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Yazīdīs

By:
Eden Naby
Source:
The Oxford Encyclopedia of the Islamic World What is This? Provides comprehensive scholarly coverage of the full geographical and historical extent of Islam

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Yazīdīs

An ethno-religious group living mainly in northern Iraq but also in Turkey, Armenia, and Syria, the Yazīdīs (also Yezīdīs) have uncertain origins. Belonging to none of the major religious groups of the Middle East, and not qualified as a tolerated “people of the book” under Islam, the Yazīdīs’ survival has for centuries owed much to their location in inaccessible mountains and foothills. They share these regions with Kurds (Muslims) and Assyrians (Christians). They are known as Yazīdīs to all their neighbors except the Assyrians, with whom they share villages on the Nineveh plain and who call them by their self-appellation, “Dasnaye.”

Because they have not been enumerated in censuses taken during the twentieth century in any of the countries in which they live, except in the former Soviet Union (and Armenia), the size of the Middle Eastern and world Yazīdī population can only be estimated; it is believed to range from 200,000 to 300,000.

The most distinctive element in Yazīdī identity is religion, for which the community has undergone periodic persecution, forced conversion, abduction of women and children, and death. It is thought to be a syncretism of heterodox Islam, Eastern Christianity, and Zoroastrianism, with possible connections to Mithraism. The secretiveness of the practitioners of this religion, together with the loss of much of their written material, has allowed wild conjecture about Yazīdī faith and practice. Piecing together information about Yazīdī cosmology, nineteenth-century travelers adopted the term “devil-worshipers” from Muslims who had used this as license to attack Yazīdīs. According to Yazīdī narrative, such attacks date from 637 CE, at least as recorded in Muslim sources. By the tenth century, Kurds, by then Islamicized, joined in the general persecution of their nonconverted neighbors in the Hakkari mountains. With the coming of the Mongols, Yazīdīs suffered further attacks, especially on the Mosul (Nineveh) plain, their main population area. The religious center at Lalish was destroyed, the inhabitants fled into the mountains, and the tomb of Shaykh Adi, the venerated Yazīdī saint, was desecrated. Sinjar, the mountain that Yazīdīs had inhabited for centuries, came under attack by the Bhotan Kurds in 1585, and in 1640–1641 Ottomans attacked the remaining villages on the Nineveh plain.

Despite continuous attacks during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries by Kurds, Arabs, Persians, and Ottomans, Yazīdīs have, whenever possible, sheltered others who, like them, have been persecuted for religious reasons. During 1914–1917 the Yazīdīs of the Sinjar mountain provided relief to twenty thousand Assyrians and Armenians fleeing the Kurdish Hamidiya units of the Ottomans. The centuries of attacks on Yazīdīs by all their Muslim neighbors, irrespective of ethnic group, led to their taking refuge outside the Muslim sphere in czarist territory. Others fled to Europe in the later twentieth century, and since 2004 smaller Iraqi Yazīdī refugee groups have settled where allowed. Attacks on Yazīdīs in northern Iraq have escalated in the context of the initial attacks on non-Muslims that eventually broke down in 2006 into inter-Muslim killings. In August 2007 over four hundred Yazīdīs of Shaikhan village, northeast of Mosul, were killed in one of the largest single massacres in the course of the Iraq war.

The earliest western commentators on the Yazīdīs are missionaries, travelers, and archeologists working in northern Iraq and the region. The Yazīdīs have been variously identified as remnants of Jews, ancient Assyrians, a Kurdish tribe, or related to the Umayyid caliph Yazīd. Further investigation has revealed a traditional history that may hark back to India nearly four millennia ago. Today Yazīdīs practice strict endogamy and retain a caste system intertwined with their religious and political hierarchy. Descent is patriarchal, back to a monogenesis narrative of Yazīdī creation through Adam alone, prior to the creation of other humans through Eve. The Yazīdī cosmology incorporates seven angels (hence, “Cult of Angels”), especially the chief angel, referred to as mālik Taus (king peacock), a symbol that has been interpreted as the devil—hence the label “devil worshippers.” The caste system of Yazīdī society, the five daily prayers, and the cycle of annual fasts all recall elements of the religions around them, such as pre-Christian religions of Mesopotamia and the Iranian plateau.

No original language of this community remains. Most Yazīdīs speak a distinct Kurdish dialect, Kurmanji Kurdish being the language of local rulers. The remaining holy books include history and cosmology and first became available in Syriac through an Assyrian monk from Rabban Hormizd (Alqosh). The two available sacred books of the community are in Arabic. Their hymns and songs, chanted by special categories of religious and secular leaders from the upper castes, have changed languages over the years and retain no ecclesiastical language. A tradition claims a lost written language with an alphabet of thirty-three letters. Whether they are related to speakers of a lost language and possibly the Roma (who have been identified, linguistically and through DNA, as being from India) remains to be seen. Yazīdīs have been increasingly targeted by Iraq's Muslim extremists. The semi-independent Kurdish entity in northern Iraq has also made attempts to enfold most of northern Iraq, up to the Syrian and Turkish borders, into itself through assimilation of minorities. The combined effect is increased pressure on the Yazīdīs to describe themselves as Kurdish, although most claim to be neither Kurd nor Arab. Manipulation of the hierarchical leadership of the Yazīdīs in their German diaspora and in Iraq is eroding the ability of the Yazīdīs to maintain a separate ethnic identity.

See also ASSYRIANS; IRAQ; and KURDS.

Bibliography

  • Furlani, Giuseppe. The Religion of the Yezidis: Religious Texts of the Yezidis. Translated by Jamshedji Maneckji Unvala. Bombay, 1940. Find it in your Library
  • Isaac of Barṭellā. Monte Singar, Tasʿita d-Dasnaye: Storia di un popolo ignoto, con note storiche percura di Samuele Giamil. Rome, 1900. Find it in your Library
  • Joseph, Isya. Devil Worship: The Sacred Books and Traditions of the Yezidiz. Boston, 1919. Find it in your Library
  • Kreyenbroek, Philip G.God and Sheikh Adi are Perfect: Sacred Poems and Religious Narratives from the Yezidi Tradition. Wiesbaden, Germany, 2005. Find it in your Library
  • Qāshā, Suhayl. Madhhab al-Yazīdīyah. Diyār ʿAql, Lebanon, 2003. Find it in your Library
  • Rousseau, Jean Baptiste Louis Jacques. Description du pachalik de Bagdad, suivie d’une notice historique sur les Wahabis, et de quelques autres pièces relatives à l’histoire et à la littérature de l’Orient. Paris, 1809. Find it in your Library
  • Spät, Eszter. The Yezidis. London, 2005. Find it in your Library
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