Cult of Angels
Most non-Muslim Kurds follow one of several indigenous Kurdish faiths of great antiquity and originality, each of which is a variation on and permutation of an ancient religion that can loosely be labeled the "Cult of Angels," Yazdâni in Kurdish. The actual name of the religion is all but lost to its modern followers, who retain only the names of its surviving denominations. The name Yazdânism or Cult of Angels is a variation of the Kurdish name of one of its isolated branches, Yezidism, which literally means "the Anglicans." There are some indications that Yazdânism was in fact the name of the religion before its fragmentation. An even older name for this creed may have been Hâk (or Haq), which is the name given by this religion to its pre-eternal, all-encompassing deity, the Universal Spirit. A brief argument in favor of the former view is presented in this section under Yezidism.
Only three branches of the Cult of Angels have survived from ancient times. They are Yezidism, Alevism, and Yârsânism (also known as Aliullâhi or Ahl-i Haq). Alevism now also encompasses Nusayrism, which is followed primarily by a minority of Arabs in Syria and most of the Arab minority in Turkey.
All denominations of the Cult, past and present, hold a fundamental belief in luminous, angelic beings of ether, numbering seven, that protect the universe from an equal number of balancing dark forces of matter. Another shared belief, and a cornerstone of the Cult, is the belief in the transmigration of souls through numerous reincarnations, with reincarnations of the deity constituting major and minor avatars.
The Cult believes in a boundless, all encompassing, yet fully detached "Universal Spirit" (Haq), whose only involvement in the material world has been his primeval manifestation as a supreme avatar who after coming into being himself, created the material universe. (Haq, incidentally, is not derived from the Arabic homophone haqq, meaning "truth," as commonly and erroneously believed.) The Spirit has stayed out of the affairs of the material world except to contain and bind it together within his essence. The prime avatar who became the Creator is identified as the Lord God in all branches of the Cult except Yezidism, as discussed below. Following or in conjunction with the acts of creation, the Creator also manifested himself in five additional avatars (Bâbâ or Bâb, perhaps from the Aranlaic bâbâ, "portal" or "gate"), who then assumed the position of his deputics in maintaining and administering the creation. These are the archangels, who with the Creator and the ever-present Spirit, number the sacred Seven of the First Epoch of the universal life. This epoch was to be followed by six more, a new epoch occurring each time the soul or essence of the avatars of the previous epoch transmigrates into new avatars, to again achieve with the Spirit the holy number 7. Following these original seven epoches and major avatars, new, bur minor, avatars may emerge from time to time. However, their importance is limited, as are their contributions, to the time period in which they live.
In this century three individuals have risen to the station of Bâb, or "avatar": Shaykh Ahmad Bârzâni (supposedly a Muslim), Sulaymân Murshid (a Syrian Arab Alevi) (see Modern History), and Nurali llâhi (a Yârsân leader). Their impact, however, has been ephemeral. This was not the case with another avatar who appeared a century earlier.
In the 19th century, Mirzâ Ali Muhammad, now commonly known as The Bâb, rose to establish the religion of Bâbism, which soon evolved into the world religion of Bâhâ'ism. The religion spread at the same wild-fire pace as Mithraism in classical times, from the Persian Gulf to Britain in less than a century's time (see Bâbism & Bâhâ'ism).
The rites and tenets of the Cult have traditionally been kept secret from non-believing outsiders, even when followers were not subject to persecution. In the present century an appreciable number of the scriptures of various branches of the Cult of Angels have been studied and published, allowing for better understanding of the nature of this native Kurdish religion, as well as the extent of its contribution to other religions.
