Hunted by militants from the Islamic State, thousands of people from the Yazidi community have fled to the slopes of Iraq’s Mount Sinjar, where they are caught between the prospect of death by dehydration and murder at the hands of the group formerly called ISIS. In the months since its rise, the Sunni-identified Islamic State has gone after many religious and ethnic minorities in Iraq and Syria, including Christians, Shiite Muslims, Shiite Turkmen, Shiite Shabaks, and of course the Yazidi.
Also called Yezidi, Daasin, or Ezidi, the Yazidi are a Kurdish-speaking ethnoreligious community based in Northern Iraq who practice a syncretic religion influenced by pre-Islamic Assyrian traditions, Sufi and Shiite Islam, Nestorian Christianity, and Zoroastrianism. Their rich oral tradition is their primary way of passing on their beliefs, which makes it complicated for scholars and historians to pin down the nuances of their religion.
Iraq-born Sabrin Kassem, a 23-year-old Yazidi activist based in Seattle, Washington, told The Huffington Post, “The Yezidis are commonly misunderstood by those who do not take the time to understand and research who we really are. We are looked upon by a lot of people as the devil worshippers and this is a big reason why we are hated and continue to be attacked by others who want to get rid of us.”
Kassem, the creator of the “Stop Yezidi Genocide” Facebook page, added, “That is not who we are. We are one of the oldest, most peaceful religions in Iraq and have never had any problems. We keep to ourselves and accept and appreciate every human being on Earth.”
Here’s what you should know about the Yazidi’s oft-misunderstood religious beliefs:
Beliefs and Cosmology
Yazidis believe that the world was created by God, who entrusted it to seven angels led by one known as the Peacock Angel, also called Melek Taus. Melek Taus is the primary figure in the Yazidi belief system, as he filled the earth with flora and fauna.
Their religion is monotheistic and non-dualistic, and they do not believe in the concept of Hell. For them, all people have good and evil inside of them, and choices are made free of external temptation. They believe in internal purification through metempsychosis, a term referring to the transmigration of souls, according to Encyclopedia Britannica. They believe that the seven angels are occasionally reincarnated in human form.
Yazidis believe that they are descended directly from Adam alone, while the rest of humanity comes from the lineage of both Adam and Eve.
Though their belief system is rooted in the pre-Islamic tradition, the figure credited as the founder of the Yazidi faith is Sheikh Adi ibn Musafir, a Sufi preacher who died in 1162. Considered to be an incarnation of Melek Taus, Sheikh Musafir’s tomb near Mosul, Iraq, is the Yazidi’s most important pilgrimage site.
The Peacock Angel, Melek Taus
The concept of Melek Taus is the most misunderstood part of the Yazidi religion, and is one of the reasons why their community has suffered such historical persecution. They believe that once God created Adam and Eve, he ordered the angels to bow to his creations. While the other angels did so, Melek Taus was the only one to refuse, because he believed that he should submit to no one but the Supreme God. He was then thrown into Hell, until his tears of remorse quenched the fires and he became reconciled to God. He now serves as an intermediary between God and humanity.
This story bears similarities to the Muslim account of Satan, called Iblis or Shaytan. In the Islamic tradition, Satan is a fallen angel or jinn who refused to bow down to Adam out of pride. For this act, he was banished from heaven and now exists to tempt humanity into evil.
Melek Taus is often confused with Satan for this reason, and the Yazidi have been called devil-worshippers by Muslims and Christians who do not understand their beliefs since the late 16th and early 17th centuries. Thomas Schmidinger, a Kurdish politics expert at the University of Vienna, told National Geographic, “To this day, many Muslims consider them to be devil worshippers. So in the face of religious persecution, Yazidis have concentrated in strongholds located in remote mountain regions.”
Matthew Barber, a scholar of Islamic thought at the University of Chicago who also specializes in issues related to Yazidi society, told The Huffington Post, “In the Yazidi creation narrative, Tawsi Melek is not fallen, but because aspects of his interactions with God bear similarity to that of Satan in Islamic tradition, Muslims have associated him with the Devil, leading to the famed ‘devil-worshippers’ libel that has been impossible for the community to shake through history.”
Melek Taus is manifested in the form of a peacock. According to the Rev. Prof Patrick Comerford, a lecturer at the Church of Ireland Theological Institute, “In early Christianity, the peacock symbolized the Resurrection and immortality because it was believed its flesh does not decay.” This characteristic, as well as the peacock’s brilliant colors, may factor into this understanding of the angel.
The Yazidi community is based in Iraq, near their primary shrine, Sheikh Adi ibn Musafir’s tomb in Lalish, near Mosul. Yazidis can can also be found in Iran, Syria and Turkey, though many have migrated to Europe and America since the first Gulf War.
Their population is estimated to number as many as 600,000 people, though the recent violence in Iraq has most likely decreased their ranks.
Yazidis pray facing the sun at sunrise, noon, and sunset. Wednesday is their holy day, and Saturday is their day of rest.
The community is highly insular, practicing endogamous marriage. They have a caste system of murids, sheikhs and pirs, who each marry within their own group, according to The Guardian.
Children are baptized at birth, and though circumcision is common, it is not required. Their dead are buried in conical tombs soon after death, with crossed hands.
Holidays and Holy Places
The holiest Yazidi shrine is the tomb of founder Sheikh Adi ibn Musafir in Lalish, near Mosul, Iraq. The faithful make an annual pilgrimage there to observe the holiday of Jema’iyye, the Feast of the Seven Days.
Yazidi society is hierarchical. Their world leader is currently Prince Tahseen Said, who appealed to world leaders last week to come to the aid of the Yazidis.
The history of the Yazidis is inextricably intertwined with persecution at the hands of members of other religions, most notably Islam.
Yazidi parliament member Haji Ghandour told The Washington Post, “In our history, we have suffered 72 massacres. We are worried Sinjar could be a 73rd.”
Barber told The Huffington Post, “Islam’s political framework includes provisions of protection for a limited number of religious minorities, specifically those with a written scripture viewed as part of the monotheistic trajectory that preceded Islam, such as Zoroastrianism, Judaism, and Christianity—religions instituted by God, but later corrupted.”
Barber, who is is currently in Dohuk conducting research and is involved with refugees from Mosul and Sinjar, added, “That Yazidi religion is based on oral traditions rather than written scripture, that their conception of divinity contains polytheistic elements, and that they have long been maligned as ‘devil worshippers,’ disqualifies them from being one of Islam’s protected ‘People of the Book’ minorities.” However, in the case of the extremist Islamic State, it is clear that Islamic conceptions of protected minorities are completely insignificant.
For the Yazidi, the price of global ignorance about their religion is death. The international Yazidi community is now desperately trying to raise awareness about their beliefs and the unthinkable persecution that they face. “We cannot sit back and allow a genocide to happen to our people because of what they choose to believe,” said Kassem. “Innocent families do not deserve this. No one in this world deserves to be hated on and killed like this.”