Are the Yazidis Zoroastrian?
It is a tragedy that the world has become familiar with the name Yazidi in recent weeks, only because this traditionally secretive community has become the latest victims of Islamic intolerance in the Middle East. The press reports have been misleading in reporting them as Zoroastrians. While no one familiar with Zoroastrianism could deny certain similar aspects, the overall tenor, practices and beliefs make it very clear that it has evolved very differently.
More than 22 years ago, during my post graduate research at Oxford University, my attention was drawn to the Yazidis (they call themselves Izedis) living in Kurdistan, who described themselves as Kurds though it seems nowadays this is rejected by some of them, a description that their Kurdish neighbours did not dispute, though some appeared to doubt their Islamic credentials. Around the same time an article appeared in Parsiana by an airline pilot who had come across Yazidis in Syria and he was struck by some of their apparent similarities to Zoroastrians. I also recalled a conversation with Mrs Parichehr Mehr who had been intrigued by some of the resonances she noted when visiting Kurdistan in Iraq on an official visit with her husband Dr Farhang Mehr in the 1970s.
In pursuit of my research I was able to track down a Yazidi in London whom I interviewed and I was also fortunate enough to meet an academic (Christine Allinson) who had travelled in the areas where Yazidis lived and who was also prepared to discuss her own views with me. I was also loaned a small book which had come into the hands of Mr Shahrokh Shahrokh purportedly written by a Yazidi leader (calling himself Prince Mu’awiya who had migrated to Germany) with whom I entered into correspondence. His letters bore a stamp stating that they were sent from the Yazidi Kurd Zoroastrian Centre and a Fravahar symbol was also on the stamp.
Then 5 years ago, just before Syria entered into its present spiralling chaos, I travelled throughout that beautiful country and in the course of just 3 weeks, my necklace pendant of the Fravahar was identified, first by a taxi driver in Damascus and then the station information officer in Aleppo as the symbol of their religion. I was quickly able to conclude that they must be Yazidi Kurds, a fact that they confirmed when I asked them.
So it is evident that at least some of the Yazidis have opted to identify their own religion with our Fravahar and the Prince was quite explicit in his use of the word Zoroastrian alongside the word Yazidi to articulate that association. He also claimed that the name Zerdusht was not uncommon as a first name within his community.
However in evaluating the findings of my research, I have concluded that although they may share several common features with us, their philosophy is too distant from ours to say conclusively that they are indeed Zoroastrians as we understand our own faith to be.
The areas of common ground are interesting and suggest that we may have once both shared a pre-Zoroastrian culture and/or also that the Yazidis may have absorbed some distinct Zoroastrian elements which became embedded in their religion. Like ourselves from fear of betrayal or dilution, they did not marry outside their own communities (although some now in diaspora may do so) and they have historically been quite secretive and distrustful of people who ask too many questions. Until recently they were insisting that they were indeed Muslims to try to minimise the persecution they suffered because the Muslims around them considered them to be highly unorthodox if not heretical and treated them with disrespect. Therefore obtaining accurate information has proved quite difficult. And because they are spread over such a large area (Syria, Turkey, Iraq, Georgia, Armenia and Russia, and nowadays also in Western countries), a variety of different accounts and explanations are offered which may not be wholly consistent with each other since practices and doctrine may vary in different localities (just as Iranian and Parsee Zoroastrians have some different practices and doctrines which have occurred because of spatial separations).
A Russian speaking Yazidi (Hanna Omarkhali) writing her doctorate in St Petersburg was invited to give a talk about her findings at the WZO annual seminar in 2005. At that time she was not very forthcoming about the parallels with Zoroastrianism, but since then she has written a book and article by her is about to appear in the next issue of Hamazor.