The Cult is a genuinely universalist religion. It views all other religions as legitimate manifestations of the same original idea of human faith in the Spirit. The founders of these religions are examples of the Creator's continuous involvement in world affairs in the form of periodic incarnations as a new prophet who brings salvation to the living. Thus, a believer in the Cult has little difficulty being associated with Islam, Christianity, Zoroastrianism, or any other religion, as to him these are all just other versions of the old idea. He also has little difficulty in passing as a follower of any one of these religions if need be. Other religions that view themselves as unique systerns of approach to the divinity, with an exclusive monopoly on truth, are viewed as unique as the images in a kaleidoscopc: they are unique only in the configuration of their elements, but are all identical in that the elements that are involved in forming each image were supplied by the Creator at the moment of the universal Genesis of the material world. Hinduism and its similar cosmopolitan approach to other religions come readily to mind.
Meanwhile, the Cult has always been apt to absorb other religions, whole or in part, that have come into contact with it. To do so, new branches of the Cult have formed by incorporating into their dynamic cosmogonies system of continuing avatars the highest personages of these externat religions. Alevism, for instance, was formed in the process of the Cult's movement to swallow Shi'ite Islam beginning in the 15th century. Such movements, which recur throughout the history of the Cult, should not be interpreted as organized and sinister efforts directed by a central, priestly body in the Cult. Far from it, the Cult as a whole could not have been any more indifferent to such events. These movements were all spontaneous creations of various segments of the followers of the Cult who through intensive exposure to an outside religion would in time adopt and adapt enough of it to be able to pass as insiders, raise a messianic scepter, and try to overtake that neighboring religion.
Several old, and now extinct, movements and religions also appear to have begun their existence as branches of the Cult of Angels, under circumstances similar to those that gave rise to Alevism. Among these, with due caution and reservation, one may place the Gnostic religions of Mithraism and Zorvânism, and the socioeconomically motivated messianic movements of the Mazdakites, Khurramiyya, and the Qarmatites. The Cult also has fundamentally influenced another Gnostic religion, Manichacism, as well as Ismâ'ili (Sevener) Shi'ism, Druzism, and Bâbism, and to a lesser extent, Zoroastrianism, Imâmi Shi'ism, and Bahâ'ism. The Mithraist religious movement seems now to have been a guise under which Cult followers attempted to take over the old Greco-Roman pantheistic religion, with which the Cult had been in contact since the start of the Heffenistic period in the 4th century BC. Mithraism succeeded impressively. By the time of Constantine and the prevalencc of Christianity, Mithraism had become so influential in the Roman Empire that it may be that the Roman state observance of the birth of the god Mithras on December 25 inspired the traditional dating of the birth of Christ. This date was the one on which the Universal Spirit first manifested itself in its prime avatar, Lord Creator, whom Mithraism presumed to be Mithras.
The Yezidi branch of the Cult of Angels, and the Nusayri movement within Alevism, still retain vestiges of this primary position of Mithras, particularly in their festivals and annual communal religious observations.
Despite the shrinking of its earlier domain and loss of ground to Islam, the Cult still influences all the Kurds at the levels of popular culture and quasi-religious rituals. The reverence for Khidir or Nabi Khizir "the living green man of the ponds," is a well-accepted practice among the Muslim Kurds. Khidir's shrines are found all over Kurdistan beside natural springs (see Folklore &Folk Tales). The Muslims have connected the lore of Khidir to that of the Prophet Elijah, who like Khidir, having drank from the Fountain of Life, is also ever-living. An earth and water spirit, the immortal Khidir (whose name might mean "green" or a "crawler") lives within the deep waters of the lakes and ponds. Assuming various guises, Khidir appears among the people who call upon him to grant them their wishes.
Many communal and religious ceremonies belonging to various faiths of the Kurds take place at Khidir's shrines, which are a transreligious institution (see Popular Culture and Festivals, Ceremonies, & Calendar). Khidir's longevity is symbolized in the longevous pond turtles found at the ponds and springs where his shrines are located. As such, realistic, but more often stylized, turtles are common motifs in Kurdish decorative and religious arts (see Decorative Designs & Motifs). The feast of Khidir falls in the spring, when nature renews itself. The exact observation date, however, varies from religion to religion, and even community to community. All branches of the Cult observe the feast, as do many Muslim commoners.
