Religion

Yazidism has an important Islamic Sufi background, particularly in the ‘Adawiyya epoch, i.e. the period prior to the establishment of Yazidism (12th and 13th centuries, from the arrival of Sheikh ‘Adī in the region in 1111 until the death of Sheikh Ḥasan in 1254). The ‘Adawiyya is the mystical order founded by Sheikh ‘Adī in Baghdad in the 12th century and from which the ascetic characteristics of the Yazidism emerged (Açıkyıldız 2015: 150). In particular ‘Abd al Qādir al-Jīlānī, the founder of the Qadiriyya order, the most important mystic order in the Islamic religion, played an important role: he was the one of Sheikh ‘Adī’s teachers who supported him when he withdrew to the Kurdish mountains, where the teacher had many supporters among the Kurds (Açıkyıldız 2015: 83). It was under the rule of Sheikh Ḥasan that Yazidism began to diverge from orthodox Islam, although it is still unknown how it happened (Açıkyıldız 2015: p. 42). This resulted in an independent religion, with many syncretic aspects (see below) but fully developed in its own beliefs and traditions. The earliest accounts of the Yazidis’ beliefs, ceremonies and customs was written by a French catholic missionary in Aleppo in the 17th century, Michele Fevre (Guest 1987: 29).

In the following paragraphs the basic elements and main characteristics of the Yazidi religion are discussed, but we believe that it is very important first to emphasise its syncretic character. 

Syncretism in the Yazidi religion

The Yazidi religion is extremely syncretic, featuring beliefs from Zoroastrianism, Shi’a, and Islamic Mysticism (Arakelova 2004: 19). Among the Shi’a sects, most of the parallels are found with the Ahl-I Haqq and the Zazas’ religion: features shared with these belief systems are respectively the occurrence of spiritual masters and of a hierarchy, in both the social structure and the religious system (Arakelova 2004: 20). With Ahl-I Haqq they also share the account of the origin of the universe, and seven angels or saints (although these could have been taken from Hebrew or Muslim tradition; Arakelova 2004: 20).

Some scholars argue that a Christian base was present when Yazidism first developed (Sfameni Gasparro 1974, 198), and it seems certain that the myth of Adam excluded from Paradise that is present in the Yazidi religion, is a borrowing from Christianity (Spät 2008: 663), as well as some saints (Furlani 1936, 67). Concerning the latter, Furlani writes that there are four accounts of Yazidi saints, and that in each it is possible to isolate the saints that are borrowed from or shared with the Christian religion (Furlani 1936: 74, 76, 78, 82). Even the Peacock Angel, Melek Taws, is similar to the merciful Christian God (Asatrian and Arakelova 2003: 4): “the main thing that makes him equivalent to the One God of the dogmatic religions, and what actually is essential, is his transcendentality and his function of demiurge, as the Creator”. Moreover, in early Christianity the peacock is considered a symbol of resurrection and eternal life (Müller 1967: 372), but in general the bird is seen as an embodiment of Jesus the redeemer (Müller 1967: 372; Asatrian and Arakelova 2003: 28).

