The Yezidis are a small religious group. Estimates of their numbers in Iraq vary between 100,000 and 250,000; there are perhaps 40,000 or more in Armenia and Georgia, and 5,000 in Syria. A majority of the 10,000 Yezidis who once lived in Turkey found refuge in Germany during the 1980s, as life in their homeland had become unbearable. In spite of their small numbers, the Yezidis and their faith have fascinated many Western travellers and scholars since the middle of the last century, and they have been the subject of a large number of publications. This intensive academic interest has, however, so far failed to produce a satisfactory account of the Yezidi faith. Scholars are now agreed, on the whole, on the main points of the history of the Yezidi community and there is a corpus of known facts concerning its beliefs and practices. However, in the course of the history of the study of Yezidism, scholars’ definitions of the true nature of the faith have become progressively more arid and remote from contemporary realities, which eventually led to a marked decline in academic interest.
One of the reasons for this impasse is probably to be sought in the fact that, until recently, the only known texts of a religious nature whose authenticity was generally accepted were a few Arabic poems ascribed to Sheykh Adi which contained practically no information about the faith as such. Two highly informative texts, the ‘Sacred Books’, came to light around the turn of the century. These, however, failed to meet the criteria normally adopted to judge the authenticity of written traditions, and were therefore regarded as suspect. Yezidism was thus believed to lack a substantial textual tradition, and to possess at most a number of distinctive observances. The ideas and methods of most researchers, moreover, derived from the study of written religious traditions. This meant that it was assumed that the Yezidi tradition, like those of other religions of the Middle East, was based on an articulate, monolithic body of authoritative teachings. The views of contemporary Yezidis, which did not appear to reflect such a tradition, were therefore regarded as proof of the corrupt state of the contemporary religion.
It was understandable, in view of this apparent lack of reliable data derived from modem Yezidism itself, that students should have shown great interest in the origins of the sect. What was perhaps unfortunate was that, almost from the beginning, such interests came to predominate. Early publications suggest that theories about the roots of Yezidism, however vague, were felt to be at least as valuable as hard-won and meticulous descriptions of its realities. The same tendency can be seen in the debates of the 1930s. Modem Yezidism, therefore, was widely thought of as the debased form of an older and more impressive cult which scholars—consciously or unconsciously—set out to reconstruct. Theories about roots, in short, were not used to elucidate modem Yezidism; that faith was studied largely in order to shed light on its hypothetical forerunners. The question of origins came to be perceived as being so central that the work of one scholar, M. Guidi, who laid emphasis on the Islamic roots of the sect, led to a general view of Yezidism as an aberrant form of Islam. Since it was also realised that the modem cult has relatively little in common with that religion, a deadlock seemed to have been reached.
Earlier researchers had examined a wide range of religions and sects which could have given rise to Yezidism, and some stressed the possibility of Iranian roots. Several later scholars—including Guidi himself—also thought that the non-Islamic substratum of beliefs which can be detected in the cult was of Iranian or “Kurdish” origin. It is ironic, therefore, that the links between Yezidism and the religions of ancient Iran do not appear ever to have been seriously investigated. Plainly, few Islamists would have had the training or the inclination to do so, while Iranists seemed to have little reason to turn their attention to a cult of ‘devil-worshippers’ of allegedly Islamic origin which, moreover, was not based on a body of authoritative texts. Things might of course have been different had it been recognised that the contents of the ‘Sacred Books’ could be valid even if these were not based on a lengthy written tradition. The failure to realise this is one instance among many of the disregard of the value of the oral tradition of Yezidism. This tendency—regarding the non-literate character of the Yezidi faith as a sign of the corrupt state of the modem cult, rather than one of the chief characteristics of that religion—was arguably one of the factors which contributed to the decline of academic interest in Yezidism.
One of the aims of the present book is to revive this interest. First of all, it intends to draw attention to the existence of an extensive corpus of Yezidi religious texts, which have always been handed down orally and until recently did not exist in written form. Secondly, it seeks to present Yezidism as an essentially non-literate religion, many of whose characteristic elements derive from its oral character. It will further be argued that several aspects of Yezidism can be better understood in the light of modem insights in the field of ancient Iranian religion, while the striking parallels with a modem sect, the Ahl-e Haqq, are also undoubtedly significant.