In ancient times the Cult came to be regarded as a contender to the ascendancy of early Zoroastrianism. This must have been before the end of the Median period, and the movement to overtake Zoroastrianism was perhaps sponsored by the last Median ruler, Rshti-vegâ Äzhi Dahâk (r. 584-549 BC). There is now compelling evidence that the slaying of Zoroaster himself and the overthrowing of his patron king Vishtaspa were at the hands of the troops of King Rshti-vegâ Âzhi Dahâk, as he advanced eastward into Harirud-Murghâb river basins in northwest Afghanistan in 552 BC. This did not help Äzhi Dahâk's reputation among the early Zoroastrians.The Median king Äzhi Dahâk has since been assigned a demonic character and is seen as the arch villain in both Zoroastrianism and the Iranian national mythology and epic literature, like the Shâhnâma. In fact, Azhdahâ has become the only word in the Persian language for "dragon." The controversial title Âzhi Dahâk for the last Median king was already known to Herodotus, albeit in a corrupted form, as Astyages.
A lasting legacy of this encounter between the two religions was the Cult's introduction of a hereditary priestly class, the Magi, into the simpler, priestless religion that Zoroaster had founded.
Zoroastrianism and the Cult of Angels share many features, among which are the belief in seven good angels and seven "bad" ones in charge of the world, and a hereditary priestly class. These common features are natural results of the long and eventful contact between the two religions. Other common features may be the result of the religious imprint of the Aryan settlers of Kurdistan, whose original religion must have been the same as that which the Prophet Zoroaster later reformed and reconstituted into the religion of Zoroastrianism. In its present form, however, the Cult shows the greatest mutuality with Islam, which has been its neighbor for the past 14 centuries. Nearly a thousand years after the first attempt on Zoroastrianism, followers of the Cult made another, less successful, bid to take over, or eliminate, Zoroastrianism. This was in the form of the Mazdakite movement.
The cult or movement of Mazdak rose in the Sth century AD in response to the rigid social and economic class system instituted by the Zoroastrian state religion of Sasanian Persia. The movement spread out from the Zagros region led by a native son, Mazdak, who eventually even succeeded in converting the Sasanian king Kavât or Qubâd (r. AD 488-53 1).
The Mazdakites' fundamental belief in the social equality of people, still largely present in the Cult of Angels, gave this religion special attraction to the poor and the objects of discrimination. Mazdak (whose name may mean "lesser Mazdâ," with Mazdâ being the shortened form for the name of the Zoroastrian supreme god Ahurâ Mazdâ), preached communal ownership of many worldly possessions, and was accused of having included women in this same category-an accusation of sexual promiscuity still levied on the Cult of Angels.
The practice of communal ownership has prompted many modern writers to flamboyantly brand the cult of Mazdak as the first world communist system (see Classical History). In this religion was also embedded a militancy that continued to manifest itself in several socioreligious movements in the Islamic era, and indirectly through the militant Shi'ism of modern times.
Despite, or perhaps because of, their earlier successes, the Mazdakites were soon subjected to widespread massacres towards the end of Kavât's rule ca. AD 528 (as he had by then reverted to Zoroastrianism). Under the rule of Kavât's son and successor, Chosroes I Anoshervân, pogroms were extended to all corners of the country, prompting the king soon to declare them all destroyed. Far from being destroyed, the movement resurfaced, albeit fragmented, after the destruction of the staunchly Zoroastrian Sasanian Persian Empire. Mazdak remains one of the two patron saints of the populous Khushnow Kurdish tribe in central Kurdistan (Sykes 1908, 457).
