How ISIS Changed the Yezidi Religion

Behzane, Iraq—On a recent Friday afternoon, Yezidi musicians led a procession of worshipers toward a newly rebuilt temple on a hillside in northern Iraq. Women burned incense and the congregation threw handfuls of sweets at the flute and drum players. Hundreds of local Yezidis from the town of Behzane, near Mosul, had gathered to reopen one of the temples blown up by ISIS.

“We are so excited to be back,” said a flute player, Arean Hassan. The spiraling, rhythmic music played by Yezidi musicians, known as Qawwals, had been absent from the hills of Behzane for three years under ISIS. Around the newly rebuilt temple stood the charred stumps of olive trees that ISIS had burned to the ground.

Behzane fell to ISIS in the summer of 2014, after the group seized Mosul. In August of that year, ISIS massacred and kidnapped thousands of Yezidis in Sinjar, 90 miles west of Behzane. More than 6,000 women were enslaved, and men were lined up and shot outside their towns. Many more Yezidis died of dehydration and exhaustion during the siege of Sinjar mountain. Thousands of survivors remain displaced or in exile.

Behzane was retaken by the Kurdish Peshmerga in late 2016. This autumn, its townspeople celebrated a return to their sacred place. “I’m so happy to dance again,” said Dilbreen Ibrahim, a 20-year-old worshiper who came home this summer. “It is victory against ISIS.”

But there’s an unavoidable question at the heart of the happiness and defiance of the worshipers, who not long ago were targeted for genocide precisely because of these religious practices. How do you rehabilitate a religion that’s been singled out for such intense trauma and displacement?

The encounter with ISIS dramatically accelerated changes that had been creeping up on the long-persecuted religious group over decades. It exacerbated tensions between the need to preserve tradition and the need to modernize. It necessitated innovations in the Yezidi religion, like an exception, for the women who managed to escape from ISIS captivity, to the rules against marrying outside the faith. It gave Yezidis a stronger sense of religious identification over ethnic, Kurdish identification. And it required thousands of Yezidis to take their customs into exile—which, inevitably, involves adapting them.

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Yezidism is a monotheistic faith that retains vestiges of pre-Zoroastrian Iranian sun-worshiping religions, later fused with the teachings of a 12th-century Sufi mystic, Sheikh Adi. Practices such as worship of the elements were among the departures from Islamic orthodoxy that led to the group’s rejection from the Islamic community over time. Nor do the Yezidis consider themselves Muslim, despite the Muslim faith of their prophet Sheikh Adi, whose memory is also the focus of a debate about tradition and modernization. Some Yezidis call for a rejection of the mystic and a return to a pre-Islamic version of the faith. But to this day, the valley of Lalish in northern Iraq, where Sheikh Adi is buried, is the holy center for Yezidis. Each Yezidi must make a pilgrimage to Lalish in his or her lifetime. Worshipers gathering at the temple complex there perform blessings and take part in festivals with feasts, music, and songs.

ISIS fighters were merely the latest in a long line of Muslim forces to attack the Yezidis and label them infidels. Yezidis pay homage to the peacock angel, whom they regard as the chief of angels and God’s representative on earth. The peacock has often been misconstrued as the devil of other religions, leading to the persecution of Yezidis as devil worshipers. Western missionaries had also tried to convert Yezidis to Christianity.

The religion claims just under one million adherents worldwide, with most living in northern Iraq. One of the main ways that the small faith group has preserved itself over the centuries has been through strict rules preventing Yezidis from marrying outside the religion, or even marrying Yezidis from a caste other than their own. Yezidis have three castes: the laypeople known as Murids, and the priestly Sheikhs and Pirs.

In the past, Yezidis who left their religion—even through forcible conversion—couldn’t return to the faith. But this changed in late summer 2014, when Yezidi women and girls began escaping from ISIS enslavement across the Caliphate. ISIS fighters had forced Yezidi women and girls to convert to Islam, kept them in prisons, sold them at slave markets, and raped them.

Baba Sheikh, the Yezidi spiritual leader, along with the Yezidi spiritual council, ruled that the faith group would welcome back former captives using a baptism rite in Lalish. Former captives are re-baptized in the White Spring near Sheikh Adi’s tomb, representing a return to the religious community. This innovation has been a hugely psychologically important to the former ISIS captives, who described to me with great relief the acceptance and renewal they experience after being re-baptized.

This ruling, along with the agony of ISIS attacks, has intensified the ongoing debate among the Yezidis about the future of their people. It’s one that tends divide along generational lines. One side argues that the religion must modernize to endure—the other that modernization is precisely what will threaten the religion’s survival.

