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CHAPTER 7 THE YAZIDIS

 

 

 

INTRODUCTION

 

The Yazidis are linked to the extreme Shi'a (Ghulat) sects and number worldwide some 300,000 people. The main group of 150,000 Yazidis live in the Jebel Sinjar mountain and the Shaikhan district of northwest Iraq. At least 50,000 Yazidis live in the former Soviet Union (Armenia and other Caucasus states). They were also to be found in South-East Turkey around Diyarbakir and Mardin (10,000) but most emigrated from there to Germany in the 80s. They also live in Syria in and around Aleppo (5,000), and in parts of Iran. An estimated 50,000 have emigrated to Western Europe, mainly to Germany, in search of asylum and employment.

The Yazidis call themselves Dawasi. They are called "Devil worshippers" by their Sunni neighbours, who considered them heretics and have cruelly persecuted them over the centuries. They are closely related to similar sects such as the Ahl-i-Haqq.

The Yazidi religion is a syncretistic combination of Zoroastrian, Manichaean, Jewish and Nestorian Christian with Islamic Shi'a and Sufi elements and has many variants. They believe that they were created separately from the rest of mankind and are descended from Adam only - not from Adam and Eve like the rest of humanity. They have therefore kept themselves strictly isolated from the other communities among whom they lived, and did not intermarry with them. They also call themselves "Children of Adam" and see themselves as a chosen people.

Although scattered, they have a well organised society. The Emir (Mirza Beg) who resides at Ba'dari (65 km north of Mosul), is the secular head who represents the Yazidis to the central authorities. He installs the chief Sheikh (Sheikh Nazir, Baba Sheikh) who resides in Beled-Sinjar and is the supreme religious head and the infallible authority on their holy scriptures.

Ethnically most Yazidis are Kurmanji speaking Kurds. Their religious practice is centered on the tomb of their founder figure, Sheikh 'Adi ibn Musafir at Lalesh, some 60 km north-east of Mosul, who was probably a Sufi (some think an Isma'ili) preacher of the 12th century.

 

 

 

BELIEFS

 

Yazidis believe that the supreme God created the world, but delegated its maintenance to a hierarchy of seven angels of whom Malak Ta'us (the Peacock Angel) was the first in rank. Malak Ta'us sinned in not worshipping Adam, and was punished by being cast down from heaven. After shedding tears for 7000 years, with which the fires of hell were quenched, he repented of his sin of pride, was pardoned and reinstated as chief of the angels.

In Yazidi belief, Malak Ta'us is also the devil (Shaitan), the ruler of this world, and they seek to appease him as they fear his power. They do not actually worship him, but seek to honour and placate him, believing that the Supreme Being has delegated to him dominion over the world. They will never pronounce his Arabic name "Shaitan" or use any word beginning with "SH". He is seen as a capricious Lord who determines man's fate as he wills and in whom the principles of good and of evil are combined. It is believed that he appeared in different form in various periods of history, the final incarnation being in Sheikh 'Adi ben Musafir (d. 1162).

Malak Ta'us rules the universe with the help of six other angels, and he guards the gates of Paradise. The seven angels are worshipped by the Yazidi in the form of seven bronze peacock figures called Sanjaq, the largest of which weighs 320 kg. Six of them are taken yearly on a round of the main Yazidi centres.

Of the other angels, Sultan Ezi is second in rank to Malak Ta'us and many legends are told about him. He is sometimes identified with the second Umayad Caliph Yazid ibn Mu'awiyah. Other important angels are Sherf-Edin (noble lord of religion) who is seen as the Mahdi (returning Messiah), and She-Shims (sun sheikh) who presents the prayers of the Yazidis to God's throne three times a day.

As hell was destroyed by Malak Ta'us, it does not exist anymore. There is no concept of the forgiveness of sins. A person's deeds receive due punishment or reward in his next reincarnation. Transmigration of souls is a process of gradual purification of the spirit through the successive rebirths until the final day of judgement.

Like all Shi'a groups, the Yazidis believe firmly in Taqiya, the dissimulation of their faith in the face of persecution for the sake of the survival of the community.

 

 

 

RITES AND CUSTOMS

 

Sheikh 'Adi, the Yazidi founder figure and saint, was a 12th century Sufi mystic whom the Yazidi believe was the final manifestation of Malak Ta'us. His tomb is their religious centre and focal point of their annual pilgrimage.

Once a year, early in October, all Yazidis are encouraged to assemble at Sheikh 'Adi. The festivities are supervised by the Emir and the Baba Sheikh. The pilgrims bathe ritually in the river and form a procession in which the various clergy castes carry the Sanjaqs, play the flutes and drums, sing and dance. Hundreds of sesame oil lamps are lighted at the saint's grave and special offerings are brought. White bulls are sacrificed and common meals partaken of. A black serpent, symbol of Malak Ta'us, is carved on the doorway to the shrine and is kissed by the pilgrims. Booths are set up and there is much rejoicing with singing and dancing. The clergy engage in secret rituals to which the laity (murids) have no access.

