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.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:
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:
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.
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.
Tomeh 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.