In the cosmogonic myth, syncretism is to be found in the Ahl-I Haqq concerning the Yazidi primordial pearl, which contained all elements of the universe and is considered the symbol of creation and connects the Yazidi religion to Zoroastrianism, to the Koran, and to Persian literature (i.e. Jalāl ad-Dīn Moḥammad Rūmī ). The primordial pearl and its function in the cosmogonic myth corresponds to the cosmic egg, which is broken and gives origin to the act of creation (Sfameni Gasparro: 205), thus showing a very important common element with Zoroastrianism and Indian religions. Another example of syncretism, with influences from Gnosticism and Manichaeism is the ‘Song of the Commoner’ (Beyta Cindî), one of the most respected and important texts of the Yazidi oral tradition. It must be sung by the men of religion every morning before sunrise, and calls the believer to wake up to the faith, and renounce sleep, which keeps the faithful in darkness. Yazidis also share the tale of the Flood (Fig. 15) and according to Yazidi legends Ain Sifni, the Arabic name for Sheikhan, is the place where the Ark was assembled (Guest 1987: 29): the Arabic name means “spring of the sailor”. According to Yazidi tradition, Noah’s ark was lifted by a serpent and carried by the water to the top of Mount Sinjar: thanks to the snake’s help, humankind survived the flood. For this reason, the serpent has a preeminent role in their religion; it is also considered to be a symbol of good power in popular Kurdish tradition. It may be represented at the entrance of sacred buildings and is embodied by Shahmaran, the Snake Queen. She is depicted on glass or metalwork, seen hung on walls even today (Fig. 16). She has a woman’s head and a snake’s body, with six serpent-shaped legs. It is also believed that the serpent had a role in the emergence of the Kurdish people, according to the legend told by Sharaf Khan Bidlisī (see section a. History) in the book Chèref-nâmeh, which is the first account of the Kurds’ history (Sharaf Khan Bidlisī 1868: 2). In this legend, two snakes had to be cut out of king Zahhak’s shoulders and two young teenagers had to be sacrificed in order to calm the pain; thanks to divine intervention they were not immolated but were freed: the teenagers went to the peak of an inhabited mountain, where they were married and gave origin to the Kurdish tribe (Açıkyıldız 2015: 160-161). Another example is the story of the Fall, which is shared by Jewish, Christian and Muslim traditions. In this myth the serpent invites Eve to eat the fruit of the forbidden tree, thus causing the fall of herself and Adam (Açıkyıldız 2015: 159-161).

Cosmogonic myth in the Mishefa Resh

The cosmogonic myth is described in the Mishefa Resh, the Black Book, which contains the laws and religious precepts of the Yazidis and is one of their holy books (Açıkyıldız 2015: 89). According to the content of the book, which is believed to have been written by Sheikh ‘Adī, creation occurred when God creates a white pearl from his breast and a bird named Anfar; God puts the pearl on the bird and God himself broods the pearl for 40,000 years. The pearl acquires the value and function of an egg: it is called the ‘cosmic egg’. After this period of brooding, God created the Seven Angels, corresponding to the days; one was created each day for seven days: this may have an astronomical value and be linked to the seven Babylonian planet gods. The first day is Sunday, when Azrael, the most important angel, was created: he is the peacock angel. Azrael creates the seven skies, the earth, the sun and the moon. The last angel, Nu’rail, creates man, animals, birds, and cattle and puts them in the pocket of God’s garment (Sfameni Gasparro 1974: 202).

In the second version of the cosmogonic myth (Sfameni Gasparro 1974: 206-207), God travelled in the primordial sea with a boat and created a pearl, on which he reigned for forty years. When he was angry, he stepped on the pearl and from the noise it produced the mountains rose, from the uproar the hills and from the smoke the sky. In this case too, the pearl is the cosmic egg, since its breaking generated the earth and the natural world.

After the creation of the world and the angels, God announced that he would create Adam and Eve, and from the loins of Adam arose Shehîd bin Jerr, and from him a single people on the earth, the people of ‘Azazîl, i.e. the Yazidi people.

The belief system

The basic elements of Yazidi religion are that they believe in one God, who created humankind, while the creation of plants and animals was accomplished by the Seven Angels, among whom the most important was ‘Azazîl. God is the creator of the universe. He is worshipped as the First Cause and Prime Mover of the Universe (Guest 1987: 29). He is addressed as Kuda in Kurdish (Guest 1987: 29), while the name Xwêde is derived from the New Persian xudây. He is not active and has delegated his powers to the Seven Angels: he is interested only in heavenly affairs. God manifests himself in three different forms: 1) Tawûsî Melek, the Peacock Angel, his main representative; 2) a young man, Sultan Êzî; 3) an old man, Sheikh ‘Adī, the reformer of the Yazidi religion. This is the Yazidi Holy Trinity.