Yazidis pray ritually three times a day facing the sun after first washing their hands and face. The prayers are in Kurdish and express thankfulness and pleas for blessing and help. The weekly holy day is Wednesday, in which they gather at dawn in a Ziyaret (local pilgrimage centre). The day of rest is Saturday. Twice a year they fast for three days: at the sun festival (ida roja, 1st December) and at the Khidr Elias festival (The Prophet Elijah day, 18th February).

The new year festival (ida sersale, first Wednesday in April) is a time of much rejoicing. Sheep, goats or hens are sacrificed, and houses decorated with flowers. Bonfires are lit at night. Yazidis celebrate other festivals, including two days at the end of the Muslim Ramadan and a Jesus feast (ida Isa) around Easter time.

Yazidis revere their dead, offering gifts, especially the firstfruits, at their graves. Many Yazidi villages have a tomb of a holy man nearby which is used as a local pilgrimage centre. Pilgrims seek blessing, protection and healing at these tombs.

Yazidi taboos include not eating lettuce, as they believe that evil is found in it. Tradition has it that "the devil once hid in a lettuce patch". This belief, ridiculed by their neighbours, probably goes back to the Manichaeans who believed that Divine Light was contained in plants more than in any other substance. Yazidis must not wear clothes of a specific dark blue colour, or a shirt open down the front. Underwear must be white. Very religious Yazidis do not eat chicken or gazelle meat.

Birth to Yazidi parents is the only way into the community. From birth each Yazidi is automatically linked to his or her specific Sheikh or Pir. This relationship cannot be changed. Children are baptised in the first week after birth, whilst circumcision is optional. Between the 7th to the 11th month, boys are initiated into full membership of the community through a special ceremony in which the Sheikh cuts off three locks of the boy's hair which are hidden by the mother.

The Sheikhs perform at weddings and funerals with special prayers and liturgies.

The sacred scriptures of the Yazidis are two short books written in Arabic: Kitab al-Jilwah (book of revelation) supposed to have been written by Sheikh 'Adi himself, and Mishaf Rash (black writing) by Sheikh Hasan ibn-'Adi. An Arabic hymn in praise of Shaykh 'Adi is greatly respected as part of their liturgy.

 

 

SOCIETY

 

Yazidi society is divided into two classes, the laity and the clergy. Marriage is strictly restricted to one's own class, often to one's own clan and is preferably to a cousin.

The laity (murid) who constitute the majority of Yazidis were not supposed to learn to read or write (a privilege kept for an Imam claiming descent from the famous Sufi Hasan al-Basri). They are not initiated into the mysteries of their religion, their duty being to keep the religious rites and taboos and obey their spiritual leaders. Every Yazidi is linked as a disciple to a definite Sheikh or Pir, whose hand he kisses every day.

The clergy or priests (ruhan, kahana) enjoy great respect and must not cut their hair or beard. They are divided into six classes:

1. The Sheikhs who are descended from five families closely related to Sheikh 'Adi.

2. The Pirs, descended from some of Sheikh Adi's disciples.

The Sheikhs and Pirs are responsible for the spiritual welfare of the murid families under their care, and for teaching them the proper Yazidi rites and ceremonies. They also function at the religious festivals and at the rites of passage (birth, marriage, death, etc.).

3. The Fakirs or Karabash who wear black shirts next to their skins and black turbans round their felt caps. They are organised like a Sufi order and have their own ascetic rules.

4. The Kawwals, who sing and play music at the festivals. Their representatives carry the Sanjaqs around Yazidi villages, inviting them to the pilgrimage to Sheikh Adi and gathering their donations to the Emir and to the upkeep of the religious centre.

5. The Kocaks - the dancers who serve at the tomb of Sheikh 'Adi.

6. The Awhan or deacons who perform the menial service at the tomb.

Every Yazidi is designated a "Brother or Sister of the Other World" on reaching puberty. This is a spiritual relationship which persists until death and carries certain ceremonial responsibilities (similar to Godparents in Christianity).

Yazidi language, both in worship and in secular life, is the Kurmanji dialect of Kurdish. Yazidis are organised in tribes, with a chief (Agha) at the head of each. Every tribe is divided into clan groups. Marriage is monogamous and restricted to a person's caste and clan.

As heretics the Yazidis were considered fair prey to any rightly believing Sunni. Turkish rulers and Sunni Kurdish tribes repeatedly persecuted them and tried to forcibly convert them. More recently the Iraqi authorities forcibly deported 20,000 Yazidis from Jebel Sinjar in 1975. Since the Gulf War the Iraqi Government is claiming that the Yazidis are Arabs and their areas should be under its jurisdiction, whilst the Yazidis and Kurdish forces assert that they are Kurds and should be part of their safe haven. Iraqi government posts are only one mile away from the Yazidi sanctuary at Lalesh.

Many Yazidis were also forced to leave South-Eastern Turkey in the 70s and 80s as a result of general anti-Kurdish and specific Sunni-Islamic anti-Yazidi persecution. They have historically viewed their Syrian Orthodox and Nestorian Christian neighbours as friends and fellow sufferers at the hands of the dominant Sunni majority.