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Yezidism: historical roots

International Journal of Kurdish Studies, Jan, 2005 by Tosine Reshid

Kurdistan, the cradle of ancient civilizations, has seen many races, people, religions and cultures during the past few thousand years. From the beginning of classical history two old-world civilizations, Aryan and Semitic, met, formed bonds, and were mutually influenced on the soil of Kurdistan. To a lesser or greater extent, they left their marks on this soil, particularly in the religious beliefs of the people of Kurdistan.

Along with the religions that came from outside, notably Christianity, Islam and Judaism, those native to Kurdistan continue to exist on Kurdish soil. Yezidism, Yarsanism and Alewism still have large numbers of adherents and defenders. To better understand the history and culture of the people of Kurdistan, it is imperative to conduct research into these religions. Unfortunately, to date, such research is all too rare.

Scholarly study of the Yezidis began in 1850 when German Scholar Dr. August Neander read a paper on Yezidi religion at the Prussian Academy of Science. (1) Thereafter, many books and commentaries on the topic were published; but to this day it is not clear when and on what foundations Yezidism came into existence.

Yezidis believe their religion to be ancient and to predate Islam by at least a thousand years. Although some foreign scholars maintain that Yezidism began with Sheikh Adi and view him as its founder, no Yezidi accepts this claim. In fact, Yezidis believe that prior to accepting Islam, all Kurds belonged to Yezidism. Here I examine the basis of this conviction.

Today most Kurds believe that before accepting Islam, Kurds were Zoroastrians. Spread by Kurdish intellectuals and continuing to gain credence, the belief is predicated on the following: Zoroastrianism is an Iranian religion; the Kurds are also Iranian. Therefore their pre-Islamic religion must be Zoroastrianism. In addition, it is easier for Kurds, the majority of whom are Muslim, to accept the belief that their pre-Islamic religion was Zoroastrianism rather than Yezidism.

In line with its belief in people of the Book, Islam does not recognize Yezidism as a religion. Moreover, the negative view of Muslims with regard to the Angel Peacock--who in the religion of the Yezidis is second only to God--has been the cause of conflict between Muslims and Yezidis for a thousand years or more. Consequently, the belief that Kurds were Yezidis prior to the advent of Islam has not been accepted by most Muslims. Undoubtedly, a significant reason for the refusal to recognize Yezidism as the ancient religion of the Kurds is that there are no significant studies on Yezidism. Along with foreigners, most Kurds know virtually nothing of its foundations, nor do they know what Yezidis hold sacred. The study of Yezidi history and religion and the clarification and dissemination of its belief system would serve to facilitate understanding, thereby rectifying the causes of hundreds of massacres and deportations.

Between the 8th and 9th centuries BC, Iranian tribes settled in today's Kurdistan. They were followers of Aryan and Indian religious beliefs. According to Kurdish scholar Taufiq Wahbi, their main deity, which symbolized the good and the wholesome, was Baba Asman. He was the counterpart of the Indian god, Diyaus Pitar. (2) Secondary gods (sun, moon, stars) were called "Diva" or "Divas," i.e., those that give light.

Zoroastrianism was for hundreds of years the reigning religion and exerted considerable influence on the Kurds and their beliefs. But I believe that while some Kurds in the east accepted Zoroastrianism, the majority did not. They remained faithful to their own ancient religion.

R. Reshid writes that during the 6th century BC, Zoroastrianism spread to the land of the Medes, but did not become dominant because already in place was an indigenous and powerful religion preceding Zoroastrianism. (3) Later, when Zoroastrianism gained strength, those who remained faithful to the old religion were called "Deva Yasna," meaning the "Slaves of Dew." According to a number of Kurdish researchers, with some variations "Deva Yasna" has survived among the Kurds. The word "dasni," which is the name of a tribe of Yezidi Kurds and was the name of a Yezidi principality, is a variation of "Deva Yasna." (4) Throughout history all Yezidis have been called "dasini." It is evident that the dasinis were at some stage dispersed throughout a large area. A.H. Layard writes that there is a tribe called dasini in the mountains near Silemani [Sulaimania in south/Iraqi Kurdistan]. (5) It is likely that the name "dewperest" [dew-worshippers; many regard "dews" a degree below angels], which is used to refer to some Yezidis, comes from that era.

In the "Zend Avesta," dews are called "diva" in Pehlevi [or Pahlavi, people from which the fallen Shah of Iran claimed lineage] language. In Semitic languages the word "Seyd" like the word "diva" becomes "seydan" among many people. (6) It is evident that when Zoroastrianism was spreading, the people of the Median Empire, who were called "dewperest," were able to defend their religion and did not accept Zoroastrianism. Later the name "dewperest" among the Semitic peoples and the leaders of religions that accepted the principles espoused by the Semites became "seytanperest" [Satan-worshippers]. It became convenient for the Zoroastrians to equate the name of Risti Vega-Azhi-Dahak, the emperor of the Medes, with evil. Wahbi is of this belief. The evil king "Zohak" in [Persian poet] Firdousi's epoch story "Shahname" is Azhi Dahak. (7)

 

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