Authors: Basma Ali
Foundation and History
Yazidi Religious Beliefs
Yezidism is an old monotheistic and ethnic religion that is practiced by most Kurmanji-speaking Kurds, called Yezidis or Yazidis. The religion believes in one God who created the world and entrusted it to the care of seven holy beings known as angels. The Yezidis believe in seven angels. The most important of all is the angel Tawûsê Melek. Tawûsê Melek is considered the leader of the other six angels and the intermediary between people and God. The Yezidi culture has a caste system which is very carefully regulated by a long list of rules about intermarriage, societal roles, and even daily interactions. There are three castes: Murids, Pirs, and Sheiks. Most Yezidis belong to the Murid class and are ordinary people without special roles. The Sheiks are responsible for the spiritual well-being of the community and political tasks. Pirs are also religious leaders, but with more political power than that of the Sheiks as they act as representatives of the community. This caste system is the foundation of Yezidi culture and forms the basis of society, religiously and culturally.
History and Origin
Yezidism is considered one of the most ancient beliefs of the Middle East. Yezidis define themselves as Êzîd, Êzî, or Izid. The name Yazidi or Yezidi, which has its origins in the Persian and Kurdish language, means God (Kurdish) or angel (New Persian). The name Yezidis remains as enigmatic as the origin of Yazidism itself. Some believe that Yazidis are named after the Umayyad Caliph Yazid ibn Mu’awiya, while others believe that they are named after an ancient city in Iran. As is the case with the meaning of Yazidis, their origin is also controversial. The earliest mention of the Yazidis is found in Arabic and Syriac texts in the 12th century CE, but the exact origins remain uncertain. They are, however, described as a community called Al-Yazidiyyah in northern Mosul. There are different opinions about the origin of the Yezidi religion. To Muslims in general, this ancient religion is thought to have been founded by an 11th-century Ummayyad sheikh and is assumed to be a fusion of Christianity, Islam, and Zoroastrianism.
Yezidism has shared elements with each of the religions mentioned before, examples of these elements include baptism in Christianity, circumcision in Islam, and reverence for fire derived from Zoroastrianism. However, Yazidis believe that their existence dates to 7,000 years ago, prior to any other religion, and that their faith is a distinct monotheistic religion to all other religions.
Originally, Yazidis lived in both Mesopotamia and Anatolia, where some of them still live today. Some Yezidis also lived and still live in Transcaucasia. Yazidis migrated to these regions usually to escape hostility and massacres, which explains why their religion could survive such tragedies. Currently, Yazidis can be found in Iraq, Syria, Turkey, Armenia, and some European countries.
Throughout history, the Yazidis have been subject to at least 74 genocides for their religious association. Conflicts and wars were constant threats to the existence of the Yazidi religion, something that led the community disperse around the world for survival. In recent history, the Yazidis have been targeted by the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), who invaded Sinjar and Ba’shîqe regions on August 3, 2014, after occupying the rest of Mosul. After ISIS annexed the region, most of the Yazidis who were not murdered or kidnapped in Mosul fled to the Kurdistan region in northern Iraq.
 “Yezidi Castes, Culture, And The Big Elephant In The Room,” Servant Group International, 2021, accessed April 24, 2021, https://servantgroup.org/yezidi-castes-culture/.
 Birgul Açikyildiz, The Yazidis: The History of a Community, Culture, and Religion (London/New York: I.B.Tauris & Co. Ltd., 2010), 35.
Location and Building
Yazidi Locations in Iraq
Despite being threatened as a religious and cultural minority and in constant danger, Yazidis have maintained a considerable presence in many places around the world. Most Yazidis live in northern Iraq. More than a few of them reside in Nineveh, specifically in the district and town jointly called Sinjar, or Shingal, and the distinctive Yazidi region known as Sheykhan. They are also found in Behzane and Ba’shiqe, which are twin towns located between Sinjar and Sheykhan in northern Iraq. Since 2014, most of them are concentrated in the Kurdistan region, in Dohuk, Zakho and Erbil.
Yazidi religious locations include “mausoleums, shrines, and the houses of the men of religion (Sheikhs and Pirs).” In the absence of temples, the sacred places may take the form of a stone or a spring next to a plant, and function as a place of worship for Yazidis. Most of the sacred Yazidi buildings and places of worship are in Mosul and Duhok, specifically in the Sinjar Mountains and Sheykhan, Kurdistan. Numerous saints of the Yazidi religion are paid tribute in those temples and shrines, which are frequented throughout the year by Yazidis, especially during festival times.
Lalish (in Kurdish: Laliş) is the biggest and most sacred site for Yazidis and is located in Sheykhan. In Lalish lies the grave of Sheikh Adi ibn Musafir, the saint who is seen as the founder of the Yazidi religion and the most sacred figure after Tawûsê Melek.
