Faith that preceded Abraham goes its own way in Kurdistan

Sydney Morning Herald (Australia), July 26, 2003
Herald Correspondent Ed O’Loughlin visits the heartland of the Yezidis.

Allow me to introduce the Yezidis, a Kurdish tribe of little wealth and eccentric taste.

Scholars believe that the Yezidis’ strange and ancient religion is one of the last surviving offshoots of a faith even older then Judaism or Zoroastrianism, which it heavily influenced.

Known as “the cult of the angels”, this early Indo-European faith held that there was only one God but that he created seven angels to serve him. Chief among these, for Yezidis, is the angel who disobeyed his maker: the fallen angel.

“They are devil worshippers,” confides Yussuf Saleem, a Muslim restaurateur in Arbil in northern Iraq. “It’s well known that they pray to Satan. Apart from that they seem to be nice people.”

Allegations of devil worship have dogged the Yezidis for at least 1000 years. While most of their fellow Kurds converted to Sunni Islam centuries ago, the Yezidis have preserved the essence of their ancient faith through wave after wave of religious persecution.

“Yezidism is a valid religion, and at the time when people were being forced to become Muslim, because we were near the mountains we were able to keep it,” says Hashim Hassan, a resident of the small Yezidi capital, Shekhen.

Half an hour’s drive north of Mosul, Shekhen stands where the last ripple of the Zagros mountains meet the flat Mesopotamian plain. To this day, some Yezidi clans maintain secret caves in the mountains, stocked with supplies for when they are needed again.

Many Yezidis were swept up in Saddam Hussein’s anti-Kurdish crackdown of the 1980s, including the notorious Anfal massacres in which 180,000 people are believed to have died.

The Yezidis’ hereditary ruler, Emir Tasseen Sayid Ali Bak, bemoans the loss of more than 30,000 hectares of the tribe’s best land in recent years, to Sunni Arabs transplanted from the south.

“There were more than 60 villages that they took over,” he says. “Most of them were from the Hadidi and Lehab tribes, and they took the best of our land, which is very fertile.”

The emir says that most of the Arabs fled shortly after the beginning of the United States-led invasion, many taking refuge in nearby Mosul. He hopes that Shekhen will now be incorporated into the nearby Kurdish autonomous zone.

The emir is still recognised as the worldly leader of Yezidis living not only in the faith’s Iraqi heartland but also in Turkey, Syria, Georgia, Azerbaijan and Russia. There are several thousand Yezidis in Germany, and a few in Australia.

The Yezidis reject the widespread Iraqi belief that their faith lacks organisation, theology and scripture – that it is not a proper religion at all.

In fact Yezidism has two main books of revelation, written 1000 years ago and attributed to Sheik Adi Musafir and his son, the founders of this branch of the Cult of Angels. The community maintains a strict caste system and three orders of priesthood, headed by the spiritual leader known as the Bab el-Sheik.

The present Bab el-Sheik, Kurto Haji Ismail, lives in Shekhen in an old house whose front doors are decorated with peacocks, symbol of Melek Taus, “The Peacock Angel”.

“All the other religions – the Jews, the Muslims and the Christians – at the beginning they were all one religion,” he says. “They are the sons of Abraham. We are older than Abraham. We came before.”

The main reason for the persecution of Yezidism, he says, is confusion between its account of the creation and the very similar – but crucially different – Judaeo-Christian-Islamic one.

“God created the seven angels and he told them that they must worship no one else but him,” the Bab el-Sheik explains.

“After that, to test the angels, God told the angels that they should pray to Adam, and all the angels obeyed the order but one. The Peacock Angel refused. He said to God, you told us not to pray to anyone but you. And because of that he passed the test, God forgave him and he became the greatest of the Angels . . . it is not true to say that the Peacock Angel broke the will of God. We say that the Peacock Angel passed the test of God, and is the good angel.”

The founder of Yezidism, Sheik Adi, was himself a member of a wandering order of Muslim Sufi mystics. His burial place at Lalish, a lush and very beautiful valley north of Shekhen, is the faith’s main temple, part of a complex of shrines that are a place of pilgrimage for Yezidis.

Fakir Kudada, one of the temple’s guardians, escorts his visitors to a cave just outside the main temple. He points to a thick stone pillar, and says that any man or woman who can reach their arms around so that their fingers touch will be lucky in love.

As it happens, much the same belief is attached to the stem of a Celtic high cross in Glendalough, another holy valley, 5000 kilometres away in Ireland’s Wicklow mountains. Fakir Kudada is interested to hear this, but not particularly surprised.

“We all worship the same God,” he says.


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Religion News Blog posted this on Saturday July 26, 2003.
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