Yazidis [also Yezidi, Azidi, Zedi, or Izdi] are a syncretistic religious group (or a set of several groups), with ancient origins and comprising Gnostic core belief structure with other elements of Zoroastrianism, Judaism, Christianity, Manicheism, and Islam. Yazidi do not intermarry with outsiders or accept converts. Many Yazidi now consider themselves to be Kurds, while others define themselves as both religiously and ethnically distinct from Muslim Kurds. Most of the 700,000 Yazidi reside in the North of the country.
The religion is little known to outsiders but contains elements of Islam, Judaism, and Christianity, and also includes the veneration of the Peacock Angel. After visiting them in the late 1850s, Sir Austen Henry Layard concluded that "With the scanty materials which we possess regarding their history, and owing to the ignorance prevailing amongst the people themselves, - for I believe that even the priests ... have but a very vague idea of what they profess, and of the meaning of their religious forms, - it is difficult to come to any conclusion as to the source of their peculiar opinions and observances."
The Yazidi have hiden many aspects of their religion from the dominant Muslims around them. Indeed, only the fully initiated actually know the full theology, even among the Yazidi themselves. Writer H. P. Lovecraft made a reference to "... the Yezidi clan of devil-worshippers" in his short story "The Horror at Red Hook". Yazidis believe in a God who created the world, but the active forces in their religion are Malak Ta'us and Sheik Adii. According to Yazidis, Malak Ta'us [Malek Taous] is the fallen peacock angel.
Layard relates that when they speak of the Devil, they so with reverence, as Malek Taous [King Peacock], or Melek el Kout [the mighty angel]. The name of the Evil spirit is never mentioned; and any allusion to it by others so vexes and irritates them, that it is said they have put to death persons who have wantonly outraged their feelings by its use. So far is their dread of offending the Evil principle carried, that they carefully avoid every expression which may resemble in sound the name of Satan, or the Arabic word for "accursed."
According to Layard's account, they believe Satan to be the chief of the Angelic host, now suffering punishment for his rebellion against the divine will; but still all-powerful, and to be restored hereafter to his high estate in the celestial hierarchy. He must be conciliated and reverenced, they say; for as he now has the means of doing evil to mankind, so will he hereafter have the power of rewarding them. Next to Satan, but inferior to him in might and wisdom, arc seven arch-angels who exercise a great influence over the world - they are Gabriel, Michael, Raphael, Azrael, Dedrael, Azraphael, and Shemkeel. Christ, according to them, was also a great angel, who had taken the form of man.
Sheikh 'Adi ibn Musafir, a 12th century mystic, was said to be the founder of the Yezidi faith, although both the tribes and their religion hail from an earlier time, and the fact of the existence of such an individual is subject to question. Layard noted that their ceremonies gave rise, among Muslims and Christiana, to fables confounding the practices of the Yezidis with those of the Ansyri of Syria; and ascribing to them certain midnight orgies, which earned them the epithet of Cheragh Sonderan, or "The Extinguishers of Lights." The prejudices of the inhabitants of the country extended to travellers. The mysteries of the sect might be traced to the worship introduced by Semiramis, into the very mountains they inhabited - a worship which, impure in its forms, led to every excess of debauchery and lust. But when Layard visited them, he concluded that the quiet and inoffensive demeanor of the Yezidis, and the cleanliness and order of their villages, did not certainly warrant these charges. Their known respect or fear for the evil principle acquired for them the title of "Worshippers of the Devil". Many stories were current as to the emblems by which this spirit was represented. They were believed by some to adore a peacock; but their worship, their tenets, and their origin were alike a subject of some mystery.
The sacred scriptures of the Yazidis are two short books written in Arabic: Kitab al-Jilwah (book of revelation) supposed to have been written by Sheikh 'Adi himself, and Mishaf Rash (black writing) by Sheikh Hasan ibn-'Adi. An Arabic hymn in praise of Shaykh 'Adi is greatly respected as part of their liturgy.
Yazidi Zoroastrian and Gnostic Roots
UNESCO's member states agreed to celebrate the 3,000th anniversary of Zoroastrian religion and culture during 2002-2003. Zarathustra was one of humanity's seminal thinkers, whose concepts have long since been adopted as the ethical and philosophical base of many faiths embraced by humanity today. While the anniversary approximates the date when Zarathustra's orally transmitted teachings - the Gathas - began to be collected, the religion itself is nearly a millennium older. Zoroastrianism, an ancient religion dating back to the Iranian Stone Age, is still practiced in areas of Iran and India. Following centuries of oppression under Muslim rule in Iran, the adherents are known as the Zardushtis in Iran and the Parsis in India. The Zoroastricians believe in one God (Ahura Mazda), and worship the sacred fire (Atash Bahram) and the humble fires (Dadgah) in fire temples.
Zoroaster divided the empire of the universe between two semi-omnipotent beings, Ormuzd and Ahriman, the former supremely good, the latter utterly evil and malignant. Some sects of his followers maintained that Ormuzd created the soul of man; Aliriman, the human body and the material universe. Some modern scholars of Zoroastrianism are convinced that the doctrines of post-exilic Judaism and Christianity concerning monotheism, righteousness, and the final judgment and resurrection have roots in this ancient religion. In the sect of the Essenes this philosophy took shape among the later Jews, and in the form of Gnosticism it found its way into the Christian Church.
