Thursday, September 06, 2007

Yezidism: Historical Roots


Kurdistan, the cradle of ancient civilizations, has seen many races, people, religions and cultures during the past few thousand years. From the beginning of classical history two old-world civilizations, Aryan and Semitic, met, formed bonds, and were mutually influenced on the soil of Kurdistan. To a lesser or greater extent, they left their marks on this soil, particularly in the religious beliefs of the people of Kurdistan.

Along with the religions that came from outside, notably Christianity, Islam and Judaism, those native to Kurdistan continue to exist on Kurdish soil. Yezidism, Yarsanism and Alewism still have large numbers of adherents and defenders. To better understand the history and culture of the people of Kurdistan, it is imperative to conduct research into these religions. Unfortunately, to date, such research is all too rare.

Scholarly study of the Yezidis began in 1850 when German Scholar Dr. August Neander read a paper on Yezidi religion at the Prussian Academy of Science. (1) Thereafter, many books and commentaries on the topic were published; but to this day it is not clear when and on what foundations Yezidism came into existence.

Yezidis believe their religion to be ancient and to predate Islam by at least a thousand years. Although some foreign scholars maintain that Yezidism began with Sheikh Adi and view him as its founder, no Yezidi accepts this claim. In fact, Yezidis believe that prior to accepting Islam, all Kurds belonged to Yezidism. Here I examine the basis of this conviction.

Today most Kurds believe that before accepting Islam, Kurds were Zoroastrians. Spread by Kurdish intellectuals and continuing to gain credence, the belief is predicated on the following: Zoroastrianism is an Iranian religion; the Kurds are also Iranian. Therefore their pre-Islamic religion must be Zoroastrianism. In addition, it is easier for Kurds, the majority of whom are Muslim, to accept the belief that their pre-Islamic religion was Zoroastrianism rather than Yezidism.

In line with its belief in people of the Book, Islam does not recognize Yezidism as a religion. Moreover, the negative view of Muslims with regard to the Angel Peacock--who in the religion of the Yezidis is second only to God--has been the cause of conflict between Muslims and Yezidis for a thousand years or more. Consequently, the belief that Kurds were Yezidis prior to the advent of Islam has not been accepted by most Muslims. Undoubtedly, a significant reason for the refusal to recognize Yezidism as the ancient religion of the Kurds is that there are no significant studies on Yezidism. Along with foreigners, most Kurds know virtually nothing of its foundations, nor do they know what Yezidis hold sacred. The study of Yezidi history and religion and the clarification and dissemination of its belief system would serve to facilitate understanding, thereby rectifying the causes of hundreds of massacres and deportations.

Between the 8th and 9th centuries BC, Iranian tribes settled in today's Kurdistan. They were followers of Aryan and Indian religious beliefs. According to Kurdish scholar Taufiq Wahbi, their main deity, which symbolized the good and the wholesome, was Baba Asman. He was the counterpart of the Indian god, Diyaus Pitar. (2) Secondary gods (sun, moon, stars) were called "Diva" or "Divas," i.e., those that give light.

Zoroastrianism was for hundreds of years the reigning religion and exerted considerable influence on the Kurds and their beliefs. But I believe that while some Kurds in the east accepted Zoroastrianism, the majority did not. They remained faithful to their own ancient religion.

R. Reshid writes that during the 6th century BC, Zoroastrianism spread to the land of the Medes, but did not become dominant because already in place was an indigenous and powerful religion preceding Zoroastrianism. (3) Later, when Zoroastrianism gained strength, those who remained faithful to the old religion were called "Deva Yasna," meaning the "Slaves of Dew." According to a number of Kurdish researchers, with some variations "Deva Yasna" has survived among the Kurds. The word "dasni," which is the name of a tribe of Yezidi Kurds and was the name of a Yezidi principality, is a variation of "Deva Yasna." (4) Throughout history all Yezidis have been called "dasini." It is evident that the dasinis were at some stage dispersed throughout a large area. A.H. Layard writes that there is a tribe called dasini in the mountains near Silemani [Sulaimania in south/Iraqi Kurdistan]. (5) It is likely that the name "dewperest" [dew-worshippers; many regard "dews" a degree below angels], which is used to refer to some Yezidis, comes from that era.

In the "Zend Avesta," dews are called "diva" in Pehlevi [or Pahlavi, people from which the fallen Shah of Iran claimed lineage] language. In Semitic languages the word "Seyd" like the word "diva" becomes "seydan" among many people. (6) It is evident that when Zoroastrianism was spreading, the people of the Median Empire, who were called "dewperest," were able to defend their religion and did not accept Zoroastrianism. Later the name "dewperest" among the Semitic peoples and the leaders of religions that accepted the principles espoused by the Semites became "seytanperest" [Satan-worshippers]. It became convenient for the Zoroastrians to equate the name of Risti Vega-Azhi-Dahak, the emperor of the Medes, with evil. Wahbi is of this belief. The evil king "Zohak" in [Persian poet] Firdousi's epoch story "Shahname" is Azhi Dahak. (7)

According to Zoroastrian legend, god would stop the flow of water through cities, leaving residents with no alternative but to sacrifice selected maidens. Then god would restore the water flow. (8) Later, they depicted god as a serpent. This is the source of the Yezidi practice of swearing by the yellow serpent. To the Yezidis, Azhi Dahak does not represent evil. They have not accepted Zoroastrian religious beliefs.

