In the crosshairs of persecution: the Yezidis

Terence P Ward —  September 2, 2014 — 21 Comments

Among the many atrocities committed by members of the Islamic State of Syria and Levant (ISIL) is the group’s attack on the Yezidis, a tribe in northern Iraq known mostly for its secretive religion and repeated persecutions by neighbors. The reports on the Yezidis hiding on mountainsides to escape conversion or death was a factor in President Obama’s decision to use airstrikes against ISIL.

Yezidi refugee girl with her family at Newroz camp [Photo Credit: Rachel Unkovic/International Rescue Committee/UK Dept of International Development]

Yezidi refugee girl with her family at Newroz camp [Photo Credit: Rachel Unkovic/International Rescue Committee/UK Dept of International Development]

The average westerner knows little about the Yezidi people and their religion, and media channels have struggled to learn more. The Yezidis are typically described as polytheists and have been branded as devil-worshipers many times over the centuries that their culture has endured.

However, neither label is a good fit. The Yezidis could be considered polytheistic in the same way that Roman Catholics might be. They do honor more than one entity. But the Yezidis don’t consider themselves polytheists. Many Pagans and polytheists will understand how one’s gods can become the devils of another.  That is the case with the Peacock Angel, the primary among seven angels worshiped in the Yezidi religion.

The sacred texts of the Yezidis and the religion itself are not intended for sharing with outsiders. The only translations into English come by way of The Sacred Books and Traditions of the Yezidiz, written by Isya Joseph in 1919. Joseph translated the sacred texts from an Arabic manuscript, which he was led to believe had been translated from an authentic original. Because the primary sources — the Yezidis themselves — are very secretive about their practice, any historical records of their treatment is left up to the interpretation of fragmentary knowledge within a context of political expedience.

Amin Tomeh, member of the Islamic Speakers Bureau of Atlanta, explained why Yezidi beliefs are sometimes interpreted as devil worship by followers of Abrahamic faiths. He said:

They view the Abrahamic traditional story (of God asking His angels to bow before Adam upon creating him) from a different perspective. According to what I read, they believe that there are seven archangels; chief among them is Malek Taous (with Malek translating to angel and Taous translating to Peacock or chief, i.e., Chief of all Angels). It was this Malek Taous that refused to bow before Adam while the other six forgot their pledge to God to not bow before anything or anyone other than to Him (i.e., God).

The similarity between this belief and what Muslims believe in that a creation of God (who dwelled with the angels, but was not an angel himself) called Iblis was the only one to refuse bowing before Adam. Iblis was cursed for refusing God’s command and was given a reprieve until the day of judgment before he would face his punishment. Iblis, Satan or the Devil are one in the same from a Muslim perspective. The intersection of these very similar stories is why – I would suppose – some may think that, in fact, it is Satan whom the Yezidis worship. But Yezidis themselves see the nature of Malek Taous as different from the whispering Satan who suggests evil deeds to humans.

Melek Tausi [Public Domain Image]

Melek Tausi [Public Domain Image]

Malek Taous, Melek Ta’us, Taus Melek, or Tawsi Melek is the being that the Yezidis primarily worship. Also called the Peacock Angel, Malek Taous is an intermediary between what they call “God” and the physical world. As described on yeziditruth.org:

The Yezidis do not believe that the Peacock Angel is the Supreme God. The Supreme God created him as an emanation at the beginning of time. He was brought into manifestation in order to give the invisible, transcendental Supreme God a vehicle with which to create and administer the universe. Tawsi Melek is thus a tangible, denser form of the infinite Supreme God. In order to assist Tawsi Melek in this important role, the Supreme Creator also created six other Great Angels, who were, like the Peacock Angel, emanations of the Supreme God and not separate from him.

The references to Adam and God are not coincidental according to Hatim Darwesh, a American-based Yezidis who maintains a Yezidi Facebook group. Darwesh served as translator to the U.S. military during the Iraq War, when Saddam Hussein was persecuting the Yezidis as part of his broader oppression of the Kurds. For his work, Darwesh was granted a visa to come to this country. He now lives in Lincoln, Nebraska.

While quick to say that he is not a “religious expert,” Darwesh was clear on several points: God is the same being who is worshiped in Abrahamic faiths; the Peacock Angel is not any sort of devil and the Yezidi religion is definitely monotheistic. In addition, within Yezidi culture, he says that the term “pagan” is used as a pejorative and not a label they themselves would welcome. At the same time, he explains that the Yezidis “worship the sun” and are sometimes called “sons of the sun.” He did not elaborate on that point, nor did he respond to a question about whether his religion is an Abrahamic one or not.

While the nuances of the Yezidi faith continue to be elusive, what is certain is that these people have been oppressed many times in their history. Once, according to Amin Tomeh, they were considered valuable allies. He tells of the Yezidi Prince Hussein Bek Al Daseni, who supported Sulemain the Magnificent‘s bid to retake Baghdad from the Safavids, and was given the title of prince over Soran, Irbil and Dahouk.

logoTomeh says, “This story demonstrates amply that, when political expediency demanded it, the Caliph himself found no reservation in allying his empire with the Yezidis and rewarded them accordingly.” He adds:

But again that does not mute the fact that the Yezidis often fell victim to the wrath of the political power of the day under religious guise and sometimes nationalistic (as was the case in Saddam’s time) pretexts. I personally see that phenomenon as the quintessential xenophobic impulse of blaming the presumed weaklings in any society.

