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Yazidis, an ethno-cultural minority between myths and geopolitical interests

Updated: May 23, 2022

by Adele Casale

Abstract


The Yazidis are one of the most affected minority by recent ISIS’s abuses, war crimes and crimes against humanity.


But why them?


It might seem a trivial question, but it is not, because the faceted answer lies in the complex multicultural context of the Middle East. This analysis tries to investigate some of the root causes for ISIS’s atrocities examining the main cultural traits of an isolated population through some Iraqi geographic and historical frameworks. The goal is not to justify ISIS’s crimes, rather to highlight the features of this complex context, explain all the different claims about the topic and understand the core reasons behind this situation.


1. Introduction


Native of northern modern Iraq, the Yazidis[1] have recently drawn the attention of the International Community since they have been one of the main victims of ISIS’s operations between 2014 and 2015.

Why the Yazidis?


Infidels responsible for the occupation of most of the fertile and strategic lands[2] of al-Rāshidūn (632-661), the Yazidi people are surrounded by a mysterious and impenetrable aura linked to their geographical location and some cultural aspects imposing endogamy. Probably this is one of the main causes at the root of their isolation, earning them the reputation of "Devil Worshippers". However, it is important to bear in mind that they are nestled in the Middle East vast multi-ethnic arena, where factional interests, rivalries and alliances based on cultural identities shape the main local geopolitical dynamics. Only by analysing this complex system, it is possible to retrace the Yazidi cultural and historical identity, to try to see past the simple narration of executioner-victim.


There is no intention to deny the aberrant atrocities perpetrated by the Islamic State; the purpose is rather to shake off simplistic and decontextualized interpretations.


This analysis focuses on those geographical, historical, and cultural aspects defining their specific identity in relation to some, mostly local, geopolitical, and geostrategic interests.


Some guiding notes for the readers. The writer is aware of the historical and political circumstances of some of the sources consulted, especially concerning less recent ones; therefore, each data has been processed with a critical approach taking into account the instruments of analysis and knowledge gained so far.

Source PICHON, E., CLAROS, E., Minorities in Iraq. Pushed to the brink of existence, European Parliamentary Research Service Author, 2015[3]

2. The Yazidis between history and geography


The Yazidis first settled in modern southeast Turkey, in northern Syria, in the Caucasus area and in some parts of Iran, but their root are to be found in the current Governorate of Ninawa, in Kurdish northern Iraq, which comprises Mosul. Furthermore, religious literature due to the interweaving of historical and geographic circumstances, traces the Yazidis roots back to the Jebel Sinjar area called Jazīrah. There lies the place said to be the rescue point from the Biblical Flood. The area is characterized by the presence of a mountain range extending between the Khabur River in northern Syria and the Tigris River. The mountaintops are a strategic outpost since they ensure control over the plain located between Sinjar and Mardin. They tower over the surrounding southern dry and rocky steppe lacking waterways, which contributed to the isolation of local populations. The Jebel Sinjar internally is instead fertile and rich in water sources fed by the annual rainfalls fostering rain-fed agriculture on the low hills of the Southeast. Since 1975, semi-nomadic farmers and breeders have been forced to relocate into mujamma'at [4] created by the Baathist government, to prevent them from supporting separatists from the Kurdish Nationalist Movement. Due to these forced displacements, traditional productive activities have been mostly lost.


According to the latest data, the Yazidis number between 200,000 and 1,000,000 (updated data between 2019 and 2020) [5], currently the majority of the Yazidis of the Sinjar are displaced in refugee camps in the provinces of Duhok, Erbil and Sulaimaniyah, and on the mountain itself, although rebuilding the villages destroyed by ISIS is still not possible[6]. The topography of the territories where they live partly explains the isolation that shaped the Yazidi cultural identity; moreover, the resources of the area are among the reasons that led to the persecution of these communities, in every era, yesterday as today.

