Erbil, Asharq Al-Awsat—The Yazidi, or “Yazdani,” religion is one of the oldest Eastern religions. It appeared in Mesopotamia thousands of years ago, gradually transitioning from nature worship to monotheism, and developing its own unique beliefs and rituals.
The pre-2003 population of Yazidis in Iraq was estimated to be somewhat below 600,000 people, but their current number is not accurately known. Their migration from Iraq continues due to the campaigns of genocide they are subjected to at the hands of extremist groups. The number of Yazidis around the world, however, is around 1.25 million people.
Speaking to Asharq Al-Awsat about the history of this unique faith, researcher Khadir Domaly says: “The Yazidi religion is one of the old Kurdish religions and has been based in Mesopotamia for thousands of years. Their language is Kurdish and their religious texts are [also] in Kurdish. Their main temple is Laliş, north of Mosul and they have existed in Kurdistan for a very long time. Yazidis went through many stages before arriving at monotheism; it is a religion which gradually emerged from nature [worship].”
The Peacock Angel and the Sun are the most important holy entities to Yazidis. They worship the Peacock Angel because to them, Domaly says, “it is the chief angel [archangel] which keeps the secrets of the great God of all creation, which is related to the ordering of the major gods or angels in the Abrahamic religions, Judaism and Christianity; as Yazidis have beliefs that are peculiar to them and which are different to the beliefs of the religions which have holy books.”
After beginning as nature-worship, the faith was renewed at the hands of religious figure Shaykh ‘Adi Ibn Musafir [c.1070s–1162 CE], Domaly added. “There are origins of the religion in the Sassanid civilization under the name of Yazidani. Yazidis are obliged to know God directly through worship, and through mystical and spiritual ways, not through an intermediary,” he says.
When you ask a Yazidi about the term “God” in Kurdish, they say, “Khuda,” which means “He who created Himself.” Domaly told Asharq Al-Awsat that the name “Yazidi” comes from two Kurdish words, “Yaz” and “Di,” meaning, “He who created me.” The term “Yazidi” appeared in ancient civilizations such as the Sassanid civilization, when the Yazdani religion, as it was known at the time, was one of the empire’s official religions, alongside other old Kurdish religions, such as the Yarsanid, Zoroastrian and the Mettraied faiths.
Some Yazidi rituals take the form of prayers of the morning, evening and the night, and three-day fasts. Among other rituals is a pilgrimage to the Temple of Laliş in Ain Sifni, as well as the festivals which include the New Year, the offering of vows and good deeds, among others which date back thousands of years.
Like other religions, Yazidism has its sacred texts setting out correct strictures and practices for daily life. “The Yazidi Higher Spiritual Council formed a special committee to collect and document these texts in a book,” Domaly says.
Laliş is considered to be the most sacred of Yazidi temples. It holds the tomb of Shaykh ‘Adi, sacred to the followers of the religion, and is the world headquarters of the Yazidi Higher Spiritual Council. Yazidis make at least one pilgrimage to Laliş in their lifetime, a trip which lasts seven days, while the residents of the region make an annual pilgrimage in autumn. There are also other temples in the areas of Sinjar, Ashiqah, Talkif, and others on the plains of Nineveh.
“Yazidis have a very rich culture which is seen in their main festivals, the most important of which is the festival of Jamaya, or Jama, which starts on October 6 and runs to October 12,” Domaly says. “There is also the Sawb festival which is in the second week of January, where Yazidis fast for three days followed by the festival of Friday. There is also the Yazidi New Year, or Red Wednesday, which is an important festival and falls on the first Wednesday of the year according to the Eastern calendar. There are other festivals including the Khadir Elias festival which falls on the second Friday of February.”
Despite being ethnically Kurdish, Yazidis wear traditional Arab costumes. The reason for this, Domaly says, is that “the original Yazidi costumes were Kurdish with similarities to old Roman and Turkish costumes, but the constant Arabization which has affected the Yazidis in the Sinjar Mountain region led to a change in their heritage and national identity. Yazidis wore these clothes to protect and preserve their identity and existence, but the younger generation of Yazidis do not wear them.”
Followers of this religion experienced many waves of oppression and cruelty throughout their history in Mesopotamia. Domaly says: “History was not kind to the Yazidis. Their religion has been subjected to many horrors, and the powers which took over the region used to grow at the expense of the Yazidis. And because the religion is not a missionary one, it has declined continuously. When the Romans came to the region, the Yazidis were subjected to many horrors and disasters at their hands; that is why we see Yazidis use the term ‘Roman’ to mean ‘calamity,’ and the same was done to them by the Persians. As for the Ottomans, they committed the most heinous crimes against Yazidis when their numbers at the time were in the hundreds of thousands and the Yazidis had vast areas of land in northern Kurdistan [modern-day southeast Turkey].”
All in all, Domaly says, the 19th and 20th centuries saw a series of catastrophes from the perspective of the Yazidis.
“Then came the final phase of the great fermans [Ottoman orders] at the end of the Ottoman era, especially in the 19th century at the hands of Mohammad Pasha Rondzie in 1834, who launched a massive campaign which ended the presence of Yazidis in the Soran region and destroyed their presence in the Nineveh plains,” he says.
“This was followed by other orders by Fariq Pasha in 1894 and another by Fariq Wahbi Pasha. All these orders came from the Topkapı Palace. With the end of the Ottoman Empire, a new catastrophe befell the Yazidis, which was the creation of Iraq as a state. The state of Iraq in 1931 and 1933 launched its armies to attack the unarmed Yazidis in Sinjar because they refused to serve in the military.”
Today, after the chaos unleashed by the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003 and the march of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, the 21st century is so far shaping up to be another tragic one for this ancient people.