Religion and Theology
Peoples and Cultures
I sometimes get enquiries concerning the Yezidi people, associated with the Kurds in most sources waned current commentaries. Some are puzzled when they cannot find the name Yezidi on a list of peoples.
The Yezidis (also spelled Yazidis) may not show up on a peoples list, because they are a religious sect. The ones I know of are mostly Kurds, but there are Yezidis of other ethnicities also, according to various sources. (Refer to some of the linked websites at the end of this article.) One Yezidi has declared to me that all Yezidis are Kurds. Other declare the Yezidis are not Kurds in any way (even though the language of many is one of the Kurdish languages).
The Yezidis are one sect of a group of religions called The Cult of the Angels, or Yazdani. The word Yezidi also appears as Yazidi and the religion is referred to as Yezidism. Yazidi is obviously one form of the name Yazdani. Yazdan is also the Yezidi name for the Supreme Being.
There are two other major sects of the Yazdani. Most widely known is the Alevi or Alawi (from the name Ali), also called Nusayri (from the name Nazareth, related to Jesus as one of the avatars of the deity), or Qizilbash (meaning "Redheads," from a warrior group in medieval times so called because they wore red headdresses.
The Alevi are quite well known, because most of the Dimila (Dimili) Kurds are Alevi. The Arab Alawi in Syria are a branch of the same Alevism, Alawi being the Arabic form of the word and Alevi coming from the Turkish pronunciation.
The ethnicity and language of the Dimila and the religion of Alevism are associated with the group of over one million in Turkey, with perhaps that many more living in Germany. Some sources indicate a majority of the Kurds living in Germany are Dimila. Sources are uncertain of the total, but possibly 2.5 million total Dimili (Dimili) speakers in both countries.
Kirmanjki speakers also are Alevi, and are said to be the largest single ethnic group of Kurds outside traditional Kurdish areas. Figures are quite uncertain for the Kirmanjki.
Some commentators note that the "Alawi" (Arabic focus) and the "Alevi" (Turkish focus) are not the same. And there is reason behind this. Though the terms are language variations of the same root term, the particular sects called by each variation are not identical.
There is a lot of internal variation among the associated communities in this and related questions. There is further confusion among those who attempt to understand and interpret in a Western mode of thought and classification. Real Life is more subtle and mixed in usage and designation than western analytical thinking would prefer.
The term Nusayri for the Syrian sect appears to be used by or apply only to this Arabic-language group, and not to the Alevi Kurds.
Here are some links that might be of interest, where the terms are overlapping or used interchangeably:
Site Name: Alevi Akademisi; Target audience: Alawi-Bektashi and other interested parties
Headline: Alawi Islam; Topic: Alevis in Turkey
Another is Yarsani, or Ahl-i-Haq, meaning People of the Spirit. The word haq (hak) here is not from the Arabic haqq, meaning truth, but from the ancient Kurdish/Median word haq, meaning Universal Spirit.
You'll find these names in discussions of the Kurdish peoples, and sometimes they are used like an ethnic name, as are several of the small traditional or Islamic sects of the Kurds. Additional terms, also sometimes used by less-careful Western observers as ethnic names, refer to specific schools or spiritual disciplines of worship within these sects. One of these is Bektashi, associated with the Alevi.
Attempts to come to some clear standard for classification for academic purposes are complicated by factors such as the mix of languages, ethnicities, changing military and political alliances, sub-sects named after a certain avatar or ethnic leader at some point on history, and the rivalry between Kurdish clans. Often they have taken on another divine "avatar" (Bab) as an accomodation to the political pressures of another military or ethnic power.
Shia or Not?
Because they honor Ali as a deity or an avatar of the deity, some class these as sects of Islam, but they are eclectic traditional religions of the Kurds, which borrow freely from other religious motifs. Their relations with Shia, as well as Sunni, have more often been antagonistic. The various Cults of the Angels have been persecuted by both the Shia and Sunni through much of their history.
Yazidi history is rife with persecution by various Muslim authorities and communities. they have suffered greatly in the years of upheaval since the American and British invasion of Iraq. They seen to be under particular pressure from the dominant Kurds, allies of the western invasion forces, who are reported to be committing atrocities against the Yezidis. They are not accepted as Muslims.
The root of all these Cults of the Angels is Zoroastrianism, and various ones have added influences from various regions over the centuries. Some Kurds are still Zoroastrian also.
