of the refugees’ religious leaders is Sheikh Hamad Eido Hamu – ‘Pasha’, he added, making sure I noted it down. The Ottoman title of pasha was given to his grandfather in 1917, when the empire recognised him as the leader of the people of Sinjar. Sheikh Hamad’s followers, twenty of whom were gathered around him, were mostly wearing tatty T-shirts and trousers: presumably the clothes they’d had on when they fled from Sinjar ten days earlier. They had lost more than their possessions. Sinjar is one of their holy sites; the mountain at the centre of the region is dotted with Yazidi shrines, with their sharp conical spires. It was the mountain that saved them: once the Yazidis got there, and climbed far enough away from the roads, Isis couldn’t easily reach them, and they could more easily be protected by their own armed men, and by friendly PKK gunmen from Syria; from the mountain they were able to cross into Syria and then re-enter Iraq at a safer point further north. But the mountain is more than twenty miles from the Yazidis’ main settlements, and they were being pursued by Isis in armoured cars.
Sheikh Hamad fled with the others, but by the time I met him he had recovered some of his dignity. He was dressed in a white turban and white robe, under a cream-coloured woollen jacket tied with a Levi’s belt. The white robe was once a symbol of poverty, and is worn by members of an ascetic group called the faqirs to which the sheikh belonged by hereditary right. The faqirs observe rules which other Yazidis need not follow: abstinence from pork, for instance (a rule they share with Muslims), and from lettuce (a rule whose origin is different, and much older). Their status as faqirs, and their knowledge of the innermost secrets of the Yazidis’ faith, gives them the power to foretell the future. What the sheikh foresaw was bleak: ‘We revere seven angels who carry out in this world the will of the noble lord. And his will now is to destroy us. If God does not have mercy, we are finished. And if we are not helped, then God will send destruction on the world. Disasters will follow, not just for us, but for you as well.’ He dabbed at his eyes with a tissue. The children who were watching began to cry as well.
Their obscurity has been the Yazidis’ best defence against persecution over the centuries, but it means that we are in the dark about much of their past and even some aspects of their current beliefs. Because their faith involves mystery – in contrast to evangelical religions like Christianity and Islam, it aims to keep some of its teachings secret even from its own followers – the Yazidis are often in the dark themselves. They sometimes invent stories to explain their own curious customs. Why shouldn’t faqirs eat lettuce? It’s because lettuce gives you stomach gas, one Yazidi told me; no, it’s because the word for lettuce sounds like a taboo word, a second said. It’s because our persecutors the Turks forced us to eat lettuce, claimed a third. (Such confusion is not limited to the Yazidis: I had similar difficulty trying to establish from the Druze of Lebanon why their elders are not supposed to eat molokhiya, a dish of jute leaves common in Lebanon and Egypt.)
Even the origin of the term ‘Yazidi’ is disputed. They deny that the name has any connection with Yazid, an early Muslim Arab caliph (some scholars have assumed that the first Yazidis must have been his supporters). They themselves don’t use the term: they prefer to call themselves Ezidis, which as Sheikh Hamad explained to me is derived from Ezda, a Persian word for God. Certainly the Yazidis have been influenced by Islam. Sheikh is an Arabic word, though they also use pir, a Persian word of pre-Islamic origin with a similar meaning. When denouncing the ‘unbelievers’ of Isis, Sheikh Hamad used the Islamic term kuffar. At the Yazidis’ holiest site, the temple of Lalish in Kurdistan, is a sacred spring in which Yazidis are immersed in a baptism-like ceremony of spiritual cleansing. The spring is called Zemzem – the same name as the spring at Mecca that’s sacred to Islam. The adoption of Muslim terminology was partly a means of protection, a practice known among heterodox Muslims as taqiya. But it also seems to show the influence of Muslim missionaries, who imparted some Islamic concepts to the Yazidis even though they never converted them. One such missionary may have been the person Yazidis revere as the founder of their religion, Sheikh Adi ibn Musafir. Records suggest that he was an 11th-century Sufi preacher, though Yazidis reject the idea that he was a Muslim: they think of him as an earthly manifestation of one of the seven angels who govern the world.
