The current crisis in Iraq has brought the plight of minority groups into the spotlight, with the mention of one religious cohort that many Americans had likely never heard of before: the Yazidis, an ancient, Kurdish-speaking, ethno-religious cohort under dire threat in recent weeks by Islamic State militants.
Yazidis, members of a somewhat secretive culture that is no stranger to persecution, found themselves at the center of headlines in recent days after ISIS expelled tens of thousands of them from their homes, driving them into hiding on Mount Sinjar in northern Iraq. Their plight, similar to the Christians in the region, has captivated international attention.
While the siege against them is seemingly taking a positive turn after most members reportedly fled to safety following the U.S.’s targeted bombings and humanitarian airdrops in the region, some may still be curious about who these individuals are and what their religious beliefs and practices consist of. So, let’s examine.
The Yazidi faith, which combines elements of Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Manichaeism and the ancient, pre-Islamic Zoroastrianism faith, is found in parts of Iraq, Turkey, Syria and in Iran, among other Middle Eastern localities. Adherents embrace reincarnation and essentially reject the concepts of sin and evil, thus there is no notion of neither Satan nor hell.
Numbering between 200,000 and 1,000,000, the pool of adherents is small comparatively when examining other well-known religions, according to Encyclopedia Britannica. But the history is both long and rich.
“The Yazidis are one of the longest surviving ancient religions or sects in the world,” Farwaz Gerges, an international relations professor at London School of Economics, recently told Time.
Adherents believe they were created separate and distinct from the rest of mankind, with Yazidis holding that they came solely from Adam, while everyone else came from Adam and Eve, thus many choose to live together in tight-knit communities. As a result, one cannot convert to the faith; he or she can only be born into it.
Overall, their known traditions collectively paint what the Telegraph’s Sean Thomas called “a remarkably confusing picture” in a 2007 piece recapping some of their beliefs and practices. While they baptize adherents much like Christians, Yazidis pray while facing the sun in the morning, noon and night, offering up a total of five invocations per day.
Yazidis revere dark blue as extremely holy and, thus, don’t wear the color. They also reportedly disallow marriage in April, brides wear red — and many members won’t eat pumpkins or lettuce, according to Thomas.
It’s unclear why there’s a cultural taboo about eating these plants, though many faith leaders and members apparently still follow the tradition despite there not being much information about its origins.
Adherents look to Wednesday as their holy day and Saturday as their day of rest.
And those are only a few of the practices. As the Huffington Post noted, Yazidis primarily pass on their traditions orally, which makes pinning down all of the contemporary and historical elements somewhat difficult.
Now, let’s get into some of the central elements about creation and the universe.
Yazidis believe that a god — known as Yasdan — created the world and entrusted it to seven angels. They worship a divine figure known as Melek Taus, or the “Peacock Angel,” who is among the angelic seven who collectively rule and oversee the planet. These angels can apparently be reincarnated into human form occasionally.
Case-in-point: Sheikh Adi ibn Musafir, a preacher who died in 1162 and is widely considered to be the founder of the Yazidi faith, though its traditions date back to pre-Islamic cultures. He is believed to have been Melek Taus in human form and his tomb is the faith’s most important pilgrimage location, according to the Huffington Post.
While Thomas reported that there are some who believe that Malek Taus is actually Satan, Britannica noted that this isn’t the case and that confusion over the entity’s identity has led adherents to be “inaccurately described as devil worshipers.”
This confusion comes from religious tradition that claims Malek Taus fell from grace, but that he eventually regained good standing with Yasdan. Debate and misunderstanding over this theology has led to the group’s persecution at the hands of Muslims and Christians alike, with ISIS believing that Yazidis are Satan worshipers who must convert or die.
There’s also the fact that Malek Taus’ other name — Shaytan — means “devil” in Arabic, leading to additional assumptions that Yazidis worship Satan, according to Time.
The basis of the Yazidis’ holy scriptures are two books — the “Book of Revelation” (not to be confused by the Christian text with the same name) and the “Black Book.”
Its leaders both reside in the Iraqi town of Ain Sifni. Yazidis’ spiritual leader, referred to as “Baba Sheikh,” is a man named Khurto Hajj Ismail, who deals with matters pertaining to the faith. And another individual — currently Prince Tahseen Said, 81 — serves as both a secular and religious leader, Al Arabiya reported.
Read more about the Yazidis here.