Bearing the brunt of ISIS, Yazidis carry on with a tale of survival

How did Yazidis survive in the Middle East when they are not even Muslims, Christians or Jewish?

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Iraq’s Yazidi minority, enslaved and driven out by the advance of ISIS in Iraq, represents a story of hundreds of years of survival in a hostile environment.

Some experts say the Yazidis, who are mostly Kurdish speaking people, survived in the mountains of Kurdistan as power moved from the Abassids in Baghdad (750-1517) to the sweeping Mongol invasion in 1258, and finally the Ottomans.

Now, they are facing a ferocious attack from the radical Islamic State of Iraq and Syria militant group, which boasted recently about their enslavement of Yazidi women.

Former U.N. diplomat Gerard Russell questions how Iraq came “to have so much religious diversity in the first place” and what “this says about the type of Islam that prevailed there until the 21st century.” Equally important is what is happening to these diverse strands under today’s rising violence in the region.

“Minority sects that have survived millennia are being crushed by jihadist intolerance,” Russell wrote in a recent article published by the London-based think tank Chatham House.

“Figures such as the repentant Peacock Angel, Malak Tawus, whose tears extinguished all seven pits of hell, or the flesh-monster Krun, or the thinly disguised sun-god Sheikh Shams, have a genealogy older than the Quran or the Gospels,” he wrote.

Some jihadist militants denounce Yazidis as “devil-worshippers” due to their reverence of the fallen angel Malak Tawus, who is often identified with Lucifer or Satan.

Mathew Barber, University of Chicago scholar in Islamic studies and Yazidism, said the accusation that Yazidis are devil-worshippers stretches as far back as several centuries.

Like Russell, Barber said there are other aspects of their religion that have made them targets.

“Yazidism is an oral tradition without a written scriptural text, and it is common to hear Muslims say that Yazidis are ‘people without a book’,” said Barber.

He added that the persecution of the Yazidis over the centuries “has often been motivated by political or economic factors, but nevertheless legitimized religiously through fatwas that defined Yazidis as a non-protected people.”

But accounts suggest that early Muslims tolerated other non-Muslims communities, including Yazidis, despite perceived influences from the ancient Persian faith of Zoroastrianism and despite their Buddhist-like belief in perpetual reincarnation.

While Europe saw the extinction of its Cathars, a group which arose in southwestern France in the 11th and 12th centuries and in some ways espoused similar beliefs and practices to the Yazidis, its Middle East counterparts continued.

“The Cathars were crushed by the 20-year Albigensian crusade (1209–1229), waged by the French state; they disappeared from the history books in the early 14th century, while several of their Middle Eastern equivalents have survived over half a millennium longer,” Russell wrote.

Russell added that “the early Muslims were not especially keen to win converts among non-Arab peoples,” who were the majority of the people in the Middle East in the 7th century.

The Abbasids needed the skills and the rich culture of the non-Muslim communities under its rule , making Baghdad a cosmopolitan city that developed into a learning center for the world.

One prominent Syriac pagan, Thabit ibn Qurra, who belonged to the Harranians group which had similar beliefs to the Yazidis, expressed his distaste of Byzantine hostility to paganism to the Abbasids. Ibn Qurra, mathematician, physician, astronomer and translator, was allowed to live in Baghdad in the ninth century where he had the opportunity to develop Pythagoras’s theorem of triangles to its form we use today.

Barber described the 13th century as the “formative period” of Yazidism, making it as to what it is today. After this period, during which the Yazidi homeland in northern Iraq was ruled by Turkic dynasties, Yazidis became the persecuted minority.

“One early figure of the Yazidi community was executed in 1254 by the governor of Mosul. This execution was motivated by political competition with the Kurds of the mountains north of Mosul,” Barber said.

“Persecution of Yazidis as a religious community becomes evident later on,” Barber explained.

“The most significant periods of violence against Yazidis occurred under the Ottomans who conducted multiple military campaigns against their communities between the 17th-19th centuries, often massacring or enslaving civilians,” he said.

Citing the Yazidi tribes’ practice of raiding caravans, “they were often a thorn in the side of the Ottoman authorities,” Barber added.

“After carrying out prolonged military assaults against Mount Sinjar, Yazidi women were carried off by the Ottoman soldiers and sold in slave markets—much as ISIS is doing now.”

The Ottomans also carried out schemes to “forcibly” convert Yazidis to Islam, Barber noted.

There were, however, bright glimpses and anomalies to be remembered despite the dark period Yazidis lived through during the Ottoman era.

During the reign of Ottoman Sulaiman al-Qanouni - whose rule lasted from 1520 to 1566, a Yazidi prince was put in charge of both Arbil and Mosul.

However, this golden era did not continue following violent fatwas against the Yazidis.

The late Ali al-Wardi, who is considered to be founding father of Iraq’s social sciences, wrote in his “The Farce of the Human Mind,” that a man named Abu al-Saud al-Amdi asked the mufti or grand religious scholar of Islam during al-Qanouni’s era if Muslims should fight the Yazidis.

Describing Yazidis as “more infidel than the original ones,” the mufti said, according to accounts, that fighting them was permissible in Islam and that Muslims who would carry their Islamic crusade against them were the most devoted.

The mufti also sanctioned selling their women as slaves, according to written accounts.

While Yazidis used to number in the millions, the bulk of the population now lives in Iraq and number around 650,000, in addition to about 50,000 who live in Syria, 40,000 in Germany and 40,000 in Russia.

Mountains, marshes and deserts allowed the Yazidis to hide from the enemy in the ancient times. But fearing death and fleeing ISIS’ wrath, several thousands of Yazidis were stranded on the barren tops of the Mount Sinjar in August, compelling American planes to air drop food aid to them.

Some Yazidis often refer to “72” or “73” massacres against them through the centuries. But Barber says the numbers are merely “symbolic” and no available historical records back them.

“The significance of the number is that it represents the sense of vulnerability that stands at the center of Yazidi identity,” he said.

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