The Yazidi religion, also spelled as Yezidi, is a monotheistic religion that originated in Northern Iraq. While often misunderstood because of its beliefs, the Yazidi shares many similarities with Islam, Christianity, Judaism, and Zoroastrianism.
What is Yazidi Religion?
Often considered the oldest first truly monotheistic religion in the world, Yazidis believe in one God named Xwede, who created the world and assigned it to seven holy beings known as Angels or heft sirr (seven mysteries). The seven angels’ leader goes by the name of Tawûsê Melek, and he holds authority over the world.
Yazidis believe in a divine triad. The original and first is the god who is remote and inactive concerning his creation. He only contained and bound it together with his essence. The second hypostasis is Sheikh Adi, and the third is Sultan Ezid. These two are hypostases of the one God. Their identities are sometimes blurred, and the two are often considered manifestations of Tawûsê Melek.
The name ‘Yazidi’ is believed to have been from the old Iranian word ‘yazata,’ which literally meant ‘divine being.’ Other scholars believed it was derived from Umayyad caliph Yazid I, one of their most revered rulers.
There is no recorded history about the first Yazidis. Scholars have theorized that Yazidism origins occurred during Sufi leader Adi ibn Musafir in the 12th century. He founded the community and mixed elements of Islam with the local beliefs. Yazidism became extremely syncretic throughout the years and incorporated other elements of Zoroastrianism, Manichaeism, and Christianity in their beliefs.
The God Xwede
Xwede created the world and the universe. He also created the seven holy beings to take care of the world. Xwede has more than a thousand other names. Xwede is a benevolent, forgiving, and merciful god, just like how Muslims view their god Allah.
Based on their creation story, he created the world from a white pearl taken from his breast. He then created the first bird called Anfar and put the pearl on the bird’s back. For 40,000 years, the bird broods on the pearl-like it was an egg. After this, God creates angels responsible for the creation of humans, plants, and animals.
Tawûsê Melek is the leader of the angels. He once disobeyed God by refusing to bow before the first human. This was a test by God to see if his angels were loyal and bowed only to him, their creator. The other angels are called Cibrayîl, Ezrayîl, Mîkayîl, Şifqayîl, Derdayîl, Ezafîl and Ezazîl.
Tawûsê Melek is often worshipped in the form of a peacock. In Christianity, the peacock is a symbol of immortality since its flesh doesn’t appear to decay. Tawuse Melek is also sometimes considered God’s alter ego, which makes him inseparable from him. His other name is Shaytan, often sounding the same as ‘Satan.’ Thus, they labeled Yazidis as devil worshippers. For this reason, Yazidis avoided the word Shaytan when referring to Tawûsê Melek.
The Yazidi People
Yazidi people are Kurdish-speaking people who were primarily farmers and cattle breeders. They call themselves Ezi, Izid, or Ezid and Dasini or Dasin, which literally meant “the one who created me.” Due to their violent history of persecution, Yazidis have become wary of outsiders. Their community lived an ascetic lifestyle and rarely associated with people from outside their tribe. They have also managed to survive after numerous attempts at extermination.
Many Yazidis physically resemble Muslim Kurds and Armenians, but they deem themselves to be separate from them. They have unique beliefs that their neighbors largely misunderstood, leading them to think they are devil worshippers. Scholars believe they originally come from Northern Iraq and have genetic links to the original Mesopotamian people. They lived in communities in Iraq, Syria, and Turkey and have communities in Georgia and Armenia.
Yazidi population in Iraq live in the Nineveh Governorate. Two of their biggest communities are in the Shekhan District. One is located northeast of Mosul, and another in the Sinjar distinct is close to the Syrian border. For centuries, the mountains of northwestern Iraq have been their home. They’ve built holy places, shrines, and villages in these areas.
In Syria, Yazidis live in two communities. The first one is found in Al-Jazira and the other in Kurd-Dagh. Yazidis in Georgia have a declining population due to economic migration to the West. Current estimates found as little as 6,000 Yazidis in the country. While in Armenia, Yazidis make up the largest ethnic minority group. Most Armenian Yazidis are descendants of refugees who fled to Armenia to escape persecution during the Ottoman rule.