Besides the importance of God, a main role in Yazidi religion is played by the Seven Angels (Açıkyıldız 2015: 72; Fig. 17). The Seven Angels (or Heptad of seven holy beings) are highly regarded and respected in Yazidi culture. They are believed to come to the earth periodically to bring new rules to nations, and sheikh’s families are believed to be descended from the blood of the Seven Angels. Since Yazidis believe in the transmigration of souls, they believe that seven individuals of high spiritual rank are the incarnations of the seven holy beings, as explained in the Mishefa Resh.

The first angel to be created was ‘Azrael, embodied by Tawûsî Melek, the Peacock Angel (Fig. 18): his duty is the direction of worldly affairs and he is the most important angel. The Peacock Angel dominates all the deities an is the mediator between God and the Yazidi people. He is God’s alter ego and people pray God through the banners of the Peacock Angel, which have the form of a peacock and are carried throughout the Yazidi territory while his hymn Qewle Tawûsî Melek (Hymn to Tawûsî Melek) is sung. The image of the peacock can be associated with the Middle Eastern deity Tammuz; he is therefore also identified with the God of fertility. His figure is ambiguous, since he is seen in Near Eastern cultures and in the Christian tradition as the incarnation of evil and equivalent to Satan, since the Peacock Angel is identified with the fallen angel. He is the angel who refused to bow in front of Adam, according to the Jewish, Christian and Islamic traditions, and fell from the sky: he is identified with Satan in the three monotheistic religions, but this word is forbidden in the Yazidi religion. It does not exist in Yazidism, according to which Adam’s disobedience was forgiven by God (Guest 1987: 29). He is depicted as a peacock because this is a symbol of immortality, rebirth and the unification of opposites: he is a bird born in India, known in Mesopotamia by the late 8th century BC, and even represented on stucco plaques found in Sasanian buildings (Açıkyıldız 2015: 78). In the Christian world too the image of the peacock is frequent, symbolizing eternal life, while in the Muslim tradition the peacock is represented especially on funerary architecture, textiles, metalwork, and ceramics of the early and medieval Islamic periods; in the Ottoman period it is the bird of Paradise.

The other angels are: Darda’il who is embodied by Sheikh Ḥasan; Jībra’îl, embodied by Sheikh Abū Bekir; Israfîl, embodied by Sheikh Shams al-Dīn; Nura’îl, embodied by Sheikh Fakhr al-Dīn; ‘Ezra’îl, embodied by Sajadīn; Shemna’îl, embodied by Sheikh Nasr al-Dīn. Shams al-Dīn, Fakhr al-Dīn, Sajadīn and Nasr al-Dīn are believed to be sons of Êzdîna Mîr, eponyms of the lineage of the Shamsani sheikhs. Jībra’îl, ‘Ezra’îl and Israfîl have the same duties as in Judaism, Christianity and Islam: Jībra’îl bears the word of God to the Prophet and the believers; ‘Ezra’îl is the archangel of death; Israfîl stands in the presence of God and announces his messages.

The second embodiment of God is caliph Yazid, also known as Sultan Êzi, and part of the Holy Trinity. His position in the history of the Yazidis is not totally clear: he is venerated around Aleppo and in the Sinjar region (Guest 1987: 29), and is less venerated east of the Tigris. Caliph Yazid is venerated as an incarnation of the divine spirit and his birth date is one of the most important festivals: divine permission for the Yazidis to drink wine and liquor is attributed to him.