Muslim rulers in their turn had to face and put down successiva waves of economically driven messianic religious movements originating in this same area of Jibâl (Arabic for "[Zagrosl mountains," i.e., old Media). The most important movement, that of the Khurramiyya, was led by religious and military leader Bâbak. The Khurramiyya believed in transmigration of souls, especially those of their leaders and religious figures. Bâbak and his followers, like Mazdak and the Mazdakites earlier, were known for their practice of communal ownership of all properties and means of economic production, and lack of social distinctions.
Simultaneously with Bâbak, whose headquarters were among the migrant Kurdish tribes in Azerbaijan, a Kurd named Nârseh (known to the medieval Muslim historien Mas'udi as "Nasir the Kurd"), led a Khurrami uprising in southern Kurdistan (the heartland of the Cult of Angels), which was finally put down under the 'Abbâsid caliph Mu'tasim. Muslim historien Tabari reports that about 60,000 of Nârseh's followers were killed by the Muslims, forcing the rest, along with Nârseh, to flee into the Byzantine Empire in AD 833 (see Medieval History).
The hallmark of the Mazdakites and the Khurramis was their use of the color red for their banners and clothing. They were thus called the Surkhalamân, "the people of red banners," or Surkhjâmagân, "the people of red cloths." This signature reappeared in the 14th and 15th centuries in another movement from among the followers of the Cult, when the Alevis came to be called the Qizilbâsh, or "the red heads," from their red headgear (see Alevism and Medieval History).
After its suppression under the early 'Abbâsid caliphs, an offshoot of Khurramiyya appeared in southern Iraq and later in Lahsâ or Ahsâ (modern Al-Ahsâ in eastern Saudi Arabia). These were called the Qarmatites, and shared with the parent movement the ideals of socioeconomic equality, as well as its cosmogony and theology. The medieval Ismâ'ili traveller Nâsir Khusraw records such practices of the inhabitants of Lahsâ as communal owi-iersffip of property and pointing to the connection between the old Mazdakite movement and Qarmatism. A hotbed of "schism," Lahsâ remains a predominantly non-Sunni region in the otherwise fanatically Sunni Saudi Arabia. The population is now reported to be mainstream Imâmi Sffi'ite, which may well turn out to be the same kind of inaccurate generalisation as that which classified the Cult of Angels itself as a Shi'ite Muslim sect.
In the 15th century, Muhammad Nurbakhsh, whose Sufi movement turned out to closely parallel the tenets of the Cult of Angels (see Sufi Mystic Orders), came from Lahsâ. In the early 19th century, another mystic from Lahsâ, Shaykh Ahmad Lahsâ'i, moved to Persia to lay the foundations for the Bâbi movement of the middle of the 19th century. A socioeconomic, messianic movement with striking similarities to the old Mazdakite movement, the ideas of Shaykh Ahmad (which were popularized by AliMuhammad Bâb), on which it was based, share at 12ast as much with the Cult of Angels as did the Nurbakhshi movement (see Bâbism & Bahâism).
All branches of the Cult, from the Mazdakites to the modern-day Alevis, have been commonly accused of sexual promiscuity. The Muslims believe they share their women at their communal religious gatherings. Even today the fiction of this notorious ceremony (called mum söndii, "candie blown out" in Anatolia, or chirâgh kushân, "killing of the lights" in Iran) is used by the Cult's Muslim neighbors to demean its followers. The accusation is levied against many other religious minorities connected in various ways to the Cult of Angels, such as the Ismâ'ilis in Afghanistan (Canfield 1978), the Alevis of Turkey (Yalman 1969) and Syria, and the Druze of the Levant (Eickelman 1981). Oddly, even scholars of the stature of Henry Rawlinson, Macdonald Kinnier, and G.R. Driver chose to believe rumors of this ceremony. Driver compares it with the oriental Bona Dea at Rome, and declares it even more shatneless (Driver 1921-23). Rawlinson states that, although he did not believe it was still practiced in his time (1836), he thought it had been until half a century earlier. He further adds that it must have been the remnant of the ancient worship of fertihty deities found in the cults of Mithra and Anahita, and also in the cult of Sesostris, which practiced the worship of genitalia. Kinnier claimed to have witnessed, if not actually participated in, one in 1818.