Yazidi religion beliefs revolve around the universal principles of morals and ethics. They are popularly known to be very secretive about their beliefs and traditions. Most of their beliefs are orally passed down from generation to generation. Even the believers don’t have access to their holy book called the Meshef Reh, which was rumored to have been lost. They also prevent outsiders from learning and participating in their holy traditions. Their hymns are even filled with cryptic allusion, so outsiders would have difficulty interpreting it.
Yazidism and Islam share many similarities, but they diverge when it comes to how they perceive God. Yazidi gods are comprised of a holy trinity, just like in the Christian belief. The holy trinity is the only way Yazidis can observe God, and it becomes their object of veneration.
Yazidism also talks about seven archangels that follow God, a theme present in Christianity, Islam, and Judaism. These angels are included in their daily prayers. The angels are believed to reincarnate into human forms occasionally. They also have astronomical values and are often linked to the seven Babylonian planet Gods.
Angels are revered in the Yazidi religion. They are known to come to earth to bring rules for the nations periodically. Sheiks believe they are descended from the blood of the Seven Angels. Another theological difference between Islam and Yazidism is their view of the peacock angel.
In Yazidism beliefs, the peacock angel was God’s earthly representative. His rejection to bow down to humans signified his purest act of devotion to God. In Koran, Muslims view the peacock angel’s refusal to bow to Adam as heretical and equate him to Satan, whom God cast into Hell for disobeying his command.
Because of this parallelism between the peacock angel and Satan, Muslims and Christians accused Yazidis of being devil worshippers. Many historians have defended Yazidism, knowing that the peacock angel is a distinct entity from Satan. The concept of Satan or Hell doesn’t exist in the Yazidi faith.
Yazidis people believe they were created uniquely from the rest of humankind. Unlike other humans that were from Eve, they descended from Adam through his son Shehid bin Jer. This belief made marriage outside their community forbidden. Contact with outsiders is discouraged. If a Yazidi marries someone from outside their faith, they are barred and exiled. Some are even stoned and killed. In 2007, the stoning of a Yazidi girl who allegedly converted to Islam was captured on a cellphone video. This gained worldwide attention and international outcry.
Yazidis believe that humans have both good and evil within them, which exists in their minds and spirit. Humans have the free will to choose which one they follow. They also believe that souls pass into successive bodily forms and go into gradual purification and continual rebirth.
Similar to changing clothes, souls can change until they reach spiritual purification. The worst fate for a Yazidi is to be expelled from his community. This would mean his soul couldn’t progress. Based on the Yazidi calendar, the world is 7,000 years old. This is 5,000 years older than Gregorian Calendar and 1000 years older than the Jewish calendar.
Yazidis perform five Yazidi prayers a day for Tawûsê Melek. Once during dawn, sunrise, noon, afternoon, and sunset. Wednesday is their holy day, and Sunday is a rest day. They also have a strict religious belief system that revolves around purity. They aren’t allowed to eat certain kinds of food such as pork. To wear blue-colored clothing is also taboo. They are also not allowed to pray in the presence of outsiders.
Yazidis are often led by a chief sheik or their supreme religious head and a prince, their secular head. They have three castes that separate their religious duties (not social status): the murids, sheiks, and pirs, who can only marry within their groups, which means it is only possible to be a member of a group by birth. This separation prevents power struggle between castes.
Yazidi culture is patriarchal in nature. Women’s participation in labor, education, and politics is very low. Most women are married at a very young age and become financially dependent on their husbands for the rest of their lives.
During weddings, their priests (pir) break bread into two and give one half to the bride and the other half. Yazidis children are baptized with water by a priest. Yazidis are forced to become monogamous while the chiefs can practice polygamy.
In September, they have an annual pilgrimage to Sheik Adi’s tomb found north of Mosul to perform rituals in the river. This month is a necessary time where many Yazidis come together to celebrate. During the feast, they meet other Yazidis and arrange a few marriages. They are known to sacrifice animals and perform circumcision. Their dead are buried in conical tombs with their hands crossed.
