ETHNONYMS: Self-designation: Duasen (pi, Dâseni); Iz(e) di, Yazîdî. The origin of the term "Yezidi" is uncertain; many scholars believe it to be cognate with the Persian iixedy "deity, angel." The Yezidis are often referred to as "devil worshipers" by their Muslim and Christian neighbors.
Identification. The Yezidis are a Kurdish-speaking people practicing a distinctive religion, neither Christian nor Muslim. They physically resemble the Muslim Kurds and the Armenians of the Lake Van region, although they consider themselves a separate people. (Some Yezidis, indeed, take umbrage at being referred to as "Kurds.") Some scholars believe that they may represent the remnants of the ancient Iraqi population.
Location. Most of the Yezidis dwell in five districts: (1) Sheihan, the most important, to the northeast of Mosul in northern Iraq; (2) Jabal Sinjar, near the Syrian border, 100 kilometers due west of Mosul; (3) Halitiyeh, in the province of Diyarbakïr (southeastern Turkey); (4) Malliyah, to the west of the Euphrates, including Aleppo; (5) Sarahdar, the Yezidi settlements in the Caucasus region. The vast majority of Yezidis in the former USSR live in Armenia and Georgia. Urban centers with significant Yezidi populations include Leninakan, Etchmiadzin, and Tbilisi. There are also communities in Aparan and Talin (Armenia) and Lachin and Kelbajar (western Azerbaijan). There are a few small communities in Turkmenistan, which arrived with Kurds from Iran in the twentieth century.
Demography. According to the 1926 census, the total population of Yezidi Kurds in the USSR was 14,523, of which 12,237 lived in Armenia. The Yezidis then comprised 80 percent of the Kurdish-speaking population of Armenia and 22 percent of that of Georgia. The subsequent Soviet censuses did not distinguish between the Yezidis and the Kurds. A census conducted in 1989 counted a Yezidi population of 51,900 in Armenia. There are as of yet no comparable figures for other republics of the former USSR. The Yezidi population in the former USSR was estimated at around 25,000 in 1980.
Linguistic Affiliation. Almost all of the Yezidis speak Kurdish dialects similar to the Kurmandz dialect of most Soviet Kurds. The Kurdish language belongs to the Northwestern Subgroup of the Iranian Group of the Indo-European Family.
History and Cultural Relations
According to tradition, the Yezidis originated in Syria, in the vicinity of Basra, and later migrated into the Sindjar region of Iraqi Kurdistan, where they adopted the Kurdish language. Some Kurdish scholars hold that Yezidism was the national religion of the Kurds in the Middle Ages. The religion is believed to have been founded by Shaahid ibn Djarraah, the true son of Adam, and later restored by the caliph Yazîd ibn Mu'âwaiya (although there is no evidence that this latter individual was ever associated with the sect claimed by some to bear his name). Another semilegendary figure revered by the Yezidis is the Sufi Sheikh ʿAdî ibn Musâfir (died c. 1162), who they believe was sent by the Peacock Angel (see "Religious Beliefs") to educate and guide the Yezidis. His tomb near Mosul in northern Iraq is the most important site of pilgrimage in the Yezidi religion.
Throughout their history the Yezidis have been subject to persecution by their Muslim and Christian neighbors. The Muslims do not regard the Yezidis as a "People of the Book," and some have even considered them to be a heretic Muslim sect. This belief, along with their refusal to enter the military service, has at times been used by hostile governments to justify attempts at forced conversion and even extermination of the Yezidis. Several waves of religious persecution in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries drove Yezidi populations into Transcaucasia. In general, the Yezidis have enjoyed more amicable relations with Christians than with Muslims (including Muslim Kurds). A particularly close tie has evolved between the Yezidis and the Armenians, their fellow sufferers in many persecutions on Ottoman territory. By the 1830s many Yezidi tribespeople were being allowed to settle in the province of Yerevan. The largest waves of migration were subsequent to the Russo-Turkish conflicts of 1853-1856, 1877-1878, and 1914-1918. Most of these Yezidi newcomers settled in Armenia; a smaller proportion of them continued on into Georgia. The 1877 census counted 8,000 Yezidis in the province of Yerevan, and over twice that many were recorded in 1912. By 1916 nearly 5,000 Yezidis were living in Tbilisi, the Georgian capital. Subsequent to the rectification of the frontier between the USSR and Turkey in 1921, the Yezidis in the Surmaly District were resettled in villages near Mt. Aragats (northwest of Yerevan), which had been abandoned by Muslim Kurds and Turks.
literacy. In the past most of the Kurds of Transcaucasia were illiterate. In the case of the Yezidis, according to some accounts, the laity was forbidden, or in any event discouraged, from learning to read and write. Even most of the clergy was functionally illiterate until the twentieth century, when the Soviet government established a system of universal education.