The followers of all branches of the Cult of Angels have ritual gatherings called lam, Âyini lam, or Jamkhâna (spelled (7emhane in Turkey), in a designated enclosure where holy scripture is recited, religious masters speak, and community bonds are renewed by the shaking of hands of all those present. Social equality is demonstrated by the forbidding of any hierarchical scating arrangements. The gatherings are closed to nonbelievers for fear of persecution, and the secrecy enshrouding the ceremony may have been the cause of the myth of communal sexual improprieties. The fact that women now are forbidden even to enter the Jamkhâna by some 6ranches of the Yârsân is a reaction to these accusations, even though it runs against the grain of Kurdish society and its traditionauy high status of women (see Status of Women & Family Ufe).
The minor Jam ceremonies occur once every seven days. The all-important major Jam occurs once a year, at different times for different branches of the cult, as discussed under their entries below.
In the Islamic era the religion has influenced and been influenced by many branches of Islam, particularly by the Shi'ism of the lmâmi (Twelver) and the Isma'ili (Sevener) sects. The most important and lasting contribution of the Cult of Angels to Islam, however, came at the time of the Qara Qoyunlu dynasty of eastern Anatolia and western Iran (1380-1468), as well as during the formative carly decades of the Safavid dynasty, beginning in AD 1501. The dynasty's founder, Ismâ'il 1, had strong Alevi sentiments, and in fact claimed to be an avatar of the Divinity. He is still revered by the Alevis as such, and as a Sâhabi Zamân, a living "Time Lord." It took many generations of Safavid endeavor to adjust to, and largely expunge, the elements of the Cult of Angels from their original religion. They did succeed, however, and the traditional, standard Imâmi Shi'ite Islam has since dominated Persia/lran. Nonetheless, every impartial report concerning the faith and practices of the carly Safavids points toward the Cult of Angels (Alevism in particular), and not Shi'ite Islam, as their religion.
To distinguish themselves from these non-Muslim "infidels," the mainstream lmâmi Shi'ites began from the start of the 16th century to refer to themselves as Ja'fari (after the 6th Shi'ite imam, Ja'far al-Sâdiq), instead of by their earlier, and cherished, title: the Shi'a. Shi'itesshort for shiat al-'Ali, is Arabic for "the party of Ali," Muhammad's son-in-law. Convinced that the names Alevi and Aliullâhi, Gy which these non-Muslim Kurds, and later Turkmens and Arabs, called themselves, are derived from the name of imam Ali (a notion fortified by the semi-deification of Ali, as one of the most important carthly avatars of the Universal Spirit, by two out of three branches of the Cult of Angels), the lmârni Shi'ites opted for the less-than-desirable, but safer title of lafari. By the time of the fall of the Safavids III 1720, this had become the almost exclusive title observed by mainstream Shi'ites, so real was their fear of association and confusion with the manifestly non-Muslim Alevis and Aliullâhis. To their chagrin, some Alevis in Anatolia began to embrace the name lafari in the 2Oth century, and have reported themselves as such to the Turkish census takers (see Table 5, Remarks).
The ability of the Cult to adapt and absorb alien religions through its belief in the transmigration and reincarnation of souls again reminds one of Hinduism. Indian Buddhism was absorbed by Hinduism when the latter declared Buddha to be yet another, albeit important, avatar of the Spirit, just as Vishnu, Shiva, and Rama are. Some Hindus did unsuccessfully claim such status for the Prophet Muhammad as well.
