The Circle of Ancient Iranian Studies
Zoroastrian Religion in Disguise
By: Noshir H. Dadrawala
Malek Taus, the peacock angel
Since some time, certain individuals have been regaling the community in India and abroad with colourful stories about "millions" of Zoroastrians in Kurdish area and Tajikistan.
In the Bombay Samachar of March 21, 1993, Dr. Pallan R. lchaporia had stated, "Recent research has revealed that even among those who called themselves 'Izedis/Yezedi', the faith is a mixture of extremely corrupt form of Zoroastrianism (can hardly be recognized as the Zoroastrian religion) and the other alien religious beliefs... if some insist on believing that there are Zoroastrians in the Kurdish nation, they are welcome to live in the dream world."
Supporting lchaporia's views, the Editor had stated, "All in all, it is advisable for the Zoroastrians to concentrate upon their own community in India, U.K. and U.S.A."
But who are the Yazidis (also spelt Yezidi, Azidi or lzdi)'?
'The Encyclopaedia Britannica 1986' explains : "The Yazidi religion is a syncretic combination of Zoroastrian, Manichaean, Jewish, Nestorian Christian and Islamic elements. The Yazidi themselves are thought to be descended from supporters of the Umayyad Caliph Yazid 1. They themselves believe that they are created quite separately from the rest of mankind, not even being descended from Adam, and they have kept themselves strictly segregated from the people among whom they live. Although scattered and probably numbering fewer than 1,00,000, they have a well-organized society, with a chief shaykh as the supreme religious head and an amir, or prince, as the secular head.
The chief divine figure of the Yazidi is Malak Taus ('Peacock Angel'), worshipped in the form of a peacock. He rules the universe with six other angels, but all seven are subordinate to the supreme God, who has had no direct interest in the universe since he created it. The seven angels are worshipped by the Yazidi in the form of seven bronze or iron peacock figures called sanjaq, the largest of which weighs nearly 700 pounds.
Yazidi are anti-dualists; they deny the existence of evil and therefore also reject sin, the devil, and hell. The breaking of divine laws is expiated by way of metempsychosis, or transmigration of souls, which allows for progressive purification of the spirit. The Yazidi relate that when the devil repented of his sin of pride before God, he was pardoned and replaced in his previous position as chief of the angels; this myth has earned the Yazidl an undeserved reputation as devil worshippers. Shaykh Adi, the chief Yazidi saint, was a 12th century Muslim mystic believed to have achieved divinity through metempsychosis.
The Yazidi religious centre and object of the annual pilgrimage is the tomb of Shaykh 'Adi, located at a former Christian monastery in the town of Ash-Shaykh 'Adi, north of Mosul. Two short books written in Arabic, Kitab al-jilwah ('Book of Revelation') and Mashaf rash ('Black Writing'), form the sacred scriptures of the Yazidi, and an Arabic hymn praise of Shaykh 'Adi is held in great esteem."
According to the 'Encyclopaedia of Religion and Ethics': "The name of Yezldis has been given to a religious sect numbering about 50,000 persons, scattered from Mossul to the Caucasic region (districts of Mossul, Van, Diarbekr, Bitlis). They call themselves Dasni and speak a Kurdish dialect.
"At the head of the community is a khalifah, who is a descendant of Shaikh Adi. Under him are shaikhs, kavvals, and faqirs. Priesthood is hereditary. Morality is above the average in that part of the world. They are brave and shrewd. Their temperament is cheerful but calm. They have cleanly habits. Their women are not veiled and may receive strangers. They feel great repulsion for the colour blue. Being completely illiterate, they handed down their traditions orally. Their greatest festival is on 10th Aug., when a procession of flagellants takes place in the village of Ba'adri. There is the grave of their great saint, Shaikh Adi ben Musafir, who died in A.D. 1155. All around fires of naphtha and bitumen are kept burning.
"The origin of the word Yezidi been much discussed. Most probably it is related to Av. Yazata, 'deity,', Pers. Yazdan, 'God'. It was given to them in contrast either to the Zoroastrians or to the Muhammadans. Although their priesthood is of the Muhammadan type and they recognize Muhammad and Abraham as prophets, they are far from being a Mubammadan sect. Nor are they Nestorians, although they have baptism and regard Christ as an angel in human form. In fact, they perpetuate with various admixtures a doctrine of the Magian type, combining Iranian and Assyrian elements. Their cult of fire is Iranian. They profess that the devil is a creative agent of the supreme God, inasmuch as he produced evil. Hence he deserves our adoration.
"The Yezidis say that God made the world beautiful. Then Malik-Taus appeared before him and said that there could be no light without darkness, no day without night, and accordingly he caused night to follow day."
Dr. R. C. Zaehner in 'The Hutchinson Encyclopaedia of Living Faiths,' considers the Yezidi faith as an "aberrant form of the Sufi movement".