Cultural Relations. The Yezidis have a relatively good reputation within Armenia. In urban areas, their socioeconomic status is a bit lower than that of Armenians, although assimilated Yezidis are accepted as the equals of members of the majority population. The social world of rural Yezidis is somewhat separate from their Armenian neighbors, however, because of the strict Yezidi caste system. In general, the economic role of the Yezidis is respected, and there is no interethnic conflict or hostility.
The Yezidis have traditionally divided themselves into two groups, according to their life-styles: the sedentary "people of the villages" (Ahi al-hadr) and the nomadic "people of the tents" (Ahl al-wabar). The sedentary Yezidis live in villages of about sixty houses. The houses are made of clay, stone, or raw brick; covered with white plaster; and divided into three main rooms. The roof is supported by wooden pillars. The nomadic Yezidis live in low tents, firmly lashed to the ground to resist the wind—each housing about five people. After the annexation of Armenia by the former USSR, the nomads were encouraged to settle in villages, and the majority of Transcaucasian Yezidis have by now abandoned the nomadic way of life. Some, however, continue to migrate between summer and winter villages. The first Yezidi collective farm in Soviet Armenia was established in 1928; nevertheless, in 1936 most of the farms near Mt. Aragats were still cultivated by individuals.
The traditional occupations of the Yezidis have been agriculture and livestock raising. The Yezidis of the Sinjar District of Iraq raise figs, grapes, almonds, and nuts, among other crops. Transcaucasian Yezidis in rural areas continue to depend on raising sheep and cattle. Yezidi women living in cities often work as street sweepers, and the men are employed in a wide range of jobs.
Clothing. Yezidi men were traditionally distinguished by their shirts worn closed up to the neck, which are prescribed by their religion. They wore white trousers and cloaks, and their hair was tied up underneath a turban, the color of which marked the various orders of the clergy. Women wore white skirts and trousers and adorned themselves with kerchiefs, bracelets, coins, and rings. Married women were dressed in white and wore shirts similar to those of the men.
As recently as the 1970s, Transcaucasian Yezidis wore distinctive costumes in rural areas, and to the present day they avoid blue clothing (a color tabooed by their religion). Women, especially older ones, still wear bright-colored skirts and wrap scarves about their heads. The apparel of the men is now little different from that of their Armenian neighbors.
Trade. The Yezidis have a reputation for avoiding business activity, which they believe is conducive to cheating. Nonetheless, since the Soviet period some Transcaucasian Yezidis involved in animal husbandry have become extremely wealthy from the sale of meat and dairy products.
Division of Labor. Although considered inferior to men, Yezidi women do much of the same work and even engage in fighting against enemies. They converse freely with men and do not veil their faces from them as some Muslim women do.
Kin Groups and Descent. The Yezidi tribal structure consists of at least two levels: the bav, comprising all the descendants of a single ancestor, subdivided into groups (bra ) of immediate relatives. In general, family bonds are of greater importance than those pertaining to the tribe.
Marriage. The Yezidis marry young, at around 15 years of age for boys and 13 for girls. One must marry within the Yezidi community; there are also restrictions on marriages between the clerical and lay classes and between relatives. In Armenia, Yezidis generally do not marry outside their class—and never marry Kurds. Some assimilated urban Yezidis have married Armenians.
Monogamy is the rule, except for wealthy or high-ranking individuals (e.g., the emir, who may take six or more wives). In general marital partners choose each other on the basis of mutual attraction, although the consent of their respective family heads is considered necessary. The prospective husband must pay a bride-price (kalam ) of about thirty sheep or goats to the woman's father or brother. Elopements are sometimes secretly arranged by the couple to avoid this major expense.
The marriage ceremony begins with the escorting of the bride from her father's house to that of the groom. Along the way she prays at each shrine she encounters, including Christian churches. Upon her arrival at the groom's home, the latter greets her with a blow from a small stone, to indicate her submission to him from then on. The bride remains in the groom's house for three days, concealed behind a curtain in a darkened room, during which time the groom cannot see her. On the evening of the third day the sheikh solemnizes the marriage in a brief ceremony, marked by the bride and groom each taking the end of a stick and breaking it, to symbolize the intactness of their relationship until death breaks it asunder.
