How did monotheism begin and develop?

The oldest monotheistic religion in the world? History and fate of the Yazidis

Oldest monotheistic religion in the world

The Yazidis - other spellings: Yesiden or Eziden - describe themselves as the oldest monotheistic religion in the world. The origin of Yezidism has not yet been fully clarified. It is assumed that it is the original religion of the Kurds and that its beginnings lie well before Judaism and Christianity. It is probably a mixture of elements from ancient Persian Mithraimus, Zoroastrianism, Judaism, oriental Christianity and Sufism. The earliest written evidence comes from the 12th century.

Most of the Yazidis' settlement areas were in present-day Iraq, but also in Syria, Turkey and Iran. Yazidis almost exclusively belong to the Kurdish ethnic group. Their language: a Kurdish dialect, the Kurmanish. Yezidism is at the same time a hereditary religious community and a form of society.

Belief: There is no such thing as a devil

There is no authoritative holy scripture in Yezidism. Faith was only passed on orally well into the 20th century. Songs and customs still play an important role today. The focus is on the highest of the seven angels Taus-i-Melek, whom God created from his light. Taus-i-Melek is worshiped as God's representative on earth. In contrast to many other religions, there is no hell or a devil in Yezidism. According to Yazidi belief, God would be weak and not an omnipotent and unique God if there were another power besides him. For Yazidis, evil resides exclusively in people. Humans are solely responsible for their actions.

After death, a Yazidis has to answer to God and the angels. He is reborn in a new body according to his deeds or enters paradise.

Structures: the Yazidi caste system

Lalish in Northern Iraq: the most important shrine of the Yazidis. Photo: Ger Al Hamud Ser bahger

Sheikh Adi Ibn Musafir (around 1073-1163), originally a Sufi, is considered to be the incarnation of Taus-i-Melek. The “Feast of the Assembly” takes place once a year at his tomb in Lalisch, 60 kilometers north of Mosul. The tomb is the most important sanctuary and at the same time the Yazidis' pilgrimage site. The division into three religious castes can also be traced back to Adi Ibn Musafir: the Sheikhs and the Pire - both religious leadership classes - and the Mirid (lay people). Affiliation is hereditary. The clergy look after the laity religiously and have important social functions. In contrast to Hinduism, the Yezidi caste system does not separate people from one another, but has created a complex system that is supposed to guarantee the close cohesion of all. Marriage is only allowed within the respective caste.

You are born as a Yazidis, but you cannot convert to Yazidism. Marriages are only possible within one's own religious community and respective caste. The Yazidis are tolerant of other religions, and ideas about proselytizing are alien to them.

The spiritual head of the Yazidis, the Baba Sheikh, has declared that the women kidnapped and raped by IS continue to be Yazidis and must not be excluded from the community. He is considered a reformer and calls for integration. From the point of view of the traumaologist Jan Ilhan Kizilhan, who is himself a Yazidis and has examined hundreds of the women affected, this is “a big step” and “a great opportunity for the Yazidis” in a patriarchal society (Tagesspiegel 8/4/2016).

The history of the Yazidis: shaped by persecution and genocide

The Yazidi settlement area has been controlled by the Ottomans since the 16th century. They were not considered to belong to a “book religion” like the Jews and Christians and were therefore outside the Millet system. That is, they were denied the protection that Jews and Christians received against tax payments in Muslim-controlled areas. The Yazidis were considered unbelievers, were defamed as devil worshipers and were not allowed to practice their religion. In addition, they were exposed to the whims of their Muslim environment without protection. Again and again there were forced conversions and massacres of the Yazidis. As a result of the persecution, the Yazidi religion was only practiced with great secrecy. On the one hand, this was accompanied by a rigid isolation from the outside world. On the other hand, the Yazidis adopted non-Yazidis, mostly Muslim, practices in order not to attract attention.

Since the end of the Iraq war in 2003, the Yazidis have repeatedly been the target of fundamentalist Muslims. In August 2007, terrorists in the vicinity of al-Qaeda carried out attacks on two exclusively Yazidis-inhabited villages in the Sinjar district in northern Iraq. Almost 800 Yazidis were killed and 1,500 injured.

In August 2014, IS began to exterminate and persecute the Yazidis in their main settlement area in the Sinjar Mountains. Over 5000 boys and men were murdered. Over 7,000 women were enslaved and raped. 450,000 Yazidis were forced to flee. In 2016, the UNHCR classified the crimes of IS as genocide. A study by the UN shows that more than 3,000 Yazidis were again killed in northern Iraq in 2017. The same study also reports well over 6,000 kidnappings. According to the Yazidis, the brutal attack by IS ranks as the 73rd genocide in their history. The Iraqi activist Nadia Murad, who was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2018 for her commitment, campaigns for the rights of the Yazidis.

Yazidi refugee camp in Syria 2014

It is estimated that currently 3500 Yazidi women, children and men are still under the control of IS. Children are forcibly recruited, women and girls are tortured and raped or sold as sex slaves in other Islamic countries. In 2015, the state of Baden-Württemberg accepted 1,100 women and children from Northern Iraq through a special contingent. The women were and are being cared for medically and psychotherapeutically. The two-year project was extended for another two years in 2017. It is up to those affected whether they want to stay in Germany afterwards or return to Iraq.

Effects of the Persecution

The centuries-long history of expulsion and persecution of the Yazidis has had a lasting effect on the Yazidi identity and the religious self-image of the community. The relationship to Islam and the relationship to the Muslim community as such remain strained even after the withdrawal of the IS, as parts of the local Sunni population collaborate with the IS. The relationship between the Yazidis and the Kurdish regional government in northern Iraq has been shattered since the beginning of the Sinjar genocide. The regional government suddenly withdrew Peshmerga units, which were stationed in Sinjar to protect the civilian population, in the course of the IS attack. Instead, the Kurdish People's Defense Unit YPG from northern Syria came to Sinjar to protect the Yazidis. This can be read in a dossier from the Federal Agency for Civic Education.

Current situation

The Yazidi refugees are massively traumatized due to the experiences of annihilation and displacement. In the overcrowded refugee camps in Northern Iraq, there are hardly any future prospects for them. There are currently more than 300,000 Yazidis in the camps. Sinjar could be lost forever as the main settlement area, because for most of them a return is no longer an option because of the events of 2014. Instead, many consider emigration to Europe, the USA or Canada to be the only remaining option, as the Federal Agency for Civic Education also reports. The largest diaspora community of the Yazidis lives in Germany with around 150,000 people. The first came to the Federal Republic in large numbers in the 1960s.

Young Yazidis in traditional clothing

Anyone who would like to find out more can do so in a detailed online publication by Sefik Tagay and Serhat Ortac