Yazidis in Erbil Province
After Yezidis were displaced in 2014 because of ISIS, they escaped to various cities in Kurdistan. Yezidis are now housed in around 20 camps in Duhok Province. Unlike in some other cities in Kurdistan, they maintain a small representation through their residency in the province of Erbil. There are between 600 and 800 Yazidi families in the city, according to the Catholic Relief Organization. Between 2017 and 2019 there were around 2,000 Yazidis living in Erbil. Most of whom later emigrated from Iraq, while others returned to their villages in Mosul after it was freed from ISIS.
More than four groups of Yazidis now live in Erbil, and I visited these groups myself. One group is in Golan Street, beside the Divan Hotel and consists of 18 families with a total of around 100 people. Another group consists of four families numbering 22 people, who live in a farm near Malla Omar Village, on Resort Street. A third group consists of 10 families totaling 70 people, who are housed in Turaq Village. Those families make up the Yazidi population in Erbil, where there are no sacred places or temples. Usually, Yazidis do not have to visit temples for religious services, as they can pray at any place or visit Lalish Temple on special occasions to worship.
Numerous Yazidi students have been accepted at universities and colleges in Erbil. One of these institutions is The Catholic University in Erbil (CUE), which has welcomed 26 Yazidi students over the last couple of years. Most of these students have been granted scholarships from a German political foundation called Konrad Adenauer Stiftung, (KAS), which supports Germany’s conservative Christian Democratic Party. KAS scholarships are provided based on a cooperation with the CUE. Currently, KAS has around 100 offices around the world and supports more than 120 programs. It usually funds students for their academic programs, whether it is for a bachelor’s, master’s, or PhD degree. The main goal of the foundation’s work is to support education and values like democracy, freedom, and equality.
In Erbil, there are also three Yazidi students at Salahaddin University and one at Cihan University. Overall, the total number of Yazidi students in Erbil is 30, and they mostly live on college campuses. However, due to the hard economic conditions and political challenges, Yazidis who live in Erbil are constantly trying to return to their homes in Sinjar. Unfortunately, this is difficult because Sinjar lacks any form of security, and it is constantly under threat. It is also not provided with key services and facilities such as hospitals and schools, and the infrastructure and the surrounding areas are destroyed.
According to Baker Ismail, the spokesman employee of an Italian NGO, the Federation of Christian Organizations International Voluntary Service (Focsiv), the Yazidi community in Erbil is well-connected and remains attached to their religious traditions. Young Yazidi men and women work as employees in hotels and restaurants as well as in furniture transportation, goods sales, and cafes. Through their connections and work, those Yazidis maintain good links with one other and with Erbil’s residents.
There is also a social and cultural center, called the Lalesh Centre for Culture and Social Affairs, that was founded in Duhok on May 12, 1993. The foundation employs around 7,000 members who defend the rights and interests of the Yazidis as a Kurdish ethnic minority. The institution provides care for the Yazidis, holds general annual meetings, hosts several festivals, and publishes a special magazine entitled Lalesh in Arabic, English, and Kurdish, using both scripts (Aramaic and Latin). The Lalesh Centre is designed to create and maintain connections and communications among the Yazidis and other communities. Social and cultural events, in addition to the religious festivities, provide a good environment in which Yazidis contact and share their culture and experiences with other people.
 Birgul Achiljyildiz, “Sacred Spaces In The Yazidi Religion,” Yazidis.Az, 2021, accessed April 24, 2021, http://yazidis.info/en/news/479/sacred-spaces-in-the-yazidi-religion.
 Birgül Açikyildiz, The Yazidis: The History of a Community, Culture and Religion (London/New York: I.B.Tauris & Co. Ltd., 2014).
 UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), COI Note on the Situation of Yazidi IDPs in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq, May 6, 2019, accessed March 29, 2021, https://www.refworld.org/docid/5cd156657.html.
 The Catholic Relief Organisation is based at 228 W. Lexington St. in Baltimore, U.S. and is active in Iraq.
 Murad Ismael, Yazidi Activist, Co-Founder and Former Director of Yazda. Telephone interview, September 2, 2021.
 The Lalish Center, IDEP/UCLA Library, 2021, https://idep.library.ucla.edu/lalish-center.
Prayer and Worship
Yazidis have a wide range of religious and cultural rituals. The main practices of the religion include baptism, circumcision, brother of the hereafter, marriage, death (funerals), and prayers. Yazidis are baptized on their first visit to the main temple, Lalish, and continue or repeat baptism in every visit to Lalish. Yezidis also believe in life hereafter where the Sheiks act as a witness in front of God to one’s sins and good deeds and that decides whether one goes to hell or heaven. That marks one main reason of the importance of the Sheik caste. Every group of Yezidis is associated with a different saint and/or angel based on several factors. One factor is the caste of the person. When a person dies, the Sheiks or Pirs wash the dead. The dead then is buried around the temple of their saints or angel. For example, any Yezidi associated with the Angel or saint Sheik Sharaf Al din will be buried around the temple of Sheik Sharaf Al din in mountain Sinjar. The dead are transported to the temple of that angel if they die in a different region or country. But there is more than one temple of some angles in several areas and across countries such as Armenia, where they can bury the dead there in a smaller temple instead of Sinajr.