Their core beliefs would define the Yazidi as Gnostics. Gnostics maintained that creation developed out of a supernatural conflict between good and evil, and that matter is evil, while the spirit is good. Gnostics sought to escape evil by transcending both time and matter. The ancient gnostics despised the given world, and viewed the very birth of the world as a catastrophe. Gnosticism was one of the classical Christian heresies which mainstream Christians argued distorted the relationship of the divine and human nature of Christ. Gnostics sought liberation from the body, which was understood as a prison of the soul. Knowledge is the means to liberation, which entailed overcoming the burdens of mortality, including finitude, disease and death. Gnostic writings often carried an implication that such texts are for an elite readership, and represent the essence of a tradition of spiritual truth under threat of extinction by materialism. Hindu and Buddhist teachings about life's purpose reflected a similar appraisal of the secondary status of the body and the necessity of liberation from the bodily world. The gnostic attitude survives in philosophical Cartesianism, of mind-body duality.
Yazidi and Islam
The Yazidi themselves are said by some to be descended from supporters of the Umayyad caliph Yazid I, but Layard found there is reason to believe that the source of ther name must be sought elsewhere, as it was used long before the introduction of Islam, and is not without connection with the early Persian appellation of the Supreme Being. It may be concluded, however, that with the triumph of Islam in their lands, over time it became useful to provide an account of their place in the Islamic framework, as the Sunnis did with Ali and the Shia with Hussein.
Uthman, the third "Rightly Guided Caliph", was the first Umayyad caliph. During his tenure (644-655), he appointed members of his clan to various posts. Muawiya ibn Abu Sufyan, brother in law to the prophet Muhammad, was given the governorship of Syria. Muawiya's father Abu Sufyan had been the leader of the Abd Shams clan, and most of the members of this clan had rejected Muhammad until the conquest of Mecca in 630. Upon the accession of Ali to the caliphate, Muawiya [Mu'awia, Moawiya] refused to pay him allegience, and in 658 the Syrians acknowledged Muawiya as caliph. That same year he gained control of Egypt. Following Ali's death in 661, Muawiya subdued Iraq and then formally established himself as caliph. Mu'awia, the first Umayyad Caliph and secured supreme power over the Arab empire with Damascus as his capital in 661.
Muawiya nominated his son, Yazid I, as his successor, and caused an oath of allegiance to be taken to him. The hereditary principle was thus introduced, though some relics of the form of election persisted. Yazid's ascent to power was arranged by his father, and all the power at his disposal was transferred to Yazid. As Caliph from 680 to 683, Yazid became one of the most vilified rulers in history. Upon his accession, Yazid was confronted with two rebellions. The He was responsibile for the Battle of Kerbala in 680 (in present-day Iraq) where Hussein, grandson of the Prophet Muhammad together with his followers, was defeated and killed. The martyrdom of Husayn and his family created a permanent division between the Shi`ites, the partisans of Ali, and the Sunni majority. Yazid sacked rebellious Medina (in what is now Saudi Arabia) in 682, suppressing the far more serious revolt was led by Ibn al-Zubayr.
By the time of Layard's visit to the Yazidi in the mid-19th Century, the last independent chief of the Yezidis of Sheikhan was Ali Bey, the father of Hussein Bey. Layard related that he was beloved by his tribe, and sufficiently brave and skilful in war to defend them, for many years, against the attacks of the Kurds and Mussulmans of the plain. The powerful Bey of Rowandiz, who had united most of the Kurdish tribes of the surrounding mountains under his banner, and had defied for many years the Turks and the Persians, resolved to crush the hateful sect of the Yezidis. Ali Bey's forces were greatly inferior in numbers to those of his persecutor. He was defeated, and fell into the hands of the Rowandiz chief, who put him to death. The inhabitants of Sheikhan fled to Mosul. The Bey of Rowandiz followed them. Layard reported that an indiscriminate slaughter ensued. So many thousands were massacred by their pursuers upon the site of Nineveh that the principal mound over Sennacherib's palace acquired the ominous name of Kouyunjik -- "the shambles of the sheep." The inhabitants of the Sinjar were soon after subdued by Mehemet Reshid Pasha, and a second time by Hafiz Pasha. On both occasions there was a massacre, and the population was reduced by three-fourths. The Yezidis took refuge in caves, where they were cither suffocated by fires lighted at the mouth, or destroyed by discharges of cannon.
Muslims, in their dealings with men of other creeds, make a distinction between those who are believers in the sacred books, and such as have no recognised inspired works. To the first category belong Christians of all denominations, as receiving the two testaments; and the Jews, as followers of the old. With Christians and Jews, therefore, they may treat, make peace, and live; but with such as are included in the second class, some held that the good Muslim could have no intercourse. No treaty nor oath, when they are concerned, could be binding, and they had the choice between conversion and the sword, it being unlawful even to take tribute from them.