Followers of mainstream media may believe that the present crisis for the Yezidis is past, but Darwesh says that this is far from the case. He reports that 2-3,000 “women, kids, and virgin girls” were taken by ISIL forces, and that “their fate remains unknown.” He explains the extremist agenda as he understands it:

Men have two choices: to convert to [Islam] or they will be slaughtered. Women are assaulted sexually and sold into slavery, and our kids are taking [sic] to be trained on learning of Quran and teach them Islamic religion.

He describes the crisis as “severe,” with 2-3 families living in a house, if they are lucky enough, and many others living under bridges. “They need to be out of there very soon,” he says. He wants them to be given the opportunity to live in a western country, like the United States or Canada, but they lack the deep support that larger religions have.  He says:

Our situation is different from Christians and everyone else in Iraq; we don’t have anyone to help us. Christians have at least Vatican to support them and [the] Pope is behind them because the religion [has] linked them together and we as Yezidis don’t have anyone but God.

To date, Darwesh finds that he is able to practice his religion freely in the United States. But what hangs over him, and all the Yezidis fortunate enough to live in Lincoln, is the fate of their tribes people half a world away.

 

Terence P Ward

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Terence P Ward is a moneyworker, journalist, Hellenic polytheist and convinced Friend who lives in the bucolic Hudson Valley with his wife, five cats, and multiple household shrines.
  • Danielle Amourtrance Verum

    Thank you for posting this. I saw another article online that claimed these people worshiped “their Goddess” (they capitalized the word so I’m doing so). I’m also very happy to see that the commentator clarified that pagan was an pejorative term to them and would not be welcomed. I’ve recently become aware of how important this is, to not label people as Pagans or pagans unless they themselves self-identified as such. Including the ancients as well as modern persons. Thanks again. Very important perspective on this.

  • Baruch Dreamstalker

    A few decades ago I heard a Catholic priest — who iirc was also a theologian — refer to a category of “Adamic” religions, in which he included Communism because it deals with salvation of fallen man. Adamic would seem to apply to the Yezidis. Whether they are Abrahamic depends on how they relate to the story of the covenant between JHVH and Abraham. Of course, with them being secretive about their sacred texts (understandably considering the treatment they’ve been given) this may be hard to discern.

  • Lēoht “Sceadusawol” Steren

    I first heard about Yezidi from some Iraqi Kurds I used to work with (probably about ten years ago, now).

    I found their religion to be a fascinating insight to Abrahamic theology (defined here, as the theologies of the follows of the god of Abraham) and its nuances.

    I think that describing Tawusê Melek as “satanic” would be biblically accurate, but would also fall fol of unfortunate stigma.

    From what I recall of my knowledge of Abrahamic theology, “satan” was originally a title, not an individual and was a loyal adversary.

    I think that would be a good way to describe the perception of the Peacock Angel.

    Here is the story as I recall it:

    When YHWH created the world and all that lived upon it, he called his six angels to him.
    “See my work. Is it not good?” He asked.
    The angels lavished praise upon YHWH for his good work.
    Then he present Man to them and said “This is Man, I am placing the care of this world in his hands. Bow down to him.”
    The angels all did as their lord bade them. All except one. Tawusê Melek – the Peacock Angel – refused to bow.
    When asked why he responded “I love my lord like no other, he has created magnificent things and has no equal. If I bow to Man, I insult my lord. I bow to the lord alone.”
    YHWH was impressed by the words of Tawusê Melek and by his unwavering loyalty.
    “Tawusê Melek,” spoke YHWH “you have proven yourself more loyal than all others, so I name you ruler and lord of the Earth.”

    Compare this to the Biblical passages:

    2 Corinthians 4:4 In whom the god of this world hath blinded the minds of them which believe not, lest the light of the glorious gospel of Christ, who is the image of God, should shine unto them.

    and:

    John 12:31 Now is the judgment of this world: now shall the prince of this world be cast out.

    Further, it is part of Yezidi belief (so I am told) that Tawusê Melek is not omnibenevolent and causes misfortunes for mankind, as well as blessings.

    • Deborah Bender

      “From what I recall of my knowledge of Abrahamic theology, “satan” was
      originally a title, not an individual and was a loyal adversary.”

      Pretty much correct for the Hebrew Bible. In the Book of Job, The Satan (Adversary) is a member of the heavenly court, and seems to fulfill a function that is a cross between Inspector General and District Attorney. Possibly also an element of trickster, since he creates all kinds of trouble for Job, who didn’t deserve it.

      There’s a somewhat parallel story to the Yezidis’, with a different ending, in the Talmud. It’s about the reaction of the angels as a group to YHVH’s announcement of intention to create human beings. The angels say it’s a bad idea. YHVH puts them in their place.

