On the Yazidis

Since we’re now bombing northern Iraq in part to try to save the Yazidis, it’s worth knowing more about them. This National Geographic piece is a pretty good start:

The Yazidi religion is often misunderstood, as it does not fit neatly into Iraq’s sectarian mosaic. Most Yazidis are Kurdish speakers, and while the majority consider themselves ethnically Kurdish, Yazidis are religiously distinct from Iraq’s predominantly Sunni Kurdish population. Yazidism is an ancient faith, with a rich oral tradition that mixes with Islam some elements of Zoroastrianism, the ancient Persian religion, and Mithraism, a mystery religion originating in the Eastern Mediterranean. This combining of various belief systems, known religiously as syncretism, was part of what branded them as heretics among Muslims. While its exact origins are a matter of dispute, some scholars believe that Yazidism was formed when the Sufi leader Adi ibn Musafir settled in Kurdistan in the 12th century,  and founded a community that mixed elements of Islam with local Zoroastrian beliefs.

Yazidis began to face accusations of devil worship from Muslims beginning in the late 16th and early 17th centuries. While the Yazidis believe in one god, a central figure in their faith is Tawusî Melek, an angel who defies God and serves as an intermediary between man and the divine. To Muslims, the Yazidi account of Tawusî Melek often sounds like the Quranic rendering of Shaytan—the devil—even though Tawusî Melek is a force for good in the Yazidi religion.

The Quranic story of Shaytan/Satan (in the Quran he’s called “Iblis”) says that he was cast out of Heaven for refusing God’s command that all creation should bow before Adam because his pride would not allow him to prostrate himself before an inferior (mortal) being. Christian tradition says that Satan wouldn’t bow before God, though the story of Satan’s fall is really developed in Christian literature outside the Bible based on a handful of verses that seem to hint at the story. The Yazidi figure Melek Tawus (the “Peacock Angel”) has a similar origin story in that he disobeys God’s command to bow before the first man, but the Yazidis say that he did so out of love for God. So great was his devotion to God that he refused to worship anything or anyone else. Therefore rather than being cast out of Heaven, he was rewarded by God with lordship over the Earth.

I should mention here that the Yazidi conception of “God” is more akin to the impersonal Creator of the deists than to the very personal, interventionist God of the Abrahamic tradition. Melek Tawus thus serves the role of divine figure who directly involves himself in human affairs.

Adi b. Musafir, assuming that he was the founder of Yazidism, would not have been alone among Sufis in finding Iblis’s Qurʾanic story unsatisfying. Mansur al-Hallaj (d. 922), one of the first major mystical/Sufi figures in Islam, argued that Iblis refused to prostrate before Adam because he would not violate God’s decree of tawhid (Oneness)–basically, that nobody and nothing should be worshiped apart from God, not even if God Himself commands it. This makes Shaytan a true monotheist, and later mystics took up this idea and made Iblis into almost a tragic figure, forced by his deep monotheistic principles to refuse an order from God and suffer the consequences.

Other mystics, like the famous poet Jalal al-Din Rumi (d. 1273), saw otherwise, and attributed Iblis’s disobedience to his own arrogance and his conceit that he, Iblis, having been created from fire, must be superior to Adam, who had been created from mere clay. He couldn’t understand that Adam’s clay had been crafted in God’s image and had the Divine Breath blown into him, which made Adam the superior creation. These musings over Iblis continued into modern times; the Indian mystic poet Muhammad Iqbal (d. 1938) suggested that Satan was evil but yearned to be defeated by the Perfect Man so that he could repent and be forgiven by God. The Perfect Man, or insan al-kamil, is another Sufi figure who is sometimes said to be Muhammad but could also be a great mystic to come and/or the Mahdi, or some combination of all three. If you’re interested in going deeper, Annemarie Schimmel’s Mystical Dimenstions of Islam goes into more detail about this stuff and has citations to other works on the topic.

For the Yazidis, whatever their roots, Melek Tawus’s story shares that one similarity with Iblis and then the two characters completely diverge, so identifying him as “Satan” is a reach. Which means that this “devil worshiper” business is both unfair to the Yazidis and, to the extent that it’s been used to justify attempts to exterminate their community, downright frightening. Yazidi tradition holds that they’ve survived 72 attempted genocides, and I would think recent events should be counted as number 73.


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