Two days ago, Al Qaeda launched multiple attacks on isolated villages in northwest Iraq populated by an obscure religious minority, the Yazidis (also spelled Yezidis). The Washington Post limited its description of the group to four sentences:
The Yazidis are an ancient group whose faith combines elements of many historical religions of the region. They worship a peacock archangel and are considered Satanists by some Muslims and Christians in Iraq, a characterization they reject.
Yazidis largely live apart from other Iraqis, in villages near the Syrian border, to maintain religious purity, and they are forbidden to fraternize with other groups. Most Yazidis speak Kurdish but object to being called Kurds.
It is not surprising that media reports have been so terse in describing the Yazidis. They are intentionally secretive about their religion, and this is reinforced by their isolation. In fact, not even the ordinary Yazidis themselves understand the details of their religion. Their priests keep this knowledge to themselves, passing it on orally to their descendants, and they simply tell the rest of their people how to live and worship. As recently as a century ago, Encyclopaedia Britannica described them as "devil worshipers," but in recent decades more accurate information has trickled out.
Their syncretic religion seems to be rooted in ancient Iranian belief, either Zoroastrian or pre-Zoroastrian, but it rejects the core Zoroastrian teaching of dualism. It carries strong influences from Shia Islam (it honors Ali) and Sufism. The Yazidis' chief saint, Shaykh 'Adi, was a 12th-century Sufi mystic. He was an Orthodox Muslim, but the Yazidis have taken his teaching in different directions over the centuries. Yazidis make an annual pilgrimage to Shaykh 'Adi's tomb.
In general, the Yazidis seem to pick up elements of whatever religions they come into contact with. It is not unusual, for instance, for them to visit Christian shrines to request the aid of local saints.
Their religion might share a common origin with the Alevi/Alawi sect of Islam found in Turkey and Syria. The Alevi religion is also secretive and mystical and involves angels.
Angel worship is the most distinctive element of the Yazidi religion. They believe God has left the world under the oversight of seven angels, of whom the chief is Melek Taus, the Peacock Angel. One of the Yazidis' many taboos prohibits them from speaking the other name of Melek Taus: Shaytan. Yes, that's the same as Satan, which is the source of the story that the Yazidis are devil worshipers. Their story of Shaytan begins like that of Christians and Muslims, but it ends with a distinctive twist.
God created Shaytan as the highest of his angels, and he commanded him never to bow to anyone or anything except God himself. But then God created man, and he commanded his angels to serve man. Shaytan could not reorient himself to carry out this new command, so he refused to bow down to this new creature. Here stories differ. In one version, God reveals that he was merely testing Shaytan. Having fulfilled the prior command to bow only to God, Shaytan was rewarded with oversight of all creation. But in the more common – and more poetic – variant of the story, God banished Shaytan from heaven for his pride and rebellion. Shaytan then filled seven jars with the tears of his repentance. With these tears he quenched the fires of hell, and God reinstated him as the chief of the angels.
This story embodies the Yazidis' rejection of dualism – there is no devil and no hell, and he who was cast out of heaven is now the chief of the angels. Melek Taus is an inscrutable figure whose decisions, whether perceived as good or evil by men, are not to be questioned.
The Yazidis also believe that they, unique among the world's peoples, are descended from Adam, but not from Eve. And they believe in reincarnation. They believe, further, that the seven angels occasionally become incarnate, especially in families of their priestly caste. Descendants of those judged to be incarnate angels have special status in society and are seen as a living connection to the angels. This belief in angelic incarnation also allows them to easily adopt religious figures from other traditions by declaring them to have been incarnations of one of the angels.
There are many small, obscure religious groups like this scattered throughout the Middle East. Another such group in Iraq is the gnostic Mandaean sect, which honors John the Baptist as the greatest of the prophets. But these groups are all endangered in the current climate of ethnic and religious hostilities in that region. Therefore they are emigrating in large numbers. Some claim that most of the Kurds in Germany today are actually Yazidis. I think it's a safe bet that some of these odd religious communities will start appearing in the U.S. in the next few years.