      Lots of different explanations for the existence of evil and suffering of innocents in Jewish theology (always a problem for monotheists), depending on place and period. They include “Your ancestors did something bad” (various Torah passages), “Part of growing up is making judgements and taking responsibility for them” (Garden of Eden story in Genesis), “The entire nation has done bad things” (Prophets), “You did something bad” (many texts), “Lilith does it for revenge on the human race” (Midrash), “Life isn’t fair” (Ecclesiastes), “It’s a learning experience” (Jonah). Blaming the Devil or demonic forces in general shows up in medieval European Jewry, but the Devil or Satan never quite achieves the standing in Judaism that he has in the New Testament texts you quote.

      • Lēoht “Sceadusawol” Steren

        The way I see the story of Job is that the role of adversary is played perfectly. In this case, not the adversary of YHWH, but the adversary of mankind (Job).

  • It is no surprise that fundamentalist Muslims would think of the Yetzidi as polytheists since they view the trinitarianism of Christianity as such, and probably rightfully so, in as much in the way it is practiced.

    I think many ChristoPagans could relate well to the Yetzidi’s theology, both being able to draw from monotheistic and polytheistic traditions to create something new.

  • Dantes

    I find that Heart-breaking that this religious minority whose faih is older than Islam and possibly older than christianity is suffering so much with so little support from the rest of the world.

    It’s true that the christian from Irak are being actively backed by european christians, and that there are even talk of facilitating asylum specificaly for them so that they may come to europe and find shelter.

    A couple weeks ago I tried to find some kind of Yezidi organisation in Europe to see is there might be a way to organize some kind of relief effort, but I could only find two webpage, one German (rather shabby looking) and one French. The French one answered me but told me there was no prospect of even starting something…

    So yes, truly heart-breaking. I think in such cases the best way to help the Yezidi would be to back the Kurdish peshmerga as much as possible and murder as many jihadis as possible. It’s there that drone should be deployed, not in Afganistan.

  • Tauri1

    As a recovering Catholic with 12 years of Catholic school behind me, I can assure you that Catholics do *not* consider themselves “polytheistic” and if you said that to a priest, nun, or lay Catholic, they’d be highly insulted, as they consider themselves monotheists.

    • Lēoht “Sceadusawol” Steren

      I don’t think anyone was saying they do.

      Merely that they are.

      • ELNIGMA

        If you’re not the Pope, you don’t get to decide that.

        • Lēoht “Sceadusawol” Steren

          I don’t need to be the Pope to recognise what is obviously a pantheon of subjects for veneration.

          • Rhoanna

            And Christians don’t need to listen to what pagans say; we’re obviously worshiping the devil.

          • Lēoht “Sceadusawol” Steren

            Indeed.

            At least they have the conviction of belief.

          • ELNIGMA

            This is a Catholic response to this. I’m not saying it makes sense to me, but religions tend to be confusing/complex. http://www.catholic.com/tracts/saint-worship
            If most Catholics don’t think of themselves as Pagans, I don’t see why some Pagan would insist they were should said Catholics find that offensive – outside of Pagans with motivations or habits that need to be unpacked.

          • Lēoht “Sceadusawol” Steren

            Sounds a lot like what I hear many Heathens say about the word “worship”.

            I would never call Catholics pagan (or Pagan). The very fact that they are Abrahamic precludes such application of the term.

            Doesn’t mean they aren’t polytheistic, though.

          • ELNIGMA

            Update on this post:

            The Pope and some of his Cardinals went and spoke out against the persecution of the Yezidis and other minority religions in Iraq recently asking for it to cease.

            Leoht Steren – Do you sincerely think suggesting the same thing with slight change in wording makes a difference?If somebody doesn’t want to claim to be polytheistic, leave them alone. Just the same if they claimed/didn’t claim to be Pagan.

    • FYI, see the Wild Hunt editorial “The Invisibility and Inevitability of Polytheism”

      https://disqus.com/home/discussion/the-wildhunt/editorial_the_invisibility_and_inevitability_of_polytheism

    • mptp

      Well, then, it’s a good thing that the article ***didn’t*** say that Catholics consider themselves polytheistic:
      However, neither label is a good fit. The Yezidis could be considered polytheistic in the same way that Roman Catholics might be.

  • Thank you for sharing something material about this minority’s beliefs. In the end, I suppose it is as one member of a minority religion empathizing with others that I can most easily connect with their story; their theology does not need to be similar to my own for me to be appalled by their persecution, and the relative lack of media attention.

    The kidnapping of women and children by extremists ought to be an international scandal. I hope the fact that there is no international figure like the Pope speaking for them doesn’t keep the story on the back pages.

    In any case, thank you for your coverage.

    • Lēoht “Sceadusawol” Steren

      What should be a scandal is that they have suffered from these kidnapping, murders and purges for many years, now.

      Here’s one from a few years ago:

      2007 Yazidi Bombings (Wiki)

      Iraqi Red Crescent’s estimates say the bombs killed 796 and wounded 1,562 people…It was also the second deadliest act of terrorism in history, following only behind the September 11 attacks in the United States.

      It seems odd, to me, that people are only hearing about this kind of thing now.

  • Athena007

    Very interesting! I’d never heard of them until now. Thank you so much for posting this!