The third component of the Yazidi Holy Trinity and the great prophet of the Yazidi religion is Sheikh ‘Adī bin Musafir, whose tomb at Lalish is the holiest shrine. According to Yazidism, he was born in Beit-Fār in the province of Baalbek (Lebanon) to an elderly couple: according to Arabic sources, he died in 557/1162-63 when he was 90 years old, therefore he could have been born in 1073. His figure is historically documented by medieval historians and geographers, such as Yāqūt al-Ḥamawī (1179-1229), Ibn al-‘Athir (1160-1233), Ibn Khallikān (1211-1282) (Açıkyıldız 2015: 83). He left home at the age of fifteen to seek his destiny, heading to Baghdad, which was the centre of culture, education and politics of the Muslim world. Here he met Sufi mystics and studied with them. One was ‘Abd al-Qādir al-Jīlānī, the founder of the Qadiriyya order. Five years later, while he was riding at night across a plain, he saw an apparition in front of a grave: a camel with traits of other animals and resembling a man, then turning into a boy with a peacock tail. This boy claimed to be Tawûsî Melek and named Adi as the prophet of his word in the world. After this vision, he settled in Lalish (Guest 1987: 30). Among Adī’s precepts there was one against books: this is the reason why Yazidis were illiterates until several decades ago. There are various reasons why he chose the Kurdish mountains. He liked the peace and quiet of the place compared to Baghdad, and was warmly welcomed by the population, who supported the Umayyad dynasty (whose caliph Marwan II ruled over the Kurdish territory before ascending the throne, was born to a Kurdish mother and was a forefather of ‘Adī) and by the region’s influential Sufi masters, who were in contact with ‘Adī (Açıkyıldız 2015: 85). He then founded the ‘Adawiyya order with the help of his disciples and the local Sufi masters. At Lalish he founded the zawiya (= sanctuary) for himself and his disciples, in order to follow the contemplative life. He died in Lalish in 1162-63 and is buried there: his tomb is one of the main places of devotion for the region’s inhabitants and members of the Yazidi community (Açıkyıldız 2015: 86).

The religious movement acquired its current form after the death of ‘Adī, whose four works on its teaching are all in the Berlin Library, in a manuscript copied by Muḥammad b. Ahmad al-‘Adawī in 1509. In his work Dogma of the People of Sunna (I’tiqād Ahl es-Sunna wa I dhamā’a) he talks about the unity of God, his nature and the means that can help faithful people to reach knowledge of God (Açıkyıldız 2015: 84). These ways are  the study of tradition, (sam‛), and application of reason (‘aql). In his description of God, a fundamental part concerns the belief that he created Satan and evil, and ‘Adī quotes passages of the Qur’an in support of his argument. In the same work, one part is devoted to the study of faith, which is a virtue in ‘Adī’s scale of values, defined by him as word, work and intention. In his work Kitāb Fīhi Dikr Adāb en-Nafs (The Book of How to Train the Soul Beautifully) he codifies the rules and the basic principles for the new mystical order he had founded. He advises his disciples and teaches them how to reach the dhikr of education in order to become a dervish. In Sheikh ‘Adī’s Admonition to Caliph he gives advice about piety and humility. The work Waṣāyā li-murīdihi Ash-Sheikh Qā’id wa-li- sā’ir al-Murīdīn (Recommendations to His Disciple Sheikh Qā’id and His Other Disciples) is about Sufism and ascetic life (Açıkyıldız 2015: 84), based on the Qur’an, in which he incites his disciples to follow the Sufı life.

He also wrote his eulogy, the The Hymn of Sheikh ‘Adī’, which is kept in the British Library. In this book he declares himself to be the bearer of the Truth and the creator of everything, following the will of God, thus identifying himself with God (Açıkyıldız 2015: 84).

As shown by his words written down in books, Sheikh ‘Adī was influenced by Sufism, in particular by al-Ghazālī and al-Jīlānī, who are still venerated by Yazidis and identified with angels. He is believed to have had control over snakes, which are very important creatures in Yazidism, and other wild animals, to read people’s thoughts, to make water appear from the ground, and to communicate with dead.