Alongside such Muslim influences, the Yazidis and neighbouring groups like the Alawites have preserved elements of the Middle East’s pre-Islamic religions. In the year 363, the Roman emperor Julian lost a significant battle at the city of Samarra in what is now northern Iraq. In his time, Iraq was a borderland contested between the Roman and Persian Empires. Julian had been tempted by the apparent weakness of Persian defences into overreach and had ended up without adequate supplies. Provoked into battle by the Persians, he was fatally wounded. Rome ended up having to surrender its Iraqi possessions – including the city of Sinjar, then the location of a Roman fortress. Julian’s defeat had a special significance, however: he had been leading a resurgence of paganism in the late Roman Empire; his Christian enemies called him Julian the Apostate. On his way to fight the Persians he had offered sacrifice at temples to the old gods, including the temple to the moon god Sin at the city of Harran in modern-day Turkey. His death – and the circumstances of it, which made it seem like a judgment from God – removed the last obstacle to the Christianisation of the Roman Empire. A Christian writer later claimed that, as he lay dying, Julian dipped his hand into his own wound and filled it with blood, ‘flung it into the air and cried: “Thou hast won, O Galilean.”’ Yet the existence of the Yazidis shows that the victory of the new evangelical faiths, first Christianity, then Islam, was not complete. The Yazidis, and other religious groups in the hills and mountains that separate Turkey from the Arab world, preserve rituals and beliefs that Julian would recognise.
The Yazidis’ special cult is of the sun. ‘We are theists,’ Sheikh Hamad told me. ‘We do not worship any person or prophet but only nature – what God has created. We worship this sun, the lord of all. Without the light of the sun, where would we be?’ It’s towards the sun that Yazidis turn when they say their prayers, and their annual bull sacrifice is conducted at the shrine of a figure they call Sheikh Shams – a name not too far from that of the ancient Assyro-Babylonian sun god Shamash, who had a temple near that of Sin at Harran. Another sun cult, that of Mithras, established in Rome in the first and second centuries ad by soldiers returning from the Middle East, appears to be a cultural cousin of the Yazidis. Like the Yazidis, worshippers of Mithras were secretive about their beliefs and rituals. But their tendency to worship in underground chapels, their practice of a sacred handshake and their depiction of the god Mithras in the act of sacrificing a bull all underscore their connection with the Yazidis, who also have underground holy sites, sacred handshakes and an annual bull sacrifice.
Abu Rayhan al-Biruni, a remarkably open-minded 11th-century Muslim scholar, tells us that in his time the still existing pagan community at Harran believed in reincarnation and a descent of the divine essence into human form. The Yazidis and neighbouring groups like the Alawites have inherited these beliefs, and regard certain individuals – the Greek philosophers, Jesus and the Apostles, Muhammad and some of his companions – as having been, to some extent, reflections of God on earth.
The chief angel of the seven that rule the world is Malak Taoos, the ‘peacock angel’.The Yazidis identify him with Azazael, also known as Iblis (calling him Satan is taboo). The cult of Malak Taoos gets them accused of devil worship, but in practice all it means is that they revere a bronze image of a peacock; some Yazidis also display peacock feathers in their homes. The origins of this custom may be ancient. There was a pre-Christian Mesopotamian and Iranian tradition of propitiating malign gods. Plutarch tells us of dark sacrifices offered by Iranians in the first century to Angra Mainyu, the Zoroastrian equivalent of Satan. (Such sacrifices were usually creatures of the night, such as bats or wolves.) A Christian writer at the end of the seventh century claimed that people near his birthplace on what is now the Turkey-Iraq border worshipped Beelzebub, and a tradition of placating malign gods certainly persisted among Iraqi planet worshippers into the ninth century. One 19th-century English visitor to the Yazidis, George Percy Badger, came to believe that this was the purpose of the veneration of Malak Taoos, an angel ‘so bad that he requires to be constantly propitiated’.
Whatever the origins of the cult of Malak Taoos, no Yazidi today sees the peacock angel as evil. They explain that Malak Taoos was once the chief of all the angels; he rebelled against God and was cast down into hell. In Yazidi belief, Malak Taoos repented and was forgiven, and now, once again, governs the world on behalf of the ineffable, unknowable deity. Hell, and the devil, no longer exist in Yazidi theology. This belief in the possibility of redemption for all creation, even Iblis, is something the Yazidis share with some medieval Christian and Muslim thinkers.
Geography encouraged the syncretism of the Yazidis’ religion: the mountains of the Levant and northern Iraq abut some of the world’s oldest civilisations and trade routes; they were an ideal place for picking up ideas, mixing them together and holding at bay those who would impose orthodoxy. No wonder that in an almost contiguous area from the Mediterranean to the Zagros mountains there are a whole series of heterodox communities: Druze, Alawites, Shabak, Yazidis, Kakais, and in modern times Bahai. One reason for their survival was Islam itself, which was prepared, up to a point, to tolerate other faiths – certainly Judaism and Christianity, but also others that were monotheistic and had holy scriptures. In the beginning, when Muslims were a minority in the lands they ruled, the caliphs did relatively little to press their subjects to convert. The caliphs also developed a great appetite for Greek science, especially astrology. The Harranians revered Pythagoras as a prophet, and had a great collection of scientific literature; their religious interest in the stars made them good astrologers, and won them protection from the caliphs. One ninth-century Harranian, Thabit ibn Qurra, who expanded Pythagoras’ theorem of triangles while under the protection of the Abbasid caliph in Baghdad, made a powerful defence of his faith against those who denounced it as paganism. ‘Who was it who settled the inhabited world and propagated cities, if not the outstanding men and kings of paganism?’ he asked. ‘Without the gifts of paganism, the earth would have been empty and impoverished, enveloped in a great cloud of destitution.’ Since the Harranians were ultimately monotheistic their beliefs weren’t anathema to early Muslims. Some Muslim philosophers, too, developed a theology in which the planets were intermediaries between God and the world.