Nikolay Marr, an expert on the east and the Kurds, maintains that Yezidism is a distinct religion. "Here we see the remnants of an ancient religion, an original one," he writes. (9) Although some researchers, Qanate Kurdo, for example, (10) note that fire and hearth are sacred to the Kurds, some scholars view this sanctity as a remnant of Zoroastrianism (11). However they forget that in the religion of the Yezidis, fire and hearth are sacred as well.

According to Wahbi, during the 4th and 5th centuries AD the majority of Kurds east of the Zagros, Cizir, Botan, Kirkuk, and those in the mountains of southeast Kurdistan were not Zoroastrians. (12) We see that the people of the Medes' Empire, whom we regard as the ancestors of the Kurds, were not Zoroastrians. Moreover, the last emperor of the Medes, Rishti Vega-Azhi Dahak, killed Zoroaster, ruled his followers and overthrew Vishtaspa. His army reached the southwest of Afghanistan. During that attack, the army of the Medes inflicted cruelties on Zoroastrians. No doubt this explains in large measure why the Zoroastrians equated the name Azhi Dahak with oppression and cruelty.

In the Persian language large serpents are called dragons. Dragon is the name given to the emperor, Azhi Dahak. It is linked to Newroz as well, for the name of the cruel ruler is Dahak. Three years later, in 549 BC, the founder of the Akkadian Empire, Cyrus the Great, grandson of Rishti Vega-Azhi Dahak, conquered the capital city Ekbatana and put an end to the Median Empire. Because it was three years or so after the attack by Azhi Dahak, it is not far fetched to assume that on this occasion the Zoroastrians took revenge on the locals and forced the angel-worshippers to pack up and leave.

The name of the Median Empire has not remained in history. Moreover, it has been forgotten by its own people. The religion of the Medes was supplanted by three religions emanating from it, which remain to this day: Yezidism, Yarsanism and Alewism.

M. R. Izady surmises that the name of that religion was Yazdani, but he is not 100% convinced. (13) Nevertheless, in his research to differentiate it from Yezidism, he uses the name. Both names refer to angels. The name might have been Yazdani, but it could also have been Yezidi. To differentiate between the two, I will call the religion of the Median Empire Yazdani.

Undoubtedly, over the past thousands of years and owing to significant changes introduced by Sheikh Adi, neither religion could have remained intact and unchanged. Nevertheless, they have much in common. The foundation of Yezidism is that there is but one God, with neither partner nor equal, and seven angels headed by Angel Peacock. Among the Yazdani sects of our day, Alewis and Yarsanis, beliefs are founded on the worship of seven angels.

Yezidis believe in the shedding of one's skin, that purity comes from pure skin. This belief also existed in the Yazdani religion, wherein those who come out of pure skins are called "Bab" or "Baba." (Baba is an Aramaic word, meaning gate. Baba is the gate where 'truth' manifests itself.) This name has survived to our day among the Yezidis; for example, Baba Sheikh, Baba Qewal, and Baba Chawish. Those unfamiliar with the meaning and origin of the word "Baba" confuse it with the word "Bav," which means father. They say Bave Sheikh, Bave Qewal, Bave Chawish. But this is incorrect. As mentioned above, when the Iranian tribes arrived in today's Kurdistan during the 7th to 9th centuries BC, their supreme deity was called Baba Esman.

Like the Yezidis, Yazdanis hid their religious beliefs from foreigners. But neither has ever harbored animosity toward other religions. They believe that God sends a new prophet for each era to teach humans the correct path, to protect themselves from evil. Therefore, the appearance of new religions has an auspicious purpose: keeping them from that which is false and that which is evil. Though the Yezidis and Yazdanis share the belief that from time to time a new prophet emerges to protect humanity, the religions are not always known by the name of the prophet. The Yazdani religion has absorbed beliefs from other religions, new denominations have emerged from within it, and over a thousand years it has undergone major changes. Yezidis easily adopted the beliefs and interpretations of Sheikh Adi and his disciples. However, it becomes apparent that having done so, the religion did not remain the same. Nevertheless, Yezidi religion harbors no animosity toward new religions.

Throughout history the color red has been a symbol for Yazdanis and their denominations. In Yezidi religion, it is said, "Religion is the religion of the red Yezidi". When a Yezidi boy is circumcised, he is required to say, "I am a lamb of the red Yezidi". The Yezidi New Year is celebrated on "Red Wednesday." Among the Yazdanis there was a weekly celebration of "Cam" followed by the major annual celebration of "Cam." According to Pir Xidir e Sileman, before the attack of the Prince of Rewanduz in 1832, Yezidis held a weekly "Cam." Sheikh Rostem says that Friday is the get-together day for men. (1414) The name of this annual Yezidi celebration appears in two forms: Cam and Cum.