The Yezidis have often been described as a secretive people who are not permitted to reveal their religion to outsiders. While many travellers denied any such reticence on the part of their informants, it is true that the Yezidis have succeeded in keeping hidden several elements of their faith, including the character of a large body of religious texts, the Qewls, for a long time.
The Qewls are hymns which are chanted by trained bards (qewwal) on occasions of a religious nature. A.H. Layard (1849: I. 293, 305), whose pioneering work on the Yezidis was to prove immensely influential, stated that these texts are in Arabic and therefore unintelligible to most Yezidis. Although it is true that they contain a relatively large number of Arabic loan-words, the language of the Hymns is in fact a form of Northern Kurdish. It is possible that some Yezidis may have believed that these holy texts, with their unfamiliar vocabulary, were in a foreign language—some modem Yezidis still believe that they are in Arabic—but the majority of Layard’s informants must have known better. The most probable reason for this piece of misinformation, therefore, is a desire to screen these holy texts from the inquisitive attention of aliens. If such was indeed their aim, they succeeded remarkably well; Layard’s assertion was regularly repeated in later publications. Even the Kurdologist Roger Lescot, who knew of the existence of the Qewls and presumably discussed them with local informants, failed to realise their importance for the study of Yezidism. The world of scholarship, in fact, remained ignorant of the character and importance of these texts until the Yezidis themselves drew attention to them. In 1978, the brothers O. and J. Jelil included a number of Qewls in their publication Kurdskij Folklor'. More or less at the same time, two Yezidi intellectuals from Iraq, Pir Khidr Sileman and Dr Khelil Jindi, who were deeply concerned about the threats facing their community generally and their oral tradition in particular, prevailed upon the spiritual leader of the day to allow them to record and publish a number of these texts. An impressive collection of texts was published in their book Ezdiyatt in 1979; this was followed in 1985 by another work by Sileman, Gundiyati, which contains more Qewls.
The existence of a hitherto unknown body of textual sources naturally puts the study of Yezidism on a new footing. Its evidence confirms the validity of the information contained in the ‘Sacred Books’, whose authenticity had earlier been called in question. While this corpus of texts cannot be said to represent an ‘official’ form of Yezidism—which, it will be argued, does not exist—it does reflect a coherent tradition in the light of which some of the other data can be studied. The unexpected and striking similarities between the legends and imagery found in these texts and those of the Ahl-e Haqq—another cult which probably originated among Western Iranians—indicates that both cults spring from a common, well-defined, non-Islamic tradition. A comparison between these two cults and elements of ancient Iranian religion further suggests that a number at least of the Iranian traits go back to an ancient faith which was probably dominant among speakers of Western Iranian languages before Zoroastrianism became prominent in their areas. Ironically, a more detailed study of the tradition itself thus provides precisely the type of information which earlier scholars were so eager to find. The realisation that elements deriving from an ancient Iranian faith—together with traits of Islamic origin—play a significant role in Yezidism helps us gain a better understanding of the history of the religion, and of some of its practices and preoccupations. For example the belief that the ‘elements’, water, fire, earth and air, are closely associated with divine beings and therefore deserve respect, has clear counterparts in both Zoroastrianism and the faith of the Ahl-e Haqq.
The insight that the tradition is fundamentally non-literate throws further light on its development. It can be shown, for example, that in composing their ‘sacred history’ the Yezidis adapted the objective historical facts in such a way that these came to fit a preconceived pattern; this would have been almost impossible in a strongly literate culture. Such characteristic features as the indistinct identity of many Yezidi holy beings, and the frequent disagreements among Yezidis concerning details of the faith, can all be traced back to a tradition where written documents play hardly any role at all. While an understanding of Yezidism as a “scriptural faith without a scripture” diminishes that religion and its members, the view that its non-literate nature is one of its essential characteristics leads to an appreciation of Yezidism as a complex faith, perfectly adapted to its cultural environment. Further study of Yezidism along these lines may make a significant contribution to our understanding of the development of non-literate religious traditions generally.