The Yazidi/Yezidi are intriguing. I have contact with one Yazidi leader in Ontario who is an advocate for the Yazidi communities. They undergo great discrimination and persecution, to the point of death, in northern Iraq currently. I have had some contact with other Yazidis but not on an ongoing basis. The community is generally secretive. I have not been in the Yazidi villages in Iraq personally, but have had secondary contact through others who have lived in the region.
I have had trouble getting direct sources from Yazidis themselves. Sources appear then disappear on the Internet. I search again periodically to see what new sources might be out there.
Texts and Clergy
Sources comment on a primary text called The Black Book. One book from 1911 is now available online which references two Yazidi source texts called Al-Jilwah (The Revelation) and Mashaf Reš (The Black Book).
It seems that the primary religious authorities are personal, embodied in holy men, referred to sometimes as priests (pirs, pyirs) or wandering preachers (kawals), similar to the Sufi preachers from Yemen who walked all over eastern and northern Africa and the Sahel in the 1700s and 1800s.
Sources comment on soothsayers or "seers," as you find in most traditional cultures of Asia. These are referred to as kocheck. These more formal servants in these three roles seem to be supported by what we might call "laymen," who participate in the broader communities as workmen or businessmen, a called murid, who contribute financially to the support of the three other classes. I am unsure of details. I gather this is a fairly informal and voluntary arrangement, but "enforced" by a dynamic high expectation in the Yazidi community.
This is an elusive feature. There are similarities to the Sufi communities, but my impression is that the Yezidi don't separate worship from home and community. I want to see if I can get more specific information on this.
The categories of "religion" and "culture" as in the west don't seem to apply, as is true for most Asian and African peoples. The culture entails the religious identification, concepts of God and worship. I am not even sure if they have separate public houses of worship, especially in places like Northern Iraq where they are commonly persecuted by the Kurdish militia.
Rules for Living
The Yezidis have a quite esoteric concept of both the seen and the unseen world. I have not found references to rules for living. On the other hand out of the whole esoteric approach to reality, the concept in Yezidism, as in many tribal religions, is lifestyle.
I have reviewed my set of correspondence with Yezidis in different countries, and other documents and sources I have collected. Nothing clarifies the specific rules for living. A good article on the Yazidi in Wikipedia discusses their purity rituals and taboos.
The whole of life in encompassed by their beliefs and concepts, including conduct. But conduct seems not to be seen in terms of external rules or prescriptions, but in terms of relationships and social or familial obligations. This is a common patterns among concrete relational cultures. It is not the type of system which is published externally, but is kept within the group, nurtured and fostered generation to generation.
This is not really so unusual, in that worldview concepts in African traditional societies are not spelled out objectively either. The knowledge about the universe and life are conferred by experience is relationships throughout a person's life. Knowledge about such background, and the spirit world especially, is usually the domain of only the deepest layer of the society, who guard this precious knowledge as a duty.
What is known about the Yezidis, however, is fascinating, and has attracted a lot of interest and makes us want more. But this information is elusive, apparently by design.
In terms of "religion," the Yezidi approach to life, definitely, then falls into the category normally entailed by the term Religion in Western academic terms. But it is not institutional or contractual as in the western concept of A Religion. It is rather, as one Yezidi correspondent commented, something you are born into, you cannot be converted into Yezidism.
"Penalties" for enforcing good behavior seem to be related to acceptance or shunning by the community, as is very common among traditional, relational peoples and their religious concepts. It seems not to be based so much on observance as on allegiance and identity.
It is frustrating to deal with this as with other secret society religions. The Druze system is similar, and also incorporates much pre-Christian and pre-Islamic character.
The Yezidi beliefs are somewhat known, but a basic characteristic of the culture/religion is secrecy. This makes it hard to obtain objective information. Even a great scholar like Mehrdad Izadi has expressed frustration at the sparsity of information.
You can see this in his opening section in his article on the Yezidis. As he comments in this document, most of what can be learned deals with theories of the metaphysical world. Even this cosmogony, he comments, is hard to get.
Those Yazidis who state they are not Kurds likely are indeed from other ethnic backgrounds. Self-distinction by ethnicity will likely be determined by the language spoken. There are many Arabs involved in the non-Islamic and semi-Islamic sects of Syria, Turkey and Iraq.
You will find in the materials of even the Yazidis that there is disagreement on whether they should be classified as Kurds or not. This is because as a religious sect they have members from several ethnicities. The trends in nationalism and tribalism seem to shift frequently in the region.