The "high-jacking" of Ali and Muhammad for a while seemed to have given the Cult the means it needed to absorb Shi'ite Islam from the beginning of the 15th century to the time of the Ascension of Abbâs the Great on the Safavid throne in AD 1588. His enthusiastic sponsorship of the mainstream lmâmi Shi'ite theologians, attracted from as far away as Medina, Lebanon, Mesopotamia, and Khurâsân, finally blew away the smoke screen of Ali-worship by the Cult of Angels. Abbâs' Islamic scholars codified and strictly delineated lmâmi Shi'ism within its traditional boundarics prior to the Cult's offensiva. The most important of these Shi'ite theologians, Allâma Majlisi, goes to great lengths to danin the followers of the Cult of Angels in his seminal treatise upholding traditional Shi'ism, Bihâr al-Anwâr. Despite all this, Shi'ism in its modern form bears the influence of the Cult in its rituals, specifically those that are considered the most offensive and unorthodox by the Sunnis. After all, it was under the sharp and punishing pressure of the Qara Qoyunlu and the carly Safavids (i.e., in their "Alevi period") that most Muslims of Iran and the Caucasus were converted from Sunnism. The later reforms and introduction of traditional Shi'ism after the 17th century never succeeded in doing away with the imprint of the Cult of Angels on the common practice of the religion. The Cult survives today in the radicalism, economic and social egalitarianism, and martyr syndrome of Iranian and Caucasian Shi'ism, but not so much of Iraqi Shi'ism. The inhabitants of what is now Iraq were mostly Shi'ite before the arrival of the revolutionary Alevis out of Anatolia and never converted to Alevism. Iraq was not, however, left unaffected by the Cult. It was another branch of the Cult, Yârsânism that had more peacefully been influencing Mesopotamia since the early days of Islam.
In words once interpreted as slander, but that now appear to have been true, the famous 15th century Sunni theologian, Sufi master, and poet, Abdul-Rahmân Muhammad Jâmi (in the Rashahât~i Jâmi) refers clearly to the "Shi'ites" he encounters in Baghdad as the 11 people of Dun ba Dun" (a fundamental relioous tenet of the Cult, denoting continuous reincarnation of the soul; see Yârsânism). Jâmi habitually respects the traditionalshi'ite Mushms of central Asia and his home province of Khurâsân. His great antagonism toward the "Shi'ites" of the western Middle East, including Baghdad, is demonstrated by his adamant refusal to call them Shi'ites, but instead Râfidi, i.e., "the apostates." This and the similarly hostile reception of western Shi'ism by the Sunni theologians of eastern Islamdom (who well tolerated traditional lmâmi Shi'ism), occurred at a time when the Cult of Angels was busily absorbing traditional Islamic Shi'ism.
The Shi'ite beliefs in many saints, the messiah, a living Sâhib al-Zamâm, "Time Lord," and the like, all naturally appeal to the followers of the Cult of Angels. The Cult embraces all such notions, except that of a messiah to come at the end of the world. It has not, therefore, been difficult for them to pass themselves off as Shi'ites if need be. Even today, some branches of the Cult of Angels comfortably declare themselves bona fide Shi'ite Muslims, despite the fact that their fundamental beliefs clash with the principles of Islam as set forth in the Koran.
The Cult contains an impressive body of cosmogonical and eschatological literature, which is best preserved in the Yârsân branch, and is discussed under Yârsânism. The number 7 is sacred in this religion, and is the number of heavens, the number of luminous angels (as well as of their opposing dark forces of matter), the number of major avatars of the Universal Spirit, the number of epochs in the life of the material world, and the number of venerable families that maintain a hereditary priestly office in the religion. At the heart of number 7 also lies another, more sacred but less often employed, number: 3, which denotes things pertaining to the almighty himself. These numbers of course are sacred, more or less, in many other religions and disciplines of Middle Eastern origin as well. We need only remember the Trinity in Christianity, and the veneration of the number 7 in traditional astrology. What is missing from the Cult of Angels is the veneration of the number 12, which is sacred to Judaism> Christianity, and Islam (e.g., 12 tribes of Israel, apostles of Christ, Shi'ite imams).