The present book does not claim to be in any way a definitive study of Yezidism. It is frankly the work of a male Iranist, whose personal observations are based on limited periods of intensive contact with one Yezidi community, that of Sheykhan in Northern Iraq, and on interviews in Europe with a small number of members of various communities over a longer period of time. To a large extent, the first part of the book consists of a reinterpretation of available material in the light of new insights derived from these contacts and from a study of the Qewls. The world of the Yezidi women of Northern Iraq is closed to a male foreigner, this has resulted in a rather glaring lacuna in the book which, it is hoped, will one day be filled by an author of the appropriate sex.
I was privileged to visit the Yezidi community in the Safe Haven of Northern Iraq for some weeks in March and April 1992 and again in September and October of that year. Although these visits proved illuminating in many other respects, their main purpose was to work on the oral texts of the Yezidis. On both occasions Pir Khidr Sileman and other members of the community gave unstintingly of their time, helping me to translate their sacred texts—which for the most part they had always understood approximately and intuitively—in the precise manner demanded by Western scholarship. This was by no means an easy task. First of all, the Qewls are difficult by any standard, using an allusive style and many words and references which are obscure to outsiders and not always intelligible to modem Yezidis. Each informant, moreover, naturally tended to feel certain of his own interpretation, while only a few saw the force of considerations which seemed crucial to a Westerner. The result of this joint labour is published in the second part of this book—admittedly a small sample of the vast corpus of texts but, it is thought, a representative one. Because of the various difficulties involved—not the least of which is caused by the relative poverty of lexicographic data—the meaning of some passages, words and references has remained unclear, while translations which seem to yield good sense may need to be revised as more Yezidi Qewls and more Kurdish dictionaries—are published.
Although I must take responsibility for the final edition, translation and commentary of the texts, this part of the work could not have been written without the indefatigable help of Pir Khidr Sileman.
The transcription of names and technical terms posed considerable problems. Many prominent Yezidi figures began life as Muslims, with Arabic names, and a large number of technical terms also derive from Arabic. In the course of time, however, the dominant language of the Yezidi tradition came to be Kurmanji Kurdish. The problem is that the usual systems of transcribing Arabic differ fundamentally from the accepted Roman transcription of Kurmanji. Also, experience tends show that the latter, which is based on Turkish orthography, seems particularly impenetrable to readers who are unfamiliar with Kurdish or Turkish. This transcription, moreover, disregards differences between consonants which are distinct in Arabic but are pronounced alike in most dialects of Kurdish. These differences are largely preserved when the Kurmanji of Northern Iraq is written in the Arabic alphabet, and they can help to identify the origin of a word.
Because of all this, it was not possible to adopt a single system of transcription. When Kurdish words or short phrases occur in the English text—but not in longer sentences, or in discussions of linguistic points in the Commentary to the Texts— an adapted version of the standard transcription of Kurmanji is used, with ‘sh’ for ‘5’, ‘kh’ for ‘x’, ‘j’ for ‘c’, ‘ch’ for and ‘zh’ for ‘j’. This also applies to names except that, in passages where their owners are clearly placed in a Muslim setting these are transcribed as Arabic words, with similar modifications in the transcription. In general discussions, for example, the well-known Sufi is called ‘al-Hallaj’; where he occurs as a Yezidi saint he is referred to as ‘el-Hellaj’. For a few very common names and terms, such as ‘Sheykh Adi’, ‘Melek Tawus’ and ‘Ramadan’, simplified forms are used except where names refer to historical figures.
When transcribing Kurdish texts, the standard transcription has been used, except that the Arabic emphatic consonants and ‘ayn, h, g are represented as they occur when Kurmanji is written in Arabic script. These consonants have been indicated in the texts where they are found in the original version, but not where the latter uses the ‘regular’ Kurdish sounds; this leads to apparent—minor— inconsistencies. Most authors minimise the use of double consonants when writing Kurdish, but there appears to be no clear rule in this matter. In the transcription used here double consonants have been indicated in words of Arabic origin where this could help readers to recognise their origin. Kurdish rr has generally been transcribed except at the beginning of words. While the dialect of the works of Sileman and Jindi does differentiate between ft! and /e/, the distinctions between these vowels are frequently blurred, especially when they occur in fine. Where this could lead to misunderstandings in the texts as published here, the forms have been ‘corrected’ in the light of the grammar of modem standard Kurmanji. In most Kurdish publications—as in the recitations of the Qewwals—rhyme is given priority over considerations of grammar. Since one of the aims of the present work is to make the texts as accessible as possible to Kurdologists, the resulting anomalous endings have generally been restored to their grammatically correct form, with reference to the original text in the footnotes. For similar reasons the transcription of hymns first published in the work of the Jelil brothers, which are written in a different orthography and represent a different subdialect, has for the most part been adapted to the system used elsewhere in the book. Dialectal peculiarities which affect the rhyme, or which seemed significant for other reasons, have however been retained.