Divorce can be obtained, although the testimony of witnesses to infidelity is sometimes deemed necessary. Should a Yezidi man leave the community and remain abroad for more than a year, his marriage can be annulled, and he may be forbidden to marry another Yezidi woman as well.
Domestic Unit. The Yezidis live in nuclear-family groups. The father is head of the household and exercises full authority over his wife and children. The eldest son is second in authority after the father.
Inheritance. Wills are made orally, before three witnesses. Property is divided equally among a deceased man's sons or, if he has left no sons, among his brothers or cousins. Daughters do not receive a share of the inheritance, and even the money paid for their purchase as brides is divided among their brothers and uncles.
Social Organization. The major feature of Yezidi social structure is a three-tiered caste system.
Myur (pl., Mrit ) belong to the lay caste, regardless of the wealth or position of the individual members. Each Yezidi is the disciple of a specific sheikh or pyir, who performs certain important rituals for the disciple. Lay Yezidis must kiss the hand of their spiritual master each day. A subgroup within the Myur caste, the Jab-Nabba, had to wear woolen shirts and defend the sacred beliefs of the Yezidis.
The clergy are drawn from the remaining two castes, pyir and sheikh. They enjoy special prestige in Yezidi society. Many of the clerical ranks are inherited. The priests are typically men, but should a woman inherit a priestly office, she is treated with the same respect as that due a man. The principal ranks (which are not to be confused with the identical caste names) are the sheikhs, the pyirs, the kawwâls, and the fakîrs.
The sheikhs derive from only five families, which trace their ancestry to the pupils or brothers of the deified Sheikh 'Adî. Their houses serve as places of worship. The chief sheikh is chosen from among the descendants of the previous chief, with personal qualification as well as directness of descent factoring into the decision. He is regarded as the chief authority on spiritual matters and the interpretation of the Yezidi scriptures. In Transcaucasia, a woman can never function as sheikh, regardless of her caste.
The pyirs are priests of lesser rank who preside at religious festivals, weddings, circumcisions, etc., for which services fees are paid to them.
The kawwâls are singers and musicians—their instruments are the flute, tambourine, and drum—who perform at festivals and processions. There are also dancers (kochak ) who serve at the tomb of Sheikh 'Adî and perform, at Yezidi festivals, a frenzied dance with their long hair untied and waving about.
The fakirs (also known as kara-bash —"black-heads"—because of the black turbans signifying their rank) are the lowest order of clergy. They perform menial tasks at the tomb of Sheikh 'Adî, such as hewing wood, drawing water, and collecting contributions for the upkeep of the shrine.
Political Organization. The Iraqi Yezidis recognize two leaders: the chief sheikh (see "Social Organization") and the Emîr al-umarâ (also known as Mîrzâ Beg), who is their chief temporal authority and representative in external affairs. The spiritual and secular leaders of the Transcaucasian Yezidis are drawn from the sheikh caste.
Social Control. Many foreign visitors have noted the dignified and orderly comportment of the Yezidis, said to contrast favorably with that of their neighbors. Respect for parents and the elderly is considered an important virtue.
Conflict. The severest punishment recognized by the Yezidis is excommunication, which only the chief sheikh, with the approval of the tribal chief, can decree. Blood feuds occur among the Yezidis, as among the Muslim Kurds.
Religion and Expressive Culture
Religious Beliefs. The Yezidis have a distinctive religious system, the origins of which remain unclear. Scholars have discerned elements resembling those of the Manichaean, Zoroastrian, Mandaean Gnostic, Jewish, Christian (especially Nestorian), and Muslim (especially Sufi) traditions, but there is no evidence that the Yezidi religion represents an offshoot of any one of them. Only those born into the Yezidi community can belong to the religion; the Yezidis do not appear to accept converts.
The branding of the Yezidis as "devil worshipers" has, in fact, a basis in their religious practices, although they are nothing at all like the satanic cults one associates with this label. Yezidi theology recognizes a fundamental distinction between two principles: the good principle is represented by God (Khude), a deus otiosus who created the world but does not participate in its daily affairs. It is to the evil principle that takes an active role in worldly matters that prayers and offerings are made. This second deity, associated with the Devil, is Malak-Tâ'ûs or Malek-Tauz, the "Peacock Angel"—a fallen angel punished by God for rebellion against divine authority. One of the core elements of Yezidi religious practice is the propitiation of the evil principle through worship and offerings in order to insure good fortune and happiness in the world. (According to some Yezidi informants, God is so good that he has no need of worship, whereas the Peacock Angel is so evil as to require constant appeasement [Badger 1852, 126].)