I have some classification notes on my article about the Kurds on this website:
The Kurdish Peoples
Look under the column Religious Sects Associated with this People. The populations in this chart are not definitive. These were included only for comparative purposes as a helpful feature in identifying the ethnic groups. I have not tried to update them. The chart is illustrative of the ethnicities and language-religious mosaic of the Kurdish grouping of peoples.
Yazidis are sometimes classed with Zoroastrians, as they have retained from ancient times or re-borrowed some practices and concepts from the Zoroastrians. The name comes from the ancient city of Yazd in Iran, which still has an operating Fire Temple.
Others tie the name Yazidi to an old Avestan word yazata for "angel." It may be helpful to note here that the name the Yezidis use for the Supreme Being is Yazdan.
Yezidis would not be classified as Muslims except by a long stretch, though they accept Muhammad as one of the avatars of the deity. There are a lot of small semi-Islamic sects in "Kurdistan" and areas of the related countries which are not accepted by Sunni or Shia Muslims. Some are loosely associated with Shia. The sect of Yezidi is based on scriptures written in the 12th century by a Sufi mystic Sheikh Adi.
I once received an enquiry from a Kurd asking why I had left out the Yezidis. I did not discuss them in my analysis. He seemed satisfied when I replied directing his attention to the notations in the religious classification associated with the various ethnicities.
You'll find lots of Internet links of Yazidis, or Yazdis or other phonetic forms. There is also much in print on them, with some comment in works on the Kurds. I include links to key resources below.
One enquirer wrote, "You have mentioned 'Yazdani' Kurds. Is correct word 'Yazdani' or 'Yazidi' (I came across this in some writings)?"
I discuss Yazdani above as the general name for all the sects of the Cult of the Angels. Yazdani, and some other forms he mentions, are all forms of the same word, from the various languages. You will find various forms used and preferred in sources referenced in English from Kurdish languages, Turkish or Arabic sources. This is a religious designation, and is sometimes used in sources the same way the ethnic terms are used. Check the links below for more information.
Religions and Ethnicities
A researcher of my acquaintance reports that in a meeting in 2003 relating to Iraq, a discussion arose about a people group living around the Mosul area and referred to as "Yazidis." There are supposed to be about 1 million of them.
Just at the time I heard that, I had seen a news item about Yazidi people near Mosul, Iraq. They are referred to as a community in some news items, cultural references and other sources. The population of 1 million mentioned by some sources appears to refer to the Dimli, or Zaza, Kurds, who are Alevi.
Some lump the Yezidi and Alevi in one group, even interchanging the names. Much of this problem is due to Western writers trying to slot each name they know of into some standard Western categories of easy classification.
Sometimes sources use these names like ethnic names, sometimes like religious sect names. Sometimes this seems to be due to lack of awareness of the complexity of the matter, and in other cases it appears to be an honest difference in perspectives between sources.
It is often hard to separate ethnicity from religious identity. Western writers often seem not to be aware of the relationship of ethnicity to religion. A general tendency to over-simplify the situations may add to the confusion. The problem is already complex enough with the biases from secondary Arabic, Turkish or Iranian sources, with the terms and categories they use from the outside looking into the Kurdish communities.
Kurdish or Not?
I found that the Yezidi sect in that area was associated with Kurdi (Sorani) as indicated in my Kurdish chart, but I have a suspicion that they are multilingual and some have other mother tongues. One Yezidi contact in Canada (Ottawa) declares that all Yezidis speak Kurmanji and none Sorani. He also states that all Yezidi are Kurdish (personal communication July 2005). He further states:
Yezidi Kurds live mainly in Shangal region of Iraqi Kurdistan around Mosul and Duhok, Efrin and Qamishlo cities in Kurdistan of Syria, Weransehir, Merdin, Midyat, Batman, Diyarbakir, Sirnax in Kurdistan of Turkey and Armenia, Georgia and Russia.
On the other hand, I got a differing report from another Canadian Yezidi correspondent. This man wrote me by email from London, Ontario, Yezidi Community Centre to declare that "the Yezidis are NOT Kurds neither Arabs. By both the Religion and the Ethnicity the Yezidis are Yezidis." He references the statistic that 82% of the attacks against the Yezidi community has come from the Kurds (personal communication May 2006). This source conducts a world advocacy campaign for persecuted Yezidis. (He further avers that there are no Yezidis in Ottawa.)