Joseph T. Parfit writes in his book, 'Marvellous Mesopotamia', "The Yezidees or 'Devil-worshippers' inhabit a number of unkempt villages near Mosul and in the Sinjar Mountains. They seem to belong to a Kurdish stock, and speak Kurdish as well as Arabic. There are probably some forty thousand Yezidees in Mesopotamia and six thousand in the Caucasus. Their headquarters are at Sheikh Adi, a weird place North-East of ancient Nineveh. They have many excellent characteristics, though they are profoundly ignorant and superstitious... It is hardly correct to call the Yezidees 'Devil worshippers', for they all believe in a great God who created the universe; but they pay deference to the 'Prince of this world', lest they should suffer his vengeance. They avoid the use of words that begin with the same letter as Satan's name, and instead of using the common Arabic words for the devil, they speak of him as the 'Prince of Darkness', 'Lord of the Evening' or the 'Exalted Chief'. Many of the Yezidees practise baptisms; they make the sign of the cross, and kiss the threshold of Christian Churches."
The Kurds today are an oppressed people, but there was a time when they were the oppressors. Rev. W. A. Wigram and Sir Edgar Wigram in 'The Cradle of Mankind - Life in Eastern Kurdistan' (1922') write, -The Arabs though equally keen robbers, were not found such practised butchers as the Kurds".
Joseph Parfit in 'Marvellous Mesopotamia - The World Wonderland' adds, "Kurds are generally vicious, heartless, cruel and cowardly to the last degree... they are robbers and murderers pure and simple... The Kurds for the most part are destitute of religious belief,,,, but as nominal Mohammedans, they were permitted to be armed by the Turks, who finding it impossible to subdue them, caused them to be enrolled as irregular cavalry and practically confided to them the duty of robbing and enslaving their Christian neighbours."
Coming back to the Yezidis, Wigram and Wigram write, "The Yezidis or 'Devil Worshippers' congregate principally in the vilayet of Mosul. 'Devil worshippers' they are indeed, for they themselves do not scruple to admit that the being whom they seek to propitiate is actually identical with the 'Sheitan' of the Christians and Moslems and Jews. But, fortunately for the morals of the neighbourhood, their homage stops short of imitation. Theirs is a religion of faith, and not of works. They are under no obligation to make evil their good according to the boast of Milton's Satan, but only to 'respect the great place' of their divinity, and see to it that he is sometime honoured for his burning throne.... The Yezidis form one of the recognized 'millets' or subject religious sects, existing in the Turkish empire. But recognition in their case by no means implies toleration. They are universally abhorred as outcasts - almost as untouchables... the Yezidis possess no systematized religion woven by some great teacher into one harmonious whole. They make shift instead with a bewildering agglomeration of superstitions pieced together into an amazing patchwork.... The Yezidis believe in a Supreme Being - Yazdan, the most high. But to him, they pay no worship. He is the Lord of Heaven and takes no account of earth. From his name in all probability, they derive their own appellation of Yezidis; though the Moslems (or at least, the Shiites) declare that they inherit it from Yezid ibn Mo'auriya, the murderer of Hosein, and see in it an additional argument for persecuting them."
According to Yezidi belief, from Yazdan emanated 7 great spirits, of whom Malek Taus was the first and most powerful. To him was committed the creation of the world, and the governance of it for 10,000 years of which 4,000 still remain to run. Malek Taus is an evil and a fallen spirit; but not fallen beyond redemption. He is a sort of celestial Absalom - vicious, tyrannical, rebellious, but secure of ultimate pardon and rehabilitation. Shall there not at length come a time when the Chief of the Archangels shall be restored to his first pre-eminence? And will he not then be mindful of the poor Yezidis, who alone of all mankind never cursed him in his disgrace?, is every devout Yezidi's belief.
There is something distinctly quaint in this picture of a reclaimed Satan, still cherishing a faint grudge against those who denounced him in his unregenerate days.
The Yezidis have a regular hierarchy of seven orders of Priesthood. They hold a great annual feast at Sheikh Adi in October; which is continued for eight days, and is attended by all the faithful who can come. Pilgrimage to Sheikh Adi is incumbent on every Yezidi, but he is not commanded to pray, and he leaves that duty to his priests. Fasting can also be performed by deputy, and a group of Yezidis will select one of their number to do all their fasting for them, confessing to him the acts which need expiation and paying him a capitation fee for carrying out the corresponding penances.
E. S. Stevens in his book, 'By Tigris and Euphrates', describes the shrine of 'Sheikh Adi' (the holiest place of worship for the Yezidis) as follows, "The courtyard before the entrance contains various small buildings and mulberry trees through which the sun casts chequered patterns on the facade. The door is to the extreme left of the wall, which is interesting on account of its curious magical signs cut in low relief on the stones, the principal being the great vertical snake, carefully black-leaded. to the right of the doorway. Pilgrims kiss this emblem of Satan. Within the temple is dark, dirty and shabby... the floor is greasy, with drippings from the oil lamps. On the north side of the temple a chapel, which they call Sheikh Hassan, contains an arkshaped chest or tomb, entirely covered with draperies and from this, again, a low door communicates with a second chapel in which is the tomb of Sheikh Adi himself."
The Chermera temple (40 Men) on the highest peak on the Sinjar mountains in northern Iraq.
Picture taken by an American Soldier from the 334th Signal Company, 3rd Brigade, 2nd Infantry Division, April 2004
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