Most surviving heterodoxies or minority religions have been those that could retreat to remote mountainous places. Borders are handy too: one can escape persecution in one country by fleeing to another. But over the last couple of centuries, and especially since the invention of the motor car, the havens where the Yazidis and other communities held out against the forces of modernity and orthodoxy have come under greater threat. In the 19th century the Ottoman Empire sent punitive expeditions against the Yazidis, aimed at forcibly converting them to Islam. In 1892 they captured the holy site of Lalish after failing to take Sinjar, and turned it into an Islamic madrasa. Often the Ottomans’ tactics were remarkably similar to those of Isis. The British archaeologist Austen Henry Layard, who travelled among the Yazidis in the 1840s, reported that ‘yearly expeditions have been made by the governors of provinces into their districts; and while the men and women were slaughtered without mercy, the children of both sexes were carried off, and exposed for sale in the principal towns.’ On one occasion, in Sinjar in 1832, ‘there was a massacre, and the population was reduced by three-fourths. The Yazidis took refuge in caves, where they were either suffocated by fires lighted at the mouth, or by the discharges of cannon.’ Isis has mortars and armoured Humvees.
Ottoman pressure eventually led to the dispersal of the Yazidis. When the empire carried out its genocidal massacres of the Armenians in 1915-16, as punishment for their supposed collaboration with Russia, the Yazidis and Assyrian Christians were also targeted. Some fled south to Sinjar; others joined the exiles in Armenia. As a result, the Yazidis today are scattered. Until last month Sinjar had the largest share of their population. There were a smaller number of Yazidi villages in areas under Kurdish control east of the Mosul dam; it’s in these villages that the Sinjaris have now taken refuge. Other Yazidi communities exist in Syria, Turkey, Armenia and Georgia; a related community, the Kakais, live in Iran.
While they have clung to their theology, the Yazidis have had to adapt politically in each of these places in order to survive. In Iraq under Saddam Hussein they were encouraged to be Arab. In Kurdistan, it helps them to be seen as the ‘original Kurds’, who have preserved elements of the Kurds’ pre-Islamic religion. (This isn’t improbable: the Yazidis speak a dialect of Kurdish, a Persian language quite different from Arabic.) In Armenia, where memories of the Kurdish role in the events of 1915-16 are still strong, the Yazidis define themselves as a non-Kurdish ethnicity. In Sinjar, thanks to their numbers, they have pressed for independence. After the First World War, the Assyrian Christians proposed that they would form a nation-state, along with the Yazidis, including both Sinjar and Mosul. It didn’t happen: the area was rich in oil, and so the British government took possession of it, claiming that this would protect the region’s minorities.
Today the central government in Baghdad wants Sinjar to form part of Mosul province, while the regional government in Kurdistan wants to govern it from its capital in Erbil. Until Isis’s attacks it was secured jointly by the Iraqi army, which fled in June, and the Kurdish peshmerga, which abandoned it on 3 August. The situation is complicated by the fact that Saddam took steps to cement his authority in the region by moving Arab Muslims into Sinjar, while resettling many Yazidis in large housing developments between Sinjar and Mosul. Arab villagers, according to the Yazidis I met last month, joined in the attacks against them when Isis arrived.
Sheikh Hamad arrived in Khanqe after a forced march during which the frail and infirm had to be left to their fate. All the Yazidis I spoke to at the refugee camp wanted one thing: asylum. The Yazidis aren’t usually keen to emigrate, unlike the Christians of Iraq, two-thirds of whom have left the country during the past 11 years. When they move abroad they’re far from the holy site of Lalish and find it hard to enforce their community’s strict marriage rules, which forbid Yazidis from marrying outside their own caste and tribe, let alone marrying non-Yazidis. But the events of August have changed things. ‘They have taken our women and our honour, we have no future here,’ one Yazidi man told me in Arabic. Another spoke in English: ‘We all want to die. No future for Yazidis.’