There is one book of teaching in Adī’s words: the Book of Revelation (Kitab el-Jelwa), which is believed to have been dictated from Adī to his secretary, Fakr ed-Din. It is considered the most important book in the Yazidi religion; the full text was published in 1895 (Guest 1987: 31).

After Sheikh ‘Adī, the most important figures in Yazidi religion are the saints, who are worshipped for several reasons: it is believed that the buildings devoted to them, mausoleums and shrines, cure illnesses, e.g. the mausoleum of Sheikh Hasan is said to be effective against liver problems and rheumatism, while the mausoleum of Hajali helps to cure madness and the possession of the soul by djins. Sheikh Hasan, the nephew of ‘Adī, is held to be the author of the second sacred Yazidi book, The Black Book (Meshaf Resh). Sheikh Shams is one of the most popular Yazidi saints and was one of the companions of Sheikh ‘Adī. He is associated with one of the seven Yazidi angels and is the divinity of the sun in the Yazidi faith. Five mausoleums/mazar are dedicated to him, in various localities: Lalish, Beḥzanê, Bozan, Mem Shivan and Sinjar (Açıkyıldız 2015: 166). Some of the saints are considered to have a direct relationship with nature: Memê Resh is the lord of rain and protector of the harvest, Pîr Afat is associated with floods and storms. Some saints have power over animals: Sheikh Mand Pasha is believed to have influence over serpents – his mausoleums and shrines are effective against snakebites. Pîr Cerwan protects people from scorpion bites (Açıkyıldız 2015: 146) and Sheikh Amadīn cures stomach pains (Açıkyıldız 2015: p. 208). Sheikh Fakhr al-Dīn, who is also one of the seven angels – Nura’îl, is identified with the moon, Sīn. His mausoleums cure children’s diseases (Açıkyıldız 2015: p. 208). ‘Abd al Qādir al-Jīlānī (1077-1166), who was a Hanbalite theologist and gave his name to the order of Qadiriyya is regarded by the Yazidis as a saint (Açıkyıldız 2015: 205).

Holy Books

In the Yazidi religion there are two holy books: the Mishefa Resh (The Black Book) and the Kitêb-i Cilwê (The Book of Revelation), which exist in nine copies of unknown date – some of them probably dating to the 19th century – stored in European and Turkish libraries. There is no precise information about when they were first written: it is hypothesized that the Kitêb-i Cilwê could have been written by Sheikh Fakhr al-Dīn in 1162-63, and contains the principles concerning the sovereignty and supremacy of Tawûsî Melek (Açıkyıldız 2015: 90). The Mishefa Resh could have been written by Ḥasan al-Basrī in 1342-43 and was published for the first time between 1886 and 1909. It contains the Yazidi account of the world’s creation, human origins and Adam and Eve, and lists the prohibitions of the faith (Guest 1987: 33). The Meshaf Resh also contains two of the cosmogonic myths found in the Yazidi religion (Sfameni Gasparro 1974: 199). According to some scholars (Sfameni Gasparro 1974: 199), these represent a scholarly version of the cosmogonic myths, while those collected from oral traditions are closer to people’s beliefs.

Religious practices

For the Yazidi community, Wednesdays and Fridays are holy days. They do not practice specific rituals on these days, but go to holy places, mainly sacred buildings such as mausoleums or shrines, to pray to the saints. However, there are rituals and ceremonies in which every Yazidi has to participate in order to be accepted as member of the community. A pre-eminent person in each Yazidi’s religious life is the birayê axretê, the brother (or sister) of the hereafter, who supports the person in rituals: they are usually two, one sheikh and one pîr (see section c. Society), who is the same as the sheikh but has less political importance, and are considered guardian angels who assist his protégé through his life (Açıkyıldız 2015: 100).

The biska pora (rite of the haircut, Açıkyıldız 2015: 99) concerns only boys and is considered a sort of baptism. The ritual consists of the cutting of a piece of the forelock by the child’s brother of the hereafter (a sheikh or a pîr), who preserves the forelock. It used to take place on the fortieth day after the boy’s birth, but now is done when the boy is six months or one year old. With this ritual the boy becomes a Yazidi.