Yazidi groups in the Middle East. Source https://www.yazidiculturalheritage.com/wp-content/uploads/2019/11/13_Fig.3-Distribution-of-Yazidi-in-the-Near-East.jpg

While there is unanimity on the historiography of the geographical areas of reference, the ethnic origins are more debated. "It is very likely that the sources attribute this denomination [Yazidis] to at least two (but perhaps more) groups, one more ancient than the other"[7].


The first one traces its origins back to the Umayyad rule, after the rule of al-Rāshidūn (632-661), the “Rightly Guided Caliphs”, when the differences within Islam began to emerge as the result of different political interpretations. More specifically, during the Caliphate of Damascus under Yazīd II ibn 'Abd al-Malik between 720 and 724, and then under Marwan II, of Kurdish origin, between 744 and 750 promoting some mystical interpretations.

Source: personal notes from the class of Arab Muslim History and Institutions by Professor Anna Bozzo between 2008 and 2010 at RomaTre University

Instead, sources from the 12th century[8] mention another Yazidi community emerged in Mosul, simultaneously with the foundation of the tarīqa ʿAdwiyyah, whose first zawiya was founded by Sheikh 'Adī (1078-1162/63), in Lālīsh, where his tomb lies, among the places of utmost devotion for the entire community[9].


Through the tangle between historiography and myth, through images and key traditional places, and the cult of saints[10], it is possible to trace the historical path of Yazidism. Founded in the 13th century, Yazidism is the main source of inspiration for the community. From the 13th century, taking advantage of internal struggles, Yazidism spread especially among Kurdish groups, conquering Mount Sinjar first under the leadership of Sheikh Hasan (about 1196- 1249/54), and then reaching Sulaimaniyah, Antioch and south-eastern Turkey, between Diyarbakir and Sīrt. It grew until it became the official religion of the independent princedom of Jazīrah at the end of the 14th century[11].


The geographical expansion happened simultaneously with the political and religious empowerment to the point that during the 15th century, Yazidism began to be perceived as a threat by the Muslim Ottomans. Moreover, the isolation and outward closure of the Yazidi communities fostered their reputation as tax-evading brigands reluctant to serve the community, as they tended to decline the military service. These conflicts lead to several clashes, and the consequent reduction in the number of Yazidis due to the killings and forced and/or voluntary conversions.


With the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, the Yazidi people was involved in the internal disputes exacerbated by the expansionist ambitions along borders, especially in the Transcaucasia. However, the Yazidis remained a separate ethnic-religious group, considered as apostate by most of their neighbours, as a group on the fringes of society, although they were fighting to obtain the same political rights as the Jewish and Christian communities as ahl al-dhimma.


At the end of the First World War, with the Treaties of Sevres (1920, never entered into force) and Lausanne (1923) the Yazidi are incorporated in the newly born British Protectorate of Iraq and later, in 1931, they are recognized as part of the Kurdish region of the country.


In the same year, after the end of some internal struggles between the clan leaders and the Sinjar inhabitants, more authority and autonomy over religious matters are enshrined in the Sheikhan Memorial. This document is important for the internal social and political structure and for the consolidation of powers of the mīr family. They became a point of reference for the Yazidis of the Caucasian diaspora first, and for the Germans after the mid-20th century, since the independence of Iraq in 1932. Finally, during the Ba’athist governments in the 1970s, together with the Kurds[12], they became targets of massive campaigns of Arabization, compounded by the Gulf War (1990-1991). Massacres and forced migrations led to a religious and identity revival as part of the cultural and literary tradition, strengthened in turn by ISIS persecutions.


3. Geopolitical interests and cultural identities


The Yazidis speak predominantly Kurmanji, a northern Kurdish dialect[13], used only as a liturgical language among some of the Arab-speaking Yazidi communities. This people recognize itself as Ēzid, Ēzī, or Izid.


Many ritual rules are immutable; others follow different traditions depending on the region. The daily prayers mark everyday life. There are no traditions involving public liturgies, but pilgrimage to Lālīsh at least once in a lifetime is mandatory.


