The Yazidis, a People Who Fled

The religious minority is once again threatened by genocide in Iraq. What happens to a faith when it's forged in persecution?
Rodi Said/Reuters

Last week, tens of thousands of Yazidis fled from the northern Iraqi town of Sinjar into nearby mountains, escaping violence from the Sunni militant group that calls itself the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, or ISIS. Their plight—stranded, and dying of hunger and thirst—prompted the United States to conduct airstrikes against ISIS, in the first major U.S. military push in Iraq since 2011. Suddenly, international attention has turned to this tiny faith group, whose estimated population ranges from 300,000 worldwide to 700,000 in northern Iraq alone.

Western media outlets have focused on the idiosyncrasies of the faith, like adherents' supposed fear of lettuce and pumpkins, and refusal to wear the color blue. And supposedly, the religion is syncretic, meaning that it incorporates elements of many different faith traditions, including Christianity, Islam, and Zoroastrianism. 

Philip Kreyenbroek, a professor at Germany's University of Göttingen who has written several books on Yazidis, says these characterizations of the religion are only partially true. "They have very ancient roots," he noted. Although it's difficult to determine exactly how old the religion is, scholars believe the Yazidis were one of the Indo-European peoples who lived in ancient Mesopotamia. Around 3,000 B.C.E, when other groups migrated east to India and Iran, the ancestors of the Yazidis stayed and settled in the area now known as Kurdistan. 

Although "they believe in an absolute god who is responsible for everything that happens in the world, good or evil," which in some ways resembles the Abrahamic conception of God, their faith is actually rooted in an older tradition: "Basically what they believe is in a much older divinity called Mithras," an ancient Indian and Iranian god, Kreyenbroek said. Yazidis also believe the world is guarded by seven angels, the most important being Melek Taus, or the peacock angel.

Starting in the 11th century, these ancient beliefs took on new forms. "Some say these messages became less comprehensible in the 11th century, when a Sufi mystic sought solitude in the mountains [of northern Iraq]. He was so charismatic that all these people who followed non-Islamic religions followed him," Kreyenbroek explained. This was Sheikh Adi ibn Musafir, a practitioner of mystical Islam, whom the Yazidis venerate as a holy figure.

The Yazidis began "using Islamic words and concepts to refer to their ancient beliefs," Kreyenbroek said. They also practice rites like baptism in water, which may or may not be drawn from cultural encounters with early Christians. But these overlaps are largely superficial—Muslims don't consider Yazidis to be a "people of the book," or one of the Abrahamic religions of Christianity, Judaism, and Islam.

The Yazidis also hold many beliefs that aren't found in Abrahamic religions. "They shouldn't wear the color blue," said Kreyenbroek. "Some people say they can’t eat fish, a lot of people say they can’t eat lettuce, and some people say pumpkins as well.” But most people don't follow these rules strictly, he added—they're mostly limited to priests, or perhaps more orthodox Yazidis like those who live in Sinjar.

The origins of these beliefs are unclear. “The word for lettuce, for instance, in Arabic—the Kurds don’t speak Arabic, naturally—but when they speak Arabic, they don’t differentiate sounds, and the word for cursing, which is taboo, and the word for lettuce, are very similar. I’ve always suspected that this has something to do with it,” Kreyenbroek said. Others have linked this belief to the 13th-century execution of a Yazidi saint, who was pummeled with lettuce. (It's worth noting that Kreyenbroek is one of the few scholars in the world who studies the Yazidis, but he still went out of his way to say that a lot is unknown about the faith. Even as the ancient religion faces extinction, we still don't understand it very well.)

Since Yazidis are not a "people of the book," "they [are] not protected in Islamic law," Kreyenbroek pointed out. And "they [are] thought to be devil worshipers—and there is nothing as horrible and unclean as devil worshipers."

This is why ISIS is so intent on eliminating the group—and why the international community is so concerned about a genocide against them, said Birgül Açıkyıldız Şengül, a professor at Turkey's Artuklu University who studies Yazidi art and culture. "It’s not the same as ... with the Christians or the Shia Muslims," she said. The Yazidis "are not considered a religion." 

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Emma Green is the assistant managing editor of TheAtlantic.com, where she also writes about religion and culture.

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