The main religious days are the New Year (Çarşema Sor), which is always on the first Wednesday of April, and the Feast of Fasting (Eida Rojia), which is usually on December 15. Çarşema Sor is a key event in the Yazidi religion and culture. To Yezidis, this day marks not only a new lunar year, but also the beginning of life on earth. They start by visiting the tombs of the dead in temples at every Eid. Then they cook special meals and visit families and neighbors, celebrating together by dancing, eating, and playing games with eggs. The day before Çarşema Sor, Yazidis traditionally boil and color eggs. The egg, because of its oval shape, represents the earth, its colors, and nature.
The Yazidis celebrate the Lalish Festival annually in the Lalish Temple on the first Wednesday of October. The festival partially celebrates the saint Sheikh Adi ibn Musafir in Lalish his tomb is.
It is one of the major religious feasts in which Yazidis come together from different places. The celebration lasts seven days during which they pray and light 365 candles and celebrate through several traditions and practices such as dancing. The 365 candles represent the days of the year, and the seven days represent the week. The spiritual and religious explanations of such festivities are complicated and entail layers of details, as religion generally does. The Feast of Fasting (Eida Rojia) is another important religious practice. In this Feast, Yazidis fast for three days in a row and have Eid on the fourth day (Friday). Apart from these three days, Yazidi people usually fast a month before Eida Rojia in honor of specific angels and saints to bless them. The Thursday before the Feast, which starts on Tuesday, is the day where everyone fasts for the specific angel they associate with. The fasting starts from sunrise to sunset on Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday. Friday is the Eid day where people do not fast but celebrate again by visiting the tombs of the dead, cooking special meals, and visiting families and neighbors.
Yazidis say their prayers four times a day, at sunrise in the morning (Roş Halat), once in the afternoon, a third time at sunset (Roş Ava), and again late at night before going to sleep (Shahda Dini). There seems to be no specific place designated for prayer. However, before prayer, it is important for worshippers to face the sun if it is daytime, to wash their hands, and to be barefoot.
 Birgül Açikyildiz, The Yazidis: The History of a Community, Culture and Religion (London/New York: I.B.Tauris & Co. Ltd., 2014)
 Birgül Açikyildiz, The Yazidis: The History of a Community, Culture and Religion (London/New York: I.B.Tauris & Co Ltd, 2014).
Community and Membership Restrictions
The number of Yazidis around the world is approximately 900,000 to 1 million and over half of them live in Iraq. The Yazidi religion is considered a non-missionary religion since they do not accept converts to their faith. One must be born Yazidi and marry only within the religion. Marriage outside the religion is not tolerated. If a Yazidi marries outside the religion or commits to any other religion, they become non-Yazidi and cannot return to the creed.
The three classes or castes, the Sheikh (Şex), the Pir (Peer), and the Murid (Mreed) in the Yazidi community must marry within their specific group only. Nevertheless, Yazidis tend to be open in accepting other communities and sharing their religious occasions. They also form other personal relations with their Muslim neighbours but not marriage. Circumcision is usually something Yezidi’s form bonds through with the Muslim community and calls it “the blood bond”. It is called that because the blood of the circumcised child touches the Muslim who is supposed to hold the child or sit by him during the procedure, and that is how they form a lasting relationship. They largely integrate with the society surrounding them through work and business but also through bonding practices and celebrations.
There are several traditions and practices that Yazidis share with other religious convictions. For example, Eid al-Adha, the day honoring Ibrahim’s sacrifice of his son Ismael, as an act of obedience to God’s command, is celebrated by Muslims and no less by Yazidis. Such commonalities with other religions help Yazidis to strengthen ties with other communities and create more harmonic environments wherever they live.
The Ministry of Endowments and Religious Affairs in Erbil highly esteems Yazidi interests, headed by Khairi Bozani, it represents, reflects, and protects the rights of Yazidis nationally and internationally. Apart from such centers and sources of representation and the few communities freely chosen by the Yazidis, there are no official Yazidi communities, institutions, or any places of worship in Erbil. Yezidis mainly sustain a close community where support and care is given if needed and if possible, with no limits. As a community, they are highly tolerant, welcoming, and not hesitant to form relationships with others through business, cultural or social activities.
Yazidis have a complicated and intriguing religion and faith. Their culture is highly pleasant and hospitable. However, Yazidis are under threat as a culture and a religion, and the possibility of their decline has increased by the scarce care given to them by governments of the neighboring countries and localities. Nonetheless, there have been organizations and global institutions that have shown much concern for Yazidis and their interests. Yazidis are still spread around the world with no official places of residency and no official positions or representations in most governments, institutions, or societies. The Yazidi presence in Erbil and other cities in Iraq is secure as long as there are jobs and educational opportunities for them.
 Khairi Bozani, General Directorate of Yazidi Affairs in the Ministry of Endowments and Religious Affairs, Kurdistan Regional Government of Iraq. Personal meeting in his office on March 15, 2021, in Ankawa, Erbil.