In December, Yazidis fast for three days before drinking wine with the pir. Their holiest shrine is the tomb of their founder Sheikh Adi ibn Musafir. They are also obliged to visit the holy city of Lalish, where the holy temple can be found once during their lifetime. Similar to how Muslims should visit Mecca. To get to Lalish, travelers have to go to Dohuk and take an hour’s drive south-east. Those who come from Erbil will have to drive two and a half hours.
Once inside the temple, Yazidis have to use olive oil candles. They enter the temple’s entrance which is adorned by scarves. While inside, they also kiss the sacred stones of the temple.
Yazidis are predominantly Kurdish and have their language. They also have a rich oral tradition that integrates Islamic beliefs with elements of Zoroastrianism. However, much of their tradition is oral and done in secrecy. This combination of beliefs made Muslims think they were heretics. From 1162 to the 15th century, Yazidism beliefs began to deviate from Islam. Yazidis started drinking alcohol and praying away from Mecca and towards Sheikh Adi’s tomb.
Yadizis’ persecution is an important part of their history which has shaped their community. For many Yazidis, the struggle to survive was interlinked with their religious practice. Wrongly labeled as devil-worshippers by many Muslims, Yazidis have faced genocide throughout the years, beginning in the late 16th century.
During the 19th century, Yazidis were persecuted by Ottoman and Kurdish leaders. They were forced to convert to Islam, and those who didn’t were brutally executed. A total of 72 genocidal massacres took place in an attempt to exterminate the Yazidi people.
During Saddam Hussein’s era in 2003, hundreds of Yazidi have been murdered by the terrorist group Al-Qaida. Yazidi women were raped and sold on Arab markets. Because of this, thousands of Yazidis fled to Syria and Turkey.
In 2014, ISIS began terrorizing Yazidi villages. When Islamic militants and extremists captured Sinjar, more than 500,000 Yazidis were in danger. The Iraqi army couldn’t help them, and the people were at the mercy of their captors. This spurred the U.S. to consider a military-led humanitarian action.
Yazidis sought refuge in Kurdish territory while others flee to the mountains and waited for rescue. Those who didn’t flee to the mountains were either taken as prisoners or executed by the extremists. Most of those who went to the Mountain remain trapped for days without food or water. As a result, many died of hunger, injury, or exhaustion.
Of those persecuted, it was the Yazidis women who suffered the most. Extremists enslaved and sexually assaulted 7,000 Yezidi women. Some of them were forced to convert to Islam and married IS fighters. Others who tried to escape were gang-raped.
As the Islamic State continues to take more of Yazidi territory, the Yazidis are forced to either flee or be executed. Isolated, discriminated, and forced to hide, the Yazidis created an insular culture. They became a closed community that rarely intermarry with other Kurds.
Today, Yezidis are one of the many religious minorities in Iraq and there are about 700,000 Yazidis in the world scattered around Iraq, Turkey, Armenia, Georgia, and North America. The International Yazidi community is also desperately trying to raise awareness about their beliefs. They believe that they do not deserve persecution and hate because of the global ignorance of their beliefs.
- Yazidi is the oldest known surviving monotheistic faith in the world. Yazidi faith shares a lot of similarities with Islam, Christianity, Judaism, and Zoroastrianism.
- Yazidis believe in one God who created the world and assigned it to seven angels. The leader of the seven angels is called Tawûsê Melek and he holds authority over the world.
- Yazidis call themselves Ezi, Izid, or Ezid and Dasini or Dasin which literally meant “the one who created me”.
- Yazidis have unique beliefs which are largely misunderstood by their neighbors leading other religious cultures to think they are devil worshippers.
- Most Yazidis come from Northern Iraq and have genetic links to the original Mesopotamian people.
- Wrongly labeled as devil-worshippers by many Muslims, Yazidis have faced genocide throughout the years beginning in the late 16th century.
- During Saddam Hussein’s era in 2003, hundreds of Yazidi have been murdered by the terrorist group Al-Qaida.
- In 2014, ISIS began terrorizing Yazidi villages. When Islamic militants and extremists captured Sinjar, more than 500,000 Yazidis were in danger.
- Yezidis are one of the many religious minorities in Iraq. There are about 700,000 Yazidis in the world scattered around Iraq, Turkey, Armenia, Georgia, and North America.