Gnosticism, Manichaeism, Hindu, Christianity, Zoroastrianism, Islam, and in particular Shiism and Sufism, between orthodoxy and heterodoxy[14], are the main religious and philosophical strands that originally influenced Yazidism. These influences are to be found in numerology for example. God is one and unique, but he is not interested in human affairs, for this reason, He has appointed Seven Angels, heavily involved in human societies and politics. Seven is also the number of the shuyūkh spiritual leaders, reincarnations of the Seven Angels, and progenitors of the main Yazidi clans. The Peacock Angel, in particular, with its highly symbolic connotation of immortality, rebirth and union of opposites[15], embodies the link between God and human beings. He rules over all others, as part of the Yazidi Trinity. God manifests himself in three forms: young Sultan Yazīd II; elder Sheikh 'Adī, Melek Tā'us, Peacock Angel. His cosmic egg is at the basis of the genesis of the Yazidi people.


Although, both Christianity and early Islam consider the peacock as a symbol of eternal life – especially in Islamic tradition it is depicted in funerary architecture, on textiles or on metal and ceramic objects – and in the Ottoman period, it is deemed as the bird of Paradise, to this day, its figure is ambiguous. Identified with evil and Satan in Middle eastern cultures, the cult of the peacock is one of the reasons earning the Yazidis the reputation of "Worshippers of the Devil", a stigma fed by the isolation of these communities and the endogamy dictate prescribed by the Sacred Texts[16].


However, the whole Yazidi community must aspire to purity; in this sense, the transmigration of souls is considered the result of a path of spiritual purification. At the same time, a series of obligations and prohibitions minutely preside over daily life, they concern certain culinary ingredients and foods, clothing costumes and the use of certain words. No one, for example, is allowed to pronounce neither the name of Satan, Shaytān, nor other phonetically assimilated words. Furthermore, a series of prohibitions and permissions regulate the daily life of the faithful, juxtaposing them to those deemed as the infidels, who are therefore ignored by Melek Ta 'us, just as they have ignored Him in the past. For this reasons, Sacred Texts such as the Kitāb al-Jilwah and the Mishefa Rēsh discourage external contacts.[17].


“Before all creation this revelation was with Melek Ta'us, who sent 'Abd Ta'us [God] to this world that he might separate truth from error and make truth known to his particular people…” first by oral tradition, and after by this Book, the Kitāb al-Jilwah (probably written by Fakr ad-Dīn, taking dictation by 'Adī in 558[18]) . People outside the community can neither read nor see the Text.This rule has the purpose to protect the tradition from changes. The content of the other Sacred Books (i.e. Jewish, Christian and Muslim Sacred Texts) has been altered. For the same reason the Yazidis were illiterate until a few decades ago: the social hierarchy, prescribed by the same Text, is reflected in the access to information and sources, which is not equal for everyone[19].


The highest rank of the political-religious hierarchy is occupied by the hereditary office of mīr in Sheikhan[20], and by the members of his family. He is the political head and the defender of the faith, while the religious authority is represented by the baba sheikh, which is also a hereditary office, but is appointed by the mīr. Each caste corresponds to one or more specific clan, linked in turn, to the even Angels and their saint descendants, mediators between natural phenomena and God. The headquarter of baba sheikh is located in the inner courtyard of the sanctuary of Sheikh 'Adī at Lālīsh and he presides over all ceremonies and rituals helped by the pesh imam, also appointed by the mīr. The castes of believers constitute the disciples; they are the majority of the population and the upper class’ means of livelihood.


The Kitāb al-Jilwah is followed by the Mishefa Rēsh, (written in 743). It is the Book of cosmogony before the creation of Adam first, and then Eve. The quarrel between the two for the parental primacy over the human species, gives rise to the division between Yazidi, originating from Adam, and the other political and religious communities, less prestigious descendants of Eve[21]. The genealogical line is described in detail up to the ancestors of the three political-religious castes still relevant today. The descriptive rigor aims at gathering ethnic groups with different tribal origins under a single religious identity to manage specific political and economic interests.