The mor kirin, the Baptism (Fig. 19) is performed in the baptistery of Kanîya Spî at Lalish and bears similarities with Christian baptism. A sheikh or a pîr officiates at the rite.

Circumcision concerns male children, who are circumcised twenty days after their baptism, and are accompanied by a godfather chosen by the parents.

The wedding, dawet (Fig. 20) is usually arranged between the fathers of the young couple and it must be endogenous. On the day before the wedding the bride is prepared for the hen’s night (sheva desthineyê). On the wedding day the bride is escorted from her father’s house to the groom’s house and the groom is accompanied by his brother of the hereafter during the wedding.

The ritual of the funeral (mirin) may slightly vary according to the region, but some practices are fixed. The body of the deceased has to be washed by his sheikh or pîr, wrapped in a white shroud (kifin) and then laid in a sarcophagus. A small handful of blessed oil from the sanctuary of Sheikh ‘Adī is put on the dead person’s mouth. The procession to the cemetery is accompanied by hymns. After the funeral, the family of the deceased consults a religious visionary about his or her destiny. The visionary, after a trance, describes his vision; the then family offers a sacrifice for a negative vision, or a feast for a positive vision (Açıkyıldız 2015: 103).

Prayers are practised daily but this is not compulsory. Yazidis usually pray at sunrise, in the morning and at sunset, turning their face towards the sun. Practices performed by good Yazidis include kissing holy places and the hands of religious figures, offering gifts to religious men, and sacrificing animals. There is no tradition of public prayer or worship.

Fasting is observed for three days in December, during the feast of the Sun, in commemoration of Êzī. Baba sheikhfeqîrskocheks and feqrayas (see section c. Society) fast for 40 days during the summer and 40 days during the winter.

Pilgrimage destinations (Figs. 21-23) are sacred places, such as mausoleums and shrines (Fig. 24), rocks, springs, houses of religious personalities. The main place for pilgrimage is Lalish (Fig. 25) and all Yazidis must go there at least once in their life. The annual pilgrimage, the Festival of the Assembly (Cejna Jema’iyye), at Lalish takes place from September 23-30.

Ceremonies

Local ceremonies: the Yazidi faithful are not asked to fulfil any definite, strict obligations; the following communal practices are observed (Açıkyıldız 2015: 130-131):

  • Women, men and children assemble in festive clothes;
  • Sacred places are visited in groups or individually;
  • Animals are sacrificed to honour saints and martyrs;
  • Donations are made to the men of religion;
  • Meals are cooked and distributed to pilgrims;
  • Religious dances (sama) are performed by religious men to the accompaniment of the qewwals’ sacred music (see section c.Society) and popular dances are performed by pilgrims.

The New Year (Serê Sal, Fig. 26-27) is celebrated on the first Wednesday in April and is also known as the Feast of Tawûsî Melek, the Feast of Melik al-Zen and Red Wednesday (Açıkyıldız 2015: 108). On this occasion animals are sacrificed, houses are decorated with flowers, eggs are coloured and a special bread is baked. A ritual is performed in Lalish.

The Forty Days of Winter (Serê Chil Zivistanê) takes place from 13 to 20 December. Three days of fasting are practised during the celebration, called the Feast of Ezî’s fast.

The Forty Days of Summer (Chilê Havinê) is celebrated in the sanctuary and other Yazidi holy buildings in the valley of Lalish from 18 to 21 July (Açıkyıldız 2015: 110). All Yazidis attend. In these three days the end of the forty-days fasting kept by the religious – baba sheikhbaba chawush (see section c. Society), feqîrsfeqrayas and kocheks. A bull is sacrificed in honour of Sheikh Shams, the Sun deity, in front of his mausoleum.