Sources indicate that the Yezidis of Armenia have rejected their association with the Kurds:
Due to the ethnic tension created by the war with Azerbaijan, the Yazidi community has renounced its ties with the mostly Muslim Kurds that fled the country and tried to establish itself as a distinct ethnic group. The Yezidis showed Armenian patriotism during the Nagorno-Karabakh war when many died in service [Wikipedia]
Ethnicity as an Assertion of Uniqueness
This viewpoint is found in some Yezidi sources, as well as Dimili, where the uniqueness of a minority religious community is expressed in ethnic terms. This focuses on the community's sense of unity and uniqueness in self-identity, not necessarily on their language or historical or genetic origin. In the last three decades, this has become a more common manoeuver worldwide to overcome the persecution experienced by minority religious or ethnic groups in many countries has become to exert the claim for their ethnic (and thus usually their political) independence.
An interesting fact in this regard is that in history worldwide, the greatest fighting, ethnically or religiously, has been by closely related groups. For example, in the religious wars of Europe, the English government and majority religious group fought English minority religious groups, though all were English. The Lutherans did not come to perceive themselves as a separate ethnicity from their Germanic tribes. They remained German, Danish or Swedish. But there came to be a new level of separate identity around their new religious convictions and community.
Often, however, there is an ethnic component in religious difference. You see one version of this in the modern Mormons in Utah. And all ethnicities of the world are mixed and derived in some way. Thus there is an ethnic component in most religious categories. Some communities will emphasize their difference as a unique distinguishing characteristic, depite similarity in language or custom.
Ironically, the persecution and discrimination can create or enhance a new sense of unity and separate identity, actually strengthening the resolve of the oppressed community. This has the effect of casting them more in the role we usually consider "ethnicity." We see this in the declared self-identity of the Yezidi community in Canada associated with the London Yezidi Community Centre. For whatever reasons, this does not seem to be the case with the community or family associated with the other Yezidi source in Ottawa.
Like these two differing sources from different Yezidi families or communities in Canada, you will find differing expressions of the uniqueness of the Yezidis in contrast to their non-Yezidi neighbours: Arab, Kurd, Canadian or Iraqi. Different Internet Yezidi sources express different views on ethnicity in regard to the religious identity of Yezidis.
Some Arab sources in Iraq and print sources report that the Yezidis are Kurds, others report they are not. I have also seen both assertions from various Yezidi sources. Syria and the former Iraqi government have attempted to divide Kurdish power by declaring Yezidis to be a different, separate ethnic group from Kurds. As discussed above, some Yezidis are more comfortable with a separate ethnic, as well as religious, identity.
The Ottawa Canadian correspondent reports that Armenia also has an aggressive policy of differentiation, reportedly even funding Yezidi radio programs (personal communication). During 2007, this correspondent has circulated news stories, including photos, of bombings in Iraq specifically targeting Yezidi communities. Various sources also report oppression, including military force by Kurdish militia, against the Yezidi communities in northern Iraq.
This is one of the vague and fuzzy aspects of the complicated concepts of identities and ethnicities (often further complicated by politics) and studies of them in that region. Fascinating and frustrating. If Iraq ever stabilizes, perhaps some current surveying and updates can be done by specialists.
Also Related on this website
Christians and Other Minorities Under Fire in Iraq
The Kurdish Peoples
Qizilbash: Names and Designations in Ethno-Religious Identities
Sumerians, Arabs and the Invading Coalition
Yezidis, Kurds and Zoroastrianism
Yezidi on the Internet
Alawi Islam; Topic: Alevis in Turkey
Alevi Akademisi; Target audience: Alawi-Bektashi and other interested parties
The Ancient City of Yazd
The Black Book
Devil Worship: The Sacred Books and Traditions of the Yezidiz, by Isya Joseph (1919)
Mehrdad Izadi - Wikipedia
Yazidi - Wikipedia
The Yazidis — Islamics and Middle East Area Studies
Yazidis and Religious Restrictions in Iraq
Yezidi Dreams Dashed in Iraq
Yezidi Identity Battle in Armenia
Yezidi Online Magazine – Denge Ezidiyan
Yezidi Religious Tradition
Yezidis in Armenia - Wikipedia
Yezidism - Mehrdad Izadi
Written and posted 08 June 2005
Extensively updated 11 September 2007
Revised 15 March 2013
Last edited 2 February 2014
Copyright © 2006, 2011 Orville Boyd Jenkins
Permission granted for free download and transmission for personal or educational use. Please give credit and link back. Other rights reserved.