The Text explains also how the Yazidi communities were persecuted by Jews, Christians, Muslims, and Persians: "...they fought us, but they could not subdue us, because in the strength of the Lord we prevailed against them"[22]. Historical events, peoples, conflicts, linguistic-cultural aspects are tackled under a mythological interpretative light both in academic versions and more folk sources to display the Yazidi identity by detachment from the religion of Muhammad and from the rest of the multicultural cosmos of the region. Making aversion to them a cultural identity topos, underlines the difference between "us", descendants of Adam, and "them" descendants of Eve.


4. Conclusion


In conclusion, the dogmatization of the origins of the Yazidis and their related interests lays in the complex framework of the Middle East. The cultural aspects are declined in religious and political entanglements characterizing the Yazidi ethnic identity, a dynamic that involves the political Islam of ISIS itself.


In light of the above, it is possible to "flatten" the moral judgment to leave room for the geopolitical and geostrategic motives of the players involved, starting precisely from their traditions and historical identities. This paper under no circumstances tries to deny the atrocities and pain caused to the Yazidi communities by ISIS, its goal is only to avert dichotomous and simplistic narratives, and allow the reader to better understand the different actors involved and their interests.


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[1] Here "Yazidi" is used as both an adjective and a noun. All these expressions, according to most scholars, refer to a Middle Persian etymology meaning "God". Other less widespread hypothesis would derive the name from the Persian city of Yazd, cradle of Zoroastrianism, or from Umayyad caliph Yazid II. For the purely linguistic commentary reported below, I shall thank Massimiliano Nima Lacerra, Iranianist and analyst for the MENA area of the AMIStaDeS Study Center. Yazida = yazata “worthy of worship”, or “God”, still found in the Avesta, the Zoroastrian sacred book. (Probably published during the Sasanian reign of Sapore II 309-379. https://www.treccani.it/enciclopedia/avesta/ ) with the same meaning. The name of Yazd, the city, has the same root [2] The maps https://gulf2000.columbia.edu/maps.shtml give an overview of the different reasons why ISIS has persecuted the Yazidis. In addition to the will to cleanse the lands of the Caliphate of infidels, those territories have great geo-economic and geo-strategic interests [3] Latest information found https://gulf2000.columbia.edu/maps.shtml. The diagram is an overview of Iraq minorities; data are to be considered in light of the constantly changing conflicts and exodus. [4] Collective villages in the Iraqi Kurdistan region, built for the Yazidis in the south and in the north, away from the mountains, their native environments. Their properties were confiscated, their villages destroyed. [5] It is unclear whether, to date, a census with clear results has been carried out. Iraq passed the law on census in 2019. https://gds.gov.iq/the-cabinet-approves-the-amendment-of-the-census-law-and-the-draft-law-for-female-yazidi-survivors/ Furthermore, there are many reports drafted especially by NGOs such as Amnesty International on the Yazidi communities victims of ISIS, but no aggregate data were found, other than those mentioned documents. [6] Only 15-20% of the refugees were able to return to Sinjar. The southern part of the region has suffered the most from ISIS occupation: almost all the villages have been destroyed and mines have been scattered in the territory. PICHON, E., CLAROS, E., Minorities in Iraq. Pushed to the brink of existence, European Parliamentary Research Service Author, 2015 [7] For a comprehensive debate cf. CONTE, R., Alcune considerazioni sulle origini dei Yazidi o Yezidi, 2015 and related bibliography [8] In the Kitāb al-Ansāb, genealogist ‘Abd al-Karīm al-Sam‘ānī (1113ca – 1167ca), talks about the Yazīdiyya community settled between the Tigris and the Great Zab (a tributary of the Tigris that originates in Turkey), next to Jebel Maqlūb, in the Hulwān area north to Mosul. The area from here, until the Lālīsh valley and Bashiqa, together with the Sinjar, is inhabited by several ethnic clan or tribal groups coexisting [9] Hence the Sufi origins. Indeed, Sheikh ‘Adī is a pupil of famous Qādir al-Jīlanī, founder of the tarīqa Qadiriyya, among the most widespread in the Arab-Muslim worlds. Sheikh 'Adī's was among those supporting his choice to retreat to the Kurdish mountains where al-Jīlānī had many followers, mostly supporters of the Umayyad dynasty, which in turn was a supporter of the mystical ways of Islam. However, under the leadership of Sheikh Ḥasan, Yazidism began to break away from orthodox Islam, although details about this process are unknown [10] The cult of saints among the Yazidis is linked to illness treating, natural phenomena and animal behaviour, and it is celebrated in sacred buildings, temples and mausoleums. According to strict interpretations of Islam, the cult of saints is comparable to polytheism, even though the traditions referring to these cultic practices are innumerable and widespread in every corner of the Arab-Muslim world [11] In addition, the Mongol invasions were a source of great concern in the 13th century. They promoted the expansion of Yazidism even in current Syria and Egypt [12] For further detail cf. L’Identità Plurale dei Curdihttps://ilbolive.unipd.it/it/news/curdi-chi-sono-siria-erdogan-turchia [13] Kurdish dialects are part of the Iranian languages, as also confirmed by Massimiliano Nima Lacerra, Iranianist and analyst for the AMIStaDeS Study Center for the MENA area. For further detail vd. CONTE, R., Op. cit., 2015, p. 2 [14] ISYA., J., Yezidi Texts (Translation), The American Journal of Semitic Languages and Literatures, n° 2, Vol XXV, January 1909, p. 118 [15] It is a bird from India, known in Mesopotamia from the end of the 8th century BC, also depicted on plaques in Sasanian buildings. [16] Widespread testimony from many travellers, missionaries and Western diplomats in Middle East since the time of Napoleon's campaign in Egypt between 1798 and 1801. For an insightful reading on Western exploration, especially French and Francophone, and the Yazidis, see BIBO DARWESH, S., POINDRON, P., Voyageurs Français en Pays Yézidi, du XVIIe au tout début du XXe Siècle : Les Récits de leur Périple, leurs itinéraires et leurs Observations, Journal Asiatique, Peeters, 2018 [17] Respectively, the Book of Revelation and the Black Book. In this paper, the author decided to preserve linguistic originality according to the limits of the concessions allowed by transliteration. [18] The entire text was first published in 1895, and it comprises vast literary tradition. For further details, see ISYA., J., Yezidi Texts (Translation), The American Journal of Semitic Languages and Literatures, n° 2, Vol XXV, January 1909, pp. 112 e seg., and also notes 1 e 2 ; and https://www.yazidiculturalheritage.com/ [19] Consideration from ISYA., J., Op. cit.,1909, p. 111 [20] The last mîr, Tahsinè died in January 2019 https://www.rudaw.net/english/kurdistan/28012019?keyword=tahsin [21] In the version from ISYA., J., Op. cit.,1909: “After a long discussion Adam and Eve agreed on this: each should cast his seed into a jar, close it, and seal it with his own seal, and wait for nine months. When they opened the jars at the comple- tion of this period, they found in Adam's jar two children, male and female. Now from these two our sect, the Yezidis, are descended. In Eve's jar they fotlnd naught but rotten worms emitting a foul odor. And God caused llipples to grow for Adam that he might suckle the children that proceeded from his jar. This is the reason why man has nipples. After this Adam knew Eve, and she bore two children, male and female; and from these the Jews, the Christians, the Moslems, and other nations and sects are descended. But our first fathers are Seth, Noah, and Enosh, the righteous ones, who were de scended from Adam.” P. 223; in an another version https://www.yazidiculturalheritage.com/it/religione/ after the creation of the world and of the Angels, God announced the creation of Adam and Eve, and from Adam's loins was born Shehîd bin Jerr, and from him the people of 'Azazîl, the Yazidis [22] ISYA., J., Op. cit., 1909, p. 221 an following


Bibliography

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  • CONTE, R., Alcune considerazioni sulle origini degli Yazidi o Yezidi, Rivista di Studi Indo-Mediterranei V, ASTREA, 2015

  • ENDRESS, G., a cura di VERCELLIN, G., Introduzione alla Storia del Mondo Musulmano, Marsilio, Venezia, 2001

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