Fasting requirements in this religion are limited to three days' while prayers are required only on the occasion of the communal gathering of Jamkhâna. Dietary laws vary from denomination to denomination, but are lax, or rather vague, at best. Alcohol and ham, for example, are often permitted because they are not directly prohibited in the scripture.
The Cult is fundamentally a non-Semitic religion, with an Aryan superstructure overlaying a religious foundation indigenous to the Zagros. To identify the Cult or any of its denominations, as Islamic is a simple mistake, born of a lack of knowledge of the religion, which pre-dates Islam by millennia. Even though there has been strong mutual impact of the Alevi and Yârsân branches of the Cult and Shi'ite Islam, it is equally a mistake to consider these branches as Shi'ite Muslim sects, or vice versa.
The causes of this common mistake are several, but most important is the high station of Ali, the first Muslim Shi'ite imam, in both Yârsânism and Alevism. Through the elevation of Ali to status of primary avatar of the Spirit, Alevism and Yârsânsim have earned the title Aliullâhi (those who deify Ali) from their Muslim neighbors. The ongoing practice of religious dissimulation-like the Muslim taquiyah-has been also an important factor in confusing outsiders. The Cult's past attempts to absorb Shi'ism thro'ugh pretensions of a shared identity have also confused many a hapless historian. As extremist Shi'ites, or ghulât, was how the embarrassed Muslim neighbors of the followers of the Cult used to identify them. Today, if asked, most Muslims would readily call Cult followers (with the exception of the Yezidis) Shi'ite Muslims of a "peculiar" kind.
The dwindling number of followers of the Cult over the past 4 centuries, coupled with the religious dissimulation of their leaders, who have openly and persistently called the Cult a Shi'ite Muslim sect, have relegated the question to the realm of unimportance for Muslims. The exception is, perhaps, the Kurdish Muslims themselves, whose persecution of Cult followers in the 19th and early 2Oth centuries Was instigated by the fame- and follower-seeking, demagogue Muslim mullahs. These Muslims alone have kept up the pressure on Cult members (see Early Modern history)
Unlike many major religions, the Cult facks a divinely inspired, sin le holy book. In fact the avatars of the fact such a book would have been out of place, given the multiplicity of the avatars of the Spirit, and the fact that revelation and reincarnation are an on-going affair in this regenerative religion. Instead there are many venerated scriptures, produced at various dates, in various languages, and covering various themes by holy figures in the Cult. In fact Nurali llâhi, himself a minor avatar and the author of the most recent "holy scripture," the Burhân (see Yârsânism), passed on in 1975. Lack of a single holy book has not by any means hindered the Cult from developing a most impressive cosmogony, catechizes, eschatology, and liturgy, which are shared with minor variations in all denominations of the Cult to this day.
Good and evil are believed by the Cult to be equally important and fundamental to the creation and continuation of the material world. The good Angels, are therefore, as venerable as the bad ones, if one may call them so. In fact, without this binary opposition the world would not exist. Cold exists on] y because there is also its opposite, warm; up is what it is only because there is also down. Good would cease to exist if evil ceased to balance its existence. "Knowledge" and "awareness" in man exist only because good and evil exist in equal force, to be used as points of reference by man to comprehend and balance his being. Good, traditionally represented by the symbol of a dog and evil by the symbol of a serpent, join each other in a dog-headed serpent to represent the embodiment of the act of world creation: the mixture of ether and matter, good and evil, and all other opposites that make up this world. Some reports by European travellers of the late 19th and early 2Oth centuries regarding the veneration of dogs by the Alevis, if true, may point to worship of the symbol of good, since there is plenty of evidence of veneration of the symbol of the serpent (and hence evil) in the Yezidi arts, particularly at their shrines in Lâlish (see Yezidism).