Layard noted that the Yezidis, not being looked upon as a "People of the Book," have been exposed for centuries to the persecution of the Muslims. According to him, "The harems of the south of Turkey had been recruited from them. Yearly expeditions were made by the governors of provinces into their districts. While the men and women were slaughtered without mercy, the children of both sexes were carried off, and exposed for sale in the principal towns. Thcse annual hunts were one of the sources of revenue of Beder Khan Bey; and it was the custom of the Pashas of Baghdad and Mosul to let loose the irregular troops upon the ill-fated Yczidis, as an easy method of satisfying their demands for arrears of pay. This system was still practised to a certain extent as late as the 1850s, and gave rise to atrocities scarcely equalled in the better known slave trade.... It was not unnatural that the Yezidis should revenge themselves, whenever an opportunity might offer, upon their oppressors. They formed themselves into bands, and were long the terror of the country."
Yazidi in Modern Iraq
Nearly 150 years later, the Baath Government, without any historical basis, defined the Yazidis as Arabs. The regime sought to undermine the identity of non-Muslim minority groups, including Chaldean and Assyrian Christians and the Yazidi and Sabean Mandaean faith communities. There is evidence that the Baath Government in the past compelled Yazidis to join in domestic military action against Muslim Kurds. Captured government documents included in a 1998 Human Rights Watch report describe special all-Yazidi military detachments formed during the 1988-89 Anfal campaign to "pursue and attack" Muslim Kurds. The Baath Government also targeted the Yazidis in the past. For example, 33 members of the Yazidi community of Mosul, arrested in July 1996, still are unaccounted for.
It was customary for the Yezidis, when sufficiently powerful to defend themselves against the attacks of Kurds and Arabs, to meet periodically in large numbers at the tomb of Sheikh Adii in Lalish. Men and women from the Sinjar, and from the northern districts of Kurdistan, left their tents and pastures to be present at the solemnisation of their holy rites. They possessed [in the mid-19th Century] a bronze figure of a peacock, which was looked upon as a symbol, and not as an idol. When deputies were sent to any distance to collect money for the support of the tomb and the priests, they were furnished with a small image of it made in wax, which is shown as an authority for their mission. This symbol is called the Melek Taous, and was held in great reverence.
The most important Yazidi ritual, the annual 6-day pilgrimage to the tomb of Sheikh Adii in Lalish, took place in 2004; however, many Yazidi preferred to remain in local houses of worship to celebrate this event due to security concerns. There were numerous reports of places of worship closing due to those fears. The Yazidi, while represented in the TNA, did not hold positions in either the Transitional Government or the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) at the director general level or above.
Liquor store owners, primarily Christians and Yazidi, were especially hard hit in attacks by Islamic extremists during 2004. In August 2004, masked gunmen shot and killed Sabah Macardige in Baghdad during broad daylight for selling alcohol. According to witnesses, Macardige had received warnings to stop selling liquor. In April, liquor store owner Sabah Sadiq's brother was kidnapped. Sadiq was shot on his way to pay the ransom demanded by the kidnappers. In June, armed intruders broke into Sami Tammu's liquor store in Baghdad and shot and killed him when he tried to escape. Liquor stores in Baghdad, Mosul, and Basrah were bombed, looted, and defaced. The Christian and Other Religions Endowment reported that approximately 95 percent of such establishments closed due to threats by Islamic extremists.
By early 2007 non-Muslims in Iraq, including Chaldo-Assyrian Christians, Yazidis, Sabean Mandaeans, and other minority religious communities faced grave conditions. These groups faced widespread violence from Sunni insurgents and foreign jihadis, and they also suffer pervasive discrimination and marginalization at the hands of the national government, regional governments, and para-state militias, including those in Kurdish areas. As a result, non-Muslims were fleeing the country in large numbers.
Sabean Mandaeans and Yazidis have suffered abuses similar to Christians. Foreign jihadis, Sunni insurgents, and Shi'a militias view members of these groups as infidels or outsiders. In addition, religious minority communities often lack the tribal base or militia structures that might otherwise provide security. As such, these groups are often targeted by both Sunni insurgents and Shi'a militias. The risks are particularly severe for isolated minority communities in areas where foreign jihadis and Sunni insurgents remain active. Some of this violence stems from the reported tendency of foreign jihadis and Sunni insurgents to associate Iraqi Christians and other non-Muslims with the United States and the U.S.-led military intervention. In other instances, however, religious minorities appear to be the victims of escalating intra-Muslim violence.
In April 2007, for example, unidentified gunmen killed 23 Yazidis in the Kurdish town of Bashika. This incident represented one of the largest single attacks against the Yazidi community since the current Iraqi government came to power.
The U.S. military says al-Qaida was likely responsible for the four truck-bombs in northern Iraq on Tuesday 14 August 2007 that killed more than 500 people, the worst attack in Iraq since the US-led invasion in 2003. The military made the comment less than a day after four suicide truck bombers struck nearly simultaneously west of the city of Mosul. The attack targeted members of the Yazidi minority.
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