What is the Yazidi Religion?

I consider myself someone who’s learned
a lot about the middle-east and world religions over the years, so when I heard about the
brutal oppression of the Yazidis, I had several questions. First of all, who were these Yazidis? The idea of a non-Abrahamic religion with
roots all the way back to ancient Mesopotamia was, to say the least intriguing, I had to
find out more. The first I heard of them was when the UN
declared ISIS was committing genocide against this religion due to their belief the Yazidis
worshipped the Devil. I knew there was a story here of a people
who had experienced so much pain and suffering because of ignorance. Quickly, I found out about peacock angels,
fire worship, and strict bans on marrying outside of the faith. I could already sense this was a syncretic
religion. We talked about syncretism before on Step
Back, long long ago when I spoke about Voodoo. It’s when religions develop as a mix of
various traditions. Now, every religion is to some extent syncretic,
but the Yazidis did seem like a unique combination. TO THE INTERNET! Yazidis are under the umbrella of an ethnic
group in the middle-east called the Kurdish people. There’s some debate on this, but they live
in the region of Kurdistan which straddles Iran, Iraq, Syria, and Turkey, and they speak
a form of the Kurdish language. However, their genetic lineage seems to connect
this group all the way back to ancient Mesopotamia, seriously old fertile crescent stuff. The name Yazidi comes from the old Umayyad
Caliph Yazid I. The Umayyads were a powerful line of rulers
at the beginning of the Islamic empire. One of the significant figures in Yazidi history
traces his origins to this house. The Yazidi religion is a blended mix of all
sorts of Abrahamic and non-Abrahamic faiths. That being said, they’re distinctly not
an Abrahamic religion, or at least, they haven’t been treated as such by their neighbours. There’s a lot of Islamic influence in their
language, especially their more esoteric thinking, which seems to borrow heavily from Sufi thought,
a movement of Islamic mysticism. However, that is where the similarities end. Their myths about the foundations of the universe
seem to have more links with the religious beliefs of ancient Mesopotamia and Iran as
well as Zoroastrianism. They seem to have borrowed the Zoroastrian
reverence for fire, but if you are lost as to what Zoroastrianism is about you’re in
luck. I made a video exploring them which you can
watch here. So really, it’s a locally focused religion
endemic to a specific group of people. You can’t convert, you must be born into
it. That group of people have then absorbed religious
ideas and traditions from the various religions which moved through the region of Northern
Iraq they originate from since… well as long as people have been farming. The roots of this region are preposterously
old, perhaps one of the oldest on earth. It’s a hierarchical religion, led both by
a secular prince or Emir, and a religious Sheikh authority. They also follow a strict caste system. Yazidis are not only strictly forbidden from
marrying outside of their religion but even their caste under penalty of death. This comes from the Yazidi obsession with
purity. They have internalised a bit of Zoroastrianism
about the elements of fire, water, air and earth, and have strong taboos about mixing
elements. Actions like spitting on the ground or into
a fire are considered very off limits. They have also considered even association
with non-Yazidis a form of pollution, so until relatively recently, they didn’t join the
military. It comes from a part of their creation myth
in which they believe the world is populated by descendants of Adam and Eve, but that the
Yazidis were made of only the… reproductive fluids of Adam. Also, because of an outdated conception about
the use of human waste as fertiliser, they can’t eat lettuce. This is all a fascinating find, but it sounds
as if these are a people who more or less keep to themselves. It doesn’t explain why they have experienced
such targeted hatred over the years, and especially from the Islamic State. Then, I began to look into their beliefs and
found out what was going on. Like Christians, Muslims, and even Zoroastrians,
the Yazidis are monotheists, believing in a distant God, who had delegated the tasks
of goding up to a pantheon of seven angels. The most prominent amongst these angels is…
uh, this name. He also goes by the cool nickname of the peacock
angel. It comes from an ancient belief that peacock
meat doesn’t decompose. Tawûsê Melek in the mythology of the Yazidis
at a point defied the creator god but later attained redemption. He’s not a source of evil to them and is
even one of the holiest of holy figures in their faith, but one of the other names they’ve
used for him is Shaytan, which is the name in the Qur’an for the devil. It’s because of this similar name the Yazidis
have spent centuries accused as being devil worshippers. That’s right, because of a similar name,
these people have experienced by their own accounts 73 genocides. Damn, that’s fucked up! The Yazidis experienced multiple attempts
to persecute and force convert them. They used to have a prominent place in Syria,
until the Ottoman empire led several campaigns to try and force the Yazidis to convert to
Islam, driving them into Northern Iraq where the vast majority of them live today. And every so often, some sort of event would
flare up and cause violent mobs to attack Yazidi communities. Such as in 2007 when a Yazidi honour killing
sparked violence. The Muslim public suspected that the Yazidis
killed this girl because of their conversion to Islam. This sparked a series of suicide bombings
against the Yazidi communities in Mosul, killing about 500. There are only about 700,000 Yazidis in the
world. But that doesn’t come close to the untold
horrors inflicted upon them by ISIS. Under their occupation, thousands of Yazidis
have either died or been forced into sex slavery, to the point the UN has declared it a genocide. Many thousands even today, after ISIS has
been defeated in the region, are internally displaced, or living all over the world as
refugees. And they have been the targets of Islamophobic
hatred anywhere they go in the west. Because, Islam isn’t a race, but Islamophobia
sure seems racist. This is doubly compounded by the fact that
because of these long-standing misunderstandings, often Yazidi refugees need to be given special
protection, and because of their cloistered culture, much more resources and training
once they arrive. It’s been a humanitarian disaster, and only
when some of the worst people in history tried to eliminate them from the earth did ignorant
old me ever find out about them. Just thinking about the deep roots of the
Yazidi people makes me really appreciate the gravity of what the chain of dominos set off
by the US invasion of Iraq in 2003 led to. Here are people who have ties all the way
back to the time of Ur, Nineveh, and Babylon, disappearing from the earth, and finding themselves
without help. The Yazidis are also part of the larger issue
of the greater injustice done to the Kurdish people. They’ve been persecuted, displaced, and
torn apart because of a bunch of old men in 1919 who drew this part of the map. We really need to find a way to build a space
for the Kurdish people. The misunderstanding about the Peacock Angel
shows ignorance can be deadly. Curiosity and education have real impacts
on how we get along. You sometimes hear when people go off to get
an education they come back all lefty and stuff. Maybe it’s because reading about other people,
and trying to understand those different from you changes you in a way. I’d argue for the better, and to make my
case I’d point to the tragedy of the Yazidis. Anytime we’re all convinced a group of people
are evil, think of them, and as the Green brothers would say, see people complexly. Thank you to 12tone for the Step Back theme
as well as patrons Don and Kerry Johnson, Michael Kirschner, Martin King, Scott Smith,
Luis Eneas Guarita, Mary D’Onofrio, James McNeice, and Garrick Kwan. Like, Share, Subscribe, and come back next
time for more Step Back.

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About the Author: Emmet Marks

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