The symbol of a dog-headed serpent finds its precedent in the Kurdish art of the Mannaean period of the 9th century BC. Side-by-side representation of the dog and serpent symbols is already well-known through the ancient Mithraic temple art from England to Iran.
The Cult does not believe in a physical hell or heaven, filled with devils or angels to come at the end of time. The horrors of hell and pleasures of paradise take place in this world as people reincarnate after death into a life of bounty and health or conversely into one of misery and destitution, depending on the nature of the life they lived within their previous body. At the end of time, however, only the righteous and complete "humans" who succeed in crossing the tricky bridge of final judgment (Perdivari) will join the eternity of the Universal Spirit. The failed souls will be annihilated along with the material world forever.
The Cult's belief in the figurative nature of hell and heaven is shared prominently by many Sufi orders, but particularly those that have come under the influence of the Cult (see Sufi Mystic Orders).
In addition to their attempt to absorb Shi'ite Islam, in the past thousand years, the followers of the Cult of Angels went through a period of successful proselytization of the Turkmens of Anatolia and the Arabs of the Levantine coasts of the eastern Mediterranean. There are also notable groups of Azeris, Gilânis, and Mâzandarânis who follow the Cult (Table 5).
It must be noted, however, that not all non-Kurdish followers of the various branches of this religion are just foreign converts. While most non-Kurdish followers of the Alevi branch of the Cult in Anatolia are actually Turkmen converts, the Arabs of the southern Amanus mountains and the Syrian coastal regions are in large part assimilated Kurds who inhabited the region in the medieval period. The same is true of the followers of the Cult in Azerbaijan, and in Gilân and Mâzandarân on the Caspian Sea, most of whom are the descendants of assimilated Kurds who have lost all traces of their former ethnic identity short of this religion (see Historical Migrations and Integration & Assimilation). The multilingualism of the sacred works of this religion may be the result of a desire to communicate with these ethnically metamorphosed followers of the Cult, and to convey the Word to all interested people in the tongue most native to them. This practice is also found in the Manichaean (now extinct), Druze, and Ismâ'ili religions, all of which have had strong past contact with the Cult of Angels.
In the past the religion has also lost major communities of adherents: almost all the Lurs have gone over to mainstream Shi'ite Islam, while the population in Kurdistan itself has become primarily Sunni Muslim. The Laks are fast following the suit of the Lurs. This religious change seems almost always to parallel a change in language and lifestyle among the affected Kurds. The Lurs went from various dialects of Gurâni Kurdish to Persian, an evolved form of which they still speak today. Most of the agriculturalist Kurdish followers of the Cult of Angels switched from Pahlawâni to Kurmânji and its dialects when converting to Islam. Except for the Mukri regions around the town of Mahâbâd, the area now dominated by the South Kurmânji dialect of Sorâni (see Language) was a domain of Yârsânism and the Gurâni dialect until about three centuries ago (see Historical Migrations), while the domain of North Kurmânji was primarily that of the Dimilj language and Alevi faith until the 16th century.
At the turn of the century, 33-40% of all Kurds followed this old religion. The proportion of the followers of the Cult converting to Islam has slowed down in this century, and now about 30-35% of all Kurds follow various branches of the Cult. More statistics are provided below under relevant denominations of the Cult.
The followers of the Cult have been the primary targets of missionary work, particularly Christian. Christian missionaries 'began work in Kurdistan on various denominations of the Cult as early as the 18th century. These produced the earliest Kurdish dictionaries, along with some of the earliest surviving pieces of written Kurdish, in the form of translated Bibles (see Literature). The missionaries have traditionally found these Kurds (who were mostly agriculturalists) more receptive to their works than the Muslim Kurds (who were mostly pastoralist nomads). Even today, the Primary focus of the Christian and Bâhâ'i missionarics remains the Kurds following the Cult.
By Dr. Mehrdad R. Izady, "The Kurds, A Concise Handbook"