Malek-Tauz is depicted in the form of seven bronze and iron peacock statues (sanjaq ), associated with the seven angels who participated in the creation of the world and the seven principal divisions of the Yezidi community (the five districts—see "Location"—plus the nomadic Yezidis and the tomb of Sheikh 'Adî). Yezidis insist that these peacock statues are not idols, merely symbols of their faith. Every few months the sanjaqs are carried in procession in their respective districts and displayed in the homes of prominent families. The faithful bow before the statue and make offerings of money or valuables. Probably associated with the cult of Malek-Tauz is the strict taboo on pronouncing certain words associated with the Devil, as well as words of similar sound. For example, a Yezidi must not say the words "Sheitan" (Satan) and laan (curse), nor the near homophones shat (river) and naal (horseshoe).
Other important religious observances include: (!) the daily prayer (in the Kurdish language) at sunrise, addressed to Malek-Tauz and the seven angels; (2) certain practices and abstentions (e.g., from sexual intercourse) on Wednesday, the holy day of the week; (3) the New Year's festival, on the first Wednesday of April, celebrated at the tomb of Sheikh 'Adî; (4) an annual pilgrimage to that same tomb in mid-September, accompanied by music and dancing, ritual bathing, processions, and the lighting of oil lamps at the graves of Yezidi saints. (The Transcaucasian Yezidis were unable to make this pilgrimage during the Soviet period, and there were no substitute pilgrimages within Soviet territory.)
The Yezidis also practice the baptism of infants, circumcision (optional), and a eucharistlike breaking of bread and drinking of wine celebrated with a sheikh. There is no belief in eternal damnation, but rather in a transmigration of souls and gradual purification through the cycle of rebirths. The souls of righteous people can render aid and revelations to those still living on earth. The souls of sinners may be reborn into animals, but after an expiatory period they may pass again into human form.
One of the more noteworthy beliefs of the Yezidis concerns their origins. According to the Yezidis, unlike all other peoples on earth, who are descended from both Adam and Eve, they themselves are descended from Adam alone. In one version of their creation legend, there were seventy-two Adams, each of whom lived ten thousand years, and each of whom was more perfect than the previous Adam. The seventy-second Adam married Eve. The angel Jabra'il put drops of blood from the foreheads of Adam and Eve into four jars (two each), which were sealed for nine months. When the jars were opened, those containing Eve's blood were empty, whereas Adam's blood had produced a girl and a boy (Shahîd ibn Jayâr "the Son of the Jar"). These two children of Adam became the ancestors of the Yezidis, whereas all other nations are descended from Adam through Eve.
Sacred Literature. The Yezidis recognize two sacred books, said to have been written in the twelfth through fourteenth centuries. The Kitab al-Jilwa (Book of Enlightenment), written in an archaic Kurdish dialect, is believed to have been dictated by Sheikh 'Adî. Most of the text is concerned with the Peacock Angel, who speaks in the first person, vaunting his power and promising rewards to his devotees. Some parts of the book have been encrypted through substitution of letters. The Masxafe Resh (Black Book) discusses the creation of humanity, how the power of evil tempts one to disobey God's commands, and certain taboos (against wearing the color blue; against eating lettuce, pumpkin, fish, chicken, gazelle, or marrow; and so on).
Medicine. Soil and water from around the tomb of Sheikh 'Adî in Iraq is sometimes used for healing illnesses. The sheikhs and pyirs perform healing rituals as one of their regular functions.
Death and Afterlife. After death the body is washed, and clay or water from Sheikh 'Adî is placed in the mouth of the deceased. The body is buried immediately thereafter, the head pointing east and the face turned toward the north star. The procession to the cemetery is accompanied by singing (and some accounts mention a dance performed by the mother or wife of a deceased man). The graves in Transcaucasian Yezidi cemeteries are marked by headstones in the form of sheep and other animals.
See also Kurds
Badger, George P. (1852). The Nestorians and their rituals, with the narrative of a mission to Mesopotamia and Coordistan in 1842-1844. London: Joseph Masters.