He too believes that "Cam" was a weekly event. But in recent years only the large annual celebration is held during the time of the Yezidi pilgrimage. Both Yezidis and Yazdanis fast for three days, as do Yarsanis and Alewis. Like the Yezidis, Yazdanis have no holy book.

Among Yazdanis, the dog symbolized the good, and the serpent symbolized the bad. The serpent with the head of a dog symbolized progress. Depictions of dogs and serpents appear on the walls of Holy Lalish [the Yezidi Holy Temple in south/Iraqi Kurdistan]. On the other hand, Yezidis do not view the serpent as a symbol of the bad. Quite the contrary; the serpent commands respect because a serpent saved the boat of Nu Nebi from sinking. In fact, Yezidis believe that killing a serpent is sinful.

According to Yazdani belief, the good and the bad are of equal importance in the material world and are fundamental to its existence. Yazdanis believe that one is not possible without the other. If there is no cold then there can be no warm; if there is no low then there can be no high; if there is no darkness there can be no light. In this belief we find the seeds of Hegel's dialectics.

There was no hell and no heaven in physical form among the Yazdanis. Today, the belief in heaven and hell exists among the Yezidis, but it is not fundamental to their religion. The Yezidi believes that the souls of good men go first to heaven and then return in other good men. After complete purification, the soul joins God, but does not go to heaven. Apparently this belief in heaven and hell became a part of the Yezidi belief system following changes introduced by Sheikh Adi. But they are not essential. Like the Yazdanis, Yezidis hold sacred the numbers 7 and 3. In both religions, drinking alcohol is permissible.

I believe that these examples from the religions of the Yazdanis and the Yezidis, which are essential beliefs, provide evidence that both religions have the same origin. Even if the Medes were not Yezidis, the Yezidi religion originated in their empire and therefore represents a branch of the empire's religion.

There is an interesting belief about Prophet Zoroaster. Sheikh Dewresh Kelesh would say that Zoroaster was a Yezidi who left us. When he returned we did not accept his religion. It is evident from Iranian history that Zoroaster came from the people who lived around Lake Ourmiya. He remained on Mt. Ararat for two years and then returned to his people as a prophet preaching a new religion. He spent ten years recruiting converts among the people around Ourmiya, but his efforts drew only one person to his beliefs. Finally, he went to the Persians, among whom he found fertile ground for his teachings. This lends credibility to the claim that the sayings of Sheikh Dewresh are not baseless.

The similarities between Yezidism and Zoroastrianism are numerous. Moreover, contrary to the writings of some scholars, Yezidism did not emanate from Zoroastrianism. Zoroastrianism originated from Yezidism. Before Zoroaster became the prophet of a new religion, he was either a Yezidi or belonged to Yezidism.


(1) Neader, A., Uber die Elemente, aus denen die Lehran der Yezidies harrorgegagen zu Sein scheinen. Berlin: Wissenschaftliche Abhandlugen, Berlin, 1851, pp. 112-39.

(2) Wahbi, Taufiq, Dini caranay kurd. Baghdad: Kov. Gelawej, N 11-12, 1940, pp. 51-52.

(3) Reshad Sebri Reshid (Reshad Miran) Etnokonfessionalnaya situasiya v sovremennom Kurdistane. Moskva-Sankt-Peterburg: Nauka, 2004, p. 16.

(4) Mehmed Mesud, Risalek li risali zimanekeman. Baghdad: Kovari Nusari Kurd, No. 6, 1986.

(5) Layard, A.H., A Popular Account of Discoveries at Nineveh. New York: J.C. Derby, 1854, p. 206

(6) Nebez, Cemal, Saricdanek li mitolociyeyi kurd. Stockholm: 1986, p 53.

(7) Wahbi, Taufiq, Li nawcuni madakan kirdareki din bu, kov. Gelawej, 1940, N 8 Bexda, p. 35.

(8) Yahiya 'Ebdulxani' Eli, al-Imlak zu al-ruus al-sab'a, (dewe hevt seri), kov. Karwan, 1983, N13, Hewler, 121-130. (Me ev jederk ji pirtuka R.S. Re Oid, Etnokonfessionalnaya situasiya v sovremennom Kurdistane, 'Nauka' Moskva-Sankt-Peterburg, 2004, p. 66, hildaye

(9) N. Marr, YeOco o slove celebi., ZBOPAO, XX, Sankt-Peterburg, 1912, p. 189.

(10) K.K. Kurdoyev (Qanate Kurdo), Kurdi. Moskva: Narodi predney Azii. 1957, p. 252. (In Russian)

(11) Reshad Sebri Reshid, p. 18.

(12) Wahbi, Tawfiq, Dini carani kurd, Kovara Gelawej, 1941, jim. 11-12, p. 67

(13) Mehrdad R. Izady, The Kurds; A concise Handbook. Washington: Taylor & Francis, 1992.

(14) The name of this annual Yezidi celebration appears in two forms: Cam and Cum.

By Tosine Reshid


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