My thanks are due first of all to Pir Khidr Sileman for his patient explanations of the meaning and background of the texts, for his kind permission to reproduce the hard-won results of his and Dr Jindi’s research in this book, and for all his help in introducing me to the Yezidi community.
I am very grateful to the Spalding Trust for a generous grant which enabled me to visit to Northern Iraq in September and October 1992, and without which this book could not have been written. My thanks are also due to the School of Oriental and African Studies, London, for a generous subvention towards the cost of proofreading the book.
I am indebted to Professor Jelile Jelil, now of Vienna, for his permission to reproduce texts first published by himself in an adapted orthography.
Without the help of Mas‘ud Barzani, Siamand Banaa, Safin Dezayee, and staff of KDP Headquarters, Duhok, this research would probably have been impossible. Institutions and individuals affiliated to other Kurdish political organisations, such as the staff of PUK Television, Duhok, also gave invaluable help in many ways. I am very grateful to them all.
I owe a debt of gratitude to many other Kurds, Yezidi and non-Yezidi, some of whose names I never learned. Of the Yezidi community I am particularly indebted to the Baba Chawush, Sheykh Eydo Baba. Sheykh, the Sheykh el-Wezlr and his two sons, Feqir Hajji and his son Bedel, Feqir Eli, the singer Chicho, and to all members of Pir Khidr Sileman’s household. Dr Mamo Othman, now of Berlin, always responded promptly whenever I asked him for help. Among non-Yezidis, the poet ‘Ebd el-Rehman Mizuri of Dihok, and the London-based Kurds, Mr Baran Rizgar and Mr Sami Shoresh, have always been ready to place their knowledge of Kurdish vocabulary and idiom at my disposal.
I am very grateful to Ms F. Christine Allison for reading the work in typescript, and for her valuable suggestions. My thanks are also due to Mrs Joyce Hutchinson for editing the typescript with great care and accuracy. Among the many other friends and colleagues who have given me help, information and advice, I would like to thank Professor Joyce Blau, Dr Martin van Bruinessen, Mrs Mary Ann Smothers Bruni, Dr Michael L. Chyet, Ms Nellida Fuccaro, Mr John S. Guest, Professor John R. Hinnells, Mr Ab F. de Jong, Mr Oric P.V. L’vov-Basirov, Mrs Catherine Lawrence, Ms Diana Matias, Mr Bob Mitchell, Mrs Shehnaz Munshi, Ms Maria T. O’Shea, Mrs Sarah Stewart, Mr Christoff Unger, Dr Owen Wright, and of course my wife, Mieke, to whom this book is gratefully dedicated.
Perceptions of Yezidism
There is probably no factor that has influenced the perception of Yezidism, both in the Middle East and in the West, as much as the erroneous epithet “devil-worshipper”. In the past, when there was open hostility between the Muslim community and the Yezidis, the epithet probably did more than any theological debate1 to make it clear to all that the Yezidis were non-Muslims who were not entitled to any protection under Islamic Law. Moreover, it seemed to justify the severe ill-treatment to which they were regularly subjected.2 For Western scholars, a genuine academic curiosity about the phenomenon of devil-worship may have been blended with a romantic interest in this secretive but cleanly and friendly group of Oriental ‘pagans’, whose strange cult might contain traces of one or more of the great ancient religions of the Middle East.3 This combination of romantic appeal with an intriguing intellectual challenge probably accounts for the intense academic interest in Yezidism of the latter half of the nineteenth century and the first half of the twentieth.4 Evidence of this interest began to emerge in the 1830s and 1840s with the works of travellers such as Ainsworth, Badger and Layard,5 whose works clearly inspired further scholarly curiosity.
Early Western Accounts
The opening pages of Layard’s well-known chapter on the Yezidis could hardly fail to evoke considerable interest among educated Westerners, as is illustrated by the following passage:6