Bittner, Maximilian (1913). Die heiligen Bücher der Jeziden oder Teufelsanbeter. Vienna: Denkschriften der kaiserlichen Akademie der Wissenschaften.
Empson, R. H. W. (1928). The Cult of the Peacock Angel London: H. F. Witherby.
Guest, John S. (1987). The Yezidis: A Study in Survival London and New York: KPI.
Joseph, Isya (1919). Devil Worship: The Sacred Books and Traditions of the Yezidis. Boston: Gorham Press.
Layard, A. H. (1849). Nineveh and its remains, with an account of a visit to the Chaldoean Christians of Kurdistan, and the Yezidis or Devil-worshippers. London: John Murray.
Lescot, Roger (1938). Enquete sur les Yezidis de Syrie et du Djebel Sindjaar. Beirut.
Menant, M. J. (1892). Les Yezidis. Paris: Ernest Leroux. "Yazidis" (1934). In The Encyclopedia of Islam, pp. 1163—1170. Leyden: E. J. Brill.
MARCELLO CHERCHI, STEPHANIE PLATZ, AND KEVIN TUITE
The distinctive feature of the religion—a monotheistic faith incorporating many Jewish, Christian, and Muslim traditions—is the belief that the fallen angel Lucifer has been pardoned by God for his disobedience and that those who venerate him are the elect of humankind.
Yezīdīs are forbidden to use the term Satan, whom they call Melek Taus (‘Peacock Angel’). A large bronze image of a peacock is paraded at important festivals and for many years replicas were carried by alms-gatherers among Yezīdī villages. The Yezīdīs are not, however, devil-worshippers, as they have sometimes been called.
The tomb of Sheikh Adi at Lalish (a mountain valley north of Mosul, often itself called ‘Sheikh Adi’) is the principal shrine of the Yezīdī religion. A five-day festival there in mid-Oct., attended by many pilgrims, includes ritual dancing, singing, and feasting, as well as secret ceremonies associated with the great peacock and with a spring of water called Zemzem that gushes out of the rock beneath Sheikh Adi's tomb. The secular arm of the community is represented by the Mir of Sheikhan, who lives at Baadri, immediately south of Lalish. The Chol dynasty was established in the 17th cent., and was accorded semi-divine status. But the Mir's civil authority was curtailed by the extension of Ottoman bureaucracy in the 19th cent., followed by the British occupation of Iraq (1918–32, 1941–5).
A dualistic religious group operating among the Kurds in northern Iraq and the neighboring lands of Syria, Turkey, and Iran. Their religion probably goes back to the Manicheans but has borrowed heavily from the Shiite Muslims. The Yezidis call themselves the Dawasin or Dasnayye. The term Yezidi was originally probably a name of derision. It refers to a Caliph Yezid who in 680 C.E. ordered the death of al-Husayn, the grandson of the Prophet Mohammed. The Shiite hold al-Husayn in special reverence, for they claim to derive their authority from him. Others have suggested that the word is derived from the Persian word ized (for angel, deity), and would mean "worshippers of God." They are also derogatorily referred to by their neighbors as "devil-worshippers." The Yezidi community is centered upon the tomb of Shaykh Adi ibn Musafir at Llish in the district of Mosul.
The Yezidi faith is quite eclectic, drawing upon Christian (baptism, breaking of bread, drinking of wine), Jewish (dietary restrictions), Muslim (fasts, circumcision, pilgrimages), Sufi (reverence for Shaykhs, secrecy, ecstatic experiences), and Sabeansist (reincarnation ) traditions. They believe that they were children of the seed of Adam (but not of Eve). Thus, they believe themselves different from the rest of humanity, who are derived from both Adam and Eve. They try to remain separate and no outsider may join them. One must be born a Yezidi.
A dominant symbol among them is the peacock, a symbol of the seven angels who cooperated in the creation of the world. The peacock angel is their euphemism for evil. They believe evil is a part of the divinity, along with good. Thus they are more properly seen as dualists rather than devil worshippers. The Yezidis also consider Christ an angel in human form, and Mohammed as a prophet with Abraham and others.
Drower, E. S. Peacock Angel. London: John Murray, 1941.
Empson, R. H. The Cult of the Peacock Angel. N.p., 1928.
Guest, John S. Survival Among the Kurds: A History of the Yezidis. London: Kegan Paul International, 1993.
——. The Yezidis. London: KPI, 1987.
Nau, Abbé F. "Recueil de textes et de documents sur les Yézidis." ROC 2, no. 10 (1915-17).