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Yazidi refugee children receiving humanitarian aid in Kurdistan.
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The Yazidis are a Kurdish-speaking ethnoreligious group primarily located in northern Iraq, but also in Syria, Georgia, and Armenia.[1] The heterodox Yazidi religion is fairly mysterious, as it's very old and highly syncretic. As you may expect, considering the geopolitical situation in the region, it's pretty hard to pin down an exact population number. However, most estimates range from 300,000 to more than 700,000.[2]

Also unsurprisingly, the Yazidi have been subject to centuries of persecution by Arab and Kurdish Sunni Muslims who viewed/view their religion as heretical.[3] Most recently, they have made headlines as ISIS has begun a full-on genocide against them.

Yazidi religion[edit]

The Yazidi religion is an interesting blend of Islam, Zoroastrianism, Christianity, and pre-monotheistic traditions.[4] Yazidis believe in one central creator god, who in turn created seven angels to do the managing of the world, the chief of whom is the peacock angel Melek Taus.Wikipedia[5] They believe world history is cyclical, and God is reincarnated as one of three forms: a human-like form, a holy spirit, and something in between. Sound familiar? The angels occasionally reincarnate as humans as well. They also do not believe in a Hell, viewing "good" and "evil" as being intrinsic to every human rather than something external and supernatural, which every person must choose between.[6]

Many local Muslims refer to them as devil-worshipers, due to a similarity of the story of their peacock angel Melek Taus to that of Iblis (Devil) in the Quran.[7] In the Quran, all the angels were ordered by Allah to bow before Adam; all obeyed save for Iblis, who refused to bow and was therefore punished by Allah for his disobedience. By contrast, Yazidis believe that Melek Taus was the only angel to refuse to bow before Adam, but instead of being punished for his disobedience, he was rewarded, and elevated above all the others. Yazidis also do not believe in a Devil at all; if evil exists in the world, it's man-made rather than the workings of a malevolent deity. Such an unorthodox view also does not endear them to their neighbors.

Yazidi culture[edit]

It doesn't help matters for them that the Yazidi are a very reclusive people. Too much contact with outsiders is believed to cause impurity,[8] to the point where, unlike most religions, they do not accept converts. This nature also led them to spend most of their time living in remote deserts and mountains, which worked out pretty well for them until ISIS came knocking.[9]

They often baptize and circumcise their children, but it is not mandatory.[10] There are three societal castes, the murids, sheikhs and pirs, and the Yezidi do not tolerate any marriages between castes.[11] Of course, an already tiny minority separating into even tinier subgroups is not going to lead to any genetic or mental health issues, nope. Eating lettuce is taboo, because the Kurdish word for lettuce, "khas", is the term Yazidis use for their saints. They have also been known to sacrifice animals.[12]

Post-Saddam Iraq[edit]

Amidst the chaos, uncertainty, and violence of the insurgency, Iraqi Kurds made moves to shore up borders for what one day may become an independent Kurdish State. Iraqi tribalism is based on possession of land passed on within tribes by arranged marriages and ancient inter-tribal acknowledgment of tribal areas.[13] Intermarriage between different tribes and faiths is rare to non-existent. Although the Kurds are a minority in the Yazidi homeland of Sinjar and Ninevah provinces, the Kurdish government in Irbil sought to exercise administrative control of Yazidi territories with assurances for their protection. In June 2014 the Islamic State blitzkrieg drove across the Syrian border and captured Mosul. By August the Kurdish peshmerga guarding Sinjar and Ninevah withdrew, leaving Yazidis militarily unprepared and unprotected. The Yazidi genocide occurred at the hands of DAESH,[14] and more than 5000 Yazidi women were taken from their home and given as slaves to the jihadists.

Yazidi mistrust of the Kurdish Irbil regime complicates a redrawn map in the post-DAESH era. Yazidis blame Kurds for false assurances of security. Kurds have seized Yazidi lands as the land was depopulated by genocide. Many Yazidis blame DAESH and the Kurds as part of a conspiracy to exterminate Yazidis and steal their land.[15] This lingering mistrust is one of several dilemmas awaiting a post-DAESH peace settlement with new borders, assuming it ever occurs.


  1. Yazidi Oxford Dictionaries
  2. Iraqi Yazidis: Hazy population numbers and a history of persecution Henne, Peter, and Conrad Hackett. Pew Research Center. AUG.24.14
  3. The Yezidi in Syria Harvard Divinity School "Religious Literacy Project"
  4. Background: the Yezidi Attewill, Fred. The Guardian. 15.AUG.07
  5. [https://www.nbcnews.com/storyline/isis-terror/who-are-yazidi-why-isis-targeting-them-n175621 Who Are the Yazidi, and Why Is ISIS Targeting Them?] NBC News Aug.08.2014
  6. Yazidi Religious Beliefs: History, Facts And Traditions Of Iraq’s Persecuted Minority Hafiz, Yasmine. Huffington Post. 08/13/2014
  7. Who Are the Yazidi “Devil Worshipers” and Why Is ISIS Trying to Slaughter and Enslave This Ancient Minority? Part One. Williams, Brian Glyn. Huffington Post. 02/17/2016
  8. An understandable belief given their history of oppression
  9. ‘I Did Not Convert. I Did Not Say Prayers.’ Salih, Mohammed. Foreign Policy JAN.29.2015
  10. Initiation in Yazidism Encyclopedia Iranica
  11. Background: the Yezidi - World news - The Guardian, August 15, 2007
  12. Who, What, Why: Who are the Yazidis? BBC
  13. Tribal identity is determined by the tribe of the father. A female belongs to the tribe of her father or her husband. Iraq is famous for its first and second cousin marriages to keep land within the tribe. Forced marriages still occur in Iraq to either maintain tribe identity or cement alliances with neighboring tribes.
  14. http://www.un.org/apps/news/story.asp?NewsID=54247#.WJatKO5lDMI The United Nations High Commission for Human Rights (UNHCR) has determined genocide with intent has occurred against the Yazidis. Many Islamic republics have offered an Islamic Declaration of Human Rights to the UN General Assembly as an alternative to the so-called 'Universal' Declaration of Human Rights formulated in 1948 and is the basis of UNCHR's action.
  15. http://www.nrttv.com/en/birura-details.aspx?Jimare=4855