The Yezidi psychologist Jan Kizilhan told me the ruling didn’t go far enough, since it only applied to women who were forced to convert and raped by ISIS, without allowing Yezidis in general to marry outside the faith. Kizilhan told me via phone from Germany that without further loosening of the restrictions, young people might leave. Hakar, a 26-year-old who asked me not to use his last name, was a case in point. “[Not marrying outside the religion] kept us alive and meant we didn’t melt into other traditions, but now it needs updating,” he told me over coffee in Erbil, the capital of Iraq’s Kurdistan Region. But Gule Haji, a 75-year-old I met in Bekhane, said the ISIS attacks were punishments for abandoning tradition. “It will be worse if we don’t follow our religion,” she said.

When I met Hakar, he described attending the opening of the new temple in Behzane the week before. For him, “It wasn’t about religion, it was about ancestry: We are back, we are here, and we will be here.”

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Even when Yezidis are not “here,” but rather elsewhere, many hold fast to their traditions. One Yezidi family told me how they gathered small balls of holy earth from Lalish and carried them inside a purse when they fled from Iraq to the U.S. When they reached their new home in Texas, they hung the purse on a wall. Now, they pray toward it. Likewise, in his book Heirs to Forgotten Kingdoms, the author Gerard Russell describes Yezidi refugee Mirza Ismail facing the sun as he prays at dawn in a Canadian apartment block. This exiled refugee is using prayer to move beyond the problems of space and time.

In Germany, which is home to Europe’s largest Yezidi diaspora community, Yezidi refugees fleeing ISIS join an already established group that dates from prior waves of persecution. (Although accurate figures are scarce when it comes to the size of the pre-ISIS Yezidi community, Kizilhan said it has grown significantly, with 120,000 Yezidis now in Germany.) And in the U.K., the Yezidi activist Rozin Khalil recently announced that the Rozi Ezi, a winter celebration that usually takes the form of a three-day fast, would be held in the city of Birmingham.

In the Caucasus, Yezidi identity construction has taken a different course. The journalist Allan Kaval has written about how Yezidis living in Armenia strengthened their own identity in opposition to Muslim Kurdishness during the Nagorno-Karabakh war, fought between Armenia and Azerbaijan in the 1980s and ’90s. Muslim Kurds “were compelled to flee” to their coreligionists in Azerbaijan, and Yezidis “increasingly felt the need to dissociate themselves from the Muslim Kurds who were, in Armenians’ nationalist narrative, represented as active perpetrators of the Armenian massacres in the Ottoman empire in 1915,” Kaval wrote. The centenary of the Armenian genocide only increased this trend toward Yezidi religious identification. In Tbilisi, Georgia, a Yezidi cultural center opened in 2015. In Armenia, a new Yezidi temple is under construction outside Yerevan.

News of the ISIS attacks further changed Yezidism in the diaspora. Because Yezidis in the Middle East had been attacked on account of their religion, it gave Yezidis around the world a stronger sense of religious identification over ethnic, Kurdish identification.

Traditionally, Yezidis had passed down the stories of their religion orally via singers—the Qawwals—who toured through Yezidi towns and villages in Iraq, Syria, Eastern Anatolia, and the Caucasus. In the Yezidi creation story, after a pearl is split by divine power, bringing forth the universe, the first man’s soul cannot enter his body without the help of the accompanying music of the Qawwals, explained Qawwal Barzad, the chief of the Yezidi musicians.

After ISIS occupied their towns, the Qawwals scattered and stopped performing. Now that ISIS is in retreat and some Yezidis have returned home, the songs of the Qawwals have also returned. “Before, we were the only ones who knew the stories, but [after ISIS] our role is even more important,” said Qawwal Arean.

But not all Yezidis agree that adherence to the old customs will guarantee the future of the faith, as more and more Yezidis leave their former homes and tens of thousands more remain displaced in Iraq. For some, the importance of the written word is increasing.

“The question of whether to collect the sacred texts in a new ‘holy book’ is now being discussed,” Philip Kreyenbroek, a scholar of Yezidism, told me in an email. “Among other things, this means that the sacred texts, which previously were the province of Qawwals and theoretically Sheikhs and Pirs [holy castes of the religion], are now accessible in written form to modern Yezidi intellectuals, who are rapidly replacing the traditional ‘men of religion’ as sources of authority.”

In this way, the Yezidis may be following a trajectory similar to that of ancient faiths like Judaism, which started out with an oral religion but, as a result of exile, turned to writing to codify their beliefs and customs. A trauma like the encounter with ISIS could, Kizilhan said, have the effect of wiping out a small group like the Yezidis. But, as in the case of other faiths, it could also galvanize them to creatively transform their religion into something well suited to a new world.