Iraqi Yazidis have been in the news lately, and not pleasant news. Back in April, Yazidis beat and stoned a 17-year-old girl to death because she had a Muslim boyfriend. Shortly after, gunmen forced a bus to empty out and separated the Christians from the Yazidis, killing all 23 Yazidis, apparently in retaliation for the earlier incident.
Then, on August 14, four fuel-laden trucks driven by suicide bombers blew themselves up in a pair of Yazidi communities, killing perhaps 400 people and wounding countless others. It is believed that this crime was committed by al-Qaeda followers. You may recall that President Bush claimed that Saddam Hussein was in cahoots with Osama bin Laden, a bizarre comment on its face, as Hussein was politically secular, but the invasion of Iraq has inspired al-Qaeda to enter the fray to kill Americans and their allies. Bush’s false claim has become reality.
But who are the Yazidis? It has been estimated that they comprise 2% of the Iraqi population, with considerably smaller numbers in Syria, Turkey, Armenia, and the West, particularly Germany. Total figures for the world vary up to as high as 700,000. They are primarily Kurdish-speaking.
Their religion appears to have its origin in Sufi Islam, but it has incorporated a wide variety of very different beliefs and is no longer Islamic. Their God created the world but gave all power over it to seven angels, chief of whom is Melek Taus, or Shaytan. While his name is the same as Satan in the Qurr’an, he is not like that Satan, for he encompasses good and evil. Allied with him is the Sufi saint Shaykh Adii. Yazdis have no hell.
Reincarnation plays an important part in the religion. As in Hinduism, one is rewarded or punished for behavior by ascendancy or demotion in the next life. As well, the angels and other revered figures are reborn from time to time as Yazidis.
Yazidis have a caste system, and marriage outside one’s caste is forbidden, as is marriage to a non-Yazidi. Yazidis live as much as possible in separate communities and try to minimize contacts with outsiders. The religion is inherited, and literacy is forbidden to the large lay caste. The religion is supposed to be secret from the rest of the world, and conversion to the faith is not possible.
Most Yazidis are not well informed about their faith, but they are aware of its taboos and rituals, though some of these may be seen as optional. Some observers speak of five prayers a day, others of three, and still others of two, and these may perhaps be optional. Lettuce is taboo, but it may be that some violation of that taboo may be tolerated. Yazidis share with Muslims and observant Jews the taboo on pork. Infants are baptized, and circumcision for boys is optional.
It appears that, as well as the Muslim elements, their beliefs also show the influence of some Christian sects, Judaism, Manicheism, and Zoroastrianism. Caste and reincarnation suggest a Hindu influence as well. Many Muslims see Yazidis as devil-worshippers because they pray to Melek Taus (Shaytan). As a result, they have frequently been a target of hostility and violence over the centuries.