Based on my own research, it is generally now accepted that Yazidis recognise a supreme being (Yazdan) and 7 archangels (like our 7 Amshaspands) who reflect attributes of that supreme being – with Malek Tavus or the Peacock King being the most senior of the 7 – some say an alter ego of Yazdan. The role of Malek Tavus is somewhat complex and some claim that he is also known as Shaytan though this does NOT mean the Devil to the Yazidis and indeed that name is taboo and must not be spoken. However people hostile to the Yazidis have chosen to describe them as Devil worshippers on account of this name – a description which offends the community. To reflect his importance, a motif found on the gate to a shrine is a Peacock. In my opinion there is a distinct possibility that this peacock might be the result of a distortion of the Fravahar symbol, readily adopted by those Yazidis in Germany and Syria. They attach great importance to the distinction between good and evil and also to the natural elements which they respect. The colour of clothing worn by their religious leaders (pirs) is white (cf our mobeds) and children being inducted into the religion also wear white (as during our sedreh pushi/navjote).
They pray up to 5 times a day (like our 5 gah) to Malek Tavus and face the sun when they do so as we face a source of light. They have a New Year in spring though not on the equinox before which they visit the graves of their relatives (like our panjeh gahambar before Nowruz) and whose arrival they celebrate with a big bonfire (parallels with Chahar Shanbeh Soori). Their most important shrine at Lalish contains a bridge called the Chinvat bridge which is astoundingly close to the name of the bridge on Judgement Day whose name we mention (pol e Chinevad) in our Tandorosti prayers when we beseech God to help us cross easily, lightly and with happiness. They have an undergarment whose neckline is called a grivan which is similar to the name grivun which Dari speaking Zoroastrians have used to denote a sedreh.
With so many small details in common with our own religious practices or beliefs, it would be easy to say that they must be Zoroastrian. However they have practices and beliefs that are alien to ours. For example the ritual killing of an ox annually has led to the suggestion that this is a Mithraic practice. Also they have an underground shrine with flowing water which is similar to a Mithraeum. At weddings the bride will normally visit Christian churches and baptism by water and circumcision is practised. They believe in the transmigration / reincarnation of souls. They have certain taboos: some say they will not eat lettuce and the colour blue which they regard as sacred is avoided as clothing. They have a 3 day mid-winter fast and many other small details of their daily lives and ritual practices would appear to be quite alien to us.
In conclusion as many recent commentators have concluded and as Dr Philip Kreyenbroek stated in the 1990s when he was researching the Yazidis, theirs is a syncretic religion which has its roots in the ancient Iranian past, but which has absorbed features from all religions of the region with which they came into contact. It would therefore be wrong to assert that the Yazidis are Zoroastrians.
However to demonstrate the degree of affinity felt by the Prince who authored the book alluded to above, the quotation that follows is particularly pertinent – one almost feels that he has done the background research on what befell our Zoroastrian forefathers in Iran:
Described as “Magus” and “Fire Worshipper” by the generals of the new faith (ISLAM), we soon found ourselves subject to ruthless persecution aimed at forcing us to abandon our religion and convert to Islam. In many cases, the sword did its job and thousands were converted. Some however, took shelter in the remoter mountain hideouts beyond the reach of the desert warriors. The rugged land of ancient Media provided us with a shield that could not be easily pierced. ….Traditional accounts that have come to us through generations speak of entire villages being wiped out of existence with men, women, and children being put to the sword, and all the houses and fields burned down. In some cases, those who refused to be converted were thrown down from mountain tops or burned alive in vllage squares. Our places of worship were converted into mosques in the larger villages and town. … The stratagem of having recourse to an assumed identity merely to stay alive was not confined to us and other Zarathustrans in the Midlle East. For centuries my people were forced into silence – at times even to the point of disguising their true identity. Now we are declaring our Faith with dignity and honour, upholding our beliefs and traditions and assuming the full responsibilities of being Azda.ees [sic] (Yazidi M.b.E 1983 To Us Spoke Zarathustra, Paris, privately published, pp 67-69)
It is sad to think that when he wrote this in 1983, he considered the persecution his community had survived to be a thing of the past. What an irony that after believing the world was more tolerant and civilised, he should live to